City Travel – The Ancient Jewish Ghetto, Venice
The world’s first ghetto.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Butchers and blacksmiths, fortune-tellers and beggars, carpet sellers and cobblers, chickens and children… all of this made more frenzied by the great milling crowds.
It could be Old Delhi.
This is the world’s first ghetto, and it is not in India but Italy. The ancient Jewish district of Venice was the world’s first officially segregated quarter to confine a persecuted minority community into a limited space. It’s observing its 500th anniversary this year—the Most Serene Republic of Venice declared on 29 March 1516 that “The Jews must all live together… they do not move around during the night… let two doors be built which are to be opened each morning… and to be closed each night at 12 by four Christian guards… paid by the Jews….”
To mark its five centuries, the Jewish Community of Venice and the Municipality of Venice are aiming to re-establish the Ghetto as “a meeting point of people, a crossroads of cultures, a gateway to understanding the history of Jewish civilization, and a symbol of freedom beyond walls.”
The Delhi Walla just returned after spending a month there. The noise and chaos were experienced through the mind’s eye–today’s Venice Ghetto is a quiet place, but an animated guide brought the past alive for a visiting group of Jewish teens from New York. One of them had posed a question on how this place was when fully populated; I eavesdropped on the reply.
The young New Yorkers looked around in disbelief as the veteran guide continued with his account of the Ghetto’s early life. The past does not even remotely resemble the present. The boatloads of tourists with selfie sticks largely leave this part of town alone.
A street in the Venice Ghetto
The district, which gave the world the word ‘ghetto’, is no longer a ghetto. Most residents are now Catholics. Descendants of those early Jewish residents left this neighborhood decades ago to settle in other parts of this watery city. Though wandering through the area gives no easy hint of its Jewish past, careful eyes could notice its uniqueness. The buildings here are higher than in other parts of Venice—since the residents were not allowed to expand their district laterally, they did so vertically, adding floors to accommodate their increasing numbers. If, like me, you are lucky to enter people’s homes in the Ghetto, you shall discover that the ceilings of these houses are lower than elsewhere in Venice—this resulted from the compulsion of having as many family homes in a single building as possible. A moving short story by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke set in this historical district tells of an elderly Jew who wants to live on the topmost floor so that he can see the world outside the Ghetto.
A sign in the Ghetto
While monuments and museums enrich travel, a visit to an unfamiliar city is not complete until one enters a private home, sits in the drawing room, and looks out at the view from one of the windows–just the way the resident would do daily. So, one day in the Ghetto, I stepped inside the apartment of maths teacher Elena Ferrazzi, looked down at the big square from her window, lounged at her kitchen table, and was astonished to discover that the other side of her kitchen was not another home like hers but one of the most important synagogues of Judaism—the Grand German Synagogue. It was like sharing your drawing room wall with the Konarak temple. Such a thing is perhaps possible only in a ghetto where the extraordinary is made to exist cheek-by-jowl with the mundane.
Elena Ferrazzi’s kitchen
The Venice Ghetto is now very cosmopolitan; the kosher restaurants have Bangladeshi Muslims as cooks. A wildly popular pizzeria here is owned by a Coptic Christian from Cairo. The only mom-and-pop kosher bakery is run by a Catholic family. The Ghetto also has one of the few woodcarving shops left in Venice.
The window glimpse of a square in the Ghetto
Although the district is so small that you can walk through it in ten minutes flat, it is so rich in history and has had so much of its character altered over the recent past that you need time to understand the place and its people. Being a leisurely traveller in Venice, it was possible for me to go deeper into that history–among the rewards was a visit to a private house that was famous for being inhabited by a Jewish ghost.
No talk of Venice and its Jews can be complete without recalling its most famous resident – the one who never really existed but whose story could well have been real. The moneylender Shylock is one of the unforgettable creations of William Shakespeare, whose 400th death anniversary is observed this year. If Shylock lived here, he would have been a regular in the Grand German Synagogue—only Ashkenazi Jews from Germany were allowed by the city’s Christian authorities to be moneylenders. Built in 1528, this is the oldest of the five synagogues of Venice, all of which are in this historic ghetto.
The lavishly decorated temple has scores of glittering chandeliers hanging from the roof. The 500-year-old wood of the walnut pews looks dark and sacred. The Ten Commandments run over the walls in gold letters. The gold-plated pulpit, too, is remarkable. And yes, the place is so well preserved that Shylock’s presence is almost palpable..
The Jewish Museum
It is your entry point to the district’s five synagogues. The guided tour also leads you through small halls packed with old chandeliers, scrolls and other ancient Jewish knickknacks. On view are timeworn gold ornaments and intricate textile fabrics that vividly represent the traditions of the Jewish world. A hand-woven rug depicting Jerusalem is incredibly fragile.
The Holocaust Memorial
Situated at Campo del Ghetto Novo, one of the two squares in the Ghetto, the memorial consists of a symbolic barbed wire–strung on top of a brick wall—and a display of seven bronze panels fixed on the same wall. A separate panel is engraved with railway carriages that evoke the final journey of the 256 Venetian Jews who died in the Nazi concentration camps. In the evening, the place is filled with the sounds of children playing. The sunset sky here is out of this world.
Emilio Piacentini’s Wood Carving Shop
The seventy-something Emilio Piacentini is among the half-a-dozen aging woodcarvers left in Venice, and the only one in the Ghetto. He started the business 40 years ago. Before that this used to be a horsemeat shop. The dimly-lit shop has a delicious rundown flavor. The paint is peeling off the walls, the mirrors are layered with decades of grime and cobwebs hang from the ceiling. The carpenter’s long worktable is topped with dozens of strange tools that you wouldn’t have seen before. Most days, Piacentini is seen working on wood frames, making designs unique to Venice. Buying a small decorative artifact here will be an authentic Venetian souvenir instead of the Chinese-made plastic junk in the touristy parts of the city. Ask him to show you his old hand-drawn gondola designs.
Libreria Alef Bookshop
Opened in 2006, this is one of Jewish Italy’s most important contemporary landmarks. Libreria Alef is the only bookstore in this country devoted exclusively to Judaism, which means that it stocks books written for or by the Jews (there are lots of Woody Allen books here). A must-buy is the classic The Ghetto of Venice by Riccardo Calimani (see top photo), a Venetian author said to have one of the city’s best private libraries. The shop is tucked inside the Jewish Museum. It also has an in-house café stocked with some delicious cookies straight out of Jewish cookbooks.
Shaul Bassi, director of The Venice Center for International Jewish Studies
Panificio Volpe Giovanni Kosher Bakery
This is the only old-fashioned family-run kosher bakery left in the Ghetto and is run by a Catholic family—mother Giusi, father Davide, son Nicolo, and his girlfriend Eleonora. “Our customers consist of people living in the area… but actually most are tourists, Jewish tourists,” says Giusi Volpe, the bakery’s matriarch. The bakery was founded 60 years ago by her father-in-law, who, she says, “Opened this shop here not because the area belonged to Jews or Christians but because he sensed an opportunity.” Make sure to try the delicious **** (forgotten the name will ask and add).
Youssef Safwat’s Pizzeria
In its 500th year, the world’s first ghetto has expanded to absorb diverse diaspora. The always-jovial Youssef Safwat is the Cairo-born Christian owner of the enormously popular pizzeria Al Faro. Locals from across Venice come to the Ghetto to sup on Safar’s pizzas. The staff includes Muslim Bangladeshis and Christian Moldovians. Vegetarians must try the spinach pizza with ricotta and mozzarella cheese. It’s the best thing about the Ghetto.
A Jewish Ghost’s House
Centuries ago, this was the living quarters of the Ghetto’s chief rabbi, but now it is home to a retired psychiatrist (who, by the way, is a Catholic). It has lovely creaking wooden stairs and is situated in the same building as the historic Italian synagogue, which mostly remains closed to tourists. The house is famous for a ghost—it was even featured in a book. The psychiatrist told me that the spirit was that of a Jewish man who was in love with a Christian woman. The man was killed during the 17th century inquisition in Italy. The ghost was finally made to leave the place a few years ago by an exorcist, who, well, was a Catholic, too.
Ancient Jewish Cemetery
The graveyard is not in the Ghetto but is a logical point to end the journey into the ancient Jewish district. Actually, the principal (read Christian) cemetery of Venice is on the outlying island of San Michale—the two famous graves here are those of the poet Ezra Pound and the composer Igor Stravinsky. The Jewish cemetery lies further away in Lido, the island that was the setting of Thomas Mann’s novel Death in Venice. The tombs are littered across the mossy ground. Many are broken into pieces and many lie cracked. Wild grass and blue violets run over several tombs. The cemetery is older than the Ghetto. It looks its age and is all the more beautiful for it.
Twilight in the Ghetto