In the Ghetto

by | Apr 10, 2024 | Curriculum, Deep-ish Dive | 0 comments

On this day in 1516, the Venice ghetto was established.

Since the mid-20th century, mere mention of the word “ghetto” evokes Jewish ghosts and Nazi demons. However, the word has a much longer history, one that does not necessarily paint portraits in solely dark colours.

Over the course of centuries across Europe (as well as North Africa and the Middle East), Jews preferred to self-segregate because they needed to live near “their stuff.”  Jews needed to be proximate to their synagogues, schools, butchers and cemeteries. What makes the “ghetto” stand out was its obligatory nature. The Venetian ghetto, the first of its kind, was set up by decree of Doge Leonardo Loredan and the Venetian Senate. – and enforced with a curfew. This newly formed Jewish part of town was not initially referred to as a “ghetto.”  Later documents, like Pope Pius IV’s bull in 1563, would give it that name – and it stuck.

But why “ghetto”?  Could “ghetto” be a corruption of Giudaicetum, the Latin neuter for “Jewish”?  Or from gett – the Hebrew word for divorce paper?  Or from the Yiddish gehektes – which means “enclosed”?  Or from the Italian borghetto – which means “little town”? (The thing is, in Italian, the G is often pronounced like J…)

Venetian tour guides will tell you that the name “ghetto” has something to do with the metal foundry nearby. Gettare means “to cast metal.” Except that, as I said before, it would have been pronounced JETTO not ghetto with a hard G…

Anatoly Liberman, professor of Germanic philology, offers the following guess. Because Jews lived together, it was common to name their part of town “Jewish Street.”  (We have a similar convention today where, in many North American cities, we have a “Chinatown” or “Greektown” or “Koreatown.”)  The “Jewish Street” or Jüdische Gasse might be the source of the word “ghetto.”  Gasse has its roots in a Old Germanic word gata. Back in the day of “Old German,” folks did not have gates or streets in their villages. Gata referred more to an “area” – or what we would call a neighbourhood. And with the tendency for words to be corrupted or pronounced differently as they travel, the Old Germanic Gata could have ended up being pronounced Geto as it moved south into the Italian peninsula. This is a pretty good explanation, but not definitive. It is, however, the closest we’re going to get…

What was not addressed in all the discussion about the name ghetto is WHY the Doge of Venice and the Venetian Senate decided to put the Jews in one. To this question, we have a definitive answer. Venice, like many other port cities in the Mediterranean, became a destination for Spanish-Jewish refugees following their 1492 expulsion from Spain. The Venetian Republic decided that the city’s Jews (who made up 1% to 2.5% of the total population) were to live together.

In 1555, Venice had 160,208 inhabitants, including 923 Jews, who were mainly merchants.

By 1642, 2,414 Jews were confined to this small section of the city.  Venice’s Jews continued to live in the ghetto until 1797, when the French Army of Italy, commanded by the 28-year-old General Napoleon Bonaparte, occupied Venice.  He forced the Venetian Republic to dissolve itself on 12 May 1797, and ended the ghetto’s separation from the city on 11 July the same year.  Within two decades, the ghetto was renamed the Contrada dell’unione or “Union District.”

The living conditions inside the Venice ghetto were cramped but decent.  It was connected to the rest of the city by two bridges that were only open during the day. In the morning, the gates were opened at the ringing of the marangona, the largest bell in St. Mark’s Campanile (belfry), and locked in the evening. These gates were watched around the clock by guards paid for by the Jewish community. Any Jewish resident caught outside after curfew faced a steep fine. Jews often traveled outside the ghetto for employment purposes.

Though the reality of living in close quarters suggests a uniformity amongst its residents, the Jews of the Venice Ghetto were divided along ethnic lines. Four of the five synagogues were closely identified with the country of origin of its congregants.  The Germans attended the Scuola Grande Tedesca. The Italians went to the Scuola Italiana. Spanish and Portuguese Jews went to the Scuola Spagnola, and the Levantine Sephardi communities attended the Scuola Levantina. (And the fifth synagogue was the one that no one would be caught dead in!)  This means that the Jews of the ghetto spoke at least five languages: Venetian, Italian, Judeo-Spanish, French, and German. Signage, inscriptions and official documents (like ketubahs and getts), however, were all written in Hebrew.

Arguably the most famous thing about the Venetian Ghetto is its most (in)famous fictional resident – Shylock the moneylender.

Shakespeare wrote “The Merchant of Venice” between 1596-1599. (Shylock, incidentally, is not the aforementioned “merchant.”) As England’s 3,000 Jews had been officially expelled in 1290, Shakespeare would never have met a real Jew in person. He created Shylock from what he read and what he knew of Jews from popular culture.

Shakespeare often reworked existing tropes or plot points or rough plots into his own plays. He wrote tragedies, comedies, and histories. Want to venture a guess what kind of play the “Merchant of Venice” is?  (Hint, it’s not a tragedy…)

And yet, despite the happy ending (for everyone except Shylock), Shakespeare’s Shylock is arguably the most nuanced portrayal of a Jew in English drama.  Shylock is greedy, vengeful and angry – but with good reason. His Christian enemies spit on him and insult him. His daughter runs away with a Christian and abandons Judaism.

And though it did not happen in real life, one can almost hear Shylock’s famous words echoing along the ghetto’s cobblestone streets, an historic site of Jewish solidarity, survival and circumstance.

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