Jewish city story of Venice

The Jewish Story of Venice, Italy

It’s a scene most of us picture when we think of Venice: rows of shiny black gondolas, gently bobbing on the water. Gondoliers in striped jerseys loll against weathered dock posts, drawing lazily on cigarettes as they wait for their next fare. Behind them, across the busy waterway, rises the unmistakable dome of Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute. Turn around and you’ll be facing the magnificent Doge’s Palace on the fringes of iconic St Mark’s Square. There are few places as beautiful in all of Italy.

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Public Sukkah in Venice

Come celebrate Sukkot in Venice! Enjoy your meals  during this Jewish festival in the public Sukkah of the Venice Ghetto.   https://www.jewishvenice.org/

Public Hannukah

Come join the Grand Menorah Lighting in the Campo del Ghetto, one of the oldest ghettos in the world. There will be music, delicious fresh doughnuts and crispy potato latkes tasting, and 100% chance of dancing.

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New Ghetto (Ghetto Novo)

The Ghetto Novo is the area of the city to which, in 1516, the Jewish population of Venice was forced to move. The first ghetto in Europe, it stands on an island demarcated by the canals of San Girolamo, Ghetto Novo and Battello. It was originally only connected to the city by two gates. Initially, seven hundred Jews of Italian and Central European descent lived there. However, the population expanded rapidly following later waves of migration. The central square (“campo”) is where daily life was played out, with synagogues, workshops, pawnbrokers (note the sign of the Banco Rosso at number 2912) and wells for the water supply. As it could not expand beyond its borders, in order to increase its capacity for accommodation construction in the ghetto began first to become fragmented and then to take a vertical direction, so that some houses were extended up to as many as eight storeys (which was exceptional considering the instability of Venice’s sandy foundations). During the 19th century some buildings were demolished and rebuilt. This is the case of the current seat of the Rest Home, (n° 2874), where inside is preserved the aron of the Scola Mesullamim, which was demolished in the 19th century. On the wall of house number 2874 is the Holocaust Monument (1980). It consists of seven bronze bas-relief plaques depicting scenes from the Holocaust, by sculptor Arbit Blatas. Not far from here, another memorial by the same artist, from 1993, presents on planks of wood the names of the 246 Jews deported from Venice. Of them, only seven would return; a bronze panel depicts them boarding the train carriages. The main square of the Ghetto Novo leads to the first three synagogues and the Jewish museum. Visits: a guided tour of the area is available, visiting three of the five synagogues. This is run by the Jewish Museum of Venice.

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World Jewish Travel Official August 31, 2022

The Jewish Story of Venice, Italy

The Jewish Story of Venice, Italy It’s a scene most of us picture when we think of Venice: rows of shiny black gondolas, gently bobbing on the water. Gondoliers in striped jerseys loll against weathered dock posts, drawing lazily on cigarettes as they wait for their next fare. Behind them, across the busy waterway, rises the unmistakable dome of Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute. Turn around and you’ll be facing the magnificent Doge’s Palace on the fringes of iconic St Mark’s Square. There are few places as beautiful in all of Italy. Stroll a while, ducking down narrow alleyways and crossing tiny bridges, loosely following the sweeping curves of the Grand Canal. Before long you will reach the northernmost of the six historic sestieri of Venice. This is Cannaregio, the focal point of the city’s Jewish community. Packed full of historic landmarks yet off the beaten track, it’s one of the most rewarding parts of the city to explore.  Jewish life in Venice: turbulent beginnings  Blessed with such a distinctive culture, it feels like Italy has been around forever. But in fact, it didn’t exist as a nation before 1871. Instead, the country as we know it was a collection of city states and independent republics. One of the most influential was Venice, “La Serenissima”. A maritime republic that had earned a substantial fortune through trade, it thrived for over 1100 years. Business needs funds and in Venice, Jews were welcomed as money lenders. However, anyone looking for permanent resident status in those early years could forget it. In 1385, though, all that changed. Conflict between the Venetians and their neighbors in Chioggia brought about a need for even more money. It forced a change in Venetian policy. Nevertheless, although Jews could now settle in the city, the largely Christian population neither trusted nor assimilated them. For more than a century, things jogged along, but it was an uneasy relationship. The birth of the ghetto Things came to a head in 1516, when a decree from Doge Leonardo Loredan established the Venice ghetto in Cannaregio. The name was no accident. The authorities cleared metal workshops to make way for housing; in Venetian dialect geto means foundry. Over time, geto became ghetto and now indicates a place where a minority group settles.  Under Venetian law at that time, Jews could run a pawn shop, lend money, trade textiles and practise medicine. But to do so, they had to live within the ghetto. Hastily erected walls blocked off parts of the Ghetto Nuovo that opened onto the canal. Locked gates confined Jews overnight and they even had to foot the bill for the security guards they never asked for. [caption id="attachment_40484" align="alignnone" width="1000"] The Jewish ghetto in Venice, Italy[/caption] At its peak, the ghetto was home to around 5000 Jews. They came from Italy, Germany, France, Spain and the Ottoman Empire. Each group built its own synagogue and maintained a separate existence. Everything changed in 1797 with the arrival of Napoleon. When he marched into Venice, he tore down the gates and abolished the ghetto restrictions. Those who could afford it departed for more affluent and desirable parts of the city, but returned each Sabbath to worship at the ghetto synagogues. Post holocaust By the outbreak of World War II, about 1200 Jews lived in the Venice ghetto. The Nazis rounded up and deported more than 246 of them to Auschwitz. Fewer than ten survived. Yet, the figure could have been much higher if it hadn’t been for the sacrifice of Giuseppe Jona, then leader of the Jewish community. [caption id="attachment_40485" align="alignnone" width="1116"] Memorial plaque for Guiesppe Jona | Christian Michelides, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons[/caption] The time, the Nazis demanded that he hand over a list of all the Jews in the ghetto. In an act of selfless bravery, he destroyed every written record he had that identified Venetian Jews, and committed suicide. A plaque in Campo di Ghetto Nuovo commemorates his sacrifice. Post-war, Venice has experienced a rapidly declining population. Today, around 450 Jews reside in the city. Thanks to high rents, only a privileged few can afford to live in the ghetto itself.  Exploring the Jewish quarter of Cannaregio  Broadly speaking, Jewish Cannaregio comprises the Ghetto Nuovo, the Ghetto Vecchio and the Ghetto Novissimo. A quirk of history, the Ghetto Nuovo was actually settled by Jews before the Ghetto Vecchio. The Ghetto Vecchio and Ghetto Novissimo were incorporated as the Jewish population grew. A good place to start exploring is in Campo di Ghetto Nuovo. A bronze memorial to the horrors of the Holocaust is set into the brick wall of the square. Sculptor Arbit Blatas created “The Last Train” to depict how Jews were mistreated. The names of the victims are carved into wooden planks. As you stroll through Cannaregio, look out for stumbling blocks. These tiny brass plaques form a memorial by German artist Gunter Demnig. Find them along Campo Ghetto Vecchio and Campiella Santa Maria Nova. [caption id="attachment_40486" align="alignnone" width="1600"] Holocaust memorial in the Jewish ghetto of Venice, Italy[/caption] The Jewish Museum hosts guided tours of the area’s synagogues. The central European Ashkenazim built the oldest, the Scuola Grande Tedesca, in 1528-29. They were also responsible for the Scuola Canton which dates from 1532. The third synagogue in the Ghetto Nuovo is the Scuola Italiana, erected in 1575, which served the Italian Jews. In the Ghetto Vecchio, you’ll find two Sephardic synagogues. Prosperous Levantine Jews built their synagogue in 1541. Its interior boasts an intricately carved wooden ceiling and bimah (pulpit). Close by in the Calle del Forno, a bread oven was used for making Matzah. Nearby is Scuola Grande Spagnola, the Spanish synagogue.  Renaissance man: Rabbi Yitzchak Abarbanel  Rabbi Yitzchak Abarbanel was born into a well-connected family that advised royals and rulers in Portugal and Spain. Philanthropist at heart, he worked tirelessly on behalf of the Jewish community. However, in 1492, a decree forced Jews to convert to Christianity or leave Spain. He chose the latter option and sailed for Italy. Eventually he wound up in Venice and joined the government. As a respected statesman of the Venetian Republic, he led negotiations for a spice trade agreement between Italy and Portugal. Later, he dedicated his life to study. By the time he died in 1509, he had secured a place for himself in Venetian history. Next time you find yourself in Venice, why not take a walk in his footsteps and explore Cannaregio for yourself?  

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World Jewish Travel Official October 7, 2022

Remembering the World's First Jewish Ghetto

Not a year goes by without a tourist walking into the Venice Ghetto asking where the concentration camps are or were. This question, unfortunately, reflects a lack of understanding as to why the Venice Ghetto was founded on March  29, 1516 and maintained for centuries–all of which had nothing to do with the Holocaust. That is not to say that the Venice Ghetto was not involved in the Holocaust. It was decimated by the Nazis in 1943 when most of its inhabitants perished in the Auschwitz concentration camp. It never recovered until this very day when only 20 Jews now live in the Ghetto itself. Two memorials, The Last Train and The Holocaust Memorial Wall, situated in the Ghetto Square bear witness to this tragedy. The distinction between the two types of ghettos is important. The Nazi Ghetto was set up as an interim solution to the ”final solution’, the other as a means of segregating a group whose values were deemed harmful or dangerous to the common good. Main square at the Venice Ghetto (photo credit: Wikimedia) Members of my family who managed to survive the first kind of Ghetto reported a litany of horror stories about their experiences. My mother watched from the woods as the Kovno Ghetto in Lithuania was liquidated. My uncle was lucky enough to escape the Lida Ghetto in Belarus before it too suffered the same fate. Obviously, no redeeming features will ever be reported from this type of ghetto. The Venice type of ghetto, for all it’s negatives, those of density, segregation and restrictions, did have a positive side to it. It provided protection, business opportunities and amazingly enough, a sense of community. In an effort to close the gap between the misconception and reality of what the Venice Ghetto is and what it represents, the city of Venice has embarked on a year long program of events to mark the quincentennial of its founding.  It was kicked off nearly a month ago by an opening ceremony at the Fenice Opera House attended by local, national, and international dignitaries. I was fortunate enough to wrangle an invitation to this event as well as the launch earlier that day  of an important book called The Venice Synagogues. It was written by Umberto Fortis, professor of Italian literature, coordinated by Toto Bergamo Rossi, Head of the Venetian Heritage Council, and published by Assouline Books, a prestigious book publisher. The book describes in rich and glorious detail five important synagogues of the Venetian Ghetto and stands as a symbol of the rich Jewish culture which blossomed regardless of, or despite the hardships imposed on the Ghetto Jews. Left to right: Jack Gottlieb, Toto Bergamo Rossi, Valentina Nasi Marini Clarelli, Sebastien Ratto-Viviani When I leafed through this book I definitely had the sense that Jews in the Venice Ghetto were thriving, and that Jewish culture was flourishing, unlike the Nazi Ghetto where Jews were being killed and their cultural heritage was being erased. Rossi was quite right in describing this hand-bound book ‘as not just another high end collectible but as a work of art’. Kudos to Assoulin Publishing who is contributing half of the proceeds to the Venice’s synagogue restoration project which, unfortunately, is still short of the 8 million dollars it needs to begin. In stark contrast to the joyous air at the book launch was the air of solemnity later that evening of the opening ceremony at the Fenice Opera House. The former was a celebration of life, the latter a commemoration of evil. Before giving way to Mahler Symphony No.1 (by the way, banned by the Nazis as degenerate), the keynote speaker of the event, Simon Schama, the noted author of the Story of the Jews and subsequent TV series, delivered a riveting commentary on the evolution of the ghetto. He explained that “history is not always a trip down memory lane”. And  events like the Venice Ghetto, the Holocaust and the recent bombings in Brussels are a stark reminder against complacency-that just when we think that things could not get worse, they unfortunately do! Specifically, he commented, “an event we think that we had left behind in a particular period or in a particular moment crashes into our present lives and leaves us at great risk!” Playing the Mahler Symphony at the Fenice Opera House (Photo: Jack Gottlieb) Thus, the central existential issue for Jews through the centuries, whether we are discussing medieval Venice, Nazi Germany or modern-day Islamic countries is simply an issue of cohabitation, the problem of living together with Jews in the same neighborhood, city, or country. What we see in common between the Venetians, Nazis, and Islamists is enmity and intolerance; there are individuals, groups, and, sometimes, nations who react, sometimes violently, to the idea of sharing the same urban space with Jews. It is inconsistent with their worldview to tolerate the presence of a group with a belief system somewhat different than their  own. The answer to discrimination and hatred is to educate. And what better place to start this education than the place where it all started-The Venice Ghetto. That is why today my organization, the World Jewish Heritage Fund, is releasing for free an ebook about the year long commemoration of the Venice Ghetto. To do this, we have created the first ever interactive digital travel book about the ghetto, which gives you access to key sites, events, trails, guides, and tours – all at the click of a button. A Journey Through the Venetian Ghetto eBook (Photo: WJH) We hope that giving people access to the story of the Venice Ghetto, we can prevent other Ghettos from being created-for Jews and non Jews alike. Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, said it best at the commemoration when he stated, “when you face the past with complete honesty, you actually create a much better future – for your children, for your country, and for all people.” Amen!

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