il portale dell'ebraismo italiano

VENICE AND THE GHETTO A bright and colored microcosm

enrico levisBy Enrico Levis*

March 29, 1516 is an important date for the Jewish History. The decree issued by the Senate of the Republic of Venice, which assigned an area of the city in the San Girolamo district –the previous location of a semi-abandoned foundry (called “geto”) – to the Jewish Community, was a turning point not just for the lives of the Jewish people in Venice, but for all the Jews. In fact, after all the expulsions and forced conversions, the “Ghettos” started to emerge all over the Mediterranean countries, following the example of Venice. They granted asylum to anyone who was obliged to live in a well-defined fenced area of the city.

The Jews lived in Venice also before the decree, but their admission to the city was persistently opposed both by the religious authorities (who feared the contamination of their devotees) and by the patricians, who wanted to defend the Rialto market from their potential competitors. During the Middle Ages, any group of Jews must be small and temporary; however, on March 29, 1516 a new, uncertain balance between two contrasting forces, between a gateway to Venice and a barrier to prevent the Jewish people to enter the city was reach.

Since then, until the gates that restricted the access to the district were destroyed in 1797 and a liberty tree (a symbol of the French Revolution) was planted, the Ghetto – which started out as a place of segregation and of humiliating discrimination, belonged to the Jewish community. The Jews made it an extremely colored microcosm, with a variety of goods and stands that broke the walls of social marginalization.

Such an achievement was reach despite the fact that Jews were not allowed to own any of the buildings in the Ghetto. Indeed, at any time the pipeline was renewed they must pay even higher rents and they were obliged to go back at night and to pay the wards who controlled the gates and patrolled the boats and the channels. Since then – although its lights and shadows – It has been historically a public space for the Jewish community, even though its nature and its function have changed over time.

Nevertheless, through the passing of the years the Jews have been able to invent and re-invent it in complex balance, which Cecil Roth portrayed in some involving and full of pathos passages in his “History of the Jews in Venice”, in the Thirties. More recently, Riccardo Calimani’s “Storia del Ghetto di Venezia – History of the Ghetto of Venice” (that has been re-published and traduced in different languages) gathered the stories of the tortuous paths that lead people from different nationalities (with their own ritual and languages) to the Ghetto. The book offers a realistic description of the relationships that the Ghetto’s inhabitants established with each other and with the Government of the city, in a series of fascinating stories that overcome the Ghetto’s walls.

As a matter of fact, the Jews of Venice have always had strict connections not just with merchants, rabbis, pilgrims and doctors from all the major eastern and western Communities, but also with Venice citizens. This was the case, for example, of the presence of a major preacher in a synagogue, or the curiosity in experiencing traditional celebrations, concerts or other shows. Over the centuries, a wide series of paths started therefore from the Ghetto, creating a net that allow the Jewish minority to contribute to the Italian and European cultural formation. From the business and spiritual relationships that flourished with the different diaspora centers to the refined and accurate publishing business held by the Jews, that spread its fame and prestige all over Europe (the Talmud is still published according to the original Daniel Bomberg’s setting!).

Along the Ghettos’ calli and channels, there are some shapes and traces that remind us of all the breakings, of all the wounds and the pain that our ancestors have suffered. On the other hand, they invite us to new paths – full of memories and representations- that may be a paradigm to face our everyday challenges; in a broader cultural perspective that is not limited to a purely Jewish point of view, but that involve actors and audience which are not necessarily Jews. From the next June, the exhibition by Donatella Calabi about Venice, the Jews and Europe, is going to take place in the Doge’s Palace. This is a meaningful opportunity to illustrate the great variety of the relationship between the Jews and the society, through historical, artistic and multimedia materials. Umberto Fortis’ L’attività letteraria nel Ghetto –Venezia 1550-1650 (The literary activity in the Ghetto – Venice 1550-1650), which has been released recently, represents, in part, a valuable evidence of this variety through the figure of the rabbis such as Leon Modena or Simone Luzzato or poets such as Salomon Usque or Sara Copio Sullam.

During the 19th century (and the first decades of the 20th), the Jews started to leave the Ghetto, as they saw the district as a mere symbol of segregation and poverty. They preferred to move closer to the city center and to go back to the Ghetto only during the major celebrations, as Levis Sullam describes in his “Una comunità immaginata. Gli ebrei a Venezia – An imagined community. The Jews in Venice (1900-1938)”. Moreover, the Jewish area had worsened also from the architectural and urban point of view, which made it disappears from the tourist routes for a long time.

Only in the first half of the seventies the seat of the Community, along with the President’s office and the Center for cultural and social activities went back to the Ghetto, even though its population had decreased in the meantime, whereas the number of visitors from around the world had risen sharply. They hung on the Campo del Ghetto Nuovo walls some bronze panels by Arbit Alas inspired by deportations (in Venice over 240 Jews disappeared). Thanks to these radical changes the City of Venice, the Italian government and the international Committees for fundraising expressed their interest in maintaining the Ghetto, through a monumental project drawn up in accordance with the UNESCO, which involves – overseas- the Venetian Heritage.

The Jewish museum (which was founded in the fifties) shows the history and the everyday life of Keilla through ritual objects and tapestries. The financial interventions will benefit the Museum’s renewal in term of exposition methods; they will also enrich and help the important Library-Archive, which gathers precious manuscripts and thousands of antique books, to enhance its involvement in the cultural itineraries. The recent opening of a casher restaurant will also provide new versions of culinary delights from different backgrounds.

According to the previous mayor of Venice, the philosopher Massimo Cacciari, the Ghetto is going to become a “symbolic” area of Venice, a “topos” that “asks” questions to the visitors and “provokes” them. This is also promoted by the increasing cultural interest of the flow of tourists from around the world, who are attracted by the Ghetto’s ancient synagogues and its silent stones, which magically bring into light some key passages of the biblical and Talmudic culture, of the cabalistic tradition and of the Jewish History in general.

On March 29, 2016 historian Simon Schama from Columbia University will celebrate the anniversary exposing some of the most relevant facts of the Ghetto’s history; the exposition will be preceded by a Mahler’s music concert conducted by Omer Meir Wellber. This will be the first of a series of events – from the integration of the old, multiform roots, which have been partially cut and partially maintained- that will inspire new perspectives. Through the renewal of multiple cultural and spiritual itineraries, it will be possible to support this small and historical Community, which has always been able to overcome the current difficulties.

*Enrico Levis is a psychotherapist. This article has been translated by Isabella Favero, student at the Scuola superiore interpreti e traduttori di Trieste, ‎who is doing her apprenticeship in the newsroom of Pagine Ebraiche.