VENICE AND THE GHETTO – SCHAMA “The Most Jewish Historical Judgement? It Could Have Been Worse”

schamaBy Simon Schama*

History is not always a stroll down memory lane. Sometimes, an event we assume to be safely locked off at a particular time and in a particular place – for example, this city, March 29th, 1516, the edict of the Senate confining the Jews to the island of the geto nuovo, this very moment – cuts loose from its moorings half a millenium ago and comes crashing into our own imperilled present where it finds us thinking urgently, unavoidably, about what it means to share, or not to share the space of the city: to live in it together or to live in it apart?

And then we realise, yet again, that history does not always behave in the orderly fashion required by professors, as if the mess of it were susceptible to being laid out on successive pages of a book; one happening obediently following another. If there’s one thing we should have learned about our own time, it’s that dissociated phenomena, ostensibly separated by centuries, can, and do co-exist, simultaneously, adapting to, and feeding off, each other. Zombie ideologies – the Caliphate, the “Crusaders” can be raised from the tomb by the Internet, no respecter of the difference between fact and fantasy, and be made over, armed to the teeth, for the modern world. Just as the printing press gave alchemy a reading public; the Web is both factual and fantastical, technically global but culturally tribal. For truly contemporary historians an Einsteinian universe of bent time seems a lot more plausible than a serial trajectory pulling humanity, irreversibly, from primitivism to progress.

The modernisation of ancient barbarities; the sense that the ghetto moment belongs to us now as much as it did five hundred years ago would have been unavoidable I think even had the latest massacre not unfolded in Brussels: a heterogeneous, mercantile-bureaucratic cosmopolis just like sixteenth century Venice, – working its destruction in the very places where people go to move themselves through the free organism of the city, departing and arriving in innocent certainty of purpose. For what is this horror about if not the possibility, or impossibility of cohabitation; the sharing of urban space, by unlike communities of belief, language, custom, groups whose overriding loyalty is to quotidian heterogeneity; to the defiance of tribalism; to the principle of sharing the neighbourhood without paranoia without the necessity of tolling the bell, closing the gates, locking off the ghetto as the sun sets over the lagoon.

Forgive me this Jewish sighing, amidst all the consoling beauty of La Fenice, but after all, ladies and gentlemen, what kind of commemoration are we having? Collective self-congratulation doesn’t seem quite right does it, unless we assume complacently that what happened in 1516 couldn’t possibly happen now? Really? (Just the other day one of the front runners for the Republican nomination for President of the United States, Ted Cruz, responded to the news from Brussels by recommending police patrols and surveillance of Muslim neighborhoods in American cities until they were as he put it, in the manner of a military officer describing Falujah “secured.” What is it that the patrols are supposed to be watching an ominously measurable extension of the length of beards?

Self-evidently we are not celebrating a decree which described the Jews as c0mmitting “many detestable ..things to the gravest offence of God and against the honour of the well-established Venetian Republic” and thus requiring being penned in on a tiny urban island so neither mischief nor contagion could be spread through the Christian city at night. And yet, as is said over and again, by the standards of Jewish calamity, this was not an all-out catastrophe; just the usual refreshment of dehumanization: the insistence on badges and hats to identify Jews; the prohibition on owning property or having Christian servants; the ban (in the first decades) on any kind of synagogue or open profession of ceremonies and feasts; the daily routine of locking and unlocking of gates and bridges as if in an open prison.

What more Jewish historical judgement could there possibly be than the one, delivered with the shoulder shrug “it could have been worse.” The Venice ghetto was made so that the Jews, in every sense would know their place; but that knowledge was supposed to bring with it an element of continuity, even of stability. After 1538 synagogues albeit very modest ones, could be built. Even so all arrangements were subject to period of renewal, even threats of expulsion.

“It could have been worse” and arguably it was in the Rome of Julius III where the Talmud was condemned and burned – a fire of literary persecution from which Venice’s presses did not escape. It was worse still under the pontificate of Paul IV when the Jews of Rome, a community which predated Christianity of course were uprooted from Trastevere and sent over the bridge to the one street allotted to them in the first instance on the muddy, regularly flooded, chronically infected district just at the back of the Tiber bank. The monstrous bull Cum Nimis Absurdum, promulgated in 1555 in the first weeks of Paul IV’s papacy, revived the ancient horror expressed by John Chrysostom in fourth century Antioch, and recycled at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 by Innocent III of the Jews being in any way physically present amidst Christians; in their districts, their places of work, even, as doctors, their houses and bodies. Collectively inheriting for all eternity the guilt of their crime against the Saviour, they were to be perpetually degraded, visibly stigmatized, prevented from spreading moral and sexual pollution, thus to be made publicly recognized by those hats and badges, preferably in the colours used for shameful professions like prostitution. Paul IV even attempted to ban Jewish doctors from attending Christian patients but there was little chance of that happening even in the most fanatically patrolled period of counter-Reformation Rome. Nothing in Venice’s list of humiliations compared with the Jewish races run, from the time of Pope Paul II in 1466 to that of Clement IX two hundred years later, during the Roman Carnival in which during wintry, muddy February, eight Jews were required to run naked, except for a vestigial loincloth for the amusement of the crowds who pelted them with abuse and rotten fruit, and force fed them before the race so that they would slip and vomit as they staggered around the course.
It definitely could have been worse.

The ghetto of Venice was not driven by fanaticism and paranoia; it was the result of dry-eyed pragmatism: the usual modus operandi in the Republic. The Jews were needed as pawnbrokers to help with the swollen tide of the poor who had been casualties of the war of the League of Cambrai. Jews had been living in the terrafirma and the Stato da Mar since and had been coming for short periods to Venice itself since the fourteenth century but had been allowed to reside no closer than Mestre. Now some greater degree of continuity was needed as long as Jews held Christian pledges for loans; hence the willingness in 1516 to have them stay for periods of years (five in the first instance) subject to renegotiation at the end of the term, and to those stringent conditions including urban confinement on what had been the junkyard of the old copper foundry; then an area of fishermens shacks, then semi-squatter weavers tenements; then a development project, now finally the gated ghetto.

But as all historians have noted, it was a socially and culturally porous confinement. By day some Jews exited to work as doctors, dancing masters and musicians, and Christians entered as artisans, street porters, household servants (notwithstanding the ban). There were specific times of the year – Purim for the purimshpiel plays, Simhat Torah music and dancing, when the ghetto space as packed with Christian sightseers. There were even common cultural enterprises. After the Papal ban on Jews printing their own Hebrew sacred books, Christian publishers like Daniel Bomberg who as early as 1516 had printed the Mikraot Gedolot , an authoritative edition of the Hebrew Bible together with its rabbinic commentaries, acted as publishing host for books of the Talmud. Some of the greatest patrician dynasties of the city – the Giustiniani and especially the Bragandini likewise became publishers of Jewish sacred and learned literature. Before the Counter-Reformation, during the time of the humanist Popes there had been a natural convergence between Christian interest in Hebrew and the willingness of Jewish rabbis and scholars (aware that Catholic enthusiasm was an extension of their hopes for conversion) to impart it. The most surprising friendship was between Cardinal Egidio Antonini of Viterbo and Elia Levita Bahur the kabbalist sage and Yiddish romancer-author of the Bovo Bukh who, after his library was destroyed was invited to move into the Cardinal’s palazzo and did so along with his family for nearly a decade. When in turn the Sack of Rome ended that extraordinary residency, Elia Levita Bahur moved back to Venice where he continued to be Hebrew teacher inside and outside the ghetto and proofreader. He was part of the displacement effect, bringing to Venice those whom the increasingly Inquisitorial ferocity of the Popes made difficult to remain in Rome.

Who knows how many in the early decades lived an in-the-ghetto/ out of the ghetto life. One who certainly did was the painter and Biblical illustrator Moses of Castellazzo, who specialised in doing scenes from midrashic variations around the Bible, many of them specifically attuned to the incoming population of Marranos returning to Judaism. When Moses of Castellazzo chose to illustrate the recovery of Abraham from self circumcision rather than the more obvious stories of the binding of Isaac or the visit of the angels, it was doubtless because Moses knew he would be making a painful connexion with the experience of conversos who themselves had gone through adult circumcision. Likewise Moses’s Tower of Babel, features scenes straight out of Venice, with workmen carrying hods of bricks to pulleys dangling down from a half finished very Venetian campanile. And Moses had another line of work as well: as a medallic portraitist to the patriciate which would certainly have taken him out of the confines of the ghetto. He was on good terms with the patricians and with the great banker Meshullam, which was partly at least why his hospitality towards and championship of the false prince of the Lost Tribes, David Reuveni in 1523, a hoax which went all the way to the Papacy and the throne of Portugal, could find such credit in the messianically prone Jewish community.

So yes it could have been worse. And perhaps our commemoration should be weighing in the balance, the relative measures of grief and relief; freedom and confinement; fear and rejoicing.

This at any rate was much on the mind on one of the most famous personifications of the mixed cultural personality of the Venice ghetto, Rabbi Leon Modena. His autobiography, the first of its kind by a Jew is damp with tsurus, with lamentation starting with his own birth, backwards as a breech baby immediately after an earthquake. He compared himself to a latter day Job and there was some reason too: two of his sons died before him; one poisoned by toxic fumes during an alchemical experiment for which the father blamed himself since he too believed in and practised those arts (along with the making and selling of amulets); a second son Zvulun, he of the angelic voice, was murdered in front of his father in a criminal gang killing; a third son was in more or less permanently estranged exile. The cousin he thought he would marry died before they could get to the chupa; her sister whom he did marry went mad and before that clearly made Leon unhappy with the rough edge of her tongue . Who knows if he did not at times deserve it, since he was himself a hopeless and incorrigible gambling addict, despite publishing his own warnings against the compulsion.

And yet, in the end, Leon Modena was on the side of rejoicing, certainly in one crucial respect: that of music. When in 1605 there had been an attempt in Ferrara (a city still without a ghetto) but with a strong Jewish theatrical and musical tradition, to introduce “art music” – musika – into the synagogue where only monodic chanting had been allowed, it had been met with outrage. Though not yet properly a rabbi Leon had written a responsum, justifying true “musika” on the grounds that the Bible tells us of its importance both in the sanctuary and the Temple; the musical passion of King David the Psalmist. Rabbinical tradition, in the manner of Psalm 137 “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land” had forbidden music as unseemly following the destruction of the Temple. But as Leon pointed out there were joyful exceptions: Purim, Simhat Torah; and outside the synagogue in private houses for the celebration of weddings.

In his campaign – and it did become that – to bring song into the scuole of Venice where he was daily chazzan of the Italian synagogue – Leon had two formidable allies: the wealthy cultural patron, Moses Sullam, and more instrumentally (in all senses) the Mantuan compose and court musician for the Gonzaga dukes, Salomone Rossi. Salomone Ebreo as he was known in Mantua as you all know was the first to write polyphonic part songs in Hebrew – the collection Leon persuaded him to call the Shirim shel Shelomo, the Songs of Solomon, thus simultaneously flattering the composer while attaching a kind of First Temple historical authority. It was Leon who organised the publication of the Songs in Venice, made the difficult decision to print the Hebrew lyrics backwards so that they could be made compatible with the direction of the musical notation and who wrote a wonderfully adamant foreword, insisting that “no one with a brain in their head could possibly object to praising God in song in the synagogue.”

Whether or not Leon succeeded in getting Rossi’s musika into the scuole is uncertain, but we know that in 1628 he created a musical academy in the ghetto, partly manned by musicians fleeing an Inquisitorial regime in Mantua, which performed twice a week, so it seems extremely likely that the Songs of Solomon were heard for a while until the descent of the plague on Venice wiped so much of all kinds of rejoicing.

Most important the Jewish music makers lived in the world not just the corner of it that was the ghetto. They had always been irrepressible. It was not just Jewish bankers, pawnbrokers, old clothes sellers and doctors who were in demand in the gentile world: in Italy especially there had always been a thirst for Jewish musicians, actors and entertainers and dancing masters. In Mantua the great Leone di Sommi was playwright to the Dukes as well to his own community; and Isaaco Masserano, ballet master and choreographer devised the elaborate intermedi for those shows. There was something in fact of the showman about Leon Modena himself. In his childhood he had learned the art of classical rhetoric and he brought this consciously to his sermons preached in Italian which became an obligatory stop for Christian visitors to the ghetto. It was this kind of fame, one reaching across the ghetto bridges and gates that brought Leon in touch with the English ambassador Henry Wootton. It may have been Wootton who suggested that Leon write his De ritii ebraici, an description of the customs and belief of Judaism for the benefit of King James I. When it was published in French without his consent in 1637, Leon became terrified he would be arrested by the Inquisition. But the book stood along with Simha Luzzatto’s as the first attempt to disabuse the Christian world of their perennial paranoia about the life and culture of the Jews.

You can find Leon’s headstone out there in the cemetery of the Lido, rescued from having sunk into the ground. He died in 1649 impoverished and full of laments and anxieties, what else? But in the end I think he too would have said of his own life and what it represented, as something which transcended the segregation of the ghetto without abandoning its essential Judaism, “it could have been worse.”

And if somehow his ghost had been able to advise Gustav Mahler, when Mahler, whose symphony we are about to hear full of Jewish melodies, decided that conversion to Christianity was a worthwhile price to pay for having a career in music, we are all sure, aren’t we, he would have told the young man, “Don’t do it.” Amen to that, to both their memories and to all the Jews of the ghetto of Venezia.

*Simon Schama is an historian.