Walking through the streets of the world’s first “ghetto,” one might come across a variety of sights: the impoverished Jews confined to that quarter; rabbis reciting elegant speeches in the Italian vernacular; crumbling buildings; musicians singing Hebrew psalms.
Although Jewish life has been restricted in cities all over the world for centuries, the first so-called “ghetto” was declared in Venice in 1516. By and large, its establishment was a response by the Venetian government to the increasing Jewish refugee population, which had begun to arrive following the 1492 expulsion of Jews from Spain. Desiring to keep its communities separate, the Venetian Republic declared that the city’s Jews (who made up 1% to 2.5% of the total population) were to live on the site of a former iron foundry – “geto” in the Venetian dialect. By 1642, 2,414 Jews were confined to this small section of the city.
The enclosure was walled off, and its gate was locked at sunset every night. Any Jews who returned to the ghetto after the closing of the gates needed to submit a written explanation to the government’s guards. Outside the ghetto, Jews were forced to wear colored head-coverings to indicate their difference from the rest of the population.
With this distinction emphasized and recorded, the Venetian state had the power to effectively monitor and control Jewish movement, business, trade and life. For this reason, governments throughout the world would later use the term “ghetto” to designate the always-too-small and always-too-decrepit areas where Jews were segregated. Infamously, the Nazis forced Jews to move into enclosed ghettos in cities all over Central and Eastern Europe, an act that preceded their systematic destruction.
And yet, devastation is not the only legacy of the Venice Ghetto. That was one of the lessons of the academic conference hosted in September by the Center for Jewish History, of which I am the president. The conference, which was co-sponsored by the Medici Archive Project (MAP) in Florence and which is accompanied by an exhibit, which will remain up through the end of the year, offered scholars and the public an opportunity to learn about the experience of living in the early modern Italian ghetto. Indeed, some scholars argued that, while the Venice ghetto obviously restricted the lives of Jews, it also gave them express legal permission to live in the city. Within this structure, the Venetian Jewish community flourished culturally, producing works of art and scholarship that were revered around the world. Indeed, non-Jewish foreigners traveling to Venice rarely left the city without visiting the ghetto.
The ghetto’s Jewish preachers – darshanim – “reflect a cultural ambiance unique to Jews, emanating from the special characteristics of their cultural heritage and the specific circumstances of their social and political status,” noted University of Pennsylvania Professor David B. Ruderman, in his keynote address. Many of these rabbis were not only religious sages, but also scientists and philosophers.
In fact, despite their subjugated status, some Jews were permitted to attend the prestigious University of Padua, just a short walk away from the confines of the ghetto, where they studied both medicine and the humanities. As such, their writings often attempted to bridge the gap between human reason and divine omniscience. It was no coincidence that Venice became the world’s center for Jewish book publishing at the time. Other figures, such as Solomone Rossi, became musicians, incorporating the polyphonic techniques of Catholic Church services into Hebrew songs and psalms.
Of course, early modern Venice is not the first association that the word “ghetto” suggests today. It was not until the 1930s that scholars of demographics and sociology first used “ghetto” in its newer American sense, to describe the inner-city areas where poor and disadvantaged African-Americans lived. Racist housing policies, poverty and discrimination restricted, and continue to restrict, these communities to specific areas. The use of the term was appropriate: “ghetto” originally described a walled in physical space, where Jews lived restricted lives under circumstances dictated and controlled by an outside force – often an official governmental body. It is no wonder, then, that sociologists discussed the experiences of African-Americans and European Jews in the same light.
Unlike the Venice Ghetto, contemporary ghettos in the United States are surrounded not by walls, but by the more amorphous and ambiguous historical legacy of inequality and racism. The ghettoes of our inner cities continue to isolate and restrict those who live in them. By giving the ghetto the scholarly consideration it merits, from 500 years ago to today, we can better understand the full impact of that isolation.
Joel J. Levy is President and Chief Executive Officer of the Center for Jewish History. This article was published in Time on November 2, 2016.