Updated: Dec 5, 2018
Once Europe's most prominent Jewish community, the Venetian Ghetto offers a break from the crowded city for quiet contemplation.
Venice is a city frozen in time. From the maze of cobblestone streets to the boats delivering produce and packages along the iconic canals, you wouldn’t know what century you were in if it weren’t for vendors selling selfie-sticks and plastic spinning tops. The crowded shops selling opulent masks, museums rich with art and history, and the canals themselves leave little room for a truly lived-in city with supermarkets and movie theaters.
When I came to Venice just before Easter, I wasn’t expecting much more than days spent exploring the city’s cultural fame. Arriving from Budapest, I started my trip with the usual stops – the Doge’s Palace, the Accademia Gallery, and gelato shops (and wine – so much wine). But, on a chance recommendation from a friend, I decided to stay the whole week and spend a day exploring the city’s Jewish Quarter.
After growing tired of the crowds, I took my friend’s advice and hopped on a water taxi northwest to the Venetian Ghetto. Though often touted as “secret,” the Venetian Ghetto is one of Europe’s best-known Jewish communities and is the oldest ghetto in Europe. Jews from all over Europe flocked here beginning in the sixteenth century. I entered through what used to be the infamous gates, once locked so residents could not leave after sundown, onto a sunny city square marked “Gheto Vechio.” I could feel the rigid segregation forced upon this neighborhood by the Doges.
My tour began at the Jewish Museum of Venice, tucked away among the Gothic architecture and Kosher restaurants. From the outside, I was expecting the museum to be quite small, but the exterior is deceptive: Each room is full of exceptional artifacts you won’t find anywhere else in Venice, featuring pieces from the various Jewish groups that migrated to Venice throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance to escape harsher conditions elsewhere in Europe. We first viewed the featured religious and holy artifacts, such as Seder plates and prayer scrolls, followed by a room full of intricately decorated fabrics used in religious ceremonies.
For context, we went upstairs to a room featuring the history of the area. Despite the thriving culture (which peaked in the seventeenth century), anti-Semitism in Venice kept the community segregated. By law, the gates were locked so residents could not leave the Ghetto after dark, and those who ventured into the city for business during the day had to identify themselves with a yellow hat (later changed to red). The community of 5,000 was a blend of Jewish thought and culture from as far east as Turkey (then the Ottoman Empire) and as far west as Spain, all fleeing persecution in their home countries.
Despite their similar plights and religious backgrounds, each group of immigrants brought a distinct culture. This melting pot in the semi-isolated Venetian Ghetto was so distinct, the term ghetto entered popular language in reference to this vibrant community – and though it was segregated, it was common for Christian Venetians to visit the Ghetto’s merchants (inspiring Shakespeare to write the famous – here infamous – Merchant of Venice). Today, the buildings and plazas in the Jewish Quarter retain both their character and their scars, even though the gates were torn down by Napoleon’s Army in 1797.
In its heyday, the Ghetto was a thriving mixture of cultures, languages, and even architecture. Our tour included a visit to three of the five synagogues, or scholas, built to accommodate the different cultures within the Ghetto. First, we climbed up winding stairs to the German synagogue, the oldest in Venice and beautifully decorated with dark wood and gold plating. Next, we visited the Italian synagogue, which is much simpler in design but whose large windows give it a feeling of light and peace. This was in stark contrast to the Spanish Synagogue, with its ornately carved ceiling, rich red curtains, and gold-leaf plating, reflecting the culture of the Spanish Jews who migrated here. Surprising details, like a painting depicting the creation of the Ten Commandments with no human figures, made the visit all the more special. Because the synagogue was still active, the men in our group were required to cover the heads. From inside, you could feel the buzz of a community prepping for an important day – and that anticipation was missing in the rest of Venice, despite the impending Easter holiday.
We completed our tour with a visit to GAM restaurant, famous for its kosher fare. Though our guide did not join us, the meal gave my fellow visitors and I a chance to discuss what we had learned and seen. Over pasticcio (lasagna) and Venetian sardines, we wondered what it would be like to live in a city that’s evolved to accommodate tourists (our guide had even reminded us that “people live here, you know,” as we were ushered out of the way of locals doing their shopping). Moreover, how do we come to terms with a city that contributed so much to Western history while also contributing to an ugly history of oppression? Often, tourists visiting a city like Venice – like those going to New Orleans or Prague – expect a show. I pictured something reminiscent of a historical Las Vegas and the rest of Venice does feel part museum, part amusement park – a city of Doges and Popes and the celebration of the West’s greatest art, with plenty of wine tastings to boot. The Jewish Quarter, however, gives you a different perspective. Take a break from the well-known history and dive into Venice’s “secret” cultural heritage. It’s worth the trip.