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the jewish ghetto of venice italy

The Jewish Ghetto of Venice is the oldest in the world, and its five synagogues are the oldest ones still functioning as Jewish places of worship.


The Ghetto of Venice
(all these photos: Copyright © David's Shop Editions, Venice)


In a series of commerce-related religious conflicts during the Middle Ages, Jews were persecuted in many Europan countries. In 1492 for instance, the Catholic Spanish King Ferdinand issued a decree which drove all the Jews out of Spain. The persecution forced the Jews to emigrate and, in some European cities, they could settle in a segregated area, which came to be called a ghetto, mimicking the first ghetto which, by decree of the Doge, was established in Venice on 29 March 1516 in the area of the metal foundries. A foundry or "geto" in the Venetian dialect was pronounced with a guttural “g” by the German Jews who were the first to settle there after relocating from minor cities in the surrounding area. The term was then used to indicate all Jewish segregated areas and, over the centuries, ghetto (as it’s spelled in standard Italian) became a byword for discrimination and segregation. In Venice, Jews were obliged to wear yellow hats (not the more common black ones) to identify themselves as Jews, they were obliged to manage the city's pawnshops at established rates, and the rents they paid for their flats were at least one third higher than they were for non-Jewish Venetians. In exchange, the Jewish community was granted the freedom to practice its faith, build synagogues, and receive protection in times of war (though one of the reasons for the "admission" of the Jewish community into the life of the town was to get tax revenue from wealthy citizens to finance the Republic’s war campaigns).

The Jews first settled in the area called "Ghetto Novo" (New Ghetto), probably named for a new foundry. Another area, the "Ghetto Vecchio" (Old Ghetto), was assigned to the Jews after 1541, and the "Ghetto Novissimo" (Newest Ghetto) was established in 1633.

Schola Canton The old Ghetto
Photo Copyright © David's Shop Editions, Venice

Photo Copyright © David's Shop Editions, Venice

All five of the Ghetto's synagogues, dating from the 16th Century and known as "Scole" (schools), still exist and follow the prayer rites of the different groups. The largest denomination was the Italian rite ("Scola Italiana”) followed by the Spanish or Sephardic rite for Jews from Spain and Portugal (“Scola Levantina" and "Scola Spagnola"), and the German or Ashkenazi rite, for Jews from Central Europe and Provence in France ("Scola Tedesca" and "Scola Canton”) in the wake of 14th Century persecutions.

Pope Paul IV in a Papal bull issued in 1555 imposed very strict limits on the activities and relationships between Catholics and Jews. Jews had to stay in the Ghetto overnight, and two large gates closed the area (the marks of the hinges are still visible today). Christian guards (paid by the Jews themselves) patrolled canals surrounding the Ghetto after the gates were closed to prevent Jews from escaping during the night. Nevertheless, the Ghetto was a lively place with shops and schools and the pawnshops. Jews spread their commerce and culture throughout the rest of the city and, in 1797, Napoleon declared that Jews had equal rights, and the segregation ended.

A time of prosperity began and lasted until the Nazi persecutions during the Second World War when most Italian and Venetian Jews were deported and killed in the concentration camps. The tragedy of the Holocaust is represented in works of art in the Venetian Ghetto, all donated by Lithuanian sculptor Arbit Blatas.

Venice had very few survivors from the Nazi death camps. Only a few Jewish families still live in the Ghetto of Venice, and there are only about 500 Jews in the whole province of Venice. The Ghetto, however, is now a very international place inhabited by people of various cultures, religions, and nationalities, but the Jewish historical tradition is still strong. That’s due, in part, to the presence of international students and Jews from Israel and the US, some from the Chabad Lubavitch movement.

Photo Copyright © David's Shop Editions, Venice

Photo Copyright © David's Shop Editions, Venice

Thanks to  a project led by the Venetian Heritage Council, a philanthropic organisation founded by the Jewish, Belgian-born fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg, whose mother was a survivor of the Holocaust, the synagogues are to be restored and the Jewish museum redesigned. The restoration work is to be completed by early 2017, commemorating the Ghetto's 500th anniversary.

A guided tour is the only way to access the synagogues which are otherwise closed to visitors and worshippers (except for religious services). The guided tours are provided by the Jewish Museum which was opened in 1955 and displays a collection of precious textiles and silverwork (mostly from the five synagogues), Italian Ketuboth (marriage contracts), and other religious objects manufactured abroad. The Museum provides guided tours in Italian and English (and, with advance booking, in German, French, Hebrew and Spanish). For groups and classes, reservations are required.

Museum hours:
1 June  to 30 September: 10:00 a.m. - 07:00 p.m.
1 October to 31 May: 10:00 a.m. - 05:30 p.m.

The guided tours to the synagogues, in Italian and English, leave every hour on the half hour, starting at 10.30 a.m. The last guided tour of the day between 1 June and 30 September is at 5:30 p.m. and, between 1 October and 31 May, at 4:30 p.m. The last tour on Friday afternoon may sometimes be cancelled for Sabbath services. The ancient Jewish cemetery on Lido Island (dating from the 14th Century) is the second oldest Jewish cemetery in Europe, and guided tours are possible if booked in advance. The Museum, the synagogues, and the cemetery are closed on Saturday (Shabbat), during Jewish holidays, and on 25 December, 1 January, and 1 May


Photo Copyright © David's Shop Editions, Venice
In the Island of Lido, the old Jewish cemetery (14th century) was restored recently: it was in ruins as another site was opened nearby in 1777. It is the second oldest Jewish cemetery in Europe (oldest in in Worms, Germany). Guided tours on Sundays; on reservation, also on Wednesdays and Fridays.


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