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Notes from the Newcastle One-Day Limmud 2005

The origins of the Ghetto

[Don't seem to have recorded who the talk was by, I'm afraid.]

There are some similarities between the Nazi ghettos and those of the sixteenth century, but there are also some differences. They were both areas where the Jews were forced to live apart, under guard; were responsible for their own governance, and had to wear distinctive clothing.

The first ghetto is in Venice. It is five or six storeys tall—higher than the surrounding buildings. The height cuts out a lot of the noise and some of the sunlight. It still feels very much a world apart. In some senses it is still a ghetto.

The Venetian ghetto is literally an island. When first established in 1516 it was on the edge of the city. The edge was where undesirable but essential activities were carried out—e.g. the glassworks (for fear of fire), the abbatoirs, the arsenal. Prior to 1516 the area of the ghetto was an iron foundry (gettare means to find iron; this is one of the explanations of the term). When the idea came up to locate all the Jews in Venice together, having them in one area where nobody wanted to live but there were some houses seemed a good idea.

This was the Ghetto Nuovo, which, despite its name, was the original. The Ghetto Veccio (Old Ghetto) (1541) and the Ghetto Novissimo (1630) came later, as extensions to the original.

There was no connection between the establishment of this Ghetto and the Nazi ghettos. There was no real attempt by the Venetian authorities to shut the Jews away and stop them participating in urban life (though it looked a bit like this).

Beforee this time, there had not been a large number of Jews living in Venice over long periods of time. The Venetian government had dealt with the presence of Jews by giving them short-term contracts. These were sometimes renewable, but not guaranteed. They were allowed to do some things but not others. Many of these prohibitions persisted into the time of the Ghetto.

Jews weren't allowed to compete with the city's craftsmen. Or to take part in shipping activities trading with the rest of Europe. So what led to the changed circumstances? A lot had to do with politics, and some to do with economics.

Venice at the time was the capital of a large state in both Italy and Dalmatia (on the east side of the Adriatic). This was a bad time for Venice; a coalition led by the Holy Roman Empire occupied most of their territories. Refugees flooded to Venice itself, including many Jews.

The economic side was that the urban authorities realised the presence of the Jwes was good for the economy; they brought in capital, and expertise and acted as money lenders.

So, how were the Venetians to handle these people who patently did not belong? They did not belong because they were not Catholic, and were perceived as being a threat, for example by persuading Christians to ?join ??them; also by intermarrying and absorption into the Jewish community. This fear was not limited to the Jews. About half a mile from the Ghetto is the "German Warehouse"; both Lutherans and Catholics were forced to live there. Like the Ghetto, it too was self-governing.

Quite early on the authorities decided to lock the gates of the German quarter at night, to stop smuggling. So this was a precedent for walling up all external doors and windows of the Ghetto and not allowing anyone out except doctors, who had to record exactly what they had done outside.

The gates were also locked during the major Christian festivals. There were guards on the outside, paid for by the Jewish community. By day, however, it was desirable for the Jews to go in and out, because their activities were desirable by the Venetian community.

There was a lot of [empty] space in the Ghetto; this was filled during the day by people carrying out there business.

It was believed by the Venetians that most of the Jews who had come in from northern Italy were German. (They weren't; their ancestors had been two hundred years earlier!) They also believed they were not rich (also not very true). The Jews were permitted to carry out the second hand trade. This was not then a low-level trade; it was quite lucrative. If you were a foreign visitor—as a pilgrim to see ?Plsm or on embassy or travelling Europe—you would rent dwellings and go to a second-hand dealer to acquire furnishings and clothes.

Similarly if you were organising your daughter's wedding, you would not buy everything new; you would hire clothes and jewellery from a second-hand dealer: you had to look right. However, increasingly there was another component in the Ghetto, which led to the establishment of the Old Ghetto—Jewish merchants from the Ottoman Empire, descended from refugees from Spain or Portugal, or the older communities in the Ottoman Empire. These people were coming to Venice in increasing numbers.

Again the authorities dealt with them in a piecemeal fashion, not expecting it to last so long. They set up an extension of the Ghetto (because there wasn't enough space). They didn't allow them to bring their families or to stay for more than two months. Only they did, and they petitioned the government said to regularise this. The government agreed.

They did attempt to get the Jews to wear identifiable clothing. This never really worked in the case of the Turkish Jews. They used yellow—also used to stigmatise prostitutes. This led to great confusion, and soon the Jews were wearing red instead. (Which shows you couldn't tell the Jews apart by appearance.)

The Jews did not own the houses in the Ghetto; the Christian landlords had to be persuaded by being given a rent 40% higher than before (paid for by the Jews.) The houses rapidly got subdivided up a lot, usually illegally; and there was overcrowding.

Recent research shows the Ghetto was not segregated like it was supposed to have been: there were a lot of visitors by night as well. For example, there is a case where a factory was robbed and the contents were found in the Ghetto. Also the walling up of the doors and windows was not properly observed: there were floating platforms outside through which people and goods passed, illictly. Likewise with the rule for the doctors. What took place was a lot more than what was nominally allowed.

Though the authorities and the people were certainly suspicious—and with good reason. For example the Crypto-Jews who, settling in Venice, reverted to Judaism. But it wasn't them authorities weren't worried about. There was a big move to convert Jews to Christianity, but through conviction and through financial inducements, rather than compulsion. A certain number of Jews followed these inducements. But for a number of them—as shown by the records of the Venetian Inquisition—got disappointed and went back home. For the Venetians this was a much greater crime than Crypto-Jews from Spain reverting to Judaism. Hence this suspicion of them.

The organisation of the Ghetto from the inside was follows. There were eight synagogues—different communities from the diffierent origins of the Jewish populations. There was a "rep council" of Venetian Jewry consisting of representatives of all the different populations of Jews; called the university of the Jews.

The Jews were the only people to practice their religion in buildings constructed for that purpose (the Greeks weren't, the Armenians and the Slavs etc were not).

Did the establishment of ghettos cut back on the cultural development of the Jews? This might have been the case in small towns, but it wasn't the case in Venice. Venice was the printing capital of Europe, and the Jewish printing capital of Europe; books were being commisioned for elsewhere. There was a developed publishing industry at this point; the Ghetto was not poverty-ridden at this time (it did not become so until the eighteenth century).

The Ghetto housed eight hundred people at its foundation. By the 1640s this had grown to 3000. It peaked at 5000 in the 1680s. The last extension was built in 1630—immigration to fill the gaps left in the population by a bad outbreak of plague. At its height the population of Venice was 190k; 150k in the middle of the seventeenth century. (The Jews weren't found in court circles in Venice; Venice was run by a few families which had been there since the eleventh century; no one else got a look in.)

What has happened to the Ghetto since then? It's still there. Three or four of the synagogues are still there as museums. The Jews were deported [during the War]. Venice's Jews don't live in the Ghetto any longer or daven there. On the other hand a Chabad shop has been established there for the tourists. The irony is that whereas the Venetian community had become almost entirely Sephardi, we now have there the Lubavitch, who are Ashkenazi!


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Lethargic Man (anag.)

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