Venice’s Jewish Ghetto Is Turning 500. Is It Finally Time To Celebrate?


Campo del Ghetto Nuovo is the heart of Venice’s Jewish ghetto, a quiet square just a few minutes’ walk from the train station. It hosts the Jewish Museum, three ancient synagogues and the Jewish community’s nursing home for the elderly. Not far from the square is a kosher hotel and a kosher restaurant. In the past two decades, Venice’s ghetto – one of Europe’s oldest neighborhoods where Jews were forced to live segregated from Christians, and the first one to be called a “ghetto” – has become popular with international visitors, especially American Jews.

Yet its synagogues have no congregations and its homes have just a handful of aging Jewish residents. Its buildings are primarily for visitors, as the ghetto is now the symbol of a shrinking community striving to survive.

But Campo del Ghetto Nuovo is not completely dead. It has become the center of recent conversations about how to remember the past and how to deal with religious diversity, something much of the world is now struggling with.

On Tuesday, the ghetto will begin the celebration of its 500th anniversary. There will be nine months of events, including a concert at the Teatro La Fenice opera house and a production of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a guest star, presiding over Shylock’s trial.

Some see the anniversary as an opportunity to revitalize the city’s dwindling Jewish life by shining a light on a thought-provoking concept: In the ghetto, the community was close and bustling, even as it was isolated and faced with profound discrimination. This reality feels particularly contemporary as religious minorities – not just Jews, but Muslims as well – once again feel as though they are on the periphery of Europe. Others see nothing but pain in the memory of the ghetto and are opposed to the celebrations.

How do you “celebrate” something like a ghetto, a symbol of oppression in Europe?

“I don’t think there’s much to celebrate; it was created by Christians to segregate Jews,” says Riccardo Calimani, a Venetian Jewish scholar who authored a history of the neighborhood and was the first member of his family to be born outside of it, in 1946.

Not everyone shares his concern.

“The gates of the ghetto were opened more than 200 years ago; it’s not exactly an open wound. So I really don’t see any reason not to celebrate the anniversary, especially if something good can come out of it,” said Alisa Campos, a 36-year-old native of Venice’s Jewish community who now lives in Israel.

The Jewish presence in Venice dates to the 13th century. In 1516, the city’s authorities ruled that Jews ought to live separately from Christians, so they were forced to move to an undesirable area of abandoned foundries. The word “ghetto” may come from “getto,” which means foundry. At night the neighborhood’s gates were shut to prevent contact with Christians outside working hours. When Napoleon conquered Venice in 1797, the ghetto’s gates were opened and Jews were declared free to live where they pleased.

“Wealthy Jews gradually moved out, poor Jews stayed, and working class Christians moved in,” Calimani said, adding that before World War II the ghetto was still home to half of the city’s Jewish population, which at the time was 1,200.

Today, Venice’s Jewish community officially has only 450 members, almost all of them living outside the neighborhood. The Holocaust isn’t to blame for the shrinking number. (Just eight Venetian Jews were killed, according to the Jewish Contemporary Documentation Center in Milan.) Assimilation and emigration are.

Despite being Orthodox, Italian Judaism has been unusually open to the outside world and inclusive of non-observant Jews, throughout the 20th century. In the past 15 to 20 years, though, rabbis began enforcing stricter rules excluding interfaith families and making it harder for the growing population of secular Jews to fit in. For instance, they waived the conversion of newborns from non-Jewish mothers (a widespread practice in Italy until the late 1990s, known as “ghiur katan,” or small conversion), and they made it harder for non-Jews to convert in order to marry Jews, Calimani said.

Some, including Calimani, blame Jewish authorities for unintentionally turning people, especially secular and intermarried Jews, away from the community: “The rabbis’ policy has been suicidal. They thought [community members] should be few but good. It didn’t work out,” he said.

The tough policy on intermarriage led to a huge youth dropout, Campos said. Intermarriage rates have always been high among Italian Jews. Until 15 or 20 years ago, though, intermarried couples could easily have either the non-Jewish partner or their children converted. Now that this is more difficult, interfaith couples find it harder to fit into the community.

“Almost all the secular young folks are in a relationship with a non-Jew, and many of them leave the community because they feel unwelcome. But since finding a Jewish partner is nearly impossible in such a small community, religious young people are moving out of Venice, either to Israel or to Milan, in order to live an Orthodox lifestyle,” Campos said. “Every time I go back home, I am so sad to see the community is dying.”

The crisis of the city’s Jewish population reflects a broader trend in Venice. With about 260,000 inhabitants, Venice is losing on average of 1,000 people each year, according to the last census. The population is aging, and younger people are leaving because, as the city increasingly gravitates toward only tourism, it’s hard to find employment in other sectors.

There has been an influx of Jews from abroad, whose presence gravitates to the Chabad-Lubavitch mission and Beit Venezia, a secular Jewish institution arranging residency programs for writers and artists. Some believe that could help balance the shrinking size of the native Jewish population. But foreign Jews, mostly from North America and Israel, are hardly considered members of the community and generally are not included in its activities – although this has been changing lately, since new Chief Rabbi Shalom Bahbout, a cosmopolitan figure and himself an immigrant from Libya, took charge.

Calimani, the historian, fears that celebrating the ghetto, a symbol of segregation, is particularly inappropriate at a time when Europe is struggling with making minorities feel included, and when Venice’s Jewish community is growing smaller and more exclusive: “We should fight for openness and inclusivity, which is the opposite of what the ghetto represented.”

He also warned that, albeit less explicit than in the past, geographical segregation is still an issue in Europe.

“Banlieues are the ghettos of the modern era, a place of hardship and discrimination, even if we call them with another name,” he said, referring to the troubled working class suburbs in France inhabited by immigrants and minorities.

But organizers contend that the point of the ghetto’s 500th anniversary is to celebrate openness, not segregation.

“That’s why all the events involve Jewish organizations and the city’s [secular] authorities. We want to get everyone involved: Jews and non-Jews, internationals and Italians, members of the community and outsiders,” said Shaul Bassi, the coordinator of the committee for the anniversary celebrations, and chair of Beit Venezia.

Between 1516 and 1797, Bassi says, the ghetto was a “unique melting pot,” where Jews came from all over the world to escape worse circumstances. That included Ashkenazis from central Europe, Sephardis from the Levant, Marranos (families forcibly converted to Christianity who secretly keep their Jewish faith) from Spain and native Italians.

“What we’re celebrating are not the ghetto’s walls, but the rich and diverse cultural traditions that flourished inside them,” he said. Even Calimani agreed that Jewish life inside the ghetto produced “great accomplishments worth remembering, such as the flourishing of Jewish print.”

Bassi says that the anniversary program has been criticized for being more attractive to foreign visitors than to Venetian Jews.

“Sometimes you hear old people being nostalgic of the old Venetian Jewish community, the one where people still were speaking the [Venetian Jewish] dialect. . . . But the truth is that world no longer exists, and I’m not sure everyone has realized it,” Campos said.

“For some events we have had more New Yorkers than Venetians expressing their interest in participating. But it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Locals alone cannot save Jewish life in Venice; there’s not enough of us,” Bassi said. “Internationalization is the key to survival. Plus, the ghetto used to be a very international place historically. Wouldn’t it be so bad if it would go back to being international again?”

(c) 2016 The Washington Post · Anna Momigliano