The word “ghetto” is often associated with a certain time in history and a few places in Europe. However, the first Jewish ghetto was built long before the 19th century. It has nothing to do with Nazi Germany or World War II.
In the nice neighborhood of Cannaregio, the first Jewish ghetto was set up in Venice in the 1600s. It is easy to guess that the move was made because of anti-Semitism and the desire to separate and isolate the Jews.
The Jews of Venice were forced to live in this complex, which used to be a collection of prisons and foundries. The word “ghetto” comes from the Italian word for “foundry,” “ghetto,” so that’s where the name comes from. Go outside? Only during the hours allowed and only for certain things. When Napoleon came to power at the end of the 18th century, prisoners were set free.
When it was first set up, there were 700 Jews living in the Jewish ghetto. At its peak, there were 5,000 men and women living there. The people who lived in the ghetto could only leave through two gates. Which you will notice right away as you walk through the ghetto. They had to wear a patch or a yellow hat so they wouldn’t blend in with the other people.
Today, there aren’t that many Jews living in Venice, and only a small number of them live in the Jewish ghetto. The buildings in the ghetto are still homes for people who are not Jewish and are easy to spot. Because the ghetto was already too crowded and the government didn’t want it to grow and the people to be able to live there comfortably, they started to build higher. One of the buildings has nine stories, which is unusual for the time and for Venice today.
In the middle of the ghetto is a well with a symbol of Judah, which is a lion. A memorial to the Jews of Venice who died in the Holocaust is not far away.
There were 13 synagogues in the ghetto, but only 5 are still in use today. Use the tour to get an idea of what they look like and how they are different. Unlike a traditional synagogue, the architects built the temple on the upper floors and put the Ark of the Covenant outside the building. They did this to “confuse the enemy” in case they were attacked.
If you can only visit one synagogue, go to the large Sephardic synagogue. There are two Sephardic synagogues in the quarter, as well as two Ashkenazi synagogues and one Italian synagogue. It was built by people who were kicked out of Spain almost 450 years ago. There are baroque elements in its design, and the gold, decorated ceilings, and huge chandeliers show how powerful the community is.
The Jewish Museum of Venice is in the middle of the two Ashkenazi synagogues. There, you can look at the community’s works of art and Judaic items and learn about the history of local Judaism and how it is different from other Judaism. If you have time and want to learn more about what happened in the ghetto, you might want to go there for a short time. There is a fee to get into the site.