Today we took a little-known tour of Venice’s Jewish Ghetto. It was sobering and fascinating and one of the best days we’ve had.
In the 1500s, the Council of 10 governing body in Venice decided that Jewish people had to live in their own area that was separated from the rest of the town. They assigned them an area that was surrounded by canals and near today’s train station in Cannaregio. Like most of Venice, you had to reach this area by a little bridge, but that made it easier to add a gate (see picture above showing fortified walls and where gate used to be). The area was near the foundry, which was called the geto (pronounced “jeto”). With mispronunciation, it became “ghetto” and then used throughout history for future areas where Jews were isolated.
The gates were open during the day – and anyone could come and go. But at night, everyone had to be back in their place, and the gates were locked. At its height, over 5,000 Jews lived there. It is not a very big space, so they had to build up and add more floors as they grew. So these are some of the tallest buildings in Venice. In Jewish tradition, there can be nothing above a Synagogue, so they built their Synagogues on the top floors.
One thing I thought was interesting was that Jewish people arrived from all over (in some cases, from worse persecution elsewhere). They still wanted to maintain their own cultural identities, so there ended up being nationalities within the ghetto with separate synagogues – so a Spanish synagogue, a Turkish synagogue, and Eastern European synagogue, etc. – there are 5 total, all dating to the 1500s. We got to tour three of these synagogues, led by a guide who still lives in this area. They were beautiful and moving. My favorite part was in the Spanish synagogue, where they had a marble floor plan with a pattern. All was perfect, but one square of the pattern in a very visible area was clearly out of place – a mistake. The guide said it was on purpose to show humility – and that our talents are not from ourselves, but from God. I loved that message.
There also is a small museum on the Campo de Gheto Novo that explains the history of the Ghetto. During World War II, the Nazis rounded up most of the inhabitants and shipped them north. Over 200 people were shipped out and only 8 returned. There is a memorial in the campo that lists the names and ages of those who were deported – whole families ranging from babies to the elderly. There is a retirement home in the campo where one of the young girls who returned (one of the 8) now lives – the last survivor from that time.
It was all very emotional. We were so moved by this area and this tour. We were honored that the guide would share her stories with us.
We ended our day with lunch in a restaurant the guide recommended – called Gam-Gam Kosher. It was wonderful. They have Italian food but also Middle Eastern (like hummus, falafel, and baba ganoush). We ordered a bunch of appetizers and feasted with delight, washed down with Israeli wine.
Then we happened upon a Kosher bakery – and guess what? It is called Volpe! So we went in and introduced ourselves and bought cookies and bread. We also shopped and talked to the merchants, who seemed genuinely to want to spend time and explain their craft, whether art or jewelry.
It was a chance to slow down from the tourist bustle, reflect, ache with sadness from the stories we heard, but also smile and laugh with the people we met who wanted to share their lives with us. It was truly a special day.