16.3.17

Ghetto Superstar

Last year I visited the world's oldest ghetto, namely the Venetian Ghetto Nuovo. It is the first place in the world where the word ghetto was used to describe a poor segregated community.

The Venetian Ghetto is a part of Venice, Italy where gondolas don't go. That's what I was told when I approached a gondolier asking for directions.





When both Apple maps and Google maps failed to provide a coherent path to my desired destination as well, I had to resort to ancient technology: ask a local who is not in the transportation industry.

A store clerk from a local souvenir shop kindly provided me with the following map, and I somehow managed to find my way.


Venice is by far the most surreal place that I had the opportunity to visit.
An emergency vehicle 
Many parts of the city are only accessible by boat, and only emergency service boats are allowed to speed.


According to my slightly cryptic but nevertheless useful map, I had to go to the Grand Canal first and take a waterbus in the opposite direction from where I was initially headed to until reaching the edge of the city.

A waterbus stop near San Marco Square







The Grand Canal runs through the entire length of the Veneto region, which is composed of 117 small islands connected by bridges. The Venetian Ghetto is one of these islands.

Rialto Bridge, Venice

I got off near (what looked like) the edge of the city and I went down a small street, then up another small street, and then I somehow ended up on one of the bridges connecting the Venetian Ghetto with the rest of Venice.


At the other side of the bridge there is a tunnel that leads to the main square. The Venetian ghetto was once home to thousands of Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews, mostly refugees from other parts of Europe where they were unwanted at one point or another.

Venetian Ghetto Nuovo

Although there was a Jewish presence in Venice for centuries prior to the establishment of the Venetian Ghetto, they were not segregated until Venice saw an influx of Jews from Spain after the Alhambra Decree and from other parts of Europe with similar sentiments at the time.

For many of the Sephardic Jews fleeing Spain, Venice was merely a pit stop before reaching the Ottoman Empire.

The Venetian Republic began rounding up and confining Jews to a small island on the edge of the Veneto region on the 29th of March 1516. The island was home to ancient foundries.

There are several synagogues in the ghetto tucked away in common areas of unassuming buildings, and some of them are still in use today. All of them honoured the Venetian Republic in some way with their decor in addition to honouring Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Italian Jewish tradition.


Sephardic Synagogue in the Venetian Ghetto: red and gold were the official colours of the Venetian Republic

The word ghetto as we know it today comes from an old Italian word for foundry pronounced as jetto (geto with a soft g as in jet). Apparently, the etymology of the word is a controversial topic but the most plausible theory is that Ashkenazi Jews had trouble pronouncing the soft g so they transformed it into a hard g effectively coining the word ghetto.

Life was not easy in the shanty part of town. Just like in the rest of the world at the time, Jewish people in the Venetian ghetto were only allowed to do the jobs that nobody else liked doing.



They were also not allowed to leave the ghetto at night and they had to wear identifiers that they were Jewish. Living quarters were cramped: large stories inside the buildings were separated into smaller ones to accommodate more people. Entire families were crammed inside single small rooms with low ceilings and sometimes no windows.


The view above the main plaza across from Museo Ebraico di Venezia where I learned about the history of the Venetian Ghetto


Although people who spent time in the ghetto endured many hardships, some of them and many of their descendants thrived and prospered in different parts of the world.

Meanwhile in Spain 500 years after a bill was passed to expel all Jews from the Iberian peninsula, a new bill was introduced to grant citizenship to the descendants of those who were expelled. According to a DNA test I did, it is possible that I'm one such descendant.