A little bit of yesterday, much of tomorrow

by Katia Ceccarelli

The Jewish Ghetto of Venice

“It is strictly forbidden for any Jewish person converted to Christianity to enter the Jewish Ghetto of this city and to meet any Jews” : we can read these words on a plaque in the  Jewish ghetto in Venice dating back to 1704.

Many representatives of the Jewish countries had arrived and settled there, and the number and importance of Jews in Venice had grown considerably, so much that in 1719 in the ghetto of Venice there were as many as nine synagogues on disposal to three ‘nations’ present at the same time — German, Levantine and Sephardic.

It was only after the fall of the Serenissima in 1797 that  Napoleon decreed the end of the Jewish segregation and the two gates closing off the Ghetto from sunset to morning were removed.

The Venetian Ghetto has preserved its history, as it can be seen in the verticality characterizing its buildings.

A great many things have originated here.To begin with, the name of the Jewish quarter itself: in 1516 the Republic required Jews to live in an area of the city where the  foundries, known in Venetian as “geti”, had been situated in ancient times. Ashkenazi Jews (native to Germany) with their throaty pronounciation changed the term ‘geto’ into ‘ghetto’.

To get there you have to look for it in the Cannareggio district, although not far away from the train station, you have to want to get there and walk through a narrow doorway, the “Sottoportego del ghetto vecchio” at the Ponte delle Guglie.

The Gam Gam kosher restaurant represents the only opportunity of worldly pleasure facing the canal. It is very popular among lovers of tradition as well as students and tourists.

Many inscriptions remind us of what was once this place, but the dynamism you can perceive when walking along the fields and narrow streets of the ghetto is something real that creates a lively and sparkling atmosphere.

You can perceive it and often hear it: Its inhabitants want to turn the Ghetto into one of the most important and vital place in Europe.

“Otherwise Mejer wouldn’t have opened a branch here” remarks the red-haired girl at the information desk, speaking with a warm middle European accent.

In the Ghetto area today there are five synagogues safeguarding a common heritage in five different languages. There are schools and many other social facilities that pursue initiatives aimed at recovering the kosher tradition from a forward-looking perspective, such as the cooking classes, also in view of EXPO 2015 in Milan. As a matter of fact, this culinary tradition has always given great importance to quality food long before this concept was invented.

At the bakery it is taught how to make bread and further forward, at the Corte scala mata, how to draw illustrations. In the Campiello delle Scuole (Campiello is the Venetian word for small courtyard) there are the two synagogues which are still used today: the Scola Spagnola for the Spanish and Portuguese communities and  the Scola Levantina for the Levantine Sephardi ones. I only saw smiling faces there.

And even a phrase which has come into common usage in many countries worldwide seems to be born here: “be in the red” or “go into the red”. The red  here could refer to the Red Bench at the Campo del Ghetto Nuovo where the Jewish Community of Venice used to carry out money-lending activities

considered usurious at that time and for this reason forbidden to Christians.
The red bench and the black one (today no longer recognisable) used to be a  pawnshop, so “going into the red” meant “to go to the red desk”, whereas the green desk, on the opposite side in front of the red one, was a real financial agency to which the large Venetian employers addressed.

Here, at certain moments, I can almost hear Shylock asking for a pound of flesh or mourning the loss of his beloved daughter Jessica who had run away from her father’s house, disguised as a boy, climbing down into the canal where her loved Lorenzo was waiting for her. “Here you me, Jessica: Look up my doors, and when you hear the drum and the vile squealing of the wry-necked fife, clamber not you up to the casements then, nor thrust your head into the public street to gaze on Christian fools with varnished faces; . . . Let not the sound of shallow foppery enter my sober house…”

At the time when Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice these buildings were still of relatively recent construction, maybe the upper floors hadn’t been built yet, later on the building of the Ghetto were called the skyscrapers of Venice.

The Red Bank has recently been restored and is now open to visitors. It is still possible to read the ancient writing and to see some of the pawned items that were never redeemed. This small museum with its brick walls has also become a brand name for a production of kosher biscuits, wines and biers. After all “There is no celebration without wine, as the Talmud teaches”, as Giampaolo Anderlini, author and scholar of Judaism, writes in one of his books that intrigues me.

The courtyard is lively and busy without however being chaotic, as it is in the neighbouring streets, we are not too far from the shouts and confusion produced by the tourists heading towards the Rialto Bridge and the Strada Nuova.

The Kosher house Giardino dei melograni is a kosher hotel next to the memorial of the Venetian Jewish victims of the Shoah.

One cannot but acknowledge that although the memory is part of the foundation of this place, the thought is oriented towards the acceptance of those who want to be here.

And the colourful, vivid, energetic information materials by Michal Meron I have in my hands further confirm this impression.

There is spirit of enterprise and desire to be successful, everyone is future-ready, and — just to avoid ever making a mistake – I have already been there.

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