Venice: the original Ghetto

The main square of the Jewish Ghetto in Venice, Italy

By Joseph A. Lieberman, Special To The Dayton Jewish Observer

I first heard the term ghetto in a Jewish context back in the ‘60s, in a novel about the Warsaw Ghetto. For some reason, it never occurred to me that its origin was Italian, and more specifically, Venetian.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice features Shylock, a Venetian Jew, most recently played with compassion by Al Pacino in a 2004 film adaptation.

The most notorious scene has Shylock demanding a pound of flesh from the living body of Antonio, the titular merchant, who’d lightly agreed to that absurd condition before borrowing money he couldn’t later return.

The stereotype suited England’s antisemitic sensibilities of the age. Shakespeare knew that Shylock’s daughter stealing money and jewels from her dad to elope with Antonio’s friend — and then becoming a Christian to marry him — would not be seen as immoral, but somehow righteous. Further, Shylock’s own forced conversion in the finale would have served as a “happy ending” for Shakespeare’s audiences.

Venice at the time of the play was one of Europe’s most prosperous city-states. Because of that prosperity, Jewish businessmen were attracted to set up shop there. But Jewish business in those days was largely confined to moneylending. Jews were banned from joining guilds, owning farmland, or even selling things to gentiles.

In public spaces during the 1600s, the Jews of Venice were required to wear a red hat; the penalty for not complying was death.

Jews were only allowed to live in restricted areas, and in Venice, that happened to be a neighborhood of former foundries called “campo gheto.” In the 15th century, when the foundries began producing cannons, it had become a military zone isolated by walls and accessed through only two gates.

“A perfect place to relocate all the Jews of Venice,” declared Cardinal Zaccaria Delfino in 1516, and on March 29 of that year, he signed a decree forcing them to move into the Ghetto Nuovo (new ghetto). The gates were open only from sunrise to sunset. By 1541, the growing community expanded into the Ghetto Vecchio (old ghetto) as well.

This forced relocation had been fomenting since 1492 when Spanish and Portuguese persecutions caused many Jews to seek what they felt was a safer haven in Venice.

By the time the Ghetto Vecchio was created, the Venetian Jewish population comprised five separate ethnic identities, each with its own synagogue. This situation lasted until Napoleon took the city in 1797, tore down the gates, and declared that all were free to live wherever they liked. It only took another 21 years for Jews to be given equal “citizen rights.”

Although today’s Jewish population in Venice is spread throughout the city, religious and cultural life are still centered on the former ghetto. All five synagogues remain, although only two are used for services. The Jewish Community Museum offers guided tours inside the three others. There’s also a kosher restaurant and a yeshiva.

As for a fashionable place to stay, it’s better to look farther afield than the all-business-and-apartments ghetto. You’ve probably heard that staying in Venice is expensive, but for those with the means, the Hotel Cipriani on La Giudecca island is the ultimate Venetian sleepover experience. It also has a somewhat tenuous connection to Shylock, if the reader will forgive the following anecdotal indulgence.

First, some quick background: from St. Mark’s Square, it’s just a three-minute boat trip to La Giudecca via the Cipriani’s private launch (a free service). Being “so near, yet so far,” guests can mellow out in this oasis of tranquil hospitality, still within sight of that bustling, pigeon-filled tourist mecca across the lagoon. Diners at the hotel’s indoor/outdoor Cip’s restaurant enjoy romantic sunset views, and lavish breakfasts are served there as well.

Ironically, none of this would have been possible without a fortuitous act of Venetian moneylending by Mr. Cipriani himself. Back in the Roaring ‘20s, Giuseppe Cipriani was a bartender in the Hotel Europa. One of his frequent customers was a young, rich Bostonian named Harry Pickering. When Pickering’s drinking habits outpaced his family’s financial patience, Cipriani loaned him more than enough money to get his life straight and start anew. Within two years, Pickering repaid the debt five times over — enough for Cipriani to open his own establishment in 1931, still known today as Harry’s Bar.

With patrons like Hemingway, Chaplin, Hitchcock, Aristotle Onassis and Woody Allen, the bar became legendary and Cipriani’s fortune was secured. Harry’s became a global brand, and his long-dreamed-of hotel on La Giudecca became a reality in 1958.

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