1516-2016: The 500 Years of the Ghetto of Venice

by Arcangelo Piai

Half a millennium ago, Venice decided that the Jews needed to reside in a secluded area, away from the city, the “Ghetto Nuovo” (New Ghetto): the first ghetto was born, a term and institution sadly put into practice in the rest of the world.

Until today, this area presents itself like an Island, accessible only by two bridges, once guarded by robust gates, because the residents were permitted to leave only during daytime, marked distinctively.
Nonetheless, these restrictions did not hinder the population to grow, which forced the authorities to enlarge the Ghetto Nuovo, adding the Ghetto Vecchio (old ghetto) in 1541 and the very new one in 1633.
To gain sufficient living space it was also necessary to proceed by expanding the buildings vertically – and still to date the buildings of the Ghetto are the tallest in Venice. Today, its residents are just a few hundred people, but the Ghetto of Venice remains one of the most characteristic and unique spots of the city. 500 years later the Jewish community is keeping their role within the city’s cultural life vital, maintaining religious traditions and offering their artistic and cultural patrimony to visitors from around the world.
Regardless it being just within a few minutes reach from the train-station the flow of tourists hardly touches this area. Due to this, when entering the Ghetto you seem to be glancing into a world apart, where rituals and habits have remained those from once upon a time. Here you can find the bakery with the best sweets of Venice, products created abiding to the kosher kitchen-rules; a pair of restaurants offering traditional Jewish dishes and best wines from Israel; and here is where one of the only two female gondoliers works. In the afternoon kids meet to play on the square of the Ghetto Nuovo, whilst mothers and grandmothers are chatting on the benches. This one time the tourist are a minority, happily observing this corner of a still authentic Venice. On Friday night, after sunset, all activities come to an end and silence takes over: the commencement of Shabbat, the feast of rest, which lasts until Saturday’s sunset, respected by everyone, including the tourists.

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