Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Preserving An Old Community With An Eye To The Future


Venice, Italy with the canals
Hello Everyone:

Today we leave the world of politics, for now, and venture over to Italy for a look a the ongoing efforts to preserve Venice's 500-year-old Jewish quarter.  It was here that the concept of a ghetto was born.  In contemporary parlance, ghetto has a very negative connotation.  The word ghetto has come to symbolize a run down, crime-ridden neighborhood where the police and emergency services will not come and no one is safe anytime of the day.  However, Tom Kington, in his article for the New York Times "Venice Jews work to preserve the world's first ghetto as 500th anniversary nears," reports why it is so important to restore the place that once separated the Jewish community from the rest of Venice and what lessons can be learned.

Info Point for the Venice Jewish Community
Tom Kington's guide through the community, Shaul Bassi, explained that this was not simply "a ghetto, it was the ghetto."  Mr. Bassi said,

The concept of the ghetto was born here in 
Venice...And that is why we must never forget this place.

The Venice Ghetto was established in 1516 by the city's rulers on the site of a former metal foundry and possibly "the first community in Europe to be segregated by religious belief, the neighborhood took its name from getar, a word in the Venetian dialect meaning 'to smelt.'"

Over the course of 300 years, the Venetian Jews, all 5,000, were obliged to pay the salaries of the guards who patrolled the streets and locked the gates at midnight.  During the tour, Mr. Bassi pointed out the eight-story houses tightly encircling the main square-"the tallest buildings in the lagoon city."  He remarked, They had to build higher and higher and squeeze in low-ceiling apartments.  It was like a beehive.

Apartments along the canals
This year marks the 500th anniversary of the world's first ghetto and Mr. Bassi is part of an organization trying to raise 8 million euros ($8.7 million) to restore three 16th century synagogues and a museum in the community, yards from the crowded tourist filled streets but seldom visited.  Mr. Bassi said,

Millions live in ghettos around the world today, and we are trying to figure out what precious less can be drawn from own experience here.

Shaul Bassi, an English literature professor at the University of Venice, is joined in this fight by Venice's chief rabbi Scialom Bahbout who believes that acknowledging the anniversary "could prove timely in the battle against anti-Semitism in Europe,..."  Rabbi Bahbout told Mr. Kington,

The ghetto was founded on anti-Semitism-a sickness that hasn't gone away-and remembering it is important because it reminds us that after 500 years of trying to eradicate Jewish culture, not only are we still here, but Jewish culture made it over the ghetto walls.

The Jewish community were shut out from most employment opportunities; forced to seek work as money lenders (the model for Shylock in The Merchant of Venice), clothes sellers, or doctors.  The Venetian Jews were also obliged to wear yellow caps if they left the ghetto confines for the city, where prejudice was rampant.  Tom Kington writes, "In 1668, a special canal was dug around the outskirts of Venice to allow Jews to reach their cemetery without being subject to insults and stone throwing by Christians."

Bridge leading down to a shop
© David's Shop Editions
Another highlight of Tom Kington's tour through the community, was his visit to one of the synagogues.  Mr. Bassi cautiously climbed a creaky staircase, entering one of the three small synagogues, hidden away in residential buildings around the square to remain out of sight.  He explained,

The Jews were forced to use Christian architects to build the synagogues; they weren't allowed to use their own.

Shaul Bassi readily admits that the ghetto is not the most attractive place, however, Mr. Kington describes the synagogue interiors as, "bursting with baroque and rococo carvings in world and gilt.  Campaigners like Bassi hope money can used to make them fully accessible to visitors."

Venetian synagogue interior
The actual number of synagogues that served the community was five-accommodating all the nationalities that lived in the ghetto.  Strange but true, Jews from elsewhere in Europe flocked to live here.  Venice Jewish community leader Paolo Gnignati related,

Elsewhere in Europe Jews were treated worse, and Venice to some extent was a safe harbor...The city wanted them to come because they needed access to Jewish trading networks; it was good business on the part of the doges (referring to the Venetian leaders).

In 1541, the ghetto was enlarged to make room for Spanish and Portuguese Jewish journeymen traders.  Shaul Bassi added, For Jews, the ghetto was an acceptable compromise.  As Jews entered the ghetto, cultural and religious life flourished behind the gates.

Sarra Copia Salam

Shaul Bassi went on to say "that a third of all Hebrew publications in Europe before 1650 were Venetian and that in 1530, when England's King Henry VIII was searching for Old Testament precedents to justify his divorce of Catherine of Aragon, he consulted with Venice rabbis." By the !7th-century, poet Sarra Copia Sulam was hosting literary salons and being obsessively courted by a Genoese monk.  Mr. Bassi winked,

Being trapped in the ghetto didn't block the imagination, it triggered it.

Mr. Gnignati picked up the narrative,

Over time...Jewish and Venetian culture intermingled, proving that cultural identities are not immutable.

Thus far, $2 million dollars has been raised and will be used to restore and expand the small museum for exhibits about the ghetto's cultural life.  Fund raising efforts have been headed by the Venetia Heritage with support from couturier Dian Von Frustenberg and is looking to possible American benefactors.  Archivist Toto Bergamo Rossi told Mr. Kington,  An anonymous donor is about to give 3[million] to 4 million euros.

William Shakespeare's Shylock
Events celebrating the anniversary include concerts and exhibitions which began on March 29, the day the ghetto was originally established.  One of the events will be a performance of William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, which will have its premier in the community main square.  For Mr. Bassi, the play is must despite the fact that it gave the world the despicable Jewish character Shylock.  For Mr. Bassi, this is a way of confronting the character that has become the hateful caricature  of Jewish people.  He said, Shylock is most famous Venetian Jew and we cannot pretend he doesn't exist.

Napoleone Bonaparte finally knocked down the gates in 1797, when he occupied the city, allowing Jews to live where they wished.  There is a plaque in the main square that commemorates the 250 Jews taken from Venice to Auschwitz and never returned.  Today only 500 Jewish residents remain in Venice; just a handful in the old ghetto.  One of the plans for the newly expanded museum is a showcase for 40 silver crowns, shields, and liturgical pieces recently discovered under a synagogue staircase, hidden away from the Germans in 1943.

Campo di Ghetto Nuovo
Photography by Andrea Wyner
Venice, Italy
Paolo Gnignai summed it up,

We were deprived of our rights here, but we preserved our cultural identity, contributed to Europe's identity and we are still here...We can serve as an example to newcomers who want to participate in Europe while preserving their original identity.

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