The Jewish ghetto of Venice, made famous in William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice ( “Shylock” ), was actually the very first “ghetto.” That does not mean that when the Venetian Ghetto was established in 1516, it was the first time Jews were relegated to a specific living area, but it was the first such usage of the word “ghetto.”
While today the word “ghetto” conjures up an array of connotations, from the Holocaust to the inner-city, in 1516 it was simply the Italian word for “foundry.” The government-specified living area for Jews had once been a cannon factory.
The creation of a Jewish neighborhood was meant to appease the Inquisition and, in this way, protect the Jews of the city. It did not take long for it to become an effective means of isolating and oppressing (taxing) the Jews. The gates of the ghetto were open only during the daytime. At night, the ghetto was guarded and its inhabitants were required to abide by the “curfew.”
Even with restricted living conditions and other discriminatory measures (such as yellow badges on clothes), the Jewish community of Venice flourished. The only way that the community could accommodate its increasing number of residents was to build upward. Some buildings reached a height of six stories (which was impressive for the middle ages). In 1541, an adjacent area was added (Ghetto Vecchio) in order to accommodate an influx of Sephardic Jews.
Life was hard for the Venetian Jews due to anti-Semitism, but within the ghetto walls, Jewish life remained vibrant. Synagogues were built (many of them are still in existence and some are even in use), scholars shared their Torah knowledge and Jewish families educated their children.
The ghetto itself came to an end in 1797, when Napoleon and his army threw open the ghetto doors and emancipated the Jews.
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