Venice is known for many things, including its narrow streets, gothic architecture and masquerades, but few people know about the Venice Jewish ghetto, which is the oldest in the world. I was staying with a friend in Cannaregio, where the ghetto is located, so I decided to visit this historical place.
I am not religious, but I am fascinated about how religion shapes history, changing how people live, believe and behave. If you are interested in Jewish history, you can also read my articles about the Jews in Marrakesh, the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and the Jewish Ghetto in Krakow.
History of Venice Jewish Ghetto
There are records of Jewish people working and traveling in Venice since the 10th century. They were living in the towns of the mainland of Veneto. Since they were not allowed to own property, they carried out their trades at the Rialto market.
In 1385, Venice was in a war against Chioggia and the republic needed money, so they asked the Jewish money lenders for loans. This job was regarded as a sin and was condemned, but Jews were considered “lost souls” and were forced to assist the needs of the poor. Jews had to pay a special tax and work in specific jobs such as pawn shops, medicine, trading textiles and lending money.
On March 29, 1516, the Doge Leonardo Loredan made a decree forcing the Jews of Venice to live in a specific area that used to be a foundry, a place to make metal casts. In Venetian dialect the word for foundry was “getto” but most of the Jews were of Germanic descend and couldn’t pronounce the Italian word. The said it with a hard “g” so it became ghetto.
During the day they could go out, but they had to wear yellow patches, later yellow berets. At night the Venice Jewish ghetto was locked and patrolled, so they could not mingle with other Venetian citizens. However, it wasn’t extremely strict and the watchmen were paid by the Jewish community.
All of this was done to please the Roman Catholic Church, which had already expelled most of the Jews from Western Europe. However, it was not necessarily a bad thing since it protected them and gave them a place to practice their faith. In the 16th century, foreign merchants in Venice were required to live in specific places. This also applied for Turkish and German merchants.
The Venice Jewish ghetto went through periods of stability and unrest. But in general, life in the area was good with culture and religious studies.
End of Segregation and Nazism
Segregation ended in 1797, when the Venetian Republic ceased to exist. Napoleon overran the city and the jews were liberated from the confinement of the Venice Jewish ghetto. But this only lasted six months, since Austrian administrators placed new restrictions on the community. In 1866, Venice became part of Italy. Most Jews continued to live in the ghetto with plenty of freedom.
In 1938, the Fascist regime issued radical laws. At the time, there were 1670 individuals “belonging to the Jewish Race” living in Venice. The Italian Social Republic declared Jewish citizens to be public enemies and many were placed in prisons or concentration camps.
On September 9, 1943, German troopes took control of Mestre and Venice. The Nazis asked Giuseppe Jona, a respected physician, to bring a list of all the Jews. He refused to give the list of the community members and took his own life instead. Because of his sacrifice, the Nazi could not locate the Jews and over 1200 people managed to escape. Of the 8,000 jews deported from Italy, at least 200 were from Venice and only eight returned.
When you visit, make sure to look out for the monument for the victims of the Holocaust in the New Ghetto Square. It was done in 1980 by the artist Arbit Blatas. If you want to learn more about the victims of the Holocaust, you should visit Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem.
Today, 500 Jews live in Venice and about 30 live in the Ghetto. For Sukkot they tour the canals of the city by boat with a sukkah, while a large menorah tours the city for Hanukkah.
Tour the Venice Jewish ghetto
Getting to the Venice Jewish ghetto is quite easy since it is located in the Cannaregio district. You can take a vaporetto to Guglie and San Marcuola or walk five minutes from the St. Lucia train station. Coming from the Madonna dell’Orto Church or its vaporetto stop, go left on the Fondamenta degli Ormesini until you see a small bridge that leads to the Campo of the New Ghetto.
While you can see most attractions on your own, it is recommended to take a guided tour to see the interior of some of the synagogues, like where they filmed the movie “The Merchant of Venice”.
Gam Gam Kosher
The Gam Gam Kosher restaurant is located on the entrance of the Venice Jewish ghetto. This restaurant opened in 1996 in front of the Cannaregio Canal. I sat on the tables outside (they also have indoor seating). Being a Jewish restaurant, they have a Kosher menu and Shabbat supper. I decided to order the hummus with meat (which was delicious!) and the fried artichokes. They also have a take away option right after you enter the ghetto which serves falafels.
There used to be a foundry on an island between the Canal of Cannaregio and the Rio deli Agudi which is called the Old Ghetto. Across there was a small, swampy island used to dump waste materials. A new foundry was built there in the 15th century, this area is known as the New Ghetto. Later both were moved and the land was sold to noble families who built houses and sunk wells.
In 1509, the Venetian Republic lost in war and the Jewish families moved to the city. People protested, but they were allowed to live. After the decree in 1519, German, Italian and some Levantine Jews had to move to the New Ghetto (which is actually the oldest). In 1541, the Levantines Jews asked for the area to be expanded and the Old Ghetto was created. Sephardic families needed more space, so in 1633 the Ghetto Nuovissimo was created.
When you go to the Venice Jewish ghetto you will notice that buildings are taller than the rest. This was due to the fact that it was a crowded place, hat there was nowhere to build but up! Floors were added, reaching up to six stories (this can’t be seen anywhere else in Venice) or ceilings were lowered. By 1630 there were 5,000 people living in the Venice Jewish ghetto. However, the plague that year killed a third of the population in Venice.
The ghetto was a center of trade for the Jewish and Christian residents. It also had a theatre, an academy of music, literary salons, shops, hotel, inn and hospital. There are currently two hotels in the ghetto, Locanda del Ghetto and the Kosher House Giardino dei Melograni.
After the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem (70 AD), Jews were dispersed throughout the Mediterranean and Europe. Jews in Venice came from different places, including Italy, Spain, Germany and Portugal. Which is why there are five synagogues in the area. Each synagogue had its own administration and charity organizations.
In the New Ghetto square, German Jews built their two greatest synagogues, the Great German School (1528-29) and Canton School (1531-32). Three other small synagogues were also built, Luzzatto School, Cohanim School (16th century) and the Mesullamim School (17th century). They promoted the studies as the Talmud, as well as the ritual. Yiddish was spoken in the Venice Jewish ghetto until the mid 17th century. Italian Jews lived in the New Ghetto with the German Jews and they built their synagogue, the Italian School in 1575.
Levantines were Spanish Jews that had to leave the Iberian peninsula, becoming part of the Ottoman Empire. They were placed in the Old Ghetto. Most were wealthy merchants, which used to show their status through their clothing and their synagogue, the Levantine School which was built in the middle of the 16th century. In 1680 it was expanded by famous sculptures and architects.
Spanish Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492 and some moved to more welcoming lands, including Venice. First they lived with the Levantine Jews in the Old Ghetto, but then they moved to the Ghetto Nuovissimo. They built their Spanish School synagogue in the second half of the 16th century, which was later reconstructed.
The Jewish Museum does a regular tour of five synagogues, which is included in your ticket. The Canton School and the Great German School are located within the museum. Those were the only two I could see; because of Covid restrictions they were only doing the tour on Sundays. The other three synagogues you can visit are the Italian School, Levantine School and the Spanish School. Saturday is the day of rest so no tours are done on that day.
Venice Jewish Museum
The Jewish Museum in Venice, Museo Ebraico di Venezia, is located in the Campo (plaza) of the New Ghetto. Entrance is like going to an airport, with a lot of security. This museum was founded in 1953 by the Jewish community of Venice. It has ancient books and manuscripts, as well as objects such as jewelry, chandeliers, menorah, plates and crowns. The museum narrates the story of the Venetian Jews since their arrival to the modern era.
This museum is open Monday, Thursday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and from 2 to 6:30 p.m. on Thursday. It does not open on Saturdays, because it is the day of rest.
There were three bancos: rosso (red), nero (black) and verde (green). The only one that remains is the Banco Rosso at 2912, Cannaregio. It is located in the Campo of the New Ghetto, right after the Jewish Museum. In the Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare narrates how these pawn shops used to grant loans to individuals. Jews had to pay very high taxes, which led to a slow decline of the pawnshop business.
During the war of Chioggia, between Genoa and Venice, the magistrate of Piovego granted the Jews half an hectare of uncultivated land on Lido, near the Convent of Saint Nicoló. The use of this land was confirmed in 1389 to construct a cemetery. Deceased were taken by boat passing under the bridge of Saint Pietro di Castello, but people would shout insults and throw things. So the Jewish community requested a new canal, behind the Arsenale, which was open in 1688.
To visit the Jewish Cemetery you must go to the island of Lido. Tours have to be requested to the Jewish Museum. Expect to see thick gravestones nestled between trees.