The Venitian Ghetto
In Search of an Authentic Jewish Space
Excerpted from “Jewish Europe Today. Between Memory and Everyday Life” edited by Marcelo Dimentstein and Ewa Tartakowsky. Copyright © 2020 by Austeria Publishing House. Reprinted by permission. (see book introduction post here.)
By Antonella Di Trani
The Venitian Ghetto between realities and what we expect to see
During my field investigation1 in the Venitian Ghetto, visitors often asked me how to get to the old enclave. When I told them that they were already in it, and that they were on the main avenue of the Ghetto Vecchio, they replied: “But I don’t see anything! What I want to see is Venice’s Jewish Ghetto, the real ghetto, the old and authentic part.”
The terminological variations called forth by the visitor, his indecision in the manner of naming this place, refers to the image that he had of the Ghetto,2 the gap existing between the way he expects to see it and the social and material realities displayed in front of him.
What I call “the tourist’s illusion,” the outside gaze alighting upon this place, questions the modes through which the Ghetto is seen in the present and in the Venetian urban fabric. The old enclave manifests itself ambiguously or at the very least discreetly, inasmuch as the reading of its space is not immediately apparent. The very term of ghetto,3 which crosses various temporal, discursive, and geographical contexts,4 participates in the construction of the representations attached to it. Furthermore, the perception that actors have of the place and its ancient historical limits remains quite blurry. In these discordant touristic situations, the word ghetto does not only summon the toponomy in its objective dimension but also all the contexts of its enunciation, creating a referential and semantic meshing.
In the end, which ghetto did the visitor mean? The “authentic ghetto” and its “old part” refer to the 1516 coercive space whose traces need to be searched out.
For the visitor quoted above and many others, it is again the notion of authenticity that is associated with the Venitian Ghetto, when they suppose the existence of a “real ghetto.” According to such visitors, the latter would include three original criteria, which in reality have transformed over time and become latent, relatively manifest yet invisible. The first criterium is of a residential order: the visitors expect to see a ghetto with a strong local Jewish presence, a body of visible practices around synagogues, and finally an important number of kosher stores. In the end, it is as if this “first world Ghetto” with the Jewish community’s long historical anchoring to the place should not suffer the slightest form of invisibility or any absence of tangible elements clearly associated with it.
The confrontation with the reality of the Venitian Ghetto thus obliges visitors to engage in a semantic shifting of their field of reference, to readjust between the projections of the Ghetto as an imagined object and its tangible dimension. Visitors also think they will find an old ghetto from the Second World War, or a “Jewish district” resulting from a voluntary grouping. Yet the Venitian Ghetto is neither. Indeed, in the first case the presence of commemorative monuments within the Ghetto, particularly the wall topped by barbed wire and dedicated to the Shoah victims, entertains the idea that there existed such a district in this space. In the second case, the very formulation of this “Jewish district” evacuates a historical component intrinsic to the Venitian Ghetto: its original coercive dimension.
The Ghetto was born in 1516, at a time when the Senate of the Venice Republic had decided to institute a place of forced residence for the lagoon city’s Jews. It lasted until 1797.5 Since then, the composition of its population as well as the ties between the city and the old enclave, have ceaselessly evolved.
More recently, the notion of authenticity has not only been found in visitors’ expectations but also in the discourses of different Jewish actors associated with the Ghetto’s revaluation and revitalization, particularly in their will to redefine it and transform it.
Similarly, the word’s etymology, referring to the Venitian Ghetto’s primacy in the story of urban enclaves, only has meaning because its actors have reactivated the Ghetto’s past with regard to today’s present.
This article demonstrates how different actors appropriate the space discursively or materially by making contrasting or dissonant use of it and the Ghetto’s past in order to claim their belonging.
Reconsidering the ancient enclave: social changes and appropriation modes of the Ghetto’s public space: a conflict of visibility
Until the 1980s, the Ghetto, situated in the northern part of the city, held no particular interest to the Venice municipality and for the local Jewish community this place was not yet a place of political or social stakes. City policies were above all careful to value the commercial and touristic spaces around the Rialto and San Marco to the detriment of the city’s periphery.
This did not necessarily mean that the Venitian Ghetto had been abandoned or was in material decay. The limits of non-intervention on the city’s part remained hazy. However, the inhabitants who knew the Ghetto at this time – including a still important number of local Jews – remember a “neglected” Ghetto, whose buildings were “left behind.” Time, combined with a relatively passive urban policy, noticeably contributed to this slow structural degradation of buildings, particularly its facades, perceptible elements in the public space that contributed to an unattractive image of this part of the city.
After 1980, when a law was passed on cultural goods favoring city-wide development, the Jewish community of Venice progressively devitalized. Diverse reasons help explain this community shrinkage: mixed marriages, departures of inhabitants abroad and to the land in Mestre, Venice’s closest city.
It is necessary to note however that the departure of Venetian inhabitants towards dry land is not specific to the Ghetto but is common to the whole city. However, in the context of the ancient enclave, this movement participates in the difficulty of clearly redefining the Ghetto as an emblematic space for the Jewish community, all the more when it faces social reorganization.
Indeed, starting in the 1990s, a new Jewish Hassidic community coming from the United States established itself in the Venitian Ghetto. This event marks a rupture with the Ghetto of “before” in the sense that it brings to the foreground a question about the usage of the Ghetto in the present, and the relationships between “established” Jews and “newly arrived” Jews in the same place. The question of conflicting Ghetto membership had never arisen before. The arrival of the young Loubavitch missionaries obliged local Jews to rethink their genealogical link to the Ghetto and to question the meaning they attribute to this space, all in the light of the new image that the Loubavitch were contributing via their modes of appropriation, their visible, fervent religious practices, and their daily presence in the public space.
Because of the significant difference linked to the two communities’ conditions and mode of implantation in the Ghetto, which entail very diverse temporalities and historical moments, these two groups do not entertain the same relationship to the space, either in the present or to its dense historical past. Whereas the presence of local Jews in the institutionalized enclave dates back to 1516, the Loubavitch’s recent installation in the Ghetto means that they did not contribute to its social construction over time. The chronological thread constitutive of social relations proper to the Ghetto prior to this resulted jointly from the secular implantation of Venetian Jews in this place and the arrival of Christian inhabitants who settled there after 1797.
The change in the demography has the particularity of leading to an active proselytizing. For the Loubavitch, the Ghetto represents an open field, a privileged place to implement an efficient missionary agenda. Its vocation is to bring back non-practicing Jews to the group’s orthodoxy. The missionary work is simultaneously aimed at an outside public, the Jewish visitors – even if the Christians are sometimes invited to join them in a kosher restaurant during Jewish religious feasts – and a local and physically close public, the Venetian Jews. If the Loubavitch manage to draw the former group’s attention, approaches towards the latter remain fruitless. One of the group’s first motivations is to settle in cities where the Jewish presence is old and declining, as the Danish example of Copenhagen shows us, which has been meticulously catalogued in Andrew Buckser’s anthropological works.6
The Hassidic community establishes itself in the manner A. Buckser has documented in all the biggest cities of the world, but especially in those that, like Venice, have great potential and touristic appeal.7
Even if these two Jewish communities share a common desire to revitalize or revalue the Ghetto, the modes of appropriation of the place, of the public space as well as the discourses mobilized to reach that goal, vary considerably from one to the other.
The Venitian Ghetto is inhabited predominately by Christians. Only about 30 people out of the 380 who still belong to the local Jewish community still live in the Ghetto. The Venetian Jews are thus socially and numerically under-represented in this place. Most of them live in the city of Venice or in Mestre on dry land. The feeling of belonging that the latter have to the Ghetto is not defined by their residential implantation in the place but by the continuous reactivation and affirmation of their genealogical link to this space.
For most of the Venetian Jews, the Ghetto is not a place to live but a place where one returns. This practice supposes a crossing, which renews the old historical boundaries by way of a walking exercise: from the Ghetto to the city, and from the city to the Ghetto. These limits emerge from their latent state and reinforce their meaning inside the city when these same actors speak about going not “to” the Ghetto but “inside” the Ghetto. Indeed, the latter gathers together a certain number of institutions and community places: the rabbi’s community office, the “social center,” the Jewish Museum, the library and places of worship: thus people go there for various practical reasons, according to a religious temporality and calendar, and to a sociability associated with Jewish life. The Jewish stores are more intended for tourists.
Apart from the recurrent daily and individual wandering of the 30 Jewish inhabitants of the Ghetto, other Jewish community members return there variably, inscribing their presence in the Ghetto’s public space intermittently. The modes of solemn and collective appropriations of the public space are part of these discontinuous and punctual usages, which emerge during community life. It is the case of an old practice locally called the “last trip of the deceased,” which takes place when a Venetian Jewish community member dies.
During this trip, attended by the deceased’s family and friends, the coffin is placed in a metallic wagon and is brought forward by the rabbi through the Ghetto according to a preestablished route. The “trip” stops in front of each of the five Ghetto synagogues; the rabbi then recites a fragment of text. At the end of the tour, the corpse is brought to the Jewish cemetery on Lido Island. The custom of this trip is of uncertain origin. Some community members say that they have attended it since the 1970s. This usage of the public space, through a collective procession – which resembles both an homage and a funeral – shows the persistence of the link between the Venetian Jews and the Ghetto as a material space but also as a common historical and social place of belonging.
The solemnity of this practice can also be read through the simultaneous absence and withdrawal of other journeys in the public space, guided visits to the museum, pedestrian routes of visitors and inhabitants in the campo Ghetto Nuovo and in the Ghetto’s central alley. The Christian shopkeepers stand at the entrances of their shops and studios that line the square. This discreet and intermediate position between the merchant space and the public space enables them to pay a last homage to the known deceased when the wagon goes by, without intruding upon the event. The young missionaries are invisible and do not participate in the procession; they are inside their office, the yeshiva or the kosher restaurant.
It is the same when the local Jewish community commemorates the victims of round-ups that took place in the Ghetto during the Second World War. This gathering happens each year in the public space, at the foot of a monument on the campo Ghetto Nuovo. Like during the “last trip of the deceased” described above, the other walks are suspended or momentarily erase themselves, restarting as soon as the event ends.
If the modes of appropriation of the Ghetto’s space are thus varied, these two collective practices enable local community members to mark their belonging to the Ghetto and to allow their visibility to persist within the public space.
These practices also highlight the divisions and limits that exist between different sets of actors who have an interest in the same “emblematic” place. By not attending these solemn events, even indirectly, the Hassidic newcomers claim a position of exteriority in relation to a shared narrative, common to the established Jewish community. This similar position of estranged-ness is reinforced by their non-implication in commemorative gatherings, and thus, in episodes that built the Ghetto’s local history.
While they evoke and value the “first Ghetto of the world” as an object, out of time and frozen in history, they reject or distance themselves between certain aspects of the past to anchor themselves to the Ghetto’s present.
Indeed, the presence of young Hassidic Jews in the public space is particularly strong. This is linked to the modes of expression of their religious fervor, voluntarily visible and audible in the public space through songs and dances. Their visibility is maintained daily by their routes in the Ghetto’s public space. These trajectories bind together their three community sites situated at what is subjectively and locally perceived as the Ghetto’s entrance, middle and exit.
These routes oblige them to sweep across a large part of the place’s public space. Moreover, missionary activity demands that they be very present in the Ghetto’s largest square, always attended by visitors because of the presence of the museum, commemorative monuments, and souvenirs shops. The local Jews worry about the misunderstanding that this marked presence generates. Their fear of being mixed up with the Loubavitch is a way to claim their belonging to the Ghetto, thus turning it into a space of power where competition thrives and distinct relationships are drawn around who will better represent Jewishness in this historical place.
A member of the Jewish local community claimed during an interview:
When the visitors arrive in the Ghetto, they think that the Ghetto Jews are them [Lubovich], because they are the first ones to be seen in the public space, but we are the Ghetto Jews! We have been here since 1516!8
The claim of a genealogical link to the place with regards to a tourist’s first impressions is accompanied discursively by distinction between true and false. Another Venetian and Jewish community member said: “We don’t have the same practices as the newcomers and we don’t need to display ourselves.”9
We understand through these claims the stakes and paradoxes tied around a community’s visibility within the Ghetto’s public space.
If the Loubavitch establish a very strong Jewish presence in the Ghetto by way of their residency and thus contribute to revitalizing it, it is not the same for the local Jewish community, for whom it is out of the question to move back to the Ghetto. A Venetian Jewish presence predicated on physical residence would thus seem to constitute the central element of an “authentically experienced” Ghetto with all its Venetian Jewish singularities, also much desired by the community itself. We then question the possibility of this “new Ghetto’s” emergence, and the conditions of its construction.
In the context of the Ghetto, must Venetian Jewishness be present through the practices of living there or through representation? The Ghetto’s patrimonial resources and their management by the Venetian Jewish community are strongly implicated in this question and in that of the modes of appropriating elements of its materiality.
Because of their genealogical link to the place, and their presence in Venice, the Venetian Jews were able to open a museum in 1953, and to build up the permanent collection over time through the donations of ritual objects by local families. More recently, a project of museum enlargement was implemented under the auspices of revitalizing the Ghetto. Venetian Jews’ privileged position, linked to their historical anchoring to the Ghetto, enables them to collaborate with the city with the aim of revaluating patrimonial resources. And this, for instance, by legitimately inserting themselves in the public preservation of synagogues dating back to the enclave. Two of them are still currently used, but alternately according to the seasons. The practices linked to these two synagogues, which are constantly threatened by time, are diverse and dissonant. They are simultaneously places of worship, of revaluation, and of tourist attractions. These usages of the synagogues waver between local religious life and the necessity to open them to the public and thus to save them for time.
These places of worship are not attended by the young Hassidic missionaries, whose relationship to the Ghetto’s materiality runs opposite to the Venetian Jewish community’s logics of perennial intervention. Their physical implantation in the Ghetto amounts to an investment in three ground floors, allowing for easier interactions with visitors and enables them to have more immediate access to the public space. Their synagogue is fitted out in one of these ground floors. As newcomers and because they have no hold on the Ghetto’s patrimonial resources, the place of worship (which is at the same time a yeshiva) is fitted out in a sober, transitory manner. It seems to be more a temporary appropriation of the place.
Some of the Ghetto’s inhabitants are very critical of “heritagization” projects and the resources that they can offer. Having participated in the social construction and thus idea one has of the Ghetto’s authenticity, these inhabitants – whether Jewish or Christian – fear that the Ghetto will be given over to a passing public and to visitors.
Among the members of the local Jewish community, a tension exists between the project of heritagization and the will to transform the Ghetto into “something alive.” Moreover, can this ghetto be revalued through heritage even as Jewish practices remain limited?
With regard to these aspects, the Venice case not only allows us to re-evaluate the notion of Ghetto – a place of power and competition between established inhabitants and newcomers, a place of contrasted appropriations – but also to re-evaluate the relationship between nostalgia and renewal, to question the difficulty of reimagining an old enclave as it becomes a Ghetto in-the-making.
BUCKSER Andrew, “Chabad in Copenhagen: Fundamentalism and Modernity in Jewish Denmark,” Ethnology, 2005, Vol. 44, No. 2, p. 125–145.
_____, “Modern Identities and the Creation of History: Stories of Rescue among the Jews of Denmark,” Anthropological Quarterly, 1999, Vol. 72, No. 1, p. 1–17.
CALABI Donatella, “Il Ghetto e la citta,” in: Ennio Concina, Ugo Camerino and Donatella Calabi (eds), La città degli ebrei: il Ghetto di Venezia, architettura e urbanistica, Venezia, Albrizzi, 1991, p. 201–291.
GREEN Nancy L., “Le quartier ethnique en formation et transformation: histoires, historiographies,” in: François Pouillon (ed.), Lucette Valensi à l’oeuvre: Une histoire anthropologique de l’Islam méditerranéen, Paris, Bouchène, 2002, p. 175–193.
1 My very last fieldwork in Italy, in Venice and in the Ghetto took place in 2012. The whole fieldwork lasted 19 months.
2 The word Ghetto starts here with a capital letter because it is considered a proper noun in the Venetian context, a toponym, contrary to the other examples of ghettos that will start with a lowercase letter. Originally the term comes from the Venetian word geto, which means foundry. There is no idea of segregation or coercion in its etymology.
3 See the above-mentioned footnote.
4 Nancy L. Green, “Le quartier ethnique en formation et transformation: histoires, historiographies,” in: François Pouillon (ed.), Lucette Valensi à l’oeuvre: Une histoire anthropologique de l’Islam méditerranéen, Paris, Bouchène, 2002, p. 175–193.
5 Donatella Calabi, “Il Ghetto e la citta,” in: Ennio Concina, Ugo Camerino and Donatella Calabi (eds), La città degli ebrei: il Ghetto di Venezia, architettura e urbanistica, Venezia, Albrizzi, 1991, p. 201–291.
6 Andrew Buckser, “Chabad in Copenhagen: Fundamentalism and Modernity in Jewish Denmark,” Ethnology, 2005, Vol. 44, No. 2, p. 125–145.
7 Andrew Buckser, “Modern Identities and the Creation of History: Stories of Rescue among the Jews of Denmark,” Anthropological Quarterly, 1999, Vol. 72, No. 1, p. 1–17.
8 This interview took place in the Venice Ghetto during fieldwork in 2004.
9 This sentence has been taken from an interview the same year.