Venice is generally considered to be the most romantic city on earth. It is where people fly to declare love, propose marriage, or spend their honeymoon. But if you arrive in the height of the tourist season, the crowds can turn your dream into a nightmare and make you wish you had stayed home.
However, away from the main drag you can still find plenty of quiet alleys to wander, where you can lose track of time. Surprisingly, one of Venice’s best-kept secrets, which still maintains its quiet and charm, is the old Jewish quarter. The Ghetto of Venice was the first in the world, instituted in 1516 by the Venetian republic as a means of isolating and controlling its Jewish inhabitants. However, while Jews were harshly persecuted in the rest of Europe, Venice was a safe haven where they were able to practice their faith openly.
The first groups of Jews to settle in Venice were Ashkenazi Jews. The Ashkenazim were later joined by Italian Jews arriving from Rome and the South, and by Jews on the run from the Turks. After the expulsion in 1492, Spanish and Portuguese Jews also arrived (including the famous Don Isaac Abarbanel). By the 16th century the ghetto of Venice was a crossroads of peoples and cultures, and an international center of Jewish printing.
The Jewish ghetto in Venice included a theater, an academy of music and literary salons, and the fame of grammarian Elia Levita, Rabbis Leon Modena and Simone Luzzatto, and the poetess Sara Copio Sullam reached far beyond its gates. As the Jewish population increased, there was nowhere for them to expand, so they built vertical additions on top of existing buildings to form “tower houses.” These were unusually tall buildings for Venice with very low ceilings. They were called the ghetto “skyscrapers.” against this extraordinarily varied and cosmopolitan background, a unique cuisine also evolved. Jewish immigrants from Turkey and Sicily introduced different rice dishes, the use of spices such as saffron, and the combination of pine nuts and raisins in savory recipes. Spanish and Portuguese Jews brought baccala’ (salt cod), frittata, and marzipan pastries. Besides goose, which became a staple (roasted, cured, or as a fat for cooking), the Ashkenazim brought gefilte fish and bread dumplings. The fusion of these different cuisines produced such brilliant results that the two ‘signature’ dishes of general Venetian cuisine, Fish in Saor and Bigoli in Salsa, both boast Jewish origins. Ravaged by the Great Plague, starting in 1630, and bled dry by its wars against the Turks, Venice started its slow decline in power starting from the second half of the 17th century. As many Jews emigrated in search of fortune, the community began to shrink.
The demolition of the ghetto gates by the troops of Napoleon in 1797 marked the end of segregation. Jews even played an important role in the fight for the Italian unification that followed, which culminated with the annex of the Veneto (one of the twenty regions of Italy in which Venice belonged) to the new Kingdom of Italy in 1866. After this date, the destiny of the Jews of Venice was joined to that of communities throughout the country. Unfortunately, tragic events were to befall the country with the Racial Laws, the German occupation, and deportations.
Aafter the end of WWII the community counted 1050 people; while the ghetto shrank even further in numbers (450 members), the efforts made to reconstruct what had been destroyed have given it such energy and vitality that the ghetto often became the center for the cultural life of the entire city. Every year, for example, there is an international conference on Jewish Studies. Exhibitions and seminars are also held regularly in the ghetto. The 16th century synagogues are still home to orthodox services on Shabbat and the weekdays.
Meanwhile, Torah, Talmud classes, and courses in Modern Hebrew, are organized for both children and adults. The facilities include a kindergarten, a nursing home, a kosher bed and breakfast (“Giardino dei Melograni”), and a kosher bakery, along with a Museum of Jewish Art and the renowned Renato Maestro Library and Archive. However, the rich and diverse history of this community is also reflected in everyday things: around each holiday, the little dark streets that lead to Campo del Ghetto, where someone still almost expects to run into ancient merchants and rabbis, fill with the fragrance of freshly baked pastries made with the same recipe that was used a hundred years ago.
When Hanukkah comes delicate fritters filled with pine nuts and raisins – some are also made with pumpkin or rice – fry in the bubbly olive oil, while the flickering light of the menorah casts its shadows on the water on the canal, reminding us in a familiar way of our unique past.
As seen in Joy of Kosher with Jamie Geller Magazine (Bitayavon Winter 2011) - Subscribe Now