Venice is famed for being one of the world’s most beautiful, mystical and romantic cities- an ideal destination for vacations and cruises alike.
It stretches across a number of small islands in a lagoon by the Adriatic Sea, and has a unique, rather magical cityscape.
It’s Palaces and ancient houses, seem to be floating on water, with well-worn marble steps, which descend into lapping canals. Because of it’s position as a major sea power, it became a center of commerce and drew hoards of traders and merchants to inhabit it. During the Renaissance the city became a center of art, and being in the crossroads of the Byzantine and Roman worlds, it developed a singularly unique heritage of culture, style and architecture.
When one thinks of Venice, singing Gondoliers come to mind, stirring their boats on the city’s canals, while wide eyed tourists marvel at the beauty of the water-bound jewel of a city, yet it has a complex history.
Jews came to Venice because of persecution in their community. The ones from Germany and Central Europe formed the Ashkenazi community. The Sephardim were refugees from Spain or Portugal, and the Levantines from arrived from Constantinople.
They were money lenders to the wealthy Dogges, helped finance the ornate Palazzos, and played a vital role in the Venice’s economy.
The first Jewish Ghetto in the world, was established in Venice in 1516, it’s five perfectly intact synagogues the oldest anywhere. The word Ghetto is from the Italian Getto (foundry), and is located on an island, away from the rest of the city. Pope Paul the IV, proclaimed very strict rules, to separate the Catholics from Jews. They had to stay in the Ghetto at night after curfew, and two large gates closed off the area. The hinges of those gates are still visible.
Unfortunately, they had to carry a yellow round on the chest, or a yellow hat when they interacted with the rest of the populace.
Despite all that, Jews managed to thrive and some actually became wealthy and highly educated. They were originally only allowed to own pawnshops, but gradually opened other shops and schools which produced a large number of famous personalities, including doctors who treated royalty, Kabbalists,Talmudists, Gnostics, Alchemists, poets and politicians. They were involved in commercial and cultural exchanges with the rest of Venice. They flourished even more when Napoleon lifted the restrictions, but after Mussolini the rules returned and most of the Jewish population was sent to concentration camps.
Today there are around 500 Jews living in Venice, only few of whom live in the Ghetto.
The Jewish Museum, Musea Ebraica, has a collection of Judaica objects from finely carved silver and includes a magical visit to 3 of the 5 synagogues, some of which are said to be the finest and most beautiful in Northern Italy. The Old Jewish Cemetery is also an experience one must not miss, it’s a journey back in time, over half a millennium.