Search This Blog

Monday, 28 March 2016

Profile: 500 years of Venice's Jewish ghetto

Profile: 500 years of Venice's Jewish ghetto

A POIGNANT plea on behalf of the mostly Muslim refugees seeking safety in Europe has been made by Jews marking the 500th anniversary of the world’s first ghetto on Tuesday march 29.
The remarkable call for patience and integration comes as preparations are finalised for a series of cultural events to commemorate those who lived in the ghetto, which was created in Venice on March 29, 1516, to keep the Jews separate from the mainly Christian population.
While there is no doubt the early inhabitants suffered from the segregation, over time they became integrated into the Italian community, contributing greatly to the cultural life of the country.
Now the Jews of Venice believe their history has lessons for Europe as it shows that minorities can integrate while still preserving their identity.
“It is imperative to continue to commemorate the tragedies that occurred here but it is also important to highlight the lessons of survival, creativity and cross-cultural dialogue the ghetto experienced,” said university professor Shaul Bassi.
“Those of us who have worked on this anniversary believe the ghetto has precious ethical and cultural lessons to educate the public about Jews as well as the broader question of cross-cultural dialogue, co-operation and co-existence.
"Today, Italian Jews are proof that a minority can keep its identity and still integrate in a process of reciprocal influence," he said.
It was 500 years ago that Venetian Republic leader, Doge Leonardo Loredan, declared that if Jews wanted to live in the city then they would have to stay separately from Christians.
The authorities then assigned the polluted site of an old foundry for the “geto” which is derived from “gettare” the Italian verb “to cast”.
A cramped area, it was surrounded by canals and, as Jews from other parts of the world arrived, the people built upwards, constructing some of the world’s first “skyscrapers” which are still some of the city’s tallest buildings at eight or nine stories high.
"They had to build higher and higher and squeeze in low-ceilinged apartments. It was like a beehive," said Bassi.
Here for the next 300 years, the Jews were locked in at night and forced to pay the wages of their Christian guards. Prejudice against them was rife and when they ventured out into the wider city during the day to make their living, they had to wear yellow caps to mark them out.
They were even ordered to use Christian architects to build five synagogues which remain preserved today, plain on the outside but richly decorated within.

Despite the restrictions Jews from other parts of the world flocked to live there.
"Elsewhere in Europe Jews were treated worse, and Venice to some extent was a safe harbour," said Paolo Gnignati, leader of Venice's Jewish community. "The city wanted them to come because they needed access to Jewish trading networks; it was good business on the part of the doges.”
As Jews from Spain, France, Portugal, German and the Ottoman Empire moved in, so the cultural and religious activity flourished.
One third of all Hebrew publications over the next 150 years were Venetian and at one point Jewish poet Sarra Copia Sulam was famous for the literary salons she held in the ghetto.
“Over time Jewish and Venetian culture intermingled, proving that cultural identities are not immutable,” said Gnignati.
Interestingly, the influx of Jews from different places helped the community integrate as the differences between them meant they did not become one distinct entity separate from the Italian Christians.
"We were deprived of our rights here, but contributed to Europe's identity and we are still here," Gnignati said. "We can serve as an example to newcomers who want to participate in Europe while preserving their original identity.”

It was Napoleon who finally knocked down the gates of the ghetto when he occupied the city in 1797. Scornful of the separation, he allowed the Jews to live where they chose and many escaped the cramped conditions to live elsewhere in the city.
The ghetto remained their anchor, however, and they flocked back each week on the Sabbath to pray at their synagogues.
By the time of the Second World War the population had dropped from 5,000 Jews to just over 1,000. Of these, 250 were sent to the death camps. Only eight returned.
Now there are just 450 Jews in the whole of the city with a handful remaining in the ghetto, although the synagogues are still active places of worship.
To remind the rest of the world of the area’s historic importance, a programme of events has been drawn up for the coming year which even includes the first performance in the ghetto of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, featuring Shylock, the odious money-lending Jew.
"Shylock is the most famous Venetian Jew and we cannot pretend he doesn't exist," explained Bassi.
The commemorations open tomorrow night (tues) with a performance of Mahler’s first symphony at La Fenice opera house and there is also a major exhibition at the Ducal Palace called Venice, the Jews and Europe from June to November.
“The ghetto provided an incredible occasion for cultural exchange and the exhibit will focus on that exchange within the ghetto itself, between the ghetto and the city, and with the rest of Europe,” said Professor Donatella Calabi, who curated the exhibition.
It is also hoped to expand the Jewish Museum of Venice to include treasures hidden from the Nazis that were recently found in the ghetto under a synagogue staircase.
"The concept of the ghetto was born here in Venice," said Bassi. "And that is why we must never forget this place."

No comments:

Post a Comment