Venice, 500 Years of the Ghetto
Venice university professor Shaul Bassi stops beneath an elegant marble plaque affixed to an inner wall of the Jewish community building just off the Campo del Ghetto Nuovo, the secluded, vaguely fan-shaped main plaza of the historic Venice Ghetto.
The flowery Italian inscription extols one Giuseppe Bassi, a local rabbi who died in 1916. He was, it declares, “incomparable” as a teacher and religious leader; a man who “spent his life in works of enlightened charity, elevating the humble; educating young people to follow in his stead.”
Above the inscription, in Hebrew, appears a line from Psalm 145: “One generation shall commend your deeds to the next.”
Shaul Bassi looks up at the plaque and smiles. “He was my great-grandfather,” he says.
Venice is currently in the midst of a year of events marking the 500th anniversary of the imposition of Europe’s first official Jewish ghetto. And Bassi—who traces his Jewish ancestry here back to the 16th century—is the coordinator of the Venice Ghetto 500 anniversary committee set up by local Jewry and the city.
Dozens of concerts, conferences and other initiatives—the most publicized was a July staging of The Merchant of Venice—were officially kicked off on March 29, 500 years to the day after Venetian rulers under Doge Leonardo Loredan ordered the 700 or so Jews confined to the site of a former foundry, known as geto in Venetian dialect. Jews remained segregated there until 1797, when Napoleon’s forces broke down the gates. At its height, some 5,000 Jews lived amid the cramped alleyways and piazzas. They constructed tenements as tall as seven stories high to conserve space and built five synagogues whose jewel-like sanctuaries are hidden behind austere façades.
Despite economic and other strictures, Jews here lived rich, creative lives. Venice became a renowned center of Hebrew printing, and leading personalities such as Rabbi Leon Modena and the poet Sara Copio Sullam, both of whom died in the 1640s, were well known outside the ghetto walls.
“The story of the ghetto is the story of segregation, but also the story of an enormous quantity of cultural exchanges,” says urban historian Donatella Calabi, who curated an exhibition at the Palazzo Ducale, “Venice, the Jews and Europe 1516-2016,” which is the centerpiece of quincentennial events. “The 500th anniversary should be an occasion to reflect on history, but also to [reframe] things for the future,” she adds.
How to do that is a major challenge for today’s Venetian Jews.
The Jewish community currently numbers fewer than 450 affiliated members. Many, like Bassi, can trace their lineage here back for centuries. Few of them live in the ghetto, though the area remains the center of spiritual and institutional life. Some fear that without more active Jewish input, it could become a beautiful but empty shell, a tourist attraction without its beating heart.
“It’s a tiny community with a lot of history,” says Aldo Izzo, a retired sea captain in his 80s. As a boy, he survived the Holocaust here in hiding and now lives on the Lido, where he looks after the ancient Jewish cemetery. On Saturdays, Izzo makes a 40-minute trip by vaporetto (water bus) to attend services in the ghetto.
“In the early 1980s, when I came back to live here, the synagogue would be full,” he says. “Today, without the tourists, there wouldn’t always be a minyan.”
Activists agree that securing a living future for Jewish Venice will require reaching out to the international Jewish world as well as to the tens of thousands of tourists and visitors who make their way each year to the ghetto.
“If the community is going to survive, it needs interaction with the outside, and I think that’s true if you’re talking on a religious level or if you’re talking about cultural production and seminars and learning and art,” says Lenore Rosenberg Bahbout, the American-born wife of Scialom Bahbout, chief rabbi of Venice. “Jewish Venice is not going to survive if it remains a metaphorical ghetto.”
Until fairly recently, Venetian Jewry showed little interest in such engagement. Chabad took up the slack, with a range of activities almost entirely directed toward visitors. It opened a Chabad House and yeshiva on the ghetto square as well as a kosher restaurant, Gam Gam, that for years has welcomed tourists to Friday night dinners that in high season can spill out into the street.
Several years ago, the Jewish community took its own steps by opening an information office for tourists and other visitors. More recently, it opened the kosher restaurant Ghimel Garden, which features an upscale menu as well as services that include cultural events, Shabbat dinners, Sunday brunches and post-synagogue Kiddush gatherings that can draw more than 200 people.
“We are still alive, and we have many ideas and innovative suggestions to give meaning to our presence here,” says Scialom Bahbout, who took up his post in Venice less than two years ago, after a distinguished career in Jewish education and outreach and serving as the chief rabbi of Naples and Southern Italy.
Bahbout particularly wants to make Venice a point of reference for in-depth Jewish scholarship through a planned project he calls Maimonides, which would foster international student exchanges.
Bassi, who teaches English literature at Venice’s Ca’ Foscari University, hopes to make the city an international center for Jewish arts and culture through the activities of Beit Venezia, a Jewish cultural organization he heads.
“The idea is to bring people here to live, learn and create in Venice and, in some way, become part, even temporarily, of the Jewish community,” he says.
For Beit Venezia’s New Venice Haggadah Project, for example, Bassi brought eight artists to Venice in October 2015 for a three-week residency inspired by the richly illustrated Venice Haggadah, one of the earliest printed haggadot when it was published in 1609.
The artists, from countries including Britain, Israel and Slovakia, studied the Haggadah and interacted with local Jews. Each was assigned a portion of the Seder ritual to illustrate. An exhibit of their finished works opened at the Jewish Museum of Venice on April 17, and they will be published as a modern illustrated Haggadah next year.
“The future of Jewish Venice is what we are talking about, and it cannot in any way be independent of a lively Jewish community,” Bassi says. “Either we fully exploit the international potential of Jewish Venice, or we die out.”
The Jewish Museum of Venice could play a key role in shaping that future. Founded by local Jews in 1953, it displays precious ritual objects in cramped premises on the Ghetto Nuovo plaza. It is already the community’s most visible, and visited, institution, drawing 80,000-plus visitors a year. As part of the quincentennial, the Venetian Heritage Foundation launched a $10-million fundraising drive to revamp, enlarge and modernize the museum as well as restore the ghetto’s 16th-century synagogues, which can be visited as part of the museum tour.
A modern museum with a rich cultural program could become an important reference point for Venetian society at large, says Calabi, and “this could be a very good thing for the general survival of the Jewish community.”
The big question, says Bassi, is whether Jewish leaders and activists can capitalize on all the energy, attention and ideas brought by the anniversary events. This year of commemoration, he says, “could be the stimulus—or it could be the swan song, if we lose the momentum.”
500th ANNIVERSARY EVENTS
June 10 to November 27 Exhibition “Peggy Guggenheim in Photographs” at Ikona Gallery
June 19 to November 13 Exhibition “Venice, the Jews and Europe, 1516-2016” at the Palazzo Ducale
September 13 to 14 Conference “Jews, Venice and Europe Between the 19th and 20th Centuries” organized by the Veneto Institute of Science, Letters and Arts at Palazzo Franchetti
December 4 to 8 Conference “The Venetian Ghetto in European History and Culture” organized partly by Ca’ Foscari University and Venice Center for German Studies
December 12 to 13 Conference on “Jewish Music of the 19th Century”
Visit veniceghetto500.org for more information on events.