Jewish settlements in the Veneto were found even in ancient times. Archaeological remains and documentation confirms the presence of Jews in Aquileia, Grado and Concordia since the 4th and 5th centuries.
Jews from the transalpine countries and the East were the first to settle there, but after 1492 many Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal also arrived. Small communities were created in the mainland near Padua, Treviso, Bassano, and Conegliano. From there, Jews began to move to Venice.
From the 14th century, many restrictions were placed on the Venetian Jewish community. They were allowed to live in the city for 15 years only and their occupations were limited to money-lending and second-hand trading and later to doctors and musicians.
In 1516, it was decreed that all Jews were to live in an area named the Ghetto Nuovo (New Ghetto).
This was essentially a small island in the parish of San Girolamo in the district of Cannaregio, linked to the rest of the city by two bridges. Originally the site of foundries, the term ghetto is most probably derived from the word gettari: to throw-away (relating to industrial waste). The word was brought into the English language and subsequently became associated with any segregated community throughout the world.
The community was subject to many restrictions, including a dusk to dawn curfew, maintained by gates and watchmen on the entrances to the Ghetto. They could move about freely during the day however, they were severely taxed and still barred from many professions. Forced to wear distinctive clothing; men wore a yellow circle stitched on the left shoulder of their cloaks or jackets, while women wore a yellow scarf. Later on, the men’s circle became a yellow beret and still later a red one.
The first Jews to settle in the Ghetto were the Central European (Germanic) Ashkenazim. Because of the overcrowding many tall buildings of up to 6-7 stories were constructed. They built two Synagogues, the Scuola Grande Tedesca in 1528-29 and the Scuola Canton in 1531-32. They are on the top floors of adjacent buildings, above the Jewish museum and from the outside are not easily distinguishable from the apartments around them. Space was limited and according to Jewish law, it is forbidden to have anything between the Synagogue and the sky; hence their strange attic location.
Next came the Levantine Jews, who practiced the Sepharadic rite. The Levant in its widest sense included all of the eastern Mediterranean with its islands. In 1541, they were granted their own neighbourhood – the rather confusingly named the Ghetto Vecchio (Old Ghetto); an extension of the Venetian Ghetto. They were wealthy enough to build a Synagogue (Scuola Levantina) on the ground, rather than in cramped top floor apartments. Started in the second half of the 16th century, this scuola was restored at the end of the next century by Andrea Brustolon (1662-1732). It still functions today as a synagogue.
The Spanish Synagogue (Scuola Spagnola), also is one of the two functioning synagogues in the Venetian Ghetto. It was founded by Jews expelled from the Iberian peninsula in the 1490s who reached Venice, usually via Amsterdam, Livorno or Ferrara, in the 1550s. The four-story yellow stone building was constructed in 1580 and was restored in 1635. It is a clandestine synagogue, which was tolerated on the condition that it be concealed within a building that gives no appearance being a house of worship form the exterior, although the interior is elaborately decorated.
Mixed in with the poorer Ashkenazim were Italian Jews who had migrated north to Venice from central and southern Italy. In 1575, they built their own Synagogue on top of some apartments in the same square as the German Scuole. The Scuola Italiana has a cupola, barely visible from the square outside, and a portico with columns marking its entrance. Inside, there’s another exquisitely carved wooden ark of the covenant, housing the Torah.
The population living in the Ghetto, never assimilated to form a distinct “Venetian Jewish” ethnicity.
In 1552, Venice had a population of 160,000 people, including around 900 Jews, who were mostly merchants. In the 17th century there were over 4000 Jews living in both parts of the Ghetto.
The market at the Campo del Ghetto was the “pawnshop of Venice” – an international attraction, selling treasures from the many great houses of Venice that had befallen bankruptcy or death.
After the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797, Napoleon lifted all restrictions on Jewish Venetians. They gained citizenship in 1866. Before World War II there were still about 1,300 Jews in the Ghetto, but 289 were deported by the Nazis and only seven returned. In 1943, over 200 Jews were deported and died in death camps and very few returned.
PRESENT: Today, the Ghetto is still a center of Jewish life in the city. The Jewish community of Venice of around 500 people is culturally active, although only a few members live in the Ghetto. However, many still return daily to the Ghetto for prayer and other social purposes. Two synagogues are still in use (the other three are only used for guided tours, offered by the Jewish Community Museum).
Every year, there is an international conference on Hebrew Studies, with particular reference to the history and culture of the Veneto. Other conferences, exhibitions and seminars are held throughout the course of the year.
The functioning synagogues not only serve as places of worship, but also provide lessons on the sacred texts and the Talmud for both children and adults, along with courses in Modern Hebrew; while other social facilities include a kindergarten, an old people’s home, the kosher guest house “Giardino dei Melograni”, the kosher restaurant “Hostaria del Ghetto” and a bakery. Along with its architectural and artistic monuments, the community also boasts a Museum of Jewish Art, the Renato Maestro Library and Archive and the new Information Point, inside the Midrash Leon da Modena.
In the Ghetto area there is also a yeshiva (a Jewish educational institution that focuses on the study of traditional religious texts, primarily the Talmud and the Torah), several Judaica shops (Jewish Ceremonial art), and a Chabad synagogue (important world-wide Orthodox Jewish Hasidic movement), run by the Chabad of Venice.
Chabad of Venice also runs a pastry shop and a restaurant named “Gam Gam” in the Ghetto. Sabbath meals are served at the restaurant’s outdoor tables along the Cannaregio Canal with views of the Guglie Bridge near the Grand Canal. In the novel Much Ado About Jesse Kaplan, the restaurant is the site of a historical mystery. Every year for the festival of Sukkot (Festival of the Tabernacles) a sukkah (a hut or temporary wilderness shelter), is built on a canal boat that tours the city. During Hanukkah (Festival of Lights), a large menorah (large seven lamp ancient Hebrew lampstand, made of gold), tours the city on a canal boat.
The Venetian Jewish Community is committed to maintain its traditions and artistic legacy, share its history and culture, and fight prejudice and anti-Semitism.