The Venice Ghetto – A Historic Place Thrives
The Venice Ghetto is a place where, even today, one can still sense the city’s turbulent history as a link between cultures of Orient and Occident. It forms an authentic and harmonious oasis in the midst of the tourist hustle and bustle. You are invited to join me on a tour through this very particular neighborhood, which I will try to describe to you here …
Human beings are in general herd animals and this applies to mass tourists in particular. At least in Venice, this phenomenon undoubtedly has some advantages.
If you follow the throngs of tourists from the train station or Piazzale Roma you soon notice that they unstoppably meander toward the once elegant Strada Nuova and further on to the Rialto Bridge and to Saint Mark’s Square. Within a short time I have enough of the clamor and, especially in the summer, of seeing exposed body parts, which, for my taste, should better have been mercifully covered. But salvation arrives at the Ponte delle Guglie. If you courageously turn left after the bridge and follow the Canale di Canareggio for about 50 meters, you can see on your right the passage to the ancient Jewish Ghetto. This entrance is rather unimpressive and not so easy to find; the first few times I passed it in a hurry, still inflected by the turmoil, which I had just managed to escape.
At last, however, the smart and persistent visitor gets their reward … and can take a deep breath! Even after much more than thirty visits to Venice, where I have almost always found my way to the Ghetto, this quarter has not lost any of its charm for me - quite the opposite.
The small kosher tradition bakery „Giovanni Volpe“, on the left just after the passageway, is widely known to the Venetians. I especially enjoy the almond biscuits, with a golden brown crust and a juicy core tasting of the finest quality marzipan … Mmmmmmmh … I usually also take a small package with me to Nuremberg, even if it means that an additional bag has to be transferred to the boat and then to the car. Surprisingly, the shop´s owner and baker of these delicacies, is not even Jewish, he is Christian. However, the specific Kashrut purity criteria are optimally compatible with his philosophy of quality: a classic win-win situation. Apropos: This reminds me of the kosher bakery Kaedtler at Prenzlauer Berg in Berlin; the constellation is similar and, I buy their tasty bakery products whenever I am on the Spree.
I keep on strolling and converse with the cat that is lounging lazily on the stone cover of one of the old cisterns that an attentive observer can still find everywhere in the city. Small galleries present colorful scenes from historic Jewish life in their windows, painted in decorative-naive style. Souvenirs, made of Murano glass and decorated with the Star of David or a Menorah, can be acquired in the narrow shops. I, however, am drawn to the central square, the Campo di Gheto Nuovo. On my way I pass kosher and non-kosher cafés and grocery stores, the information center of the Jewish Community and a picture of the Lubavitch Rebbe, which causes me to smile because it reminds me of Jerusalem.
Upon arriving at the Campo, I take a seat in one of the wicker chairs and order an Aperol Spritz. The owner of the small restaurant is a Lebanese Muslim and feels at home in the neighborhood. Here Venice, as a link between cultures, is brought to life. Lazily I watch the scenery: A toddler is playing with the water in the fountain and splatters some at the meddlesome pigeons. A young woman is resting under a shady tree, on a bench in front of the Jewish Senior Citizen Home. A young man, sitting at the next table, is receiving guitar lessons and improvises together with his teacher … they are top notch and I am grateful for this free concert.
Only the pavilion to the left serves as a sharp reminder that this idyllic spot is not undisturbed: Italian policemen secure, as is necessary everywhere in the world, the site and the Jewish institutions located there.
And suddenly I see this place in its historic context once again: The tall residential buildings, unusual for Venice, which today form such a photogenic architectural framework, spring from a bitter necessity. Jews were forced to settle in the small compound of a former metal foundry here (“getho” in the Venetian idiom). And as a spatial extension was not possible, they had to build upwards. Several synagogues are also hidden behind the windows here, as the inhabitants came from different regions of Europe, and different traditions and liturgies had to be taken into account. The small Jewish museum, which is also to be found at the Campo, is absolutely worth a visit and usually some of the four worship sites are included in the tour. Discrimination, injustice and worse - how does this exclusion fit into a city in which merchants from all corners of the then known world were bustling and attending to their business? Visitors can learn more about the 500 year long history of the Ghetto during the guided tour.
And today? Now and then I can see men crossing the square, who can easily be identified as religious Jews by their black and white garments, their covered heads and the fringes of their prayer shawls partly visible under their shirts. An office of the worldwide orthodox organization Chabad is located here. All this feels strangely familiar to me, being non-Jewish but having an adopted home in Jerusalem, especially when one of the bearded gentlemen starts to mutter Hebrew words into his smartphone.
Meanwhile, the guitar student from the next table has packed his instrument and moves on. I likewise pay for my aperitive and leave the Ghetto via one of the bridges that some hundred years ago were closed at dusk because Jews were not allowed to leave the Ghetto after nightfall. Directly at the next Fondamenta named "Misericordia", there exists a lively scene of small bars and restaurants, which especially offer authentic food to the locals. Delicious homemade pasta and fresh fish, served by the chef herself to my table in a small greenly planted courtyard. But ssshhhhhhh! This of course remains a secret between us individualists and friends of Venice, who still take time to make small discoveries.