In the Venetian Jewish Ghetto

It was after dinner and we were walking on the main drag of Cannaregio, going against the tide of people flooding inwards into Venice. While they were heading in, perhaps for dinner or a drink or a hotel or home, we were on our way out, to the train station to catch a night train to Rome. The train was set to depart close to midnight. It was 8pm and still light. My mother and sister decided to stay in the station. I decided to head out alone. To a place I’d never walked to, despite three visits to Venice already. I decided to visit the Jewish Ghetto. While I knew roughly where it was, I still was not sure how to get there. So I decided to follow this guy:

I’m no expert but from (What else? Ha!) the movies I’d seen, I guessed the guy was an Orthodox Jew. He was in black pants, short black jacket and was pulling a suitcase with a traditional wide-brimmed black hat hanging behind. He looked the part so I guessed he must be headed in to the Jewish Ghetto. So on impulse I just trailed him and we turned in here:

Which I must confess left me feeling a wee bit apprehensive. It was a long alley going I-don’t-know-where and I couldn’t be sure if I was being led on a wild goose chase or down the rabbithole (whichever analogy you prefer).

Thankfully it was the right one. Suddenly I no longer felt I was in Venice. Hebrew signs were everywhere. Restaurant names and menus posted outside were in Hebrew. Inside bathed in warm light, families were dining and many men were dressed the same way as the guy I followed. I guess I’ve come to the right place.

To seal the deal, the buildings suddenly became sky-scrapers of 7 or 8 stories high instead of the typical Venetian buildings I’d seen over the last couple of days. I remember reading that the population of Jews in the Ghetto had increased so dramatically, they had no choice but to build upwards and even then, these apartments were really warrens of closet-sized spaces housing thousands of Jews. Over-crowding and disease was rampant and many had to take turns even to sleep. Here there were no fancy wrought-iron balconies with flowers, it was all functional and indifferent.

Seeing it reminded me of the early no-frills HDB flats Singapore had built to house its exploding population in the 60s just after independence. Even then, I think the 1-room and 2-room flats were probably more generously-sized than what the Venetian Jews had to put up with.

This area is the world’s first Ghetto – the word first originating from a reference to a foundry which was nearby. But the connotations associated with it have grown darker over time, blackened by the discriminatory treatment dished out to the Jews, not only be Venetians but many others. Here in Venice, the Jews were crammed into what was a tiny island space, curtailed by tall walls and drawbridges. There used to be two gates and bridges that allowed access to the Ghetto. The drawbridges were destroyed by Napoleon when he took over Venice, liberating the Ghetto. In the picture below you can see the wooden sides of the portal and what remained of one of the drawbridges:

Gheto Novo means New Ghetto. In reality though the ‘New’ section is actually older than the ‘Old’ Ghetto or the Ghetto Vecchio.

It was evening and few people were around. I attracted a few curious looks from some. The piazza was the typical Italian open space, with drinking fountains and a well. But unlike typical piazzas, it had this:

And beneath the tall brick wall and barb wire was this:

It is hard to describe what I felt walking through this place. Is my imagination coloured by history or is the place as shabby and rundown as I thought it was? And if so, why? I wish I had more time to explore. I read that about 500 people still live here today. From the posters I saw, the shopfronts I passed, life seems very culturally vibrant. There were artist galleries and an interesting museum, restaurants and a visitor centre I’d love to visit had I more time. There was also the interesting synagogue which unfortunately was closed at the time:

And outside windows, flapping in the wind were these:

I was intrigued by the place, the history, and curious about the people, then and now. But it was getting late and I had a train to catch. I left the Jewish Ghetto backlit by a brilliant orange sunset, my curiosity piqued and yet barely scratching the surface of what I had seen.

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