Sunday, July 27, 2008

Dispatch from the Ghetto

The word "ghetto," Venetian dialect for "slag" (the name of the area was Campo Ghetto or "slag-land," for the foundries that had been there previously) was first used to refer to the settlement allotted for the Jews of Venice in 1516, on a tiny island separated from the rest of the city by canals. Famously, the bridges over the canals were barred every night and during certain Christian festivals, until the gates were removed during the Napoleonic occupation of 1797. It remains a tiny neighborhood surrounding a single main piazza and a network of streets narrow even by Venetian standards:


A few traces of the medieval neighborhood are still visible, like this wellhead:


(I couldn't help wondering where the water to fill these wells came from, but clearly there must be some way of accessing the water table without saltwater contamination.)

The Ghetto is still an active Jewish neighborhood with five synagogues catering to Jews of different regional extractions (Portuguese Sephardim, German Ashkenazim, etc.). One of the synagogues houses a tiny museum; there is a gift shop nearby selling Jewish-themed Venetian glass (HAND BLOWN BY MY SISTER, the shopkeeper's homemade shelf-labels read) and with a hilarious blown-glass chess set in the front window: white-clad Ashkenazim in yarmulkes opposite black-hatted and black-clad Sephardim. There is a bakery and a few other Judaica shops, and the inevitable shopfront outpost for Chabad.

I visited the bakery and brought back a few local specialties for himself, who had spent all day in his conference. This allowed me to deliver a line that I do not expect to be able to deliver again: "Honey, I brought you some Jewish cookies from the ghetto."

The doorways of the houses in the Ghetto tell the story of years of Jewish life, and of the interruptions of the twentieth century:


Notice the stone doorframe, gouged out at the top where a mezuzah was once mounted. Yet another doorway nearby was inscribed with the opening words of the Ashrei:


"Blessed are they that dwell in Thy house; they will be always praising Thee."

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