When Shakespeare wrote the ‘Merchant Of Venice,’ depicting a rich covetous Venetian Jewish merchant, he must have dreamt up the character in his mind, because the history of the Jewish people in Venice, is gloomy, filled with inhumane conditions, poverty, restrictions and death.
In fact, right here in picturesque Venice, the very first ghetto in Europe was created, well before the rise of Nazism in the 1900’s.
The rain drops gently knocked on my window as I woke up this morning.
The weather forecast called for a rainy day until 3pm.
You really cannot walk with an umbrella in the narrow streets of Venice.
Some of the streets barely fit two people side by side, with very little room for much else.
We decided to see the Jewish ghetto area of Venice, located in the neighborhood of Cannaregio.
A long stroll along a lovely canal, take you to a small courtyard with old water wells, which was the Jewish ghetto.
Today, there are only a few building left, a few old synagogs, some bakeries selling delicious kosher pastries, a restaurant or two and a museum documenting the history of the Jewish people who lived in Venice for over a thousand years.
The Venetian Ghetto started as early as March 29, 1516, when the Republic of Venice and the leaders of the Catholic church, found it necessary to enact a decree to “organize” the presence of the Jews in Venice.
The Venice Republic decided that all the Jews have to live in ONE area of the city where the foundries were located.
The name Ghetto, actually originated from a mispronouncing of the word “Geto” or “Geti'” which is an Italian word for ‘Foundry’.
The foundries land that was allocated to the Jews, was very small, and in order to fit so many families in that small area, the Jewish people had to build apartment buildings with VERY low ceilings, barely allowing one person to stand straight, so they could fit more floors in that crowded area.
There were other rules for the Jews, like a requirement to wear a sign of identification, mainly a yellow hat, and to manage the city’s pawnshops at rates established by the Serenissima. (Serenissima was Venice’s previous name)
In fact…. This is how the the stereotype of the Jew, as a money lender started.
The Jews were disallowed and pushed out of every other profession (except medicine,) and were REQUIRED to run the money lending pawn shops, owned by the republic.
Many other onerous regulations were also included, but inside the ghetto, the Jewish community was granted the freedom to practice its faith and was offered protection, in the case of war.
The first Jews to comply with the decree were the Ashkenazim from Germany and mid-eastern Europe.
The ghetto was closed during the night, and the boats of the Christian guards scoured the surrounding canals to prevent any movement in our out if the ghetto, during the night.
This is how Europe’s first ghetto was born.
Later, all other Jews from all over Venice, moved into the ghetto.
There were the Levitan Jews, who came from Spain and are now called the Sephardic Jews, and the Italian Jews, who lived in Italy for over a thousand years.
Each spoke different languages and had different favorite foods and synagogs.
Napoleon conquered Venice/ Serenissima republic in 1797.
Napoleon Bonaparte decreed the end of the Jewish segregation and established the equalization of the Jews to all other citizens.
This provision became definitive when Venice was annexed to the Italian Kingdom.
With the rise of Fascism and the spread of Nazism, the Jews living in Venice, were deported to the death camps.
In November 1943, Jews were declared ‘enemy aliens’ in accordance with the manifesto of the Italian Social Republic, to be arrested and all their property seized.
Although some Jews managed to escape to neutral Switzerland or Allied-occupied southern Italy, the rest were rounded up, and sent to the concentration camp.
With a heavy hearts, we left the museum which had a lovely collection of old Jewish ceremonial items, and hand woven fabrics, and we went to a local bakery, to taste some delicious Jewish- Italian pastries.
A few streets away from the Jewish ghetto, somebody painted on the walls a large mural of Jesus with his eyes so full of tears…
I found it to be a very symbolic thing… The man who taught us to LOVE one another…..and to treat one another as brothers and sisters…….and I stood in front of the mural admitting that I find it hard to digest that so much hatred can exist in the hearts of people…..when in truth……we are all ONE……
I do not believe that death is real.
I believe that life is ETERNAL, and that we only IMAGINE ourselves as dying, only to be “reborn” into yet another incarnation of yet another dream-life…. Until….
Until we wake up from the big dream and realize who we truly are….
Until we realize our unity with all there is…. With one another and with all…
So…. based on my belief, it was not the cruelty of death that I saw in the Jewish history in Venice, but the idea that one human is lesser than another…
It pained me to think that people believed that one life,…. one human is more worthy than another….
We are all children of the Divine, equally entitled to a life filled with joy, spirit, self realization, comfort, love and joy.