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Daniel Tesfamikael

March 29th 1516 – March 29th 2016: 500 years of the Ghetto in Venice

The Jewish community of Venice prepares to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the foundation of the Ghetto established by the Republic of Venice. On March 29th 1516 the Senate of Venice, to control the Jewish merchants concentrating them in a specific area, approves the proposal of the patrician Zaccaria Dolfin to gather them all in one area of the city called Ghetto, an island that until 1390 were placed some foundries.

The Ghetto

A date that has affected the Jewish history because not only it marked a moment of segregation, but at the same time it has created the world which over the centuries has become synonymous with closure and discrimination: “Ghetto”.
The Ghetto was and is still one of Judaism beating hearts, a place of meeting and exchange, the microcosm and the macrocosm of people from all over the Mediterranean basin, from Spain, Portugal, from the world of the Levant, such as Greece and Turkey, from the north, Germany and Central Europe.

The synagogues

The presence of Jews in Venice, the center of trade between East and West, goes back, according to tradition, to the beginning of the XIst century. In the Ghetto Nuovo, which over time becomes more and more overcrowded, they were built houses up also the 8 floors.
During this period, in the Ghetto, the Jews built the most beautiful synagogue complex in the world: 5 synagogues that, according to the authorities imposition, don’t have to be recognized externally, and so the splendor is found inside, making them real gems. Being also educational centers, the synagogues are called Scola Tedesca (1529), Scola Canton (1531), Scola Levantina (1538), Scola Italiana (1575), Scola Spagnola (1580). The various “scole” maintain their own liturgical traditions and in fact, in the Jewish world, there are different rituals that can be local, regional, national and supranational.

Today the liturgical function is guaranteed by two synagogues (Scola Levantina and Scola Ponentina or Spagnola). The others are museums or they open for special events.

The gates

With the end of the Venetian Republic (May 12 1797) and the advent of the Provisional Municipality, which received the abdication of the Doge Ludovico Manin (1789-1797), the five gates of the Ghetto (3 to close the Gheto Vechio and Novo, 2 of the Gheto Novissimo) were dismantled and the Jews start to have the same status as other citizens. That provision, shelved during the Austrian domination (1798-1806), the French one (1806-1814) and again the last two Austrians (1814-1848 and 1849-1866), becomes definitive with the beginning of the Italian domination (22 October 1866).

From “The Merchant of Venice” by William Shakespeare:
Act 3, Scene 1 Shylock says:
“…. He’s insulted me and cost me half a million ducats. He’s laughed at my losses, made fun of my earnings, humiliated my race, thwarted my deals, turned my friends against me, riled up my enemies—and why? Because I’m a Jew. Doesn’t a Jew have eyes? Doesn’t a Jew have hands, bodily organs, a human shape, five senses, feelings, and passions? Doesn’t a Jew eat the same food, get hurt with the same weapons, get sick with the same diseases, get healed by the same medicine, and warm up in summer and cool off in winter just like a Christian? If you prick us with a pin, don’t we bleed? If you tickle us, don’t we laugh? If you poison us, don’t we die? And if you treat us badly, won’t we try to get revenge? If we’re like you in everything else, we’ll resemble you in that respect….”

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