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Inside the Jewish ghettos of Venice and Rome

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The interior of the Great Synagogue in Rome. Bev Bergman photo

Until recently, I had no idea that the first Jewish ghetto was established in Venice 500 years ago, on March 29, 1516.

As my two daughters and I were about to visit Italy for two weeks, we decided to see how the Venice Ghetto was marking its 500th anniversary. Since we were also travelling to Rome, we figured we would visit the Rome Ghetto, which was established in 1555.

The Campo del Ghetto Nuovo, the heart of Venice’s new Jewish ghetto, is a pretty square where we found kosher bakeries and restaurants and the Jewish Museum.

The tour of the museum was wonderful and expansive. We saw beautiful religious artifacts that belonged to the families who lived there for centuries. The seder plates, Shabbat candelabras and sifrei Torah were exquisite. Here, we also learned of the hardships of the ghetto’s inhabitants. Every night the gates were locked and the walls were watched by guards paid for by the community. Hundreds of people were forced to live in cramped quarters in unsanitary conditions.

Despite this harsh treatment, the ghetto flourished. It was a melting pot of Jews from Italy, Spain, Germany and North Africa. By law, they were only allowed to build one synagogue, so they cleverly subdivided the one building’s interior into three separate sanctuaries for three distinctively different congregations. There were two more synagogues in the ghetto, hidden within ordinary-looking buildings.

In 1797, Napoleon’s soldiers destroyed the gates to the ghetto and thus put an end to the restrictions that the Jews had to live by.

The Levitan Synagogue in Venice.
The Levitan Synagogue in Venice.

We were able to visit the three sanctuaries that are now housed in the Jewish Museum of Venice. My favourite was the Levitan Synagogue. The exquisite décor was decorated with Venetian gold leaf, which was the style of the time, much like in the cathedrals. This particular shul is the oldest in the ghetto and is active only one day a year,  surprisingly to our way of thinking, on Simchat Torah.

Jews remained in the ghetto for many years; however, today only two families still live within it, while approximately 450 Jews live in the city of Venice. Lubavitchers operate a kosher food store, a yeshiva and a Chabad synagogue.

Next door to the museum is David’s Shop, owned and operated by David Curiel, his mother and his sister. The Curiel family were one of the first to move to the ghetto in 1516, and they have lived there ever since. They even have their own family crest. David’s  specializes in Judaica made of Murano glass. His sister hand-paints many of the beautiful pieces that are shipped all over the world. Of course, my daughters and I had to purchase a few stunning items, which we will cherish.

As we were leaving the ghetto, we noticed two intriguing sets of green doors beside each other, and by reading the plaques on the wall, we learned that the door on the left led to the Luzzatto Synagogue, which is now used only in the winter, while the door on the right was for the Comunita Rabinico di Venezia Synagogue, only used in the summer. Now, you don’t see that every day!

The Roman Ghetto was established following a decree by Pope Paul IV, who  feared anything not Catholic, including Judaism. The Jews, who had existed as a community in Rome  since before Christian times and who were respected by Romans for their abilities as physicians and businessmen, were forcibly moved into cramped conditions behind guarded walls in the worst part of the city. They lived that way for over 300 years until, as in Venice, Napoleon occupied Rome and the ghetto walls came down.

People at a cafe in the Rome Ghetto.
People at a cafe in the Rome Ghetto.

Walking through the lively streets of the Rome Ghetto today, you are constantly reminded of the plight of the Roman Jews during the Holocaust. There are many small, brass plaques laid in the cobblestoned roads, each of which gives the name of a person, date of birth, the concentration camp where he or she was taken and the date of his or her death. The wartime ghetto was evacuated on Oct. 16, 1943. Just a handful of people returned after the war.

But the Rome Ghetto lives on. There are very few Jews living in the area, but the shops and the kosher restaurants do a brisk business. On our first evening visiting the ghetto, we ate dinner at La Taverna Del Ghetto, where we enjoyed a fabulous grilled meat platter, along with a bottle of Merlot from the Gamla Winery in the Galilee. A happy, energetic group celebrating a 25th wedding anniversary took up a large space in the restaurant, and the atmosphere was bristling with cheerful conversation and wishes of mazel tov.

The Jewish Museum of Rome told the story of the community from its beginnings up to and including the Holocaust.

The magnificent Great Synagogue was rebuilt in 1904 and is the grandest and most elaborate shul I’ve ever experienced. The building is so beautiful that the Nazis used it as one of their headquarters, thus saving it from being destroyed during World War II.

Lunch at the kosher Fonzie, the Burger Hut was a noisy but delicious experience. The casual restaurant was filled with Jewish kids who had been let out of school early for Shabbat. School bags were piled high and the rambunctious noise of pre- and post-bar/bat mitzvah boys and girls was deafening. But the burgers were incredible – and it was reassuring to see so many Jewish youngsters thriving in the ghetto of today.

That evening we attended Shabbat services at the Great Synagogue, where we heard a uniquely Roman dialect. We learned that, unlike most of the world’s Jewish people, Roman Jews are neither Sephardi nor Ashkenazi. Italy’s Jews came directly from the Holy Land before the exile of the Jews to the Diaspora – they were brought to Rome as slaves to build the Coliseum. When you listen to their chanting (nussach), you feel as if you are in a cathedral. The siddur is different as well. The all-male choir is hidden from view during the services, which makes you wonder where the singing is coming from. The congregants were Romans as well as tourists from all over. Shabbat services in the Great Synagogue of Rome were a moving experience for us.

In the end, our visits to both ghettos taught us a great deal that we hadn’t known before. We became aware of Jewish life steeped in hundreds of years of devotion and struggle. We were introduced to places that were controlled by evil and a desire to humiliate and destroy the people who lived within those walls. These two ghettos are evidence of that history. The spirits of the people who lived there remain – they never gave up. We are now witnesses to their very existence. And we are still here and thriving.