Ghetto Nuevo of Venice
In Venice I crossed over a small bridge to enter Ghetto Nuevo, situated on an island in the heart of the city, with four main entrances. This was the first Jewish ghetto in the world, established in 1516. For three centuries the four gates were closed during the night. That all changed in 1797 when Napoleon burned down these gates and gave the inhabitants freedom to move about day and night.
The revitalized main square today is surrounded by medieval tower houses. The unusual tall buildings found here were divided into floors of sub-standard height, demonstrating how the density of the population had increased over the years. Several old synagogues became apparent to me as I listened to an English-speaking tour guide who pointed them out to her tour group.
In the large open square, two Orthodox Jewish men were in animated conversation. A young man wearing a “kippah” on his head was seated next to a wall working on his computer. A sign on one door asked tourists to dress modestly. The small museum in the square was full of precious Jewish artifacts which had been donated by former residents. The community boasts their own “water stop” for water taxis called “Ghetto Nuevo” Over 500 Jews now live in Venice.
The Ghetto of Padova
About 22 miles west of Venice is the charming, old city of Padova with over 700 years of Jewish history. Towards the middle of the fourteenth century scores of Jews from other parts of Italy established themselves in Padova as money-lenders.
Padova’s Jewish ghetto with its narrow, winding streets and graceful arched porticoes, was established in the early 1600’s. An important family who lived here were silk entrepreneurs. Today it is filled with small, upscale shops and cafes on the lower level of the tower houses and is teaming with university students. The maximum population of Jews in the ghetto reached 1200. Today about 180 are living here.
The Jewish museum was located in an old German synagogue. It had been torched by Fascists during WWII. They blamed the Jews for supporting the Americans who were making their way up from southern Italy. It has since been restored.
The woman who was manning the museum, Henrietta, told me of her Jewish history as she showed me around the museum and the ornate 16th century Italian synagogue across the street. Her Jewish Mother wanted to marry a Christian man but at the time it was forbidden. Her Mother lied about her heritage so the church would marry them. Henrietta, brought up as a non-Jew, decided she would never “be a Jew” until her Mother passed. She is now passionate about her Jewish heritage.
Visiting the ghettos and Jewish areas of Italy’s cities along with their corresponding museums is a fascinating window into European and world history.
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