Though the walls of the Venetian Ghetto have not been standing since 1797—when Napoleon tore them down and ended the ghetto’s separation from the city—a Jewish presence is still strongly felt there, 500 years since its formulation.

Established by Doge Leonardo Loredan on March 29, 1516, the Ghetto of Venice—where Jews were compelled to live under the Venetian Republic—was one of the world’s first places where people were forcibly segregated because of their religion. In fact, the English word “ghetto” is derived from the Jewish Ghetto in Venice, originating from the Venetian word ghèto and the Italian word ghetto.

To mark this five-century anniversary, the Oxford Chabad Society in England is hosting a seminar in Jewish studies titled, “500 Years of the Jewish Ghetto in Venice” on Sunday, Nov. 20, at the Slager Jewish Student Centre in Oxford.

“Jewish life of the Venice Ghetto had and has a very profound impact on Jewish life up until today, in the positive and negative,” says Rabbi Eli Brackman, director of the Oxford Chabad Society. “The freedom and protection that Venice offered the Jews in the 16th century when other countries, such as Spain in 1492, were expelling Jews led to a vibrancy of Jewish life and scholarship that was unique in Europe. It is reflected by the publishing of many Hebrew works at that time, many of which are at the heart of Jewish learning today.

“In the negative,” he explains, “the establishment of the first ghetto had a lasting impact and laid the model in certain ways to the tragic events of the 20th century. The history is a profound story and continues to be of great interest and inspiration to people and scholarship worldwide.”

Dr. Naftali Loewenthal of University College London will speak at the seminar.
Dr. Naftali Loewenthal of University College London will speak at the seminar.

Chassidism in Italy

Sunday’s program is set to include University of Manchester fellow Dr. Stefania Silvestri, speaking on the ghetto’s history, culture and women’s lives there; Brackman presenting on Simone Luzzatto and Jewish legal disputes in the ghetto; Pauline Malkiel, librarian of the Valmadonna Library, speaking about Hebrew publishing in the ghetto; Dr. Naftali Loewenthal, lecturer from University College London, comparing the spiritual paths of Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato and Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi; and Dr. Israel Sandman, expert on medieval Jewish philosophy at University College London, speaking about Jewish intellectual life in medieval Italy before the ghettos with a focus on manuscripts.

Of special interest for the Chabad Centre will be Loewenthal’s presentation, which focuses on the interplay of Chassidism and Jews in Renaissance Italy.

Chassidut cannot be seen in isolation from the Jewish historic events of the 16th and 17th century in other parts of Europe,” affirms Brackman.

Though the 500th anniversary is not something to celebrate but to commemorate, Oxford Chabad’s day of learning is set to enhance participants’ understanding and appreciation of the Venetian Jewish community.

Despite the fact that the city is home to between 450 and 500 Jews today—down from the 5,000 residents at its height in the 17th century—it remains culturally and spiritually active. The community boasts five synagogues and a thriving Chabad House, situated within the ghetto. Chabad runs a yeshivah, restaurant and tourist center, and hosts weekly Shabbat meals, offers kosher take-out food, and provides a wealth of educational information for residents and tourists alike.

The information center of the Jewish community of Venice in the ghetto. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
The information center of the Jewish community of Venice in the ghetto. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)