The Importance of the Venice Ghetto for Modern Jewish Studies

The Venice Ghetto serves as the starting point from which to address questions of modern Jewish spaces — for it is a turning point in Jewish and western history. It is a site that has stereotyped and simultaneously helped the Jews to articulate a multicultural communal identity: once sequestered in the Ghetto at its founding in 1516 the Jews had to negotiate their new identity as they took on modern and paradoxical roles in Jewish and European culture.

“In the city without being of it”

The establishment of the Venice Ghetto brought Jews into the modern city while isolating them on one of its islands, and thereby imprinting them with the experience of exile. In order to permit Jews to live within the city (unlike the Spanish who converted, killed, and/or expelled the Jews in 1492) the Venetian government created a sequestered habitat, a city within a city, allowing Jews significant autonomy under surveillance. Now the Jews could be in the city without being of it. The difficulties of exile came along with the creation of the iconic Venice Ghetto as a Jewish address: this new tension defined the modern urban landscape.[1: Sennett, Flesh and Stone]

Thus the urban Jewish experience comes to embody a series of paradoxes. The Venetians included the Jews in the commerce of the city as the Ghetto gates were open for business throughout the day, but the water-gates — the doors to the canals — were walled up, barring access to the primary Venetian mode of communication at night. The ability to lend money (think Shylock), with strictly regulated interest rates, made Jews central to the success of the city’s economic activity.

Despite this crucial function in trade, the Jews were excluded from participating directly in many aspects of the city. They could not join the Guilds; the Jews could build synagogues as long as they did not open to the street. They could bake bread for their own use (including Challah, the Sabbath and Holiday loaves), but were forbidden to sell bread to Christians. Not satisfied with simply limiting mobility, the Ghetto’s exterior windows were walled up in order to prevent Jews, whose gaze was thought to be polluting, from looking upon their Christian neighbors.[2: Katz, “The Ghetto and the Gaze…”] And the Jews had to negotiate the right to residence in Venice just about every five years, for which privilege they had to make an ever larger “contribution” to the government: thus they lived in a regulated state of “inclusive exclusion.”

These conditions and contradictions imposed by the Venice Ghetto, were replicated and intensified in the ghettos established across Italy and Europe and lasted to the end of the nineteenth century — the era of Emancipation — when these Ghettos were abolished and urban renewal erased their traces in most cities.

Jews & the Modern City

The contradictions of Ghetto life still define the relationship of Jews to the modern city and the paradoxical situation of the Venice Ghetto still characterizes central aspects of the modern Jewish urban experience: inclusive/exclusive, inside/outside, valued/disdained, controlled/autonomous.

Long after urban renewal at the turn of the twentieth century pulled down the Ghetto gates, its psychological and sociological impact persists. Even in the most obviously unfettered Jewish communities, in countries with broad guarantees of religious and civic protection, the relationship between Jews and the modern city is still marked by the dynamic tension inherent in the contradictions of this modern exilic situation.

Much modern Jewish writing includes an implied history of Jewish urban life. In such accounts — wonderful tales each in its own right — the historic ghetto experience hovers in the psyches of characters and narrators, reinforced by the constraints of the Ghetto and the shtetl and their histories of oppression and pogroms. These stories tell us what it is to be modern: they reveal the lure of assimilation as well as the fierce loyalty of Jews who refuse to abandon traditional habits, even as they devise new ways of living.

No wonder the modern city has not become a melting pot. As Jews question whether exile is still the Jewish condition — whether the modern city has become a diasporic Jewish homeland, or if and to what extent the founding of the Jewish State in 1948 has indeed changed Jewish history — urban Jewish writing maps the contradictions, paradoxical histories, and possibilities of modernity. [3]

Expanding notions of “the Ghetto” in Jewish culture

The Ghetto has been both historic place and symbolic location in Jewish History.

Israel Zangwill extended the significance of the word, calling the Ghetto “the law” of Jewish immigrant life in London in 1892, bringing the term to refer from pre-Emancipation Venice to the more general situation of modern Jewish life.[4: Zangwill, Children of the Ghetto]

As both place and symbol, the Ghetto took on a new life at the end of the nineteenth century, leading, for example, to its use by Abraham Cahan in 1896 in “Yekl, a Tale of the New York Ghetto,” and by Hutchins Hapgood to explore Jewish life on the lower east side in his 1908 The Spirit of the Ghetto. In American cities, “ghetto” began to refer to crowded ethnic communities, and, later, under the Nazis to sites of “attritional extermination” which they established.[5] Today the word has negative and positive connotations, both worth considering.

Ghetto as Liminal Space

From a spatial perspective, Jewish history, presents a paradox: on the one hand, the confinement of the ghetto, and on the other, the dispersion of the diaspora. And then many kinds of in-between — liminal spaces — that have been improvised since Jews built their first synagogues in the ancient world. That tendency to improvise creatively, to make a virtue of necessity, is one of the great themes of Jewish history, nowhere more evident at the dawn of modernity than the Venice Ghetto.

As in the Venice Ghetto, the constricting experience of sequestration has been tensed against the expansive possibilities of the metropolis. In his 1896 collection, Israel Zangwill underlines how the ghetto experience leads individuals to imagine alternative possibilities; he calls them “dreamers” of the Ghetto.[6] His dialectical prose reminds us that the Venice Ghetto was a paradigmatic moment in Jewish and Western history with implications that unfolded over the next century, leading to Zionism, Bundism, and an imagined New York City where, in the words of Lenny Bruce, everyone in the metropolis is Jewish. It is a phrase that points to the Jewish love affair with the city.

As my father used to say, die Stadtluft macht Frei — the city air makes you free, as it offers the luftmensch of the shtetl the opportunities of the metropolis.

The meanings of the Venice Ghetto thus hover over our conversation, as we focus on the relationship of liminal spaces and Jewish identity in many contemporary and historic situations and writings. Our discussions begin from an understanding of how contemporary globalization brings into focus the relationship between identity and spatial location, and highlights new and cross-cutting transnational allegiances.


The Liminal Spaces and Jewish Imagination conference (February 18, 19 2015) honors the achievement and memory of two of the founding members of Jewish Studies at UC Santa Cruz, — Joseph H. Silverman, who was Professor of Spanish Literature and Provost of Stevenson College, and Dr Mishael M. Caspi, a fellow of Merrill College, who taught Hebrew language and Biblical literature from a comparative perspective. Their work brought us to an understanding of the manifold ways that Jews imagined and developed responses to the many liminal spaces, which they have inhabited.

I also want to take this opportunity to thank Ted Goldstein and Jessica Bernhardt, the Helen Diller Family Endowment, the Institute for Humanities Research, the Humanities Division, and the Literature Department for facilitating our gathering as well as the conference that preceded it in Jerusalem at the Van Leer Institute on “Modern Jewish Spaces in the Light of the Venice Ghetto.” I also want to thank the Budapest Jewish Museum for permission to use one of the photographs of the Venice Ghetto by Erno Munkacsi.


  1. Richard Sennett, “Fear of Touching: The Jewish Ghetto in Renaissance Venice,” Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilization, (New York: Norton, 1994) 212–251.
  2. Dana Katz, “The Ghetto and the Gaze in Early Modern Venice,” Judaism and Christian Art: Aesthetic Anxieties from the Catacombs to Colonialism, edited by Herbert L. Kessler and David Nirenberg, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011) 233.
  3. For more, see Murray Baumgarten and Lee David Jaffee, “Encountering the Jewish Street,” The Jewish Street: The city in Modern Jewish Writing, An Anthology, edited by Murray Baumgarten and Lee David Jaffee, (Charleston, SC: Create Space, 2013).
  4. Israel Zangwill, Children of the Ghetto: a Study of a Peculiar People, (New York: Macmillan and co., 1896).
  5. I owe this phrase to Peter Kenez.
  6. For more about Zangwill and the Ghetto see a special volume of Partial Answers, Volume 13, Issue 1, January 2015.