Synagogues and Social Classes: Life in the Jewish ghetto of Venice

As the promised follow up to my last post “Antisemitism 400 Years Before Hitler“, here is part three of the mini-series on Jewish life in 16th century Venice, Italy. The amazing and disturbing web of persecution in the history of this people group only spins larger and more complex the further back you go in time. For the purpose of this series, we’ll stop at the 15th century with the incredible impetus that brought the Jews to Venice in the first place. Can you guess what it was?

Casa di Riposo Israeletico "Israelite Guest House"

Casa Israelitica di Riposo "Israelite Guest House" in Campo del Ghetto Nuovo "Square of the New Ghetto". Click to enlarge the image.

History repeats itself indeed. One easily loses count of the times the Jews were tossed about by waves of antisemitism. In 1492, the Spanish king Ferdinand the Catholic issued a decree which drove all Jews out of Spain, forcing them to emigrate to Venice. Hence the influx of Sephardic Jews (from Spain) in the ghetto. The smaller group was Ashkenazic, (Jews from Germany) who were actually the first to settle in Venice. Although they shared the same space and the same faith, they were not viewed or treated the same by all. Distinctions in social classes soon created separation between them. The differences due to the influences of the cultures they had previously inhabited brought factions to their worship services as well.

They chose to worship separately, and this birthed the need for a second synagogue to house the Sephardic clan. Because of their lucrative connections to traders in Spain, the Sephardics received special privileges from the state that afforded them a much larger construction for their synagogue with more elaborate decor and architecture, in addition to other perks in the community. This becomes very evident as you tour and compare them. As they say, money makes the world go around. Eventually another three synagogues were built, making a total of five. These served as schools during the week where Rabbis taught the children at the Schola Canton and the Levantine.

Memorial built by Greece for the Holocaust

Memorial for the Holocaust victims. Jews were gathered in this area to be exported to concentration camps. Click to enlarge the image.

Our favorite memory from the tour of the Ashkenazic synagogue was when our ascetic friend read the Hebrew words spanning across the top of the bema, under which the Torah would be read. “Never before have I seen such beautiful wording in our synagogues” she blurted. We asked what it was. “Remember whom you stand before” she answered. And then with her eyes as wide as an excited child, she added, “That’s God!”

Just below the same arch hangs a little light, called “The Eternal Flame”. It represents the flame constantly tended to by the priests in the early tabernacle built under Moses’ leadership.

Starting with only 700, the Jewish community grew to approximately 5,000 in one century, with many forced to run pawn shops and work in the open market. Today it is estimated that there are only 1,200 left. The Jewish ghetto of Venice is reported to be the first in the world and its synagogues are among the oldest in existence. In addition, there is a Rabbinic school where many from America attend to study the Talmud.

Well friends, that concludes my mini-series about the Jewish Ghetto of Venice, Italy. I hope you have enjoyed reading these posts as much as I have enjoyed writing them. Sometime in the future I’ll be sure to post more on these and other related subjects. Keep checking in at uThinkology.


2 responses to “Synagogues and Social Classes: Life in the Jewish ghetto of Venice

  1. Such a colorful description of the Jewish ghetto in Venice, Mark. “Remember whom you stand before” and the eternal flame. The fact that their population exploded in just one century. Now I want to go there and see what you and Renata saw!

    Interesting how we know 1492 as the year in which the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus “discovered” the new world but not as the year in which his Catholic patrons, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, expelled the Jews from Spain. Do you happen to know why the Sephardic Jews chose (or were forced) to go to Venice, in particular, rather than somewhere else?

  2. Tracey, I haven’t dug up those specifics about whether the Jews from Spain chose or were obligated to go to Venice specifically. What we do know is Venice accepted them, but then isolated them. Although we see segregation as a form of oppression, it may well be what God used to help grow that community so quickly, in one century!

    **One update I do have is that there were apparently other synagogues built in the course of time, up to nine total, but only five remain standing today. I have no details about dates or locations etc. Perhaps in a future post on the ghetto I’ll pull that info in.

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