Have you ever had an out-of-body experience? Like you are a spectator in a moment of your life? Recently I felt like I was watching myself do something that I couldn’t have possibly orchestrated, thankfully I was aware enough to take notice.
On a chilly night last winter, I arrived in Venice just after all of the public transport to the city had ceased for the night. It was past midnight, it was raining, and my knowledge of Italian is limited to ordering food – you know – pizza, calzone, gelato…
I should have been scared, worried or even slightly concerned that I had no idea how I was making it to Venice itself that evening – instead, I was totally relaxed. I figured what’s the worst that can happen? I’m stuck in the airport all night and I can practice my Italian.
As luck, or destiny, would have it, I found a cab who was willing to drive me to the Venice train station – which is as close as a car can get to a city built on a lagoon. And so, my adventure began.
As I stepped out of the cab, disappointingly it was still dark and it was still raining; I took it in my stride. Pulling my wheelie case behind me, armed with Waze, a knowledge of how to order Italian food and the lack of any survival skills, I ventured out into the dark. Walking through an unknown city with my case banging up against my ankles every time it jumped one of the uneven cobblestones, I felt invincible in a very surreal kind of way. Let me explain:
As someone who has lived in a fair share of major world cities, I’m really not used to a city that sleeps at night, and some of the mysteries and some of the romance of Venice started becoming clearer as I walked – hopefully in the right direction – through the dark and shuttered city of narrow roads, multiple bridges and steps, dark corners, darker alleys and at no point did I think that this had the potential to be the opening scene of a horror movie. Instead I focused on what it would have been like to be a Jew walking these same streets 500 years ago.
In real life, walking through a foreign city with no clear idea of where I was going in the cold, wet dark, I would know that this was a bad idea. But the mystery of the city had already captivated me. Rather than walking the streets frightened, I could picture my ancient Jewish forbearer, who would have, if they could find a way to escape their gaolers, walked these streets in the freedom offered by the anonymity of a rainy cold night, and I was transported.
Jews are first mentioned in the records of Venice as far back as 945 CE. The city grew in importance becoming one of the most vital trading and mercantile ports of the Middle Ages. With the success of the city, the Jewish community grew, taking on the role of traders and bankers. Venice was liberal in its approach to Jews in a very Middle Ages kind of way. It is only as the Church wielded more power and issued more decrees against the Jews that things become increasingly worse for the Jewish community of Venice. In 1394, the Venetian Republic imposes an identification mark of the Jews of the city, all Jews were required to wear a yellow circle on their cloaks, later changed to a yellow hat and eventually a red hat.
On 29th March 1516, seven hundred Jews of German and Italian descent were forced to move to the island of Ghetto Nuovo. Located in the Northwest of the city, it was peripheral and unsanitary, near the prisons and where the Church buried its executed prisoners.
The previous inhabitants of the island were forced out and the Jews pushed in with rents being raised by a third. The two bridges leading on to the island were fitted with gates, the Jews were forced to pay for the security guards who locked them in at night and patrolled the canals around the Ghetto. Over time, more and more groups of Jews were forced into the Ghetto - making a small space hugely overcrowded. At its height, the Ghetto housed some 5,000 people in a space of 7,000 square metres – that’s smaller than the average football pitch, added to that 3,000 square metres were fields.
The Jews of the Ghetto built the first skyscrapers of Europe, with buildings as high as nine stories. The lack of space required ingenuity, they utilised every free space from alleys to balconies, making the streets even narrower than they already were. Yet the generosity of the community was well known that even with this severe lack of space, no one ever went without a roof over their heads.
As soon as the Ghetto gates were opened, it quickly became a commercial centre with hundreds of Christians streaming in each day. The Jews were as much of the fabric of society as their Christian neighbours.
With the discovery of America and its many resources, by the 17th century the prosperity and the importance of Venice as a commercial capital started to decline as trade moved from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. As the population of Venice dwindled so did the Jewish community. By 1931 there were only 1,814 Jews in the community.
During World War II, 205 Jews were deported to Auschwitz. Today, the Jewish community of Venice numbers about 400.
My night time solitary walk was not repeated as even from early in the morning, the streets were packed, even though this was the low season. The city is such an anomaly in our modern age without a car, bicycle or scooter in sight. With enough imagination you can picture yourself in another time and, aside from the spectacular views of iconic sights, I think this is one of the major draws to the city – that timelessness.
Yet for a Jew there is that extra dimension. I feel it every time I travel somewhere in Europe where Jews have been victimised or persecuted and often much worse. My people lived and died here, but were they ever of this place? What is the Jewish legacy to Venice? Is it its 400 Jews that run the shuls that have been around since the 16th century? The kosher restaurants? The mikvah? Is it an infamous and yet strangely now celebrated Ghetto? Or are we more enmeshed in the Venetian culture then most of us are aware of?
As I walk the streets, this time in the sun and no longer out-of-body but very much present with people everywhere and not a drop of rain in sight, I’m charmed by the street vendors and their perfect preparation of magnificently pale and purple artichokes as they swim, beautifully prepared, in acidulated water just waiting for customers to take them home. And I know the Jewish influence is long lasting. Foods such as artichokes, fennel and aubergine as late as the mid-1880s are considered the ‘vile food of the Jews’ and yet today they are an integral part of Italian and more specifically Venetian cuisine.
A visit to Venice is a combination of romance, mystery and, for Jews, there is that added element of history, tragedy and triumph.