Five hundred years ago, the ghetto was born
The Venetian ghetto was a quincentennial ago this year, when 6,000 Jews were given 48 hours to move bed and barrel to the ramshackle foundry that, in Italian, became the word “ghetto,” there to breed and evade the epithets and casual-epic clashes of Italian merchants against these underwhelming, these quiet Jews, though most don’t realize that others, too, including, ironically, Germans at the time – remembering this was 1516 – were sequestered along with Greeks, Turks, Armenians, and Persians – though only the Jew remained confined in the watery canal-crossed Venice after others were long released. The new forced residents were dunned thirty percent higher rents than the just gone Italians. These People of the Book, not happily, were forbidden even to join the printing unions.
Does this surprise anyone familiar with the millennial abuses and discrimination against the Jew? In slightest explanation for the bitter expulsion and relocation, the Italians ummed the excuse that the sequester was for “the safety” of the “outsiders.” Who could give voice to the obvious: that these “outsiders” had dwelt in these narrow streets for centuries? Never mind.
Some say, of course, this quarantining kept the Jews Jewish, forbidden and ostracized from intermarriage and interbreeding, thus ensuring the generational transmission of Hebraic culture, Torah, the Yiddishist linguistics born in Europe, mingled from French, German, Italian, and English – an earnest of the Jews’ constant migration for a safe foothold, still extant in any state where a Jew finds temporary respite. Even the Jewish dead had to be ferried out of backwater channels, far from the Doge’s Palace, lest the local louts stone even the hearses of the departed. But most, if they think of it at all, don’t think the positive, but see instead the isolation and segregation, the negative infinity of hardship imposed for decades, scores, upon the diurnal maunderings and kasherings, the brochas and burdens, of the loyal Jew. Now centuries have passed.
And Venice is visited and celebrated, its ancient cruelties to the residents of Italy long footnoted, academized, and scholarized, prettified into bibliographies, and docented away. Among its visitors, for many scores of years, even – of a different stripe, tall, healthy, even wealthy, well integrated and “tolerated” Jews from all countries come and pole the Po, shop La Serenissima, the old Venetian republic, rue their relapsed lira and the younger Euro, softening the iron lash of ancient enmity for the not-like-us, the self-satisfied, and yet vibrant, today.
The Jew, still attacked, under different cover, ever in global metaphor, on campus and in encampment, the enmity cloaked in pretend-different rationales, with new accents, high-gauge vocabulary capchas, cultivated enough to overlook the counterproductive, the uncertain, the orbital cruel.