ghetto (/ˈɡɛtəʊ/)

noun : a part of a city, especially a slum area, occupied by a minority group or groups.

Most people would understand what was meant if an area of a city was refered to as a ‘ghetto’. A few weeks ago we visited the original ghetto – Gheto.

The street sign for Gheto Novo (campo naming the square, ponte for the bridge)
The street sign for Gheto Novo (campo naming the square, ponte for the bridge)

Gheto was the name of an area of Venice. The origin of ‘Gheto’ might be a shortening of borghetto (small village) or an alteration of getto (foundry, of which there several near by) or gata (street). Regardless, it didn’t have any of the connotation of today’s usage.

It was a factory area, a place for Venetians to work and live. When it later expanded, the older area became known as Gheto Vechio (old Gheto) and the expansion Gheto Novo (new Gheto). Gheto Novo was the first area in Venice that Jewish Venetians began to inhabit in concentrated numbers, with neighbouring Gheto Vechio following later. In other cities, it might have been referred to as the Jewish Quarter.

In 1516, the European trend of persecution of Jews reached Venice. The city govenors decided that the night-time movement of Jews should be restricted. Venice’s general building style of walls, high buildings and canals made it easy for the city government to execute this policy. The main entry point to the Gheto area was gated and guarded, and a curfew enacted. Gheto had started its journey to its 20th century meaning – an area of forced Jewish segregation.

Bronze plates recalling the history of the area adorn a wall that once would have fenced in Venice's Jewish population.
Bronze plates recalling the history of the area adorn a wall that once would have fenced in Venice’s Jewish population.

This lasted more than 250 years, until Napoleon arrived. One of the many changes he made to Venice was to spread the French ideal of equalité and remove this discriminatory practice.

Without the history, the ghetos are two plain and unassuming campos amongst the beauty of Venice. But this early example of Jewish discrimination is the naming origin for the Jewish ghettos of World War II, amongst many others. This powerful word (adorned with an extra ‘t’, and no longer a proper noun) has continued through to modern usage as an area where minorities congregate. The segregation into modern ghettos is (usually) no longer enforced through law, but more likely a result of economics or because the minority feel isolated from the majority culture of their city.

Talking Judaism in Ghetto Novo
Talking Judaism in Gheto Novo

Nowadays the area is still associated with Jewish life in Venice, although the size of community, like all of Venice, has shrunk. I would imagine a decent proportion of those non-locals who make the trek to Gheto would have some familial connection. When we visited, a couple of Jewish men were engaging with the tourists that had come to this little-visited corner, looking to bring Jewish-by-ancestory non-believers back to the faith.

For Jewish children, coming-of-age at 13 is celebrated via a ceremony called a bar mitzvah (for boys) or bat mitzvah (for girls). Given I had a young family, this was the focus of the man who came to chat to me. For children who had passed 13 without going through this rite of passage, a rabbi was on hand to perform the ceremony on-the-spot. Sadly, Oli and Lucy were too young for this treat (and also – minor point – we are massive atheists) and our family is still firmly in the bacon-and-shellfish camp.