Truth behind the Merchant of Venice by Shakespeare

By September 18, 2014 No Comments

Shakespeare’s play was about a Jewish merchant in Venice and how he lived in the Ghetto. Well last week I got to visit the Ghetto and learned some very interesting things after taking a very informative tour given by the Jewish Community Museum.

1) The term “ghetto” used around the world to describe an area of a city dominated by an ethnic minority and usually on the slumish side, came from Venice. It comes from the Venetian word for slag “ghetto” (pronounced jet-o or something close) and was the name given to the foundry that was there. The Jews could not say the j sound and said gh instead to come up with the word we know today.

2) Starting in 1516 Jews were permitted to live in the city, but had to stay on a small island where the foundry use to be located. The island is quite small and is surrounded by canals and the out edge is buildings with a court yard in the middle.

3) Within this small community over 1000 Jews lived and worshipped in one of five synagogues. The interesting thing is these synagogues were not stand alone buildings as most churches are.  They were elaborately decorated rooms occupying the entire top floor of building with shops and residents below them. On the tour you get to visit 3 of the 5 including the oldest one.

Venice synagogue

4) Eventually there were three Ghettos next to each other. The first one I described above was called New Ghetto and the next one formed was called Old Ghetto. This was not a description of when they were formed, but when the foundries before them formed.

5) The reason Jews were allowed in the city of Venice is to lend money as a business, which the Catholic Church forbade at that time. This was done in the form of pawn shops and you can visit the first in the town and watch a short video of the history of brokering.

6) As with most of Europe, WW2 was a very hard time for the Venetian Jews. The population went from 1000 before to only 450 today. There is a memorial for all WW2 Jews consisting of a wall with barb wire above it and several plaques mounted to it.


Venice Jewish Ghetto memorial


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