When you visit Venice’s Jewish ghetto today, it’s hard to imagine this calm place as a dirty industrial-zone-turned-walled-neighborhood bustling with Jews from all backgrounds and so crowded that the only place to build was up—by adding layers on top of existing buildings and creating perhaps the first “vertical” city.
I certainly found it hard to picture when I visited in 2004. The central square was eerily quiet and the small Jewish museum there a little worse for the wear. One idea from the tour struck me, and I noted it in my travel log: “well-assimilated.” That seems odd when you think about how they were in a ghetto.
But that’s actually one of the many fascinating things about the Venice ghetto, getting a thorough look this year as the community commemorates the 500th anniversary since its establishment on March 29, 1516. Events will be held throughout the year, including exhibitions, concerts, galas and a performance of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice for the first time inside the ghetto.
Given what we know about ghettos from World War II, it may seem surprising to learn that after the Venice ghetto was created and city-dwelling Jews required to live within it, Jews from other areas chose to move there. Some had previously worked in the city and lived outside it and were relatively integrated into society. The new segregated area, undesirable as it was, gave them a foothold within the city, as long as they wore badges or hats that distinguished them as Jews when they left its confines and remained locked behind the gates between midnight and sunrise. They were relatively free to conduct their businesses as moneylenders, traders, doctors, artisans and artists.
At the time, no word existed to describe such an area of religious segregation and surveillance, one of the first of its kind. But, as the community was located next to a “geto,” the Venetian term for foundry, the Jews began calling it “ghetto”—and that name, of course, stuck.
As the ghetto became more established, Jews moved there from all over Europe and even North Africa and the Ottoman Empire, making it a cosmopolitan center of cultural exchange. Jews from different backgrounds built their own synagogues, five of which still stand today. Artistic and intellectual life flourished. And Jewish cooks combined food traditions they brought with them with foods favored in Venice, including fish and a rich variety of fresh vegetables from nearby Treviso and fruits from Verona.
Among traditional foods of Venetian Jews are impade (almond-stuffed S-shaped cookies), sarde in saor (sweet and sour sardines) and pasta e fagioli alla Veneta (Venetian-style white bean and pasta soup). They adopted pine nuts and raisins from Arab influences and salt cod dishes from Iberian Jews. Another popular dish was risotto, often made with whatever fresh vegetables were on hand, from artichoke to pumpkin. As food historian Claudia Roden notes, “The coexistence in the ghetto bore fruit in the kitchen.”
The ghetto’s population peaked at 5,000 residents in the 17th century. The walls were torn down when Napoleon’s armies occupied the city in 1797, and after that the population began to disperse. World War II also took a toll. Today, Venice’s Jewish community numbers about 450 people.
For me, of course, one good way to visit and commemorate this rich culture is to taste it. I gravitated to risotto with artichokes because these beautiful green orbs are coming into season now. I also liked that Italian Sephardic Jews enjoy artichoke risotto for Passover (during which they eat rice), the next big holiday on our horizon. But most of all, I felt a special connection to the dish. Both artichokes and rice likely came to Venice along with the Jews exiled from Sicily—the home of my non-Jewish great-grandparents.
Baby artichoke risotto is mild like the early days of spring, but immensely satisfying. With its green vegetable notes, comforting creamy heft and tender bites of artichoke hearts, one can imagine it being especially savored by Venice’s Jews, surrounded by crisp sea breezes. If the dish needs another selling point, artichokes harbor within their tight flower buds antioxidants, fiber and compounds believed to positively affect the liver and also help with digestion.
And for commemorating a city at an important crossroads of Jewish history, it is simply rich with both flavor and memory: memories of a thriving Jewish life and culture despite hardships, memories of how Jews adapted and built anew, from their own tiny city within a city to new foods for everyday and holidays, and memories I can picture and taste, right from my own stovetop.
Top photo: Venice’s Jewish ghetto (courtesy of flickr user Szilveszter Farkas).