Friday, April 1, 2016

Venice through a Jewish Lens: 500 Years of the Jewish Ghetto

Jewish Venice.org photo
There are happenings in Venice this summer. The city will commemorate five hundred years since the establishment of its Jewish ghetto with an exhibition at the Doge's palace, from June 19 through November 13, 2016: “Venice, the Jews and Europe. 1516–2016.”  On July 26-31 they will put on a production of The Merchant of Venice in English in the main square in the Ghetto.  If it fits your schedule, on July 27, 2016 you can catch U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg presiding over a mock trial between Shylock and Antonio. But it's a pricey affair.  

Last Tuesday I attended a lecture by David Rosenberg-Wohl (PhD in Jewish studies focusing on the Italian Renaissance) and Murray Baumgarten  (professor emeritus at UC Santa Cruz) at the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco. The library is also hosting a Spring art exhibition focused on the ghetto, through July 31, 2016. Here's the gist of the talk.  

League of Cambria to Italian Unification

In the wake of the wars of the League of Cambria, said Baumgarten, the Jews of Venice were hustled into the site of an old foundry where cannons and cannon balls were cast. The foundry was moved to the Arsenale, the by then diminished ship-building yard where master Venetians once turned out a new ship every three days.  This ghetto (the name may or may not derive from the Italian word for foundry) was surrounded by walls. It was turned into a prison at night; gates were unlocked during the day. 

Jews were perceived as alien throughout the middle ages, but separation served everyone, suggested Rosenberg-Wohl. Christians and Jews felt fundamentally different. They may seem like us, thought the Christians, but surely they are not. Jews felt other, like danger. There was fear of intermingling. To prevent intermingling there was forced differentiation, through clothing for example. Papal decrees forbade Jews from living among the Christians. Hostility, resentments, and pre-judgments ran in both directions.  

The ghetto emerged in the Renaissance, and that's no coincidence. It can be viewed as a liberalizing idea, said Rosenberg-Wohl. During the Middle Ages the customary way of dealing with Jews was through periodic expulsion, forced conversion, or death. By establishing a Jewish center in the middle of Venice that lasted for centuries, the Venetians allowed for long-term integration of the Jewish community into the life of the city. Both sides benefitted. The ghetto provided safety and protection for the Jews, and it allowed them to maintain their separate identity. The Jews provided financing to Christians and were instrumental in the trade with non-Christian Turks. Some Jews served as doctors to the Christian community. It was an exercise in co-existence. 

In this liberalizing light, it's worth noting, said Rosenberg-Wohl, that in the depiction of the most famous Jew of Venice--Shylock--the Ghetto makes no appearance at all.  In William Shakespeare's fictional space  the walls have been broken down; all the action takes place at the Rialto. 

By the time the Ghetto was established, Venice had begun its long transition from a martial powerhouse to what became known as The Most Serene Republic at the head of the Adriatic. Jews from all over Europe and the Middle East gravitated to this safe trading center.  Jews escaping expulsion from Spain, escaping forced conversion in Portugal, or simply looking for longer term stability made their way to relatively save and tolerant Venice. The Jewish population increased. It was a polyglot world with German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Levantine Sephardic Jewish communities all living side by side in the confined environment of the ghetto. Itinerant Levantine Jewish merchants were at the center of trade between Christians, Muslims, Turks. 

Daniel Bomberg, a German Christian, set up shop in Venice and became the major publisher of Jewish books. A third of all Jewish books published in the first half of the 16th century were published in Venice. Gradually the image of the Ghetto changed as it became home to a vibrant cultural, commercial, and religious space, suggested Rosenberg-Wohl. Jews built magnificent synagogues, five of which survive today. 

There were colorful rabbis like Leon of Modena (1571-1648), a gambler, Talmud authority, and charismatic preacher to Christians and Jews. There were poets and artists, like Sara Copio Sullam (1592-1641), a writer of sonnets and of a treatise on the immortality of the soul--which disputed the immortality of the soul.  "Had her defense not been persuasive," said Baumgarten, "she would have been in trouble." 

In 1797 Napoleon Bonaparte put an end to the Venetian Republic and the doors of the Jewish ghetto were opened and the ghetto ceased to be a walled off enclave within the city. Many of the wealthy Jews left the ghetto and purchased palaces along the Grand canal, riding gondolas to attend the old synagogues on Shabbat. Modern day descendants of some of these families still attend these same synagogues today. For the first two-thirds of the 19th century, Venice was under the influence of the French, and then the Austrians. By 1871, the Italian Reunification (the Risorgimento) was complete, and Venice became a part of unified Italy. 

The Venice Ghetto's Part in Early Rent Control

Rosenberg-Wohl is also a lawyer, so it was with professional joy that he shared with us that the Venice Ghetto played a part in the development of early rent control laws. As so often happens, necessity gave rise to innovation. 

Throughout the 16th century, Jews flooded Venice from Italy, Spain, Portugal, Germany and Turkey. The influx of Jews into Venice meant a never ending supply of people looking for housing in the non-expanding space of the Ghetto. Under papal decrees, Jews were not allowed to own property; and they  were not allowed to live among the Christians but were forced to rent apartments from Christian landlords. As a result rents had a tendency to go sky-high.


In 1554, Rosenberg-Wohl said, rabbis from Jewish communities throughout Italy met in Ferrara and issued an important rent control regulation. The rabbis reiterated a communal rule (or tekahah) forbidding a Jew from supplanting another Jew by offering higher rent, and they expanded it to apply even where the Christian landlord sold the apartment.

In 1562 Pope Pius IV himself sought to provide some relief by regulating the Christian landlords, instructing the Papal Chamberlain to find a way to stabilize the rents and to prevent future increases. A succession of popes played ping-pong with this policy. The situation was an intolerable one, but it was not until June of 1604, Rosenberg-Wohl said, that Clement VIII finally entered the fray decisively and issued the brief Viam Veritatis which once and for all deprived the owners of the houses in the ghetto of the right to increase the rent or to evict the tenants, who from then on had the right to possession in perpetuo. Only when the owner had made improvements to the property which were substantial and not necessary, could he increase the rent. If the owner refused to make useful improvements, the tenant could undertake them himself, without incurring any increase in rent; but if the tenant thereafter voluntarily abandoned the house he was not entitled to any compensation for the improvements he had made. The tenants under this new rule could return the property at any time without further obligation, but the landlords were bound forever.

This joint Jewish-Christian legal effort created a new form of property right in the tenants, the ius gazaga. The term, it seems, comes from the Hebrew word/concept for "possession by family tradition." The ius gazaga thus had value; this new property interest could be mortgaged, sold, dowered, and otherwise transferred.

The ius gazaga was reinforced by related tekanah (ordinances regulating Jewish communal life, approved by the rabbis). Some of these tekanoth forbad a Jew from renting an abandoned leasehold without the consent of the prior tenant. In other words, a Jew who had to leave the Ghetto for any reason and leave his place empty would be able to return to it at a later time: other Jews in the community would not be permitted to rent the apartment or house without the consent of the tenant who owned the ius gazaga. On the flip side, the entire ghetto served as a guarantor of uninterrupted rent payments to the landlords.

So there you go--Venice: canals, gondolas, culture, history, the Merchant of Venice, the notorious RBG, and law. Gentile or Jew, it's a good summer to visit the city.


Venice Ghetto/Wiki commons
[NOTE: The Section entitled "The Venice Ghetto's Part in Early Rent Control" has been updated to include comments received from David Rosenberg-Wohl. The third paragraph in that section is new. The Viam Veritatis was a Papal "brief" (not a bull), and some other non-substantive changes have been made to improve this section. Many thanks to DRW for his review and input]

[Update 2: And Murray Baumgarten also commented, noting that the foundry was moved to the Arsenale--the now diminished ship-building yard; his quote regarding Sara Copio Sullam has been added]

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