the origin of the ghetto -- 9/13/15

Today's selection -- from Ghetto by Mitchell Duneier. The first ghetto was established to segregate the Jewish residents of Venice. The area was called ghetto because of its association with the municipal copper foundry previously located across the ca­nal in the Ghetto Vecchio (the Old Ghetto). Il ghetto or getto is derived from gettare, which means 'the pouring or casting of metal':

"In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Jews in France and England and the German lands (there was no unified 'Germany' until 1870) still lived in semi-voluntary Jewish quarters for reasons of safety as well as communal activity and self-help. They created these neighborhoods near synagogues, and often in the center of towns and near the cathedral, as in Paris. Yet though the synagogue lay at the center of their social existence, the quarters in which Jews lived were hardly cut off from the surrounding city. Medieval Jews had substantial freedom to come and go as they pleased. They were aware of doings in other communities spread throughout the area we call Western and Central Europe. They traveled and had regular contact with Jewish travelers. Some also read local and vernacular literature, and the elite knew Latin and even canon law, the law of the Church.

"Nonetheless, Jewish life became increasingly difficult. The First Crusade of 1096 brought great slaughter in the Rhineland, and lay rul­ers were often exploitative. Thanks too to the Church's growing fears for the purity of the individual Christian, restrictions increased. 'Excessive contact' with Jews on the social level -- such as sharing a common table or sexual relations -- was considered polluting. The severity of Jewish ex­istence under increasingly restrictive rulers and an increasingly hostile populace did not mean Jewish culture was moribund. Jewish life, es­pecially religious and intellectual life, knew periods of true flowering. Moreover, Jewish quarters were almost never obligatory or enclosed until the fifteenth century. The first notable case of obligatory segrega­tion was in Frankfurt am Main. In Barcelona, Jews were also enclosed toward the end of the fifteenth century.

Frankfurt city map 1628, showing the curved Judengasse.

"These enclosures were deemed insufficient, however, by those who worried that contact with Jews could lead Christians religiously astray. In 1492, in the now-united Spanish Kingdoms of Castile and Aragon, the joint monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella decreed the expulsion of all Jews who had not yet converted to Christianity. They noted in their de­cree that enclosed urban quarters had not prevented contact between Jews and Christians, and that the kingdoms' remaining Jews could en­tice converts back to Judaism -- therefore expulsion was the only way to remedy the situation. By that time, Jews had already been expelled from England (in 1290) and from France (in stages between 1306 and 1394). Jews in the German lands suffered great massacres during the fourteenth century, and by the fifteenth were scattered in many small towns. A closed quarter was an impracticality.

"Meanwhile, the rulers of Poland welcomed Jewish migrants to help build up the country, despite the objections of the Church. The Jewish population also grew in Italy -- mainly due to the entrance of those ex­pelled from north of the Alps into the Italian center and north. For these Jews, the closed residential pattern would be instituted beginning with Venice in 1516.

"Although some Jews resided in the city of Venice in the fifteenth century, they possessed no legal status and could not engage in money-lending, which was forbidden. The situation changed in 1509, as Jews living on the adjacent Venetian mainland were among the many refu­gees who fled across the lagoon to the city of Venice in the face of the invading armies of the League of Cambrai. Although the Venetian government ordered the refugees to go back home after it retook the captured areas, many Jews remained in the city. Eventually, in 1513, the government granted two wealthy Jews, originally from the mainland settlement of Mestre, a five-year charter permitting them to engage in moneylending in the city itself. Presumably the city leaders realized that they could provide the hard-pressed treasury with annual payments while also assisting the needy native poor, whose numbers had been swelled by the war. Some Jews were also authorized to sell strazzaria­ -- literally, rags, but, by extension, secondhand clothing and other used items.

"Many Venetians, and especially members of the clergy, who prided themselves on having 'a most Catholic city,' were greatly bothered by the phenomenon of newly arrived Jews living throughout Venice. Consequently, in 1516, the Senate passed legislation requiring all Jews residing throughout the city, as well as any who were to come in the future, to reside together on the island in Cannaregio, which was already known as the Ghetto Nuovo (the New Ghetto) because of its association with the municipal copper foundry previously located across the ca­nal in the Ghetto Vecchio (the Old Ghetto). (Il ghetto or getto is de­rived from gettare, which means 'the pouring or casting of metal.') To prevent Jews from going around the city at night, gates were erected on the side of the Ghetto Nuovo facing the Ghetto Vecchio, where a small wooden footbridge crossed the canal, and also at its other end. Chris­tian guards were to open these two gates at sunrise when the Maran­gona bell sounded, and close them at sunset -- though the closing hour was slightly extended to one hour after dark in summer and two in win­ter; only Jewish doctors, and later merchants, were routinely allowed outside after curfew. Permission to remain outside the gates was occa­sionally granted upon special request to other individuals, but almost never -- with the exception primarily of a few doctors -- was a Jew autho­rized to stay outside all night."


Mitchell Duneier


Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea


Farrar, Straus and Giroux


Copyright 2016 by Mitchell Duneier


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