The Jewish Ghetto and Museo Ebraico ☆☆

A menorah in the window of a venue catering to Jewish tourists in the former Ghetto in Venice, The Jewish Ghetto and Museo Ebraico, Venice, Italy (Photo by Giovanni Dall
A menorah in the window of a venue catering to Jewish tourists in the former Ghetto in Venice

The world's first ghetto was the walled quarter Venice created for its Jews in the 16th century

As centers of trade and the meeting places of disparate peoples interested more in conducting commerce than examining cultural differences, the major mercantile and maritime powers of the Middle Ages generally operated as fairly open-minded and tolerant societies—at least relative to most other city-states of the era.

The Republic of Venice was no exception, but what was seen as remarkably open and welcoming to their eyes looks, to our modern sensibilities, to be outrageously prejudiced.

How the Jews got to Venice

To summarize and oversimplify a complex story: Most of Europe wasn't particularly welcoming of Jews in the early 16th century. (You could argue the same about nearly every century, really, but I digress.)

After their expulsion from Spain following the culmination of the Reconquista in 1492, many Jews wandered Europe searching for new homes.

Great trading centers like Venice were a natural magnet, since most careers in the late medieval European economy were closed to Jews but there was one major one that was not.

In fact, Jews could perform one vital mercantile task that was forbidden to observant Christians in the late Middle Ages.

They could lend money.

The church called this usury (which was not merely bad; it was a Cardinal Sin).

The Jews just called it banking.

Jews had done business in Venice since at least the 10C, but for centuries the Republic went back and forth on whether it actually wanted to allow them to settle in the city.

Jews were invited in and then expelled with disheartening regularity until 1516, when—in what was, believe it or not, quite a liberal move for its day—Venice gave its Jewish residents permission to settle permanently in Venice, on their own island tucked into the northern corner of Cannaregio.

There were a few catches, however.

With few exceptions (Jewish doctors making emergency housecalls; Jewish entertainers and musicians on a gig at some palazzo party), Jews could leave their neighborhood only by day and only for work, and—until Napoleon brought an end to the Republic in 1797—Jews were forbidden to reside anywhere else in Venice.

Jews also had to wear identification badges when they were out and about in the rest of Venice.

In this era of general intolerance, other closed-minded cities throughout Europe thought the concept of herding all the Jews into one corner of town was a capital idea, and the practice of walling off the Jews in their own little sub-city spread rapidly... as did the Venetian term for such an area.

Since the island on which the Jews wre allowed to settle had for centuries previously housed the city's foundry, Venetians began referring to the Jewish neighborhood using the local dialect word for "foundry:" getowhich in the guttural pronunciation of the founding Ashkenazim population became ghetto.

Life in the Venice Jewish Ghetto

The Jews lived in their new miniature neighborhood of Ghetto Nuovo in semi–self-governed isolation, cut off from many opportunities in the rest of Venice and confined to working mostly in banking, textiles, medicine, and entertainment.

Their movements were greatly restricted. There were only two bridges onto the island, and Christian guards closed them an hour after sunset in summer, two hours after in winter.

Until dawn, the only Jews allowed out of the Ghetto were doctors summoned for house calls and musicians hired out for parties.

Still, they prospered, built five synagogues (in Venetian: Scola), and the population eventually swelled to an estimated 5,000. With no room to sprawl, this tenament-within-a-city had no place to grow but up, resulting in the only part of Venice where the medieval buildings teeter up to six and even seven stories: Europe's first high-rises.

The original core of Ashkenazim from Germany were later joined by Sephardim from Spain and Portugal. By 1541, a huge influx of Levantine Jews had the neighborhood bursting at the seams, so the city allowed the Jews to expand onto a neighboring island, confusingly named Ghetto Vecchio.

(Got that? The original island was Ghetto Nuovo, or "New Ghetto;" the second island was called Ghetto Vecchio, or "Old Ghetto," since that's where an even older foundry had once been. Yes, confusing.)

In 1633, the neighborhood grew yet again to encompass the Ghetto Novissimo ("Really New Ghetto").

As I said, the invasion of Napoleon brought Enlightenment ideals, full citizenship for Jews, and the abolishment of the Ghetto in 1797, but the Hapsburgs who swooped in after him demoted the Jews back to restricted status (though the full Ghetto lifestyle was not reinstated).

There was even a short-lived second Republic of Venice in 1848–49 headed by local hero Danieli Manin, who had Jewish roots.

Venice's Jewish population didn't gain final freedom of the city until the unification movement that created the modern state of Italy swept through in 1866.

And then, of coruse, the Fascist era returned Jews one again to the status second-class citizens from 1938 until after World War II.

Relatively speaking, Italy's Jews fared the war better than those in Central and Northern Europe, but still: of the 204 Venetian Jews deported to Nazi death camps, only eight returned.

The post-war Jewish population of Venice dwindled rapidly. In 1945 there were around 1,500 Jews in Venice.

Two decades later, there were only 844.

Visiting the Venice Jewish Ghetto today

These days, Venice is home only to an estimated 500–600 Jews, of which only 30 or so still live in the historic Ghetto.

The ghetto remains, however, the focal point of Jewish life in Venice, with two operating synagogues, a Jewish library, day school, kosher food shops, a Jewish bakery, and—this being Venice, after all—a glass shop selling tiny glass rabbis and glass Hanukkah lamps.

There's also the small Museo Ebraico, or Jewish Museum (a.k.a. the Museo della Comunità Ebraica, or Museo of the Jewish Community), with a collection of 16th– to 19th-century artifacts.

The museum offers excellent guided tours, in Italian and English, of the neighborhood and several of its synagogues, usually the following three: Scola Canton (Ashkenazi Synagogue), Scola Levantina (Sephardic Synagogue), and Scola Italiana (Italian Synagogue)—though some tours (and special visits) also take you into the beautiful Scola Ponentina or Scola Spagnola (Spanish Synagogue).

Photo gallery
  • A menorah in the window of a venue catering to Jewish tourists in the former Ghetto in Venice, The Jewish Ghetto and Museo Ebraico, Italy (Photo by Giovanni Dall
  • Campo del Ghetto Nuovo, The Jewish Ghetto and Museo Ebraico, Italy (Photo by Avital Pinnick)
  • The kosher baker
  • The Scola Tedesca synagogue, The Jewish Ghetto and Museo Ebraico, Italy (Photo courtesy of the Museo Ebraico)
  • A medieval skyscraper, The Jewish Ghetto and Museo Ebraico, Italy (Photo by Deror avi)
  • The Sala Argenti (Silver Room) in the Museo Ebraico (Jewish Museum), The Jewish Ghetto and Museo Ebraico, Italy (Photo courtesy of the Museo Ebraico)
  • The Scola Canton synagogue, The Jewish Ghetto and Museo Ebraico, Italy (Photo courtesy of the Museo Ebraico)
  • Facade of
  • The Scola Italiana synagogue, The Jewish Ghetto and Museo Ebraico, Italy (Photo courtesy of the Museo Ebraico)
  • A Jewish shop in the former Ghetto in Venice, The Jewish Ghetto and Museo Ebraico, Italy (Photo by Giovanni Dall
  • The Scola Levantina synagogue, The Jewish Ghetto and Museo Ebraico, Italy (Photo courtesy of the Museo Ebraico)
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How long does a visit to the Jewish Ghetto take?

To take a glance at the Venice Jewish Ghetto only takes 15 minutes—but if youre coming all the way up here, I imagine you'll want to stick around and take a tour or two.

The museum's synagogue tours leave hourly on the half hour from Sunday to Friday from 10:30am to 5:30pm (to 4:30pm Oct–May; tours may end an hour earlier on Fridays to avoid going past sundown), and make an excellent companion to the walking tour of Cannaregio and the Ghetto offered our partner Viator.

Tour the Jewish cemetery on the Lido

If you book ahead by phone (tel. 041-715-359), the museum can also arrange visits to the Jewish cemetery on the Lido.

Useful Italian phrases

Useful Italian for sightseeing

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
Where is?... Dov'é doh-VAY
...the museum il museo eel moo-ZAY-yo
...the church la chiesa lah key-YAY-zah
...the cathedral il duomo [or] la cattedrale eel DUO-mo [or] lah cah-the-DRAH-leh
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
Closed day giorno di riposo JOR-no dee ree-PO-zo
Weekdays (Mon-Sat) feriali fair-ee-YA-lee
Sunday & holidays festivi fe-STEE-vee
ticket biglietto beel-YET-toh
two adults due adulti DOO-way ah-DOOL-tee
one child un bambino oon bahm-BEE-no
one student uno studente OO-noh stu-DENT-ay
one senior un pensionato oon pen-see-yo-NAH-toh

Basic phrases in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) pro-nun-see-YAY-shun
thank you grazie GRAT-tzee-yay
please per favore pair fa-VOHR-ray
yes si see
no no no
Do you speak English? Parla Inglese? PAR-la een-GLAY-zay
I don't understand Non capisco non ka-PEESK-koh
I'm sorry Mi dispiace mee dees-pee-YAT-chay
How much is it? Quanto costa? KWAN-toh COST-ah
That's too much É troppo ay TROH-po
Good day Buon giorno bwohn JOUR-noh
Good evening Buona sera BWOH-nah SAIR-rah
Good night Buona notte BWOH-nah NOTE-tay
Goodbye Arrivederci ah-ree-vah-DAIR-chee
Excuse me (to get attention) Scusi SKOO-zee
Excuse me (to get past someone) Permesso pair-MEH-so
Where is? Dov'é doh-VAY
...the bathroom il bagno eel BHAN-yoh
...train station la ferroviaria lah fair-o-vee-YAR-ree-yah
to the right à destra ah DEH-strah
to the left à sinistra ah see-NEEST-trah
straight ahead avanti [or] diritto ah-VAHN-tee [or] dee-REE-toh
information informazione in-for-ma-tzee-OH-nay

Days, months, and other calendar items in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
At what time... a che ora a kay O-rah
Yesterday ieri ee-YAIR-ee
Today oggi OH-jee
Tomorrow domani doh-MAHN-nee
Day after tomorrow dopo domani DOH-poh doh-MAHN-nee
a day un giorno oon je-YOR-no
Monday Lunedí loo-nay-DEE
Tuesday Martedí mar-tay-DEE
Wednesday Mercoledí mair-coh-lay-DEE
Thursday Giovedí jo-vay-DEE
Friday Venerdí ven-nair-DEE
Saturday Sabato SAH-baa-toh
Sunday Domenica doh-MEN-nee-ka
Mon-Sat Feriali fair-ee-YAHL-ee
Sun & holidays Festivi feh-STEE-vee
Daily Giornaliere joor-nahl-ee-YAIR-eh
a month una mese oon-ah MAY-zay
January gennaio jen-NAI-yo
February febbraio feh-BRI-yo
March marzo MAR-tzoh
April aprile ah-PREEL-ay
May maggio MAH-jee-oh
June giugno JEW-nyoh
July luglio LOO-lyoh
August agosto ah-GO-sto
September settembre set-TEM-bray
October ottobre oh-TOE-bray
November novembre no-VEM-bray
December dicembre de-CHEM-bray

Numbers in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
1 uno OO-no
2 due DOO-way
3 tre tray
4 quattro KWAH-troh
5 cinque CHEEN-kway
6 sei say
7 sette SET-tay
8 otto OH-toh
9 nove NO-vay
10 dieci dee-YAY-chee
11 undici OON-dee-chee
12 dodici DOH-dee-chee
13 tredici TRAY-dee-chee
14 quattordici kwa-TOR-dee-chee
15 quindici KWEEN-dee-chee
16 sedici SAY-dee-chee
17 diciasette dee-chee-ya-SET-tay
18 diciotto dee-CHO-toh
19 diciannove dee-chee-ya-NO-vay
20 venti VENT-tee
21* vent'uno* vent-OO-no
22* venti due* VENT-tee DOO-way
23* venti tre* VENT-tee TRAY
30 trenta TRAYN-tah
40 quaranta kwa-RAHN-tah
50 cinquanta cheen-KWAN-tah
60 sessanta say-SAHN-tah
70 settanta seh-TAHN-tah
80 ottanta oh-TAHN-tah
90 novanta no-VAHN-tah
100 cento CHEN-toh
1,000 mille MEEL-lay
5,000 cinque milla CHEEN-kway MEEL-lah
10,000 dieci milla dee-YAY-chee MEEL-lah

* You can use this formula for all Italian ten-place numbers—so 31 is trent'uno, 32 is trenta due, 33 is trenta tre, etc. Note that—like uno (one), otto (eight) also starts with a vowel—all "-8" numbers are also abbreviated (vent'otto, trent'otto, etc.).


More on Jewish Venice

A menorah in the window of a venue catering to Jewish tourists in the former Ghetto in Venice

Where to eat and shop Kosher (Kashèr, or lecito in Italian) in Venice

Jewish delicacies (and kosher ones) at a bakery in Venice (Photo by SpirosK photography)

A travel guide to Jewish Italy, from kosher restaurants and hotels in Rome, Florence, and Venice to historic synagogues and other jewish sights in Italy, as well as Jewish tours, schuls, mikvahs, and more