Jewish Ghetto Tour, Venice

Jewish Ghetto Tour (Self Guided), Venice

Founded in 1516, the Jewish Ghetto in Venice was the oldest of its kind in all Europe. At the time, Venice received order from the Pope to expel all Jews from the city, but the Venetian government opted to lock them onto a small island in the district of Cannaregio. Since then this small area has been the center of Jewish life in Venice, with buildings rising vertically to accommodate the rising number of Jews. By the mid-17th century the population numbered over 5,000. It wasn’t until 1866 that they were granted their freedom, following which they acquired citizenship and dispersed.

Today the Ghetto is enjoying something of a revival and is definitely worth a walk-through, as it comprises a Jewish school, great bookshops, a kosher restaurant, a Jewish bakery and some amazing old synagogues that you must visit – even if from the outside only. There are five of them in all, two of which are still in use, hidden from sight behind the ghetto’s walls – which is too bad, as they have been there for a long, long time and are truly little treasure boxes. While walking from one to another, look out also for the (rather moving) brass plaques in the paving outside doorways where Jews were arrested and sent to German camps during WWII.

End your trip at the Jewish Museum, which, despite the very strict security, has a great sense of community, housing a collection of artifacts from the 17th to 19th centuries. Regardless of whether you enter the museum, take some time to wander around the tranquil square in front, with its impressive memorials on the walls.

To see a different side of Venice, off the beaten path, and witness Jewish life in Europe's oldest ghetto, follow this self-guided walking tour.

Getting to Sight #1. The first tour stop (Entrance to the Old Jewish Ghetto) can be reached by: Alilaguna Water Taxi: Arancio (A), Water Bus: 4.1, 4.2, 5.1, 5.2.
How it works: Download the app "GPSmyCity: Walks in 1K+ Cities" from iTunes App Store or Google Play Store to your mobile phone or tablet. The app turns your mobile device into a personal tour guide and its built-in GPS navigation functions guide you from one tour stop to next. The app works offline, so no data plan is needed when traveling abroad.

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Jewish Ghetto Tour Map

Guide Name: Jewish Ghetto Tour
Guide Location: Italy » Venice (See other walking tours in Venice)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 9
Tour Duration: 1 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 0.4 Km or 0.2 Miles
Author: naomi
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Entrance to the Old Jewish Ghetto
  • Spanish Synagogue
  • Levantine Synagogue
  • Italian Synagogue
  • Banco Rosso
  • Entrance to the New Jewish Ghetto
  • German Synagogue
  • Canton Synagogue
  • Jewish Museum
Entrance to the Old Jewish Ghetto

1) Entrance to the Old Jewish Ghetto

This is the main entrance to the Old Jewish Ghetto in Venice. Following the decree of March 29, 1516, guarded gates were placed at entrances to the Ghetto, that were closed after dark to prevent the Jews from going out. Some often paid money to be able to sneak out during the hours of prohibition. This situation persisted until the arrival of Napoleon and the French army in 1796 when these "gates of infamy" were finally torn down and burnt.
Spanish Synagogue

2) Spanish Synagogue

The Spanish Synagogue is one of the two synagogues still functioning in the Jewish Ghetto of Venice; open for services from Passover until the end of the High Holiday season. It was founded by Jews expelled from the Iberian peninsula in the 1490s who reached Venice, usually via Amsterdam, Livorno or Ferrara, in the 1550s.

The four-story yellow stone building was constructed in 1580 and was restored in 1635. It is a clandestine synagogue, which was tolerated on the condition that it be concealed within a building that gives no appearance being a house of worship form the exterior. The interior, on the other hand, is elaborately decorated.
Levantine Synagogue

3) Levantine Synagogue

Constructed by the Jews arriving from the Eastern Mediterranean between 1538-61, the Levantine Synagogue is perhaps the only one that has retained nearly all its original features, with two simple facades interrupted by three orders of windows and a polygonal niche (a typical feature of Venetian architecture). Inside, the Scola was restored at the end of the next century by Andrea Brustolon from Belluno, the most famous wood sculptor working in Venice in that period.

In the Scola's entrance hall, enriched by a beautiful ceiling, one reads on two ancient tablets: “If you understand, oh, man, what your end in the world will be, and if you show charity discreetly, then when you depart this life your place will be assured: then your chalice will be full of goodness and on your head will be placed a crown” on the first, and, on the second, above the alms-box: “Donated by the Compagnia di Pietà e Misericordia”.

On the right is the Jeshivà Luzzatto ; a small, very fine study and Prayer Hall transferred here from its original seat and kept intact to this day. It is adorned with various poems praising God and forming with their initial letters the acrostic of Eliahu Aron Hazach. Various inscriptions added in recent times remind us that this prayer hall was chosen in 1950 to honor the martyrs of Nazism and Fascism. Over the portal one reads: “Blessed be he who enters, blessed be he who goes out”.
Italian Synagogue

4) Italian Synagogue

Built in 1575, last in order of time of the Synagogues constructed under the Venetian Republic, the Italian Synagogue is clearly recognizable from the outside by the 5 big arched windows and the small baroque dome over the apse. On the wall there is a crest with the inscription: “Holy Italian Community in the year 1575”, and a small tablet inscribed “in memory of the destruction of the Temple”. A small portal and very narrow stairs lead into the Synagogue which is less ornate than the others, which is almost certainly a proof of the modest economic conditions of the Community observing the Italian rite.

In the entrance hall, one may read that the Synagogue was restored in 5499 (1739) and opened in 5500 (1740).
Banco Rosso

5) Banco Rosso

In middle-age Europe, very few businesses were open to Jewish, money-lending being one of them. This is because the Christian Church considered it a sin to lend money at interest so Christians were forbidden to engage in this business. Jews filled the vacuum by offering cash loans to people.

There were originally three banks in Venice which were coded by color: red, green and black. They were, in fact, a hybrid of bank and pawnshop. Quite possibly the world's oldest pawnshops, they stayed in business until the end of the Republic (1797). Their commercial activities were documented in William Shakespeare's play "The Merchant of Venice".

Today you can visit one of these banks, the Red Bank (Banco Roso), which has been restored and is open to visitors. Its name is derived from the red receipt that customers received when pawning an item. The name leads some people to speculate that the term "in the red", was originally derived from this old Venetian pawnbroker.
Entrance to the New Jewish Ghetto

6) Entrance to the New Jewish Ghetto

The Ghetto is an area of the Cannaregio sestiere of Venice, divided into the Ghetto Nuovo ("New Ghetto"), and the adjacent Ghetto Vecchio ("Old Ghetto"). These names of the ghetto sections are misleading, as they refer to an older and newer site at the time of their use by the foundries: in terms of Jewish residence, the Ghetto Nuovo is actually older than the Ghetto Vecchio. These two areas were connected to the rest of the city by two bridges that were only open during the day. Here is the main entrance to the New Jewish Ghetto.
German Synagogue

7) German Synagogue

The German Synagogue was built by the Ashkenazi community in about 1528, and as such is the oldest among all Venetian synagogues. Located on the top floor of a building which itself is hardly noticeable among the other buildings, it can be distinguished from the surroundings only by the elegant motif of the five white stone arches. Under the cornice, one can read the inscription “Scuola Grande of the German Holy Community; may God protect them, Amen”.

The interior has walls decorated in marble and the Ten Commandments inscribed in gold letters against a red background that runs along the entire perimeter of the worship hall.
Canton Synagogue

8) Canton Synagogue

The Canton Synagogue is recognizable by the tiny wooden room with a small, rounded turret on its top. Named either after the family that had it built or after its position in the “canton” (Venetian = corner) of the Ghetto Square, this is the 2nd synagogue in Venice to be built, in the 1530s, with the financial support from Germans, French, and Swiss Jews. It was then enlarged and enriched in the 18th century, so its decorations are reflective of the Baroque era. Above the entrance portal one can read: “Year of the construction of the Holy Community Canton Synagogue 5292 (1532)”.

At the head of the stairs, in the first doorway, a tablet reads: “Free yourself, mortal, from evil desires when to the Temple you move your foot to pray think whom you are praying to and with devout faith turn your mind to your Divine Subject”. Above the second doorway there is a verse from Salomon’s Proverbs: “Blessed is the man that heareth me, watching daily at my gates”. Similar to the Scola Grande Tedesca, this synagogue, too, follows the Askhenazi rite.
Jewish Museum

9) Jewish Museum

Sitting in the middle of the old Jewish Ghetto, between the two ancient Jewish synagogues, the Jewish Museum of Venice was founded in 1953 by the Jewish Community of Venice. Its exhibition shows the Jewish community's life between the 16th and 20th centuries.

The first room of the museum is dedicated to silverwares reminding the most important Jewish festivities starting from Shabbat. The second room is mostly dedicated to traditional Jewish textile manufacture. One can find different examples of Meil and other precious coverings used to decorate the Torah, but also beautiful examples of Parokhet – curtains to cover the doors of 'Aron Ha Kodesh.

During WWII, when Venice was occupied by Nazis, they asked the head of the local Jewish community, Giuseppe Jona, to bring a list of all Jews living in Venice to the Nazi headquarters. A well-respected physician, Giuseppe Jona had the list, but instead of turning it over to Nazis, he burned it and took his own life.

Because of his sacrifice, the Nazis were not able to locate the Venetian Jews, and so only 243 of them were rounded up and deported, while about 1200 others managed to escape. Only 8 of the 243 who were taken to Auschwitz returned home after the war.

Why You Should Visit:
Aside from the museum's exhibition of old Jewish life in the ghetto, you get to tour three ancient synagogues for a small extra fee.
The Ghetto Nuovo square is a beautiful little spot regardless of whether you enter the museum and is relatively quiet (compared to other parts of the city).

Make sure to give yourself time to wander around the ghetto area itself, as there are quite a few cute/unique restaurants and bodegas.

Opening Hours:
Sun-Fri: 10am-5:30pm (Oct-May); 10am-7pm (Jun-Sep)
Museum, synagogues and cemetery are closed on Saturdays and Jewish holidays, Dec 25, Jan 1, May 1

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