The Ghetto of Venice
Venice, Italy, Monday. Seeking relief from the overwhelming grief we all feel at the death of Kim Il Jung – our eyes red from weeping – Helena and I caught the vaporetto up the Grand Canal to the casino landing and walked through what seemed a working class quarter to the tiny island that was the ghetto created when German Jews came to Venice in 1516. On the map, Campo Nuovo Ghetto. Freezing temperature, under a clear blue sky; so cold I could have been tempted by the fat slices of sausage served to a group of working men, mustard and bread and glasses of red wine, in a tiny local cafe – at 10 am.
There is a small Jewish museum but the real attraction is the walking tour on the half hour, every hour, that gets you into the three synagogues on the upper floors of buildings around the campo. The first is the original German one, built in the sixteenth century but updated in baroque style in the eighteenth with its upper gallery, reserved for the women, like a theatre balcony. This is on the upper floor of a building, as is the case of the two other synagogues, one created by French Jews, the other by the Spanish and Portuguese – richer, because these Sephardi Jews – including those from Turkey and Greece – were merchants, and wealthier. In this handkerchief-sized quarter the population swelled to 5000. This density meant they had to go higher, up to eight stories in Renaissance times.
The population was locked in at night with Christian troops on patrol to enforce Jewish seclusion. Indeed the term ghetto is the German attempt to pronounce the old Venetian geto (for foundry). This was the first ghetto in Europe – elsewhere the Jews were simply being expelled.
By the way, relief came with Napoleon in 1797. Jews could then live outside – one humane thing the war-lover can claim to have done – but when the Austrians took power Jews were to be confined again…and did not win emancipation until the unification of Italy in 1866.
In the Second World War three round-ups collected the Venetian Jews for the transit camp at Fossoli near Modena (Primo Levi was to be confined there, you may recall) before the gruesome, now-iconic train journey north to Auschwitz. I was reminded again of one of the distinguishing features of the Nazi genocide of the Jews: the war on the old and infirm. In August 1944 the Germans collected the residents of Venetian aged care homes, in October the Jewish patients in hospitals. To take to Auschwitz. To be gassed. Pointless, these victims were close to death, not worth the burden of transport…inexplicable, except for the appeal of its sheer cruelty. Think on that.
But on a happy note. I am reading – on my Kindle – Harold Bloom’s The Shadow of a Great Rock. It is a literary appreciation of the Bible by the volcanic literary scholar (I recommend his Shakespeare the Invention of the Human) who was,as it happens, literate in Hebrew before English and is probably the most intensely-read person on the planet. I love his notion that in the scriptures Yahweh had favorites – Jacob, Joseph and David – while finding Moses and Abraham more recalcitrant.
Jacob,as Hebrew Patrisrch, proves fascinating: deceiving his blind father Issac to cheat his twin brother, Esau, of his inheritance, wrestling with the stranger through the night and being given by him – an angel or god himself – the name Israel. Then Jacob’s son Joseph matures as a diplomat-politician, exploiting his charm and ruling Egypt as governor. His story provides a novel within the scriptures – he never existed, it seems, and there is no discernible religious resonance to the story. Both Tolstoy and Thomas Mann had a passionate attachment to Joseph, Mann writing a four volume novel Joseph and His Brothers which, according to Bloom, is compelling in the new – but not the old – translation.
Put it down to me seeing acres of religious art in the last four days – in the galleries, churches and scuole – but, whatever the reason, Bloom has captured me with his interpretation – I mean, writing about the whimsy of Yahweh! The whimsy of the Creator! And Yahweh’s motiveless malignancy, making his people wander famished and parched in the desert for 40 years. Never learnt it that way at Presbyterisn Sunday School Maroubra or at the Inter-School Christian Fellowship. And I am only up to the Book of Numbers, relieved though that the author is saying he thinks Leviticus is unreadable.
Around the corner the fantasy facade of St Marks stands precarious and improbable, half-illuminated in the crisp Adriatic night.