The Jewish Ghetto in Venice: Why You Should Visit It

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Nestled in the heart of Venice, the Jewish Ghetto holds a rich tapestry of history, culture, and resilience. The term ‘ghetto’, now used globally, traces its roots back to this very district, painting a vivid picture of a time when Jewish communities were confined to specific quarters. 

Established by the decree of Doge Leonardo Loredan in 1516, the Jewish Ghetto of Venice stands as a testament to the enduring spirit of the Jewish people. 

Today, it serves as a vibrant hub of Jewish life and a captivating destination for travelers seeking to delve into the city’s past. 

This guide will take you on a journey through the narrow lanes of the Venetian Ghetto, uncovering its historical significance, exploring its present-day charm, and indulging in its unique culinary delights.

The Historical Significance of the Venetian Ghetto

sign in jewish ghetto

The Role of the Ghetto in Jewish History

The Venetian Ghetto, known as the oldest Jewish ghetto in the world, has played a pivotal role in Jewish history. Established in 1516 by Doge Leonardo Loredan, the Jewish Ghetto of Venice was a confined space where Jews were forced to live. Despite the restrictions, the Jewish community thrived, becoming a hub for Jewish merchants and a center for Jewish life. 

The name ‘ghetto‘ is a Venetian dialect word that refers to a foundry. There was once one on the site of the piazza which is at the center of the ghetto now.

The ghetto was divided into two sections, the New Ghetto (Ghetto Nuovo) and the Old Ghetto (Ghetto Vecchio), each with its unique character and history. The Jewish population, despite being confined within the walls of the ghetto, made significant contributions to the Venetian Republic, particularly in commerce and the arts.

The Impact of the Ghetto on Venetian Culture and Society

The Jewish Ghetto in Venice has had a profound impact on Venetian culture and society. The ghetto area, particularly the Campo del Ghetto Nuovo, became a melting pot of Jewish art and culture. The Jewish Museum (Museo Ebraico) located in the ghetto showcases the rich Jewish history and culture, including precious artifacts from the five synagogues in the area. 

traditional jewish clothes hanging

The Venetian Jews, despite their confinement, were able to maintain their religious traditions and customs, which are still observed today. The Jewish holidays, for instance, are celebrated with much fervor in the ghetto. The Venetian Ghetto, with its unique blend of Jewish and Venetian cultures, has become an integral part of the city’s identity, attracting visitors from around the world.

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Is Visiting the Jewish Ghetto in Venice Worth It?

A visit to Venice’s Jewish Ghetto is a truly worthwhile experience that offers a unique and profound glimpse into history, culture, and resilience.

Stepping foot into its narrow streets, visitors can explore the beautiful synagogues, witness the architecture that has preserved its Jewish heritage, and gain a deeper understanding of the struggles faced by the Jewish people in the past. The visit not only educates and enlightens but also fosters a sense of empathy and respect for a community that has overcome adversity while maintaining its rich traditions and identity.

The Ghetto as a Tourist Attraction

Visiting the Jewish Ghetto in Venice is like stepping into a living museum of Jewish history and culture. The district, located in the Cannaregio sestiere, one of the six districts of Venice, is a must-visit for any tourist. The Jewish Museum (Museo Ebraico) is a highlight, offering guided tours that provide insights into the life and history of the Venetian Jews. 

The museum showcases a collection of artifacts and exhibitions that tell the story of the Jewish community in Venice.

Get off the beaten path in Venice with my guide to non touristy things to do!

Notable Landmarks and Sites in the Ghetto

The Jewish Ghetto is home to five synagogues, each a testament to the resilience and faith of the Jewish community. The German Synagogue and the Levantine Synagogue are particularly noteworthy for their architectural beauty and historical significance. 

The Ghetto Vecchio and Ghetto Nuovo, the older and newer sections of the ghetto, each have their unique charm and character. The Ghetto Square (Campo di Ghetto Nuovo) is the heart of the district, often bustling with visitors exploring the area.

How to Get to the Ghetto in Venice

Getting to the Jewish Ghetto in Venice is relatively straightforward. It’s a short walk from the train station in the Cannaregio district and is well-connected by the city’s water bus system. 

The Ponte delle Guglie, one of the two bridges that provide access to the ghetto, is a notable landmark that can guide your way.

Get there using my guide on how to get around Venice!

What to Do and See in the Venetian Ghetto

There’s plenty to do and see in the Jewish Ghetto. Apart from visiting the Jewish Museum and the synagogues, you can explore the narrow streets and alleys, admire the unique architecture, and soak in the atmosphere of this historic district. 

holocaust memorial in cannaregio

The Jewish Ghetto of Venice is home to five notable synagogues, each with its own unique history and architectural style. These synagogues were built in secret during the 16th century when the Jewish population was forced to live in the world’s first ghetto. Despite the severe discrimination they faced, these synagogues are now some of the most beautiful and best-kept secrets of Venice.

  • Schola Grande Tedesca: Built in 1528, this was the first synagogue in the ghetto. It is located in the attic area of what is now the Jewish Museum of Venice. The prayer room is surrounded by beautiful marble-like walls made from plaster or marmorino.
  • Schola Canton: Established in 1531, this synagogue was founded by French Ashkenazi Jews. It is notable for the eight gilded panels lining the walls of the space, each illustrating an episode in the Jewish Exodus story.
  • Schola Italiana: This synagogue, established in 1575, traditionally served the poorer Italian Jews. It has a much smaller prayer space than the other synagogues and lacks the gilded baroque style of its contemporaries. Instead, it features dark wood and stone decorations with brass inscriptions in white wood on the walls.
  • Schola Levantina: The Scuola Levantina is one of the few Venetian synagogues built on the ground floor, this synagogue was founded by wealthy Marranos in 1541. Restored by Italian architect Baldassare Longhena in the 17th century, it shows clear baroque influences with deep red curtains surrounding the space and a large chandelier at its center.
  • Schola Spagnola: This is the largest of the Venetian synagogues and one of the few still operating today. It is located up three flights of stairs in an unassuming building in central Cannaregio. The worship space is notable for its beautifully tiled floors and blue painted and ivory dome overlooking the pulpit.

These synagogues can be visited through the Jewish Museum in Venice. Please note that Jewish holidays may impact the scheduling of tours, particularly at the Spanish and Levantine synagogues where services are still held.

Try to visit in December for Hannukah and really immerse yourself in the Jewish experience!

Culinary Delights in the Venetian Ghetto

Traditional Jewish Cuisine in Venice

The Jewish Ghetto in Venice is not just a place of historical and cultural significance, but also a culinary destination. The traditional Jewish cuisine in Venice is a testament to the city’s rich Jewish history. 

sarde in saor

The Jewish community in Venice has a rich culinary tradition that beautifully blends Jewish dietary laws with Venetian flavors. One such dish is “Sarde in Saor”, a delightful concoction of sardines marinated in onions, vinegar, raisins, and pine nuts. Another staple is the “Risotto e Bisi”, a classic Venetian dish made with fresh peas, adapted by the Jewish community.

When visiting the Venice Ghetto, one must not miss the opportunity to sample the unique pastries that the local bakeries have to offer. The “Impade”, hard S-shaped cookies filled with almond paste, are a traditional Venetian Jewish sweet typically enjoyed during Purim.

jewish pastries in the ghetto

The “Azime Dolci”, round, sweet biscuits made with oil and flavored with fennel seeds, are a delight not to be missed. The “Bisse”, lemon-flavored cookies in the typical “S” shape, are a popular dessert throughout the city.

Lastly, the pyramid-shaped cookies with jam or chocolate flavors and the long pastries shaped like crocodiles, known as impade, filled with almond cream, are unique treats that are sure to satisfy your sweet tooth.

Whether you’re a foodie looking to explore new cuisines or a history enthusiast interested in experiencing the culture of the Jewish Ghetto, these culinary delights are sure to enhance your visit to this historic neighborhood in Venice.

Recommended Restaurants and Cafes in the Ghetto

When it comes to dining in the Venice Ghetto, there are several restaurants and cafes that come highly recommended. Gam Gam Kosher Restaurant, located near the entrance of the Ghetto, offers a variety of traditional Jewish and Venetian dishes. 

gam gam entrance

Gam Gam’s menu is a delightful fusion of Israeli and Italian cuisines. The “Israeli Platter” is a must-try, featuring crispy, deep-fried falafel balls accompanied by a variety of fresh salads that change daily. The salads are light, cool, and refreshing, making them a perfect starter for a summer meal.

The restaurant also offers a range of homemade breads and desserts. The chocolate cake, a dense flourless delight, tastes like an unglazed Reine de Saba and is a must-try for chocolate lovers. An espresso and a shot of Israeli grappa make for a perfect end to the meal.

While the prices at Gam Gam are not cheap, they are reasonable by Venice standards. (NB – Their famous Chabad dinner requests a donation of 126 euros per person, however!)

The restaurant’s location, right at the entrance of the Jewish Ghetto in Venice, makes it easily accessible for tourists exploring the area.

For a quick bite or a sweet treat, the Kosher Bakery ‘Panificio Volpe Giovanni’ is a must-visit. The bakery has been serving the Jewish community and visitors alike for decades, known for its delicious pastries and bread. Whether you’re looking for a hearty meal or a cozy cafe to relax, the Venice Ghetto offers a range of options to suit every palate.

The Current State of the Jewish Community in Venice

The Jewish community in Venice is vibrant and active. The community is centered around the historic Jewish Ghetto, the first of its kind in the world, which remains a focal point for Jewish life in the city. The community is served by several organizations, including the Jewish Community of Venice and Chabad of Venice, which provide religious, cultural, and social services.

The community is diverse, with members from various backgrounds and walks of life. It includes both locals who have lived in Venice for generations and newcomers who have chosen to make the city their home. Despite the challenges posed by the city’s unique geography and the pressures of tourism, the community has managed to maintain a strong Jewish identity and a vibrant communal life.

The community also plays a significant role in the broader Venetian society. Jewish individuals and institutions contribute to the city’s cultural, economic, and social life, and the history and heritage of the Jewish community are integral parts of the city’s identity.

Jewish Traditions and Customs in Venice

The Jewish community in Venice is known for its unique traditions and customs, which have been shaped by the community’s long history and the city’s unique environment. These traditions include religious practices, culinary customs, and cultural activities.

Religious life in the community is centered around the five synagogues in the Ghetto, each representing different ethnic and cultural traditions within the community. The synagogues host regular services and serve as gathering places for the community.

Cultural traditions in the community include the celebration of Jewish holidays, which are marked with communal gatherings, special meals, and unique local customs. The community also hosts cultural events and activities, such as lectures, concerts, and exhibitions, which highlight the rich history and culture of the Venetian Jewish community.

Wrapping It Up

In conclusion, the Jewish Ghetto of Venice is a treasure trove of history, culture, and tradition. From its inception in the 16th century to its vibrant community today, it stands as a testament to the resilience and enduring spirit of the Jewish people.

Whether you’re exploring the historic synagogues, sampling the unique flavors of Jewish Venetian cuisine, or immersing yourself in the rich tapestry of Jewish traditions and customs, a visit to the Jewish Ghetto offers a unique and enriching experience.

Make sure to click the links below to get more helpful guides so you can get the most out of your trip to Venice!

Sal Presti

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