While the Protestant Reformation’s primary target was the Catholic Church, the upheaval also caused an increase in attacks on Jews living in German lands. Even the Jews living in the Papal States and city-states in northern Italy – where Jews had been tolerated due to the tax revenues they brought to the rulers’ coffers – were now subjected to repressive decrees that drastically changed their way of life. One of those decrees resulted in the introduction of a new word into the world’s lexicon that still resonates today: ghetto.
The Catholic Church didn’t invent the idea of Jews living together in one neighborhood. In medieval Paris, for example, the city’s Jews banded together of their own accord. Of course, safety was a consideration, but living close to one other was convenient and helped to create a stronger communal structure.
Yet, there’s no question that the Church’s Lateran Councils of 1179 and 1215, which advocated for segregation to prevent too much mingling between Jews and Christians, had an impact on where and how Europe’s Jews lived for the next seven hundred years. In many cities Jews were forced to live in separate Jewish quarters, such as Prague’s thirteenth-century Jewish quarter and Frankfurt’s Judengasse (Jews’ Alley) established in 1460. While Jews could usually come and go throughout the city during the day, they had to be back inside before the Jewish quarter’s gates were locked at night.
During the 1500s, the Church added another reason for the enforced segregation: to further degrade and humiliate the Jewish community so they would convert to Christianity. In the words of Kenneth Stow, Professor Emeritus of Jewish History, University of Haifa, the co-existence of “stigma and acceptance” in the early medieval era was replaced in the sixteenth century with a policy of “separation and disciplining” – especially in the Church’s own backyard, the Italian Peninsula.
A Tale of Two Ghettos
Italy’s Jewish community is one of the oldest in the Diaspora, dating back to the second century BCE. During the late fourteenth and fifteen centuries of the Common Era, Jewish merchants living in German lands, who were invited to settle on the Italian Peninsula by Renaissance popes and Italian dukes, also made Italy their home. More Jews arrived after the expulsion from Spain in 1492, while the Chmielnicki massacres that took place in Eastern Europe in 1648-9 brought yet another wave of Jewish immigration. Thus, the Italian community was actually comprised of three separate kehillot: Italianate, Sephardic, and Ashkenazic.
In 1516, the Venetian Senate passed a law that required all Venetian Jews to live in the Cannaregio district, in an area that was known as the Ghetto Nuovo (the New Ghetto). The decision wasn’t made in a vacuum. During the early decades of the sixteenth century, Venice was at war with France, Spain, the Austrian Habsburgs, and the Papal States. After the Venetians were defeated at Agnadello in 1509 and lost much of their mainland territory, refugees – including Jewish refugees – began to stream into Venice proper. Therefore, at issue during that 1516 debate was what to do with the city’s swelling Jewish population.
Jews had been living in Venice on and off for a few hundred years, but they had to renegotiate their permission to reside in the city every few years and renewal was never guaranteed. Thus, the decision to create a Jewish ghetto was actually a mixed blessing. As Shaul Bassi, a Venetian Jewish scholar and writer, points out, the ghetto both excluded and included the city’s Jews. The Jews had to live within the ghetto’s walls, which were locked at night, and they had to wear a yellow hat or badge to distinguish them from non-Jews. But the establishment of the ghetto signaled that, at last, the Jews were there to stay. So while their mobility was limited, that limited mobility was much better than the alternative – expulsion.
According to David Rosenberg-Wohl, curator of the 2008 exhibition “Il Ghetto: Forging Italian Jewish Identities 1516-1870” at the Museo Italo Americano in San Francisco, the establishment of Venice’s ghetto was “a liberal solution to how Western Christianity usually treated its Jews, which was kick them out or kill them.”
In contrast, the ghetto in Rome established in 1555 by Pope Paul IV’s papal bull Cum Nimis Absurdum was anything but liberal. In addition to requiring Rome’s Jews to live in a separate area – and the ghetto was placed in the least desirable part of town – it derailed many of their rights. The kehillah could have only one synagogue – the others were destroyed – and on Shabbat the Jews had to listen to a Christian sermon. The only professions that remained open to them were demeaning ones, such as rag-picking, dealing in second-hand goods and being a pawnbroker or a fish monger. If a Jew was a doctor, he couldn’t attend to non-Jewish patients. Jews could no longer own property, even in the ghetto. All Christians, young and old, were ordered to treat Jews as second-class citizens.
Pope Paul IV, or Gian Pietro Carafa before he became pope, was no friend of the Jews, as his papal bull shows. Although he detested the Spanish, before he became pope Carafa persuaded Pope Paul III to establish the Roman Inquisition, which was modeled on the one in Spain. Carafa served as one of the Inquisitors-General and famously remarked, “Even if my own father were a heretic, I would gather the wood to burn him.” During his five-year rule as pope, the Jewish population of Rome fell by fifty percent.
He was hated by Rome’s Christian population as well, who felt that his fanaticism had caused them nothing but trouble. (Historian John Julius Norwich calls him “the worst pope of the 16th century.) After Carafa died in 1559, Christians applauded when a Jew placed a yellow hat on the head of his statue – similar to the one he had forced the Jews to wear. Then the statue was decapitated by the Christians and thrown into the Tiber River.
What’s in a Name?
Most histories of the Venetian Ghetto will claim that the word “ghetto” comes from the foundry that was located in Cannaregio before the Jewish quarter was established; the word for pouring or casting metal in the Venetian dialect is gettare, and a foundry is a getto. But despite this evidence, The Oxford English Dictionary insists the word’s etymology is uncertain, mainly because it doesn’t explain how the soft Italian “g” of gettare and getto turned into the hard “gh” sound (like in spaghetti). That has left an opening for word sleuths to put forth their own theories to solve the puzzle of the word’s origins.
While one popular theory suggests the word comes from the Italian word borghetto (borgo means borough), others look to Hebrew or Yiddish for clues. Does ghetto come from get, the Jewish bill of divorce or separation? Or does it come from ghectus, a Yiddish word meaning enclosed, a theory linguist Anatoly Liberman mentions in his 2009 article “Why Don’t We Know the Origin of the Word Ghetto?”
A very fanciful theory suggests it comes from a clipped form of the word Egitto, from the Latin Aegyptus, to suggest the Jews’ exile in Egypt. Yet another theory is that ghetto may have entered Venice via English and Latin: in some parts of England the word jetty, from the Latin jactare, means a narrow row of old houses.
Johann Christoph Wagenseil, a German Christian Hebraist, put forth his own theory in his book De Sacri Rom. Imperii Libera Civitate Noribergensi Commentatio, published in 1697. Wagenseil posits that the Venetian word ghetto can be traced back to an Icelandic and Swedish name for street, gata. Gata wended its way into many European languages, taking different forms as it did so. For instance, in Anglo-Saxon it became gete. Thus, according to this theory, Venice’s ghetto is linguistically related to Frankfurt’s Judengasse, with gasse being the High German word for street.
One reason for all this speculation is because the word ghetto doesn’t appear in the decree enacted by the Venetian Senate or in Pope Paul IV’s papal bull of 1555. According to Benjamin C.E. Ravid, professor of Jewish history at Brandeis University, the first known mention of ghetto in writing is actually a Jewish source: the 1523 Hebrew diary of David Reuveni, the mystic and adventurer who dreamed of assembling a European force to expel the Ottomans from Eretz Yisrael. Reuveni came to Venice to meet with Pope Clement VII and other Church officials. In his diary he mentions “the ghetto, the place of the Jews.”
Does this mean it was Venice’s Jews who gave their new neighborhood its name? Probably not. But we do know that by the early 1600s the word ghetto was defined in an English travelogue as “a place where the whole fraternity of the Jews dwelleth together,” and long after the foundry has been forgotten the word still has that connotation.
The British historian Cecil Roth thought he would have the final word on this topic when he published his 1934 article “The Origin of Ghetto: A Final Word.” He considers all the theories mentioned above, plus a few more, but in the end he chooses the foundry theory as the most logical. As for why getto was transformed into ghetto, he looks to Venice’s Jews. The first Venetian ghetto was intended only for the poorer Ashkenazic Jews from German countries, who mainly worked as moneylenders or pawnbrokers. Thus, the Ashkenazim very likely lent their German accent to the Venetian word, and with time the spelling changed to reflect the new pronunciation.
Life Goes On
The lively discussion surrounding the origin of the word ghetto can be seen as a metaphor for life within the ghetto itself. For while the intent may have been to separate and humiliate Jews, as was the case with the Ghetto of Rome established in the mid-1500s or the ghettos established by the Nazis four hundred years later, Jewish life managed to thrive even in these harsh conditions.
The Venetian Ghetto, in particular, was known as a place of Jewish scholarship and culture. For many years Venice was the center of Hebrew book publishing, as well as a center of Kabbalah. During the day, non-Jews would flock to the ghetto’s many shops, which were stocked with textiles, jewelry, and spices; they would also visit Jewish doctors and Jewish-owned banks.
But by the time the French Emperor Napoleon tore down the gates of the Venetian Ghetto in 1797 – the ghetto in Rome wasn’t demolished until 1888 – Italy’s Jewish community had already entered a period of decline.
The problems besetting the Jews of Italy and the rest of Europe weren’t just economic. The Enlightenment had a profound impact on Europe’s Jews. It also presented a challenge for the Church, as we’ll see in Part VI of this series: The Enlightenment and the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism.
Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea, Michael Duniere, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, April 19, 2016.
“Jewish Ghettos of Pre-Emancipation Europe,” Hila Ratzabi, My Jewish Learning.com.
“Jewish Word/Ghetto: Venice, Harlem and Beyond,” Eileen Lavine, Moment Magazine, May 20, 2013.
“Jews of Italy” and “The Catholic Church and the Jews in the Aftermath of the Reformation,” Magda Teter, the Center for Online Judaic Studies (COJS).
“Stigma, Acceptance and the end of Liminality: Jews and Christians in Early Modern Italy,” Kenneth Stow, At the Margins: Minority Groups in Early Modern Italy, University of Minnesota Press, 2005.
“The Centuries-Old History of Venice’s Jewish Ghetto,” Simon Worrall, Smithsonian Journeys Quarterly, November 6, 2015.
The History of the Popes from the Foundation of the See of Rome to the Present Time, Archibald Bower, Vol. VII, London, 1766.
“The Jews of Italy: 8 little-known facts about the unique community of Italian Jews,” Dr. Yvette Alt Miller, Aish.com.
“The Origin of Ghetto: A Final Word,” Cecil Roth, Romania, vol. 60, no 237, 1934. pp. 67-76.
“Why Don’t We Know the Origin of the Word Ghetto?” Anatoly Liberman, Oxford Etymologist, March 4, 2009; amended in March 25, 2009.