When you are a minority in the country you call home, it is easy to get a sense of feeling lost. When you travel some place and you realize in some small area you are no longer a minority, you change. You feel more comfortable, confident in your walk and talk. You no longer wonder about your place in the world.
I recently planned and traveled to Europe, visiting five cities with my niece to celebrate her completion of her Bat Mitzvah. As I watched the news for the last year and saw all the things happening in the world to the Jewish people, I became nervous. However, along the way, we had the pleasure of going to Venice, Italy, where there is a thriving Jewish community. There are over 270,000 permanent residents in Venice. Of those residents, 500 of them are Jewish. In Venice's Jewish neighborhood, you have that sense of belonging and do not have the constant awareness of being in the minority. There is a Jewish school, a Talmud Torah, kindergarten and an old age Home.
In planning the trip, I booked us a room at Giardino Dei Melgorani, Kosher House. When I saw this, I knew it was the place we should stay. We happened to be there over Shabbos, so we had to climb our stairs instead of using the elevator and needed to ensure everything was taken care of before Shabbos approached. Unknown to us was that this hotel was in the Campo Ghetto Nuovo, the New Jewish Ghetto. We passed many Jewish shops and restaurants on our way to the hotel. We saw the children with kippahs and tzitzit, the mothers preparing for Shabbos and every tourist stopping and staring at all the action taking place. We also saw a Jewish museum that explained the history of the area.
Upon checking in to the hotel, we sat and talked with the person helping us. He offered to have us attend Shabbos services in the community, something we unfortunately declined as we lacked appropriate clothes to be respectful to those in the community. He did go on to tell us the story of the community. In Venice today, there are five active synagogues: a Spanish, Levantin, Italian, Canton and German Synagogue. He told us how Venice was the first location to make Ghetto a place on the map, and not just where the Jewish people where within a town, but to make it its own town to the world. This blew my mind.
The history lesson continued with telling us that on March 29, 1516, the government issued special laws to establish the first Ghetto of Europe. While this may seem like a positive, it also came with rules that the Jewish people were forced to follow. The Jewish people could not live anywhere else except in the Ghetto and were locked in from sunset to dawn. He then showed us the two areas in which the doors were located and how open they are now. The Jewish people were also only allowed to work certain professions: doctors, money-lenders, merchants and strazzarioli (rag sellers). This Ghetto existed for more than two and a half centuries.
The next part of the story was something I had never heard before, and my niece and I were both surprised. In 1797, when Napoleon conquered Venice, he broke down the doors and gates to the Ghetto, freeing the Jewish people and giving them the opportunity to roam the city with no limitations and making them a part of the community at large, not just their small section.
As we walked around after this story, we were so much more aware of our surroundings. Seeing all the street signs took on a new meaning for both of us. When we walked up the stairs leaving the Ghetto that was previously locked off, there was this sense of freedom that even I felt. It reminded me of the same feeling of pride I felt when leaving concentration camps when I was in Poland. This was sense of "even though they tried to destroy us, we are proof that they could not."
After this experience, I would love to go back and spend more time in Venice. I want to experience the things I was unable to do and see because of my limited time.