Finding Ourselves in the Venetian Ghetto

This is the Talmud quoting Shmuel ben Nachmani on dreams, but the observation speaks fittingly—and pointedly—to last summer’s commemoration of the establishment of the first ever Jewish ghetto, in Venice on March 29, 1516. Events throughout the city spanned several months and included an ambitious exhibition, “Venice, the Jews and Europe, 1516-2016,” at the Palazzo Ducale; a mock trial in the matter of Shylock v. Antonio that was presided over by Ruth Bader Ginsburg on summer break; and the staging of The Merchant of Venice in the ghetto, where it had never before been presented (the production will be restaged this fall at Peak Performances in Montclair, New Jersey).   

The organizers of these events seized the opportunity provided by these round numbers—five hundred years since the inception of the ghetto, four hundred since Shakespeare’s death—to remind visitors that the city is, after all, about more than masks and Murano glass. Any gesture is welcome that helps, even slightly, to moderate the flood of tourists (and touristic kitsch) that pose a greater threat to La Serenissima than the rising seawaters, yet the commemoration came with its own set of problems as its organizers sought to liken Venice’s very particular treatment of the city’s Jews to the situation faced by refugees in Europe and around the world today. 

The ghetto was, above all else, invented out of economic need.

The impetus may, arguably, be a bighearted recognition of “the challenge of avoiding a new age of concrete barriers and barbed wire fences, and of obviating the danger of a world with an archipelago of ghettos,” as the exhibition’s chief curator, Donatella Calabi, described it in her introduction to the catalogue, but this was a not quite accurate reading of the past, or the present either. Immigrants today may be posing an unprecedented problem in Europe and, post-Trump, they may be testing the foundational precepts on which the United States was conceived—and has conceived of itself for generations—but no one is locking them up in a circumscribed neighborhood, pinning yellow circles on their clothes, restricting their professions, or limiting their daily physical movements. 

While the Venetian ghetto foreshadows certain characteristics of the actual—and horrible—archipelago it eventually begat, it can be easy to forget that originally it was a one-off in its category and still, in many ways, remains in a category of its own. Named for the undistinguished, largely industrial neighborhood where the city’s iron foundry had fallen into disuse in the early sixteenth-century, the ghetto as a circumscribed space was established at a moment of deep crisis for Venice, in the period following 1508 when the League of Cambrai—a powerful alliance of European leaders—had turned against the republic. At the same time, with the discovery of the Americas and the opening up of trade routes there and to the East, Venetian business practices were undergoing a dramatic shift. A steady stream of capital was needed, and lots of it. The doge and the senate saw a solution: create a specific neighborhood for the republic’s Jews, whose experience as money lenders made them increasingly essential to the local economy. The ghetto was, above all else, invented out of economic need.

Just as Venice in general had a polyglot character—Orthodox Greeks, Albanians, Persians, Turks, and Northern Europeans all made their homes on the lagoon—so, in short order, did the ghetto. Jews who had formerly lived throughout the city were brought together in a single neighborhood and organized with a slyly calibrated combination of protection (meaning also surveillance) and control. Twice enlarged, by the mid-seventeenth century the ghetto stretched to embrace more than 2,600 German, Italian, Levantine, and Ponentine (Spanish) Jews. Each subgroup spoke a different language, wore different clothes, cooked different food, and worshipped at different synagogues. “In those early decades of the sixteenth century,” Calabi claims, “the Venetian Republic implemented an urban strategy of welcoming immigrants”—well, maybe, but what a very particular, and cunning, form of welcome this was indeed.

As Riccardo Calimani points out in his newly updated, comprehensive Storia del Ghetto di Venezia (History of the Venetian Ghetto, 2016), there was no question that the aim was to restrict the liberty of the Jews. Virtually overnight the Jews of Venice, who previously had been considered an important part of the social fabric of the republic, were now spoken about “con sospetto e con timore”—with suspicion and fear. Object though they did, on March 29, 1516, the city’s entire Jewish community was forced to move into the newly created ghetto, where they continued to reside until Napoleon ordered the gates torn down in 1797. 

Three hundred years is a long time to be deprived of human rights; it is also a long time to summarize in one museum exhibition. While there were periods of less and more control, better and worse living conditions, one thing remained unchanged: The Jews were compelled to live in a designated place against their will. The Venetian ghetto was not, however, a prison. Jews and Christians came and went freely during the day, though at night the Christians remained at liberty while the Jews were required to retreat within the confines of a neighborhood where the windows that faced the water were by decree blocked up and guards were posted to protect and observe. Jews were forced to wear badges, and they were prevented from owning their own property, in the ghetto or elsewhere in the city. 

Laws often addressed surprising minutiae: schools for dancing and singing were forbidden. Tailoring was forbidden, but dealing in second-hand clothes, or strazzaria, was permitted. Consorting with Christian women was not allowed. The practice of medicine: yes. All other higher professions: no. Moneylending was of course sanctioned—it was one of the key reasons the Jews were kept so close.

Venice’s treatment of Jews is likened to the situation faced by refugees in Europe and around the world.

Ghetto residents of means, who were in a distinct minority, managed to live decently. But the rest of the inhabitants dwelled in cramped and squalorous conditions, a fact that was not so obvious in the exhibition’s elegant displays of cross-section drawings of ghetto buildings done in the seventeenth century. The drawings weren’t alone in prettifying the past in this way. By their very nature, museums often insist on coaxing out the beautiful from even the most unbeautiful experiences, and this was particularly true in the lavish setting of the ducal apartments, where the grittier realities of ghetto life were obscured by paintings of related subjects by Vittore Carpaccio and Giovanni Bellini, delicate watercolors of the exquisite interiors of the synagogues, and a collection of gleaming silver Torah appointments.

There were some impressive achievements in the ghetto, to be sure, central among them the printing of important works of rabbinical literature by Daniel Bomberg, who began a significant publishing tradition that was undone by the Inquisition in 1553. The ghetto produced skilled musicians, effective and ambitious charities, the poet and saloniste Sara Sullam. 

But any relief that comes from discovering that some of these confined people managed to thrive under highly imperfect circumstances is sharply undercut by the most basic reality check. As Dario Calimani, who recently published a new Italian translation of The Merchant of Venice, pointed out in a trenchant blog post on Moked, none of the good that came out of the ghetto counterbalances “the degradation in which the ghetto constrained thousands of people who for three hundred years were closed in, had their spirits squashed and liberty impeded, even in the relative sense of what ‘liberty’ meant at that time.” The reach of the ghetto, he added, was long-lasting: it “produced a particular mentality, a closedness, a fear, and a sense of inferiority; maybe also, who knows, an unconscious sense of guilt.”

Islamophobia is decidedly on the rise, and marooned immigrants shame the thriving western nations that turn them away, but are we anywhere near this point? When the past is mined for lessons, surely it’s best to mine it judiciously and with the clearest attention to the facts.

In the museum, as in the city last summer, Shakespeare’s one Jewish character was even trickier to pin down than the ghetto itself. It’s one thing to know the bones of The Merchant of Venice, where the moneylender Shylock, in an act of “merry sport,” as he puts it, makes a loan to the merchant Antonio with the proviso that, if Antonio defaults, he will surrender a pound of his flesh, and where, in the trial that follows Antonio’s default, the court eventually rules against Shylock, forcing him to undergo conversion to Christianity and forfeit his estate to his daughter and her Christian husband. But it’s quite another to happen on Shylock in the Ducal apartments, where he was dropped in among the Torah pointers and the cross-section drawings. Museumgoers stood rapt and silent watching film clips that ranged from a 1913 silent version of the play (“Hath not a Jew eyes?” written on a title card felt curiously jarring), to celebrated performances by Laurence Olivier and Al Pacino, to a filmed rehearsal of Karin Coonrod’s production across town, in the open air of a ghetto that Shakespeare never visited, never mentioned, and possibly did not know about, his imagined Venice being as much about his actual England, a country that had expelled its Jews in 1290 yet remained vividly preoccupied with them.

Shaul Bassi, the organizer of the Ghetto 500 events and a Shakespeare scholar himself, described Shylock in the exhibition catalogue as, inevitably, the most famous Venetian Jew of all time and called Shylock’s best-known speech a humanitarian manifesto: “We are all equal in the degree zero of our corporeality.” This sort of take dovetails nicely with an exhibition that chooses to see the Jews of sixteenth-century Venice calling across the centuries to present-day refugees in Europe. Yet even in this context Bassi recognized that Shylock is “an ambivalent figure” who is “never completely reducible to an anti-Semitic symbol and never wholly redeemable as a human being for whom we can feel sympathy and solidarity.” In other words: he is a literary creation, multifaceted and elusive, and as such cannot easily be bent to cut this year’s, or any year’s, fashions.

Shylock, the most famous of Venetian Jews, is the most profound expression of otherness the playwright ever imagined.

If Shylock can be said to embody anything, it is duality. He is both victim and villain; he is the ur-expression of anti-Semitism and the picture of philo-Semitism; he is a classic Shakespearean blocking figure in a romantic comedy, and he is the most profound expression of otherness the playwright ever imagined. He continues to invite interpretation, embarrassment, perplexity, and unease. Not unlike the ghetto, he is a screen ready for projection, or reinterpretation, in every season.

What did Ginsburg make of him? After wading into a thicket of legal confusion, some of which had to do with the mock trial (the lawyers who came before her did not agree as to whether they were appealing the verdict against Shylock under sixteenth or twenty-first century laws) and some with the play (Ginsburg logically observed that she knew of no other context in which it was possible for a civil case to turn against the plaintiff and into a criminal case), the Supreme Court Justice was especially confounded by Shylock’s bizarre insistence on obtaining that problematic pound of Antonio’s flesh. “Are you saying he is insane?” she twice asked the lawyers with evident exasperation as she and her fellow judges sailed off to deliberate in private. Ginsburg was far from the first person in the past four hundred years to have so personal a reaction to stubborn, recalcitrant Shylock.

Meanwhile the Shakespeare scholars, James Shapiro and Stephen Greenblatt, stepped forward to address the audience—the entr’acte was the thing. 

Shapiro, whose first book, Shakespeare and the Jews (1992), examines what was known, thought, said, written, and feared about the Jews in England in and preceding Shakespeare’s day, began by remarking how unusual The Merchant of Venice is in the canon. Shylock starts off, after all, as a comic villain but ends up, as Shapiro phrased it, “calling for our attention as a profound human being.” He observed that the play is engaged with anti-Semitism—which is very different from taking an anti-Semitic stance—and noted that it was just one among many forms of xenophobia pervasive in Venice, and England, at the time. For Shapiro, The Merchant of Venice is a play where Jewish difference figures largely in a sea of differences, among them homosexual difference (Antonio’s love for Bassanio) and racial difference (Portia and her black suitor, the prince of Morocco, whom she shuns on account of his skin color). 

Greenblatt added that the play, while generally classified as a comedy, really shares more characteristics in common with the problem plays, which are known for presenting a series of puzzles. In the case of The Merchant of Venice, these range from the way the drama opens with Antonio’s sadness to Shylock’s (if not insane, certainly illogical) determination to obtain his pound of flesh to the play’s confounding fifth act, when Shylock disappears and the whole thing goes slack. 

Alas these problems were not likely to be resolved by the Ginsburg verdict, which, when it was delivered, came as no surprise: The court decided that Shylock’s attempt to extract the pound of flesh was, in fact, a recompense that no court would enforce. At the same time the court invalidated the verdict that confiscated Shylock’s property, nullified his forced conversion to Christianity, and sanctioned Portia (who had impersonated the legal scholar Balthazar) for being an imposter, hypocrite, trickster, and bigot, and went on to punish her by dispatching her to Padova to study law properly. And finally, Ginsburg added, Shylock was out of time in asking for interest on his loan.

What did Ruth Bader Ginsburg make of the stubborn, recalcitrant Shylock?

The audience erupted in merry applause, as if something had actually been resolved about this very troubling play and its very troubling setting. Afterward The New York Times cooed as it described Ginsberg sipping a Bellini (provided by Harry’s Bar) at the reception that followed. 

Fortunately there is always the text. Across town in the ghetto, after the mock appeal that evening and on five other evenings besides, Karin Coonrod and her company, the Compagnia de’ Colombari, presented the play in the open air of the Piazza del Campo del Ghetto Nuovo.

As a director, Karin Coonrod is a teeming laboratory of ideas. To emphasize the diversity of Venice, her casting was color- and gender-blind, and she had the actors deliver some of their lines in Italian, Ladino, Yiddish, Judeo-Venetian, French, Spanish, German, and Arabic. Her most intriguing idea was to cast five different performers as Shylock: one Jewish, four not, white men, men of color, even a woman. Her Shylock was a universal Shylock, a provocative Shylock, a multicultural Shylock to fit with the multicultural interpretation of the ghetto in the exhibition across town—only with the point more subtly made. He was also, in the end, a somewhat diluted Shylock, since when all is said and done, isn’t Shylock’s hold on us as tenacious as it is precisely because he is a Jew—Shakespeare’s one Jew?

And yet there was a moment when the universal Shylock and specific Shylock came together with impact. At the beginning of a somewhat reworked Act III, where Shylock rages at his daughter Jessica’s elopement with the Christian Lorenzo (who happened to be played by Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s grandson, Paul Spera), Coonrod brought all five Shylocks together. All five, bound in their telltale yellow sashes, raged and moaned until anger bled into grief and these five keening, united Shylocks began to feel like a Greek chorus commenting on the betrayal that tore into Shylock like a near-mortal wound: “My own flesh and blood to rebel!”

It was one of those moments of theatrical insight—a kind of conjury—that changed the way you see this difficult man. Shylock, it became painfully clear, was betrayed as both a father and a Jew. Suddenly he was as much an alien now in his private life as he was in his public one. The moment hit Shylock in his gut and it hit us in ours, as we watched from up above, sitting in the breeze-stirred bleachers, and it ended up shedding a different clarifying light on Shylock’s vengeance in the court scenes that followed. 

To marginalize a man so completely is to break him. Here, finally, was a twenty-first century take on a sixteenth-century moment that made visceral sense. As for all the rest, it seems likely that Shylock, like the play that barely contains him, will go on perplexing us for at least another four hundred years, if not longer. The ghetto is another matter. Its creation is not to be deployed in facile comparisons. It is nothing to celebrate or moderate, only to lament.