I decided to spend my Sunday and Monday at the Center for Jewish History attending a conference about the Jewish ghetto. The distinguished panel of presenters came from the top universities in the United States, Israel and Italy. A new Medici archives project was presenting materials ranging from general community related papers to personal stories of the individual Jews in the Middle Age (or as some scholars called it Early Modern) Italy.
The ideas presented touched the Venetian
ghetto and beyond, indeed. The authoritative professors were talking about the ghetto itself, its origins, its paradoxical existence. They ventured into the Polish and Turkish Jewish communities and even into the captivity and ransom activities within Eastern Mediterranean.
Some interesting thoughts:
- The ghetto paradox – on the one hand it was dirty, sequestered, segregated place. What was worse than this in 16th century? One the other hand, it is better than expulsion, it is a Jewish place that belonged to the Jews.
- Sense of closure vs. sense of intimacy.
- The ghetto was not necessarily a place of decline, but in many cases a place of development in terms of culture, art, and even integration into a larger Venetian society.
Some outcomes that I didn’t know of:
- Some Venetian and Italian Rabbis in general drank the gentile wine, even though they tried to abstain from it in their private lives – talk about the desire to “integrate” into society. I always thought that the questions about legitimacy of non-kosher wine in modern times did arise only in Modern Times.
- Apparently Frankfurt’s Judengasse predated the Venetian ghetto for 50 years.
- In Rome’s 17-18 centuries the Rabbis were never considered the leaders of the community.
- Catholic church felt the need to have the Jews locked up for fear of spiritual contamination. Interestingly enough, the very people they thought were impure were the ones who came up with ritual purity ideas. Just look at the mikvaotall over ancient Jerusalem.
- The actual reason for the ghetto in Rome, at least, was to make it temporary “until all the Jews convert”. Thank Gd, that never happened, even those there was a period of time, when conversions were quite wide spread.
- In Istanbul, Turkey during 16 century, a sizable Jewish community from all over the Mediterranean resides as merchants, just migrants from other countries, and even diplomats. Jewish diplomats were rare, but existed at the courts of some European monarch, including some spying for them using their familiar ties all over the world.
- Jews were instrumental in ransoming both Jewish and Xtian captives from different forces in the region. It is unknown, however, if the favor was returned to the Jews, when Jewish captives needed to be ransomed. Usually, the Jewish community took care of their own.
If you are interested in the Jewish history in the Middle Ages, and live in New York City, do go and see the exhibition, which is small, but very nice. Overall, two days well spent.