Growing up in rural Kentucky, there were no Jews or Muslims. I wasn’t taught to distinguish between Gentiles, Jews and Arabs, and had no preconceived ideas about any of them. The only thing I knew about Jews was what I learned at my rather liberal Sunday School, where Jews were presented in a good light, since Jesus had been one, after all, and the Old Testament was part of our Bible.
It’s not surprising that, quite unconsciously, I have friends of all persuasions and felt at ease going to the opening commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Jewish Ghetto – the first one in the world, the term which came to be used around the world to describe a segregated enclave – at La Fenice opera house last night. Five hundred years ago, on March 29, 1516, the Venetian government decided to confine the approximately 700 Jews then living in Venice to a 10-acre area, on the site of a copper foundry. In fact, the word “ghetto” means “cast” in Italian and refers to this fact.
Although they were allowed to go into the city to work during the day, they were to sleep, eat and live in this small, enclosed space and return by sundown, when the gates to the ghetto were locked. The truth is Venice might well have had difficulty functioning at all if they had locked in Jewish doctors, lawyers, printers, cloth and spice merchants, bankers, musicians and dancing masters entirely. During this period, they were forced to wear yellow and red badges (colors associated with shame) to signify that they were Jews; the Nazis didn’t invent this concept.
The evening was full of guest speakers of every Jewish persuasion, but my favorite was Simon Schama, a brilliant, dynamic British scholar, who has written extensively about the history of the Jews. It was not a celebration, but a commemoration of what the Jews have suffered and the resilience they have drawn from it and of the abundance of works of art and scholarship that arose out of it despite all the hardship. This word stuck in my mind: resilience. My Jewish friends and husband are the most resilient people I know; perhaps that’s why I’m so drawn to them, apart from their incredible intellect, appreciation of the arts, precision, and natural curiosity.
The ceremony was followed by the La Fenice Orchestra’s wonderful rendition of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, perhaps his work most influenced by traditional Jewish musical themes. I cried many tears, especially during the moving speech by Renzo Gattegna, President of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, with his profound understanding and ability to speak of what it is to remain human, empathic and just under even the most humiliating conditions. At the same time, I drew great joy from this evening, knowing that I have the blessing of loving and being loved by so many Jews.
Timeline and history
Simon Schama and “The Story of the Jews”
The Jews in sixteenth-century England
East Meets West in Venice