Jewish Word | Ghetto
Venice, Harlem and Beyond
There are few words that so acutely symbolize discrimination as “ghetto.” It was coined in Venice in 1516 to refer to a segregated, enclosed area of a city where Jews were forced to live. It then came to signify any place where Jews were concentrated and from there an urban minority slum perpetuated by social and economic reasons rather than legal fiat. In between, the Nazis adopted the term to denote their horrific provisional way stations on the road to extermination.
Ghetto’s etymology is uncertain, according to The Oxford English Dictionary. Some scholars claim that it comes from the Italian word gheto or ghet, slag or waste in Venetian dialect. Some argue it originates from gettare, meaning pouring or casting metal, and refers to a foundry where slag was stored on the Venetian island where the first ghetto was located. Other popular theories are that the word derives from the word borghetto (borgo means borough), or from the Hebrew get, a deed of divorce or separation. In a 2009 column for The Oxford Etymologist entitled “Why Don’t We Know the Origin of the Word Ghetto?” linguist Anatoly Liberman speculates that the word might even come from the Yiddish word ghectus, a Latinized form of gehektes or enclosed. Liberman’s origin of choice, however, is the English word jetty (from the Latin jactare), which means a narrow road of ancient houses in parts of England.
The first known written mention of the word ghetto was uncovered by Benjamin C.E. Ravid, professor of Jewish history at Brandeis University, in a 1523 Hebrew diary of Venetian David Ha-Reuveni, who refers to “the ghetto, the place of the Jews.” The earliest known written mention in English is in a 1611 travelogue, Coryat’s Crudities, which reads “a place where the whole fraternity of the Jews dwelleth together, which is called the ghetto.”
Regardless of its origin, ghettos were a significant part of medieval Jewish life. But as Ravid points out, “All ghettos were Jewish quarters, but not all Jewish quarters were ghettos.” Jews sometimes voluntarily agreed to live in separate sectors, but often it was not their choice. Fearing that Christians’ faith would be weakened by contact with Jews, the Lateran Councils of 1179 and 1215 first called for segregating the Jews, and what was in effect a ghetto was set aside as early as 1262 in Prague. By the mid-15th century, this practice became formalized as cities started to compel Jews to move into a separate quarter, usually in the poorest section of town: Frankfurt’s infamous Judengasse, for example, was established in 1460 by a city ordinance.
The term ghetto wasn’t actually used until the Venetians moved Jews, primarily Ashkenazi moneylenders, into the Ghetto Nuovo (the new ghetto), surrounded by walls with two gates kept locked from sunset to sunrise. To add living space to the crowded quarters, floors were added to existing buildings resulting in the first “skyscrapers.” Later, in 1541, when Sephardic Jewish merchants from the Ottoman Empire moved to Venice, they were assigned to an area called Ghetto Vecchio (the old ghetto), connected to the first by a wooden footbridge over the canal. Rome’s ghetto was formed in 1555 by decree of Pope Paul IV, confining Jews to a single street with only one entrance and exit on the left bank of the Tiber River, an area subject to flooding and disease. In subsequent decades, Jewish ghettos were created in Verona, Padua and other Tuscan cities. In 1797, when Napoleon’s army reached Venice, a municipal council took over the government, soon ending the restrictions on the Jews. In Rome, King Victor Emmanuel formally abolished the Roman ghetto in 1870, although its walls were not destroyed until 1885.
The original Venetian ghetto was “a liberal solution to how Western Christianity usually treated its Jews, which was kick them out or kill them,” says David Rosenberg-Wohl, curator of a 2008 exhibition “Il Ghetto: Forging Italian Jewish Identities 1516-1870” at the Museo Italo-Americano in San Francisco. “The ghetto is not so much a prison as the idea of containment,” he adds. Rosenberg-Wohl also points out that Venetian Jews were required to wear yellow badges or hats. The Nazis were to borrow this method of identification many centuries later.
The Venetian ghetto provided the Jews a place within society so that they were not expelled as they were in England, France, Spain and Portugal, says Ravid. “It was residential control with some restrictions imposed, but Venetians did not intend to isolate the Jews all the time,” he says. “They wanted to prevent mingling with Christians, especially the women, at dark. Jews were free to go outside during the day, and Christians came into the ghetto to borrow money from Jewish moneylenders.”
One byproduct of this “open ghetto” policy was an intensification of Jewish culture and solidarity, which allowed Jews to develop their own scholarly and religious resources, according to David Ruderman, professor of Jewish history at the University of Pennsylvania. They also had their own food, retail shops, schools and places of worship. Venice’s medieval ghetto had five synagogues including German, Italian, Spanish-Portuguese and Levantine Sephardi ones.
Ghettos had largely disappeared in Europe by the middle of the 19th century when the word crossed the Atlantic. Jewish authors borrowed the word to refer to the New World’s crowded Jewish neighborhoods. It made appearances in novels such as Israel Zangwill’s 1892 Children of the Ghetto and Abraham Cahan’s 1896 Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto. A book, The Ghetto, about the Jews of Chicago’s West Side by sociologist Louis Wirth was published in 1928.
Soon after, Germany’s new Nazi party reached back into the past to resurrect its own, more venomous version of ghettos. During World War II, Jews in Warsaw and hundreds of other cities and towns in Eastern Europe were pushed into crowded, miserable isolated quarters, to wear badges or armbands and to perform forced labor for the Germans. These ghettos, were, as Ravid writes, not residential areas but “a temporary stage on the planned road to total liquidation.”
Back in the United States, the definition of the word took a different direction. African Americans moved into the densely populated inner-city neighborhoods once populated by Jews and became trapped there by a combination of white hostility and housing and employment restrictions, according to the 1999 study, The Rise and Decline of the American Ghetto by David Cutler, Edward Glaeser and Jacob Vigdor. This “covert segregation” prevented African Americans from access to opportunities, says OnTay Johnson, a filmmaker in Los Angeles, who is working on a documentary, OMG, That’s So Ghetto, about the use of the word both as a noun and an adjective.
Ghetto culture has its proponents and detractors. To some African Americans, it represents a vibrant feeling of authenticity and pride. Langston Hughes celebrated this in his 1931 poem Negro Ghetto, and today’s hip-hop generation has made the word a symbol of defiance. But the
poverty of ghetto life has come with a steep price, says Johnson. “The lack of education and parental guidance have led to a mindset heavily ingrained in young people in inner city ghettos who can’t think outside their lifestyle,” says Johnson, who hopes his film will challenge stereotypes and inspire people to change their neighborhoods and improve their lives.
Meanwhile, the significance of the word ghetto is fading from collective memory. Europe’s old ghettos are now gentrified tourist attractions, lined with trendy restaurants. And as Johnson says, today’s ghetto residents “have no clue about the origins or insinuations behind the word.”