Five hundred years ago today, on March 29, 1516, the Venice Ghetto was established by decree of the Venice Ruling Council. The very first ghetto, it was a tiny 2 1/2 block area on a small, dirty island housing over 4,000 people. The name comes from the Italian getto meaning “casting,” or Venetian geto meaning “foundry.”
With its establishment, the ghetto became the only place Venetian Jews were allowed to live — a gated area within which its residents were locked at night. The Jews of the ghetto were surveilled, limited in their movements and the professions they could practice, and forced to wear yellow markings on their clothing when they left the ghetto. In the years that followed, similar ghettos were established in cities throughout Europe. Venice’s gated ghetto survived until 1797, when Napolean stormed the city and tore down the ghetto walls, ending the restrictions on Jewish life.
The legacy of the founding of the Venice ghetto five hundred years ago cannot be overstated. Not only did it give birth to the concept of a “ghetto” as a place where marginalized groups where forced to live in cities under trying conditions. But this type of anti-Semitism eventually led to a mass migration of Jews from Europe to the New World, particularly to New York’s Lower East Side, including the present-day East Village. Here, these immigrants shaped and utterly transformed our city, nation, and especially our neighborhood.
In fact, four centuries later, the Lower East Side of Manhattan, covering the area from 14th Street to the Brooklyn Bridge, became a new type of ghetto. Home to nearly half a million Jews, by 1916 it comprised the world’s largest Jewish community at the time. As in the Venice ghetto, the Jews of the Lower East Side lived in unimaginably crowded conditions; packed into just two square miles, this was one of the densest areas of human settlement on Earth.
But unlike the Venetian Jews of the 16th century, the Jews of the Lower East Side and present-day East Village, including my own grandparents, could come and go as they pleased. And while they faced enormous challenges and obstacles, they also created an incredibly vibrant and vital community, evidence of which remains with us to this day.
So on the five hundredth anniversary of the establishment of the Venice ghetto, we thought we’d take a look at just some of the legacy of Jewish life on the Lower East Side and in the East Village.
- The East Village/Lower East Side Historic District was designated in 2012. Covering more than a dozen blocks and several hundred structures, the spine of the district is Lower Second Avenue, once the “Yiddish Railto” and the heart of Jewish life in what is now called the East Village. GVSHP advocated strongly for designation of the district and its expansion to include more than a dozen additional sites.
- Congregation Mezritch Synagogue was built in 1910, and is the last operating “tenement synagogue” in the East Village. Proposed for demolition in 2008, GVSHP successfully fought to preserve the building (in 2015 the congregation leased part of the building for residential use).
- Town and Village Synagogue (Congregation Tifereth Israel) was originally built as a German Baptist Church in 1866, and became a Ukrainian Autocephalic Orthodox Church in 1926 before becoming a synagogue in 1962. In 2013, the synagogue was advertised for sale, thus endangering this historic structure. GVSHP spearheaded a successful campaign to get the structure landmarked in 2014.
- The Manhattan Third District Magistrate’s Court (now Anthology Film Archives): A Rite of Passage or Jewish Gangsters of the Lower East Side.
- The former home of Jewish anarchist/feminist Emma Goldman.
- The Synagogues of East 6th Street.
- Moishe’s Jewish Bakery.
- The Fillmore East’s history as a Yiddish Theater.
- The Saul Birns Building.
- Cafe Royal: As The New Yorker stated in 1937, “everybody who is anybody in the creative Jewish world turns up at the Cafe Royal at least one night a week.”
- Abe Lebewohl Park and the Yiddish Walk of Fame.
- The Hebrew Actor’s Union.
- B&H Dairy.
- Walking East 3rd Street: Tenement Synagogues & Jewish Life.
- The former Talmud Torah Darchei Noam building, or East Side Hebrew Institute.
- The Community Synagogue Max D. Raiskin Center (formerly German Evangelical Lutheran Church of St. Mark), 323‐327 East 6th Street, Manhattan.
- The Yiddish Art Theater (now Village East Cinemas).
If you liked this post, you might also like How Bohemians Got Their Name and this post about the origins of the name of Gay Street.