Shy­lock­’s Venice: The Remark­able His­to­ry of Venice’s Jews and the Ghetto

  • Review
By – July 8, 2024

Trav­el­ers from all around the world flock to Venice to see its Jew­ish ghet­to. Yet few are aware of the crit­i­cal role the ghet­to played in the cul­tur­al, intel­lec­tu­al, and finan­cial his­to­ry of Europe. 

Har­ry Freedman’s new book is fas­ci­nat­ing and thor­ough. It’s a total plea­sure to dis­cov­er why restrict­ing Jews phys­i­cal­ly turned out to unleash them creatively. 

Erect­ed in 1516 and dis­man­tled by Napoleon in 1798, Venice’s ghet­to was the world’s first ghet­to. It became an epi­cen­ter of intel­lec­tu­al life for Jews and non-Jews. Liv­ing con­di­tions were mis­er­able, but Hebrew print­ing and schol­ar­ship flour­ished, as did glob­al com­merce and trade, which brought wealth to the Venet­ian Republic. 

Among the most promi­nent non-Jews to con­sult with rab­binic schol­ars was an emis­sary of King Hen­ry VIII (the king was search­ing for a way out of his mar­riage to Cather­ine of Aragon). This inter­ac­tion even­tu­al­ly brought the prac­tices of Jew­ish money­len­ders to the atten­tion of Eng­lish play­wrights, includ­ing Shake­speare. Freed­man spec­u­lates freely about the mean­ing and his­tor­i­cal con­text of the char­ac­ter of Shy­lock, though it is only one of many threads in his book. Oth­ers include the role of women in the ghetto’s com­merce and salons, the rise and fall of Kab­bal­ism, recur­rent plagues, and the grad­ual per­me­abil­i­ty between wealthy Vene­tians and Jew­ish mer­chants. As one source put it, When it came to cul­ture, the ghet­to walls were porous.” 

Shylock’s Venice is a must-read for any­one who has been to Venice or ever plans to go.

Eleanor Foa is an author, jour­nal­ist, and cor­po­rate writer. Her mem­oir MIXED MES­SAGES: Reflec­tions on an Ital­ian Jew­ish Fam­i­ly and Exile comes out in Novem­ber 2019. Her work appears in nation­al news­pa­pers, mag­a­zines and web­sites. She is the author of Whith­er Thou Goest and In Good Com­pa­ny, Pres­i­dent of Eleanor Foa Asso­ciates (eleanor​foa​.com), past pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Soci­ety of Jour­nal­ists and Authors, and received lit­er­ary res­i­den­cies at Yad­do and the Vir­ginia Cen­ter for the Cre­ative Arts.

Discussion Questions