Last week I gave a paper at the XXVI International Seminar on Urban Form 2019 – Cities as Assemblages, hosted by the Cyprus Network of Urban Morphology. Following is a summary of the main points set out in the paper, the full version of which is currently being edited for publication.
If we go back to Venice 500 years ago, we find the preeminent example of the ghetto, the term we frequently use as equivalent to the most extreme form of segregation. Despite its apparent singularity in meaning, the Venice Ghetto provides the perfect example of spatial complexity. While it restricted the movement of the city’s Jewish inhabitants at night and limited their freedom during the daytime too, it also provided bodily security against religious persecution. In addition, despite the perception of the ghetto solely serving as an exclusionary device, history shows that there were quite high rates of commercial and cultural interchange between the Jews of Venice and wider society.
Of course I’m not saying that ghettos were objectively a good thing, but to use the term without understanding, for example, that walls can be simultaneously both restrictive and protective – or that where the ghetto itself is located will shape opportunities for encounter between populations – is to lose much understanding of the spatial nature of the ghetto.
But what about the connections within the community? The Jews of 16th century Venice were obliged to hide their synagogues, and a combination of a shortage of space and a consideration of potential conflicts, meant that their places of worship remained hidden within Jewish-owned property.
While internal religious and social connections were intensified by the high density living within the ghetto, it was commonplace to venture outside the ghetto: to shop for books, to work in the print-shop of Christians, to gamble, to visit gentile friends, to give instruction to gentile students, to appear in court at St. Mark’s.” Equally, despite a certain exoticisation of the Jewish community, it was frequently the case that Venetians, as well as visitors from farther afield, breached the ghetto bastions to hear a Rabbi’s sermons or to observe Jewish ceremonials, as can be seen in diary accounts from the 17th and 18th centuries.
A few decades later (1655) the much older Jewish community of Rome was enclosed within another ghetto. Strangely, despite the holy city having a much stronger desire to reinforce Christian boundaries, the ghetto was not only centrally located, but had a thoroughfare running through it, enabling commercial activity to continue.
Thus, the central argument of my paper is that one cannot use a singular definition of segregation, even when looking at historically extreme cases such as the Jewish ghettos of pre-emancipation Europe.
Only rare examples of religious freedom allowed for a more equal interface between the synagogue, the street and the city at large. The example of 17th century Amsterdam is one such case, with the synagogue being situated, similar to other minority groups of the city, in a prominent location at the junction of the new canal and major thoroughfares. Yet while it was prominent, the synagogue was set back from the street within a courtyard, similar to the slightly later synagogue pictured here. This delicate interplay between visibility and accessibility is at the heart of the way in which urban morphology shaped boundaries and thresholds between the minority community and the city at large.
The prominence of Amsterdam’s synagogues was unprecedented and remained so until the more widespread emancipation in cities conquered by Napoleon, which meant that starting from France after 1789, Jewish communities started to emerge out of the ghetto.
A few decades later, Jewish communities across the Ottoman Empire saw a similar increase in religious freedom, with a parallel shift from modest synagogues set back from the street to newer synagogues designed to directly face the public street.
Over in London the situation was different from continental Europe. In the first period following Resettlement under Cromwell in 1656 (the Jews of England were expelled by Edward I in 1290), synagogues were typically splendid, but hidden spaces, constructed as enclosed sanctuaries “away from public gaze”, as Sharman Kadish has put it.
Throughout the 18th century there was a steady trickle of Central and Eastern European Jewish immigrants to London. With increasing political freedom came increasing confidence in the architectural disposition. Yet even when full political freedom was achieved in the 1860s, it still seen as provisional. Even grand synagogues such as the West London, left their splendour to the interior, with a relatively unassuming facade facing the street (with the street itself being relatively segregated).
A period of devastating pogroms on the Jews living within the confines of Russia’s Pale of Settlement led to a mass migration westwards: mostly to the US, but with many settling in major port cities in the UK. In London the East End became a focus for settlement by a large number of mostly impoverished Jews who brought with them a different mode of prayer. The synagogue itself was more of an association, formed around a common place of origin, or trade.
The above map of synagogues in the East End of London reveals that as the number of immigrant arrivals increased, so their numbers burgeoned. By the close of the 19th century there were at least 40 active small houses of worship in the East End and its immediate environs. The following analysis of a sample of fourteen of these smaller synagogues is extracted from a study of the spatial patterns of Jewish settlement in England. The project compared the building-street relationships between synagogues and churches in a sample area of Whitechapel in London’s East End, in order to assess the way in which the Jewish inhabitants of the district shaped their social-cultural relationships with their surroundings. It’s detailed analysis is laid out in a blog post from 2016 . The key points are that Jewish London served as an example of the interplay, even following emancipation, between political confidence, and a desire to remain self-effacing so long as a minority group’s position in society is still uncertain – although it should be pointed out that the morphology of synagogues was also shaped by the dire economic conditions of their users.
Four types of synagogue found in Whitechapel, 1899 from top-left to bottom-right, examples of prominent, converted, passage and hidden types, highlighted on the Goad Plan of 1899. Image is (c) Crown copyright and Landmark Information Group
The translation of this confidence (or lack thereof) into built form is reflected in the synagogue’s position on the street, as well as its architectural detailing, hinting at the way in which public-private interface was being modulated in the 19th century. As I have written elsewhere, the street setting (as well as the mode of organisation) of small synagogues meant that they created an interior world, which allowed the Jewish community – in all its multiplicity – to negotiate their way into the urban environment, able to take advantage of a setting that was spatially integrated at a large scale, but locally segregated. We also have both a highly spatialised community, realised in its communal institutions and kinship networks, but also a transpatial community, knitted together through common practice and common language (Yiddish) across time and space.
My paper proposed a new formulation of the conception of the binary of segregation-integration. Rather than considering residential segregation as a singular measure of a group’s separation from society, it showed that in some instances the relationship between the two can be modulated to allow for a softer division between public and private domains. The spatial configuration of façade, steps and/or courtyard can shape the interface between the two, with wider city-home relationships being shaped by the constitution of the residential settlement within the urban sphere.
Calabi, D. (2017). Venice and Its Jews: 500 Years Since the Founding of the Ghetto (translated by Leonore Rosenberg). Milan: Officina Libraria.
Cohen, M. & Rabb, T. (1988) ‘Introduction’ to The Autobiography of a Seventeenth-Century Venetian Rabbi. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Fenster, L. (2018). Exilic Landscapes: Synagogues and Jewish Architectural Identity in 1870s Britain. ARENA Journal of Architectural Research, 3(1).
Kadish, S. (2004). The ‘Cathedral Synagogues’ of England. Jewish Historical Studies: Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England, 39, 45-78.
Katz, J. (1978). Out of the Ghetto – The Social Background of Jewish Emancipation 1770-1870. New York: Schocken Books.
Kershen, A., & Vaughan, L. (2013). There was a Priest, a Rabbi and an Imam…: an analysis of urban space and religious practice in London’s East End, 1685-2010. Material Religion, 9(1), 10-35. doi:10.2752/175183413X13535214684014.
Marcuse, P., & van Kempen, R. (2002). Of States and Cities: The Partitioning of Urban Space. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Messinas, E. (2011). The Synagogues of Greece: a study of synagogues in Macedonia and Thrace. New York: The American Sephardi Federation. https://issuu.com/eliasblue/docs/messinas_synagogues_of_greece_do_no
Michelson, E. (2017). Conversionary Preaching and the Jews in Early Modern Rome. Past & Present, 235(1), 68-104. doi:10.1093/pastj/gtx013
Sekkour, I., & Vaughan, L. (2018). The Casbah of Algiers: from a fortified city to a “ghetto”. . Paper presented at CyNUM 2018, Cyprus Network of Urban Morphology, Nicosia, Cyprus.
Sibley, D. (1992). Outsiders in Society and Space. In K. Anderson & F. Gale (Eds.), Inventing Places: studies in cultural geography (pp. 107-122). New York: Wiley.
Steinhoff, A. (2011). Nineteenth-Century Urbanization as Sacred Process: Insights from German Strasbourg. Journal of Urban History, 37(6), 828-841. doi:10.1177/0096144211413229
Stiefel, B. (2011). The Architectural Origins of the Great Early Modern Urban Synagogue. The Leo Baeck Institute Year Book, 56(1), 105-134. doi:10.1093/leobaeck/ybr006
Ueno, M. (2013). “For the Fatherland and the State”: Armenians negotiate the Tanzimat reforms. International Journal of Middle East Studies, 45(1), 93-109. doi:10.1017/S0020743812001274
Vaughan, L., & Sailer, K. (2017). The metropolitan rhythm of street life: A socio-spatial analysis of synagogues and churches in nineteenth century Whitechapel. In Colin Holmes & A. Kershen (Eds.), An East End Legacy. Essays in Memory of William J Fishman (pp. 184-206). London: Routledge.