The ghetto as refuge?

Figure 1: Venice Ghetto – image courtesy Dr Kayvan Karimi, UCL

I’ve just finished watching the second episode of Simon Schama’s sublime ‘The Story of the Jews’, playing now on the BBC. Schama makes an intriguing statement when visiting one of the synagogues in the Venice ghetto: he states that the building “reconciles the idea of refuge with beauty”. I read from this that he views the ghetto as a protective device, as a place of refuge, just as much as its normally negative connotation of a place of enforced segregation. This is rather like the work of David Ruderman, who in a lecture he gave at UCL in 1997 on the cultural significance of the ghetto, laid out evidence that high rates of cultural interchange took place between the ghetto inhabitants and Venetian society during a period during which the ghetto has been viewed as having been hermetically sealed. For instance, Jewish marriage certificates, sacred music and synagogue architecture reflected the Baroque creations of their time. From the point of view of cultural contributions in the reverse direction, Ruderman claims that Jewish learning was disseminated amongst Christian scholars, who took advantage of the development of printing, to learn more about the great works – creating a ‘dynamic universe’. Similar to Schama’s statement, Ruderman suggests the ghetto might have positive aspects, since it allowed the maintenance and intensification of Jewish culture in a period of change, whilst taking in those parts of the host culture that could enrich Jewish society.


Figure 2: Scuola Spagnola (Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue), Venice, Italy, dedicated 1584 and rebuilt 1635 by Baldassare Longhena, from

Another aspect of this week’s episode struck a chord. Schama speaks of the Jewish people being hesitant about building grand beautiful buildings because they are constantly poised to pack their suitcases and flee. So Jewish culture focuses instead on the non-physical – their language, music, cooking and the word itself: their religion. There’s something of a conflict here. Are the Jewish people a transpatial people, unable to put down roots? Schama has written about this before:

‘I remembered someone in a Cambridge common room pestering the self-designated ‘non-Jewish Jew’ and Marxist historian Isaac Deutscher, himself a native of this country, about his roots. ‘Trees have roots,’ he shot back, scornfully, Jews have legs’. [Schama S. (1995) p.29].

Yet at the same time, Jewish religious – and cultural – life is highly spatialised, from the rituals of reading the torah around the bima (table, or rather appropriately in modern Hebrew stage), where the reading of the seven portions of the Torah on each Sabbath are handed over from one lay reader to the next through an almost social ritual of calling up of the person by name, their reading of blessings, reading of portion, then moving around the bima to give way to the next reader in turn. The synagogue itself has Jerusalem notionally present throughout by having prayers face towards Jerusalem (or if in Jerusalem, to the western wall of the destroyed temple). The eruv – that symbolic boundary that provides for restrictions on carrying on the Sabbath is both a highly physical reality yet purely notional in that a wall can be replaced by a wire and still serve the same purpose and so on and on. Jewish law itself enforces a highly spatialised form of settlement. The restrictions on travel on the Sabbath along with the need for a sufficiently dense clustering of people to sustain Jewish rituals, means that more than most immigrant groups, Jewish people will gather in closely packed communities (ironically to be criticised for ‘ghettoising’).

I suppose the spatiality of Jewish life and living is quite transient in itself. The sukkah (the temporary booth constructed to remember the temporary shelters constructed during the wanderings in Sinai during the Feast of Tabernacles) is as transient as many of the other spatial realisations of Jewish life: you come together in space to pray three times a day in a very particular way, but it doesn’t actually matter if it’s in somebody’s front room or in a beautiful building. Evidently, the most important aspect of the physical realisation of Jewish life is the gathering of people themselves.


Kershen A. J., and 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, 10-35

Lipis M. (2011) Home Is Anywhere: Jewish Culture and the Architecture of the Sukkah. Köln: Walther König

Roden C. (1997) The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand and Vilna to the Present Day. Middx: Viking

Ruderman D. B. editor (1992) Essential Papers on Jewish Culture in Renaissance and Baroque Italy. New York and London: New York University Press.

Vincent P., and Warf B. (2002) Eruvim: Talmudic Places in a Postmodern World, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 27, 30-51

Schama S. (1995) Landscape and Memory. London: Harper Collins

Author: (sub)urbanite

Professor of Urban Form and Society and Director of the Space Syntax Lab, Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL. Online in a personal capacity.

2 thoughts on “The ghetto as refuge?”

  1. There was a none too positive review of his book about the history of the Jews in Haarertz I think a few days ago. I tried to find it but to no avail – strange

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