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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Professor Ravid discusses history of Jewish ‘ghetto’

Published: March 19, 2010
Section: News

Professor Emeritus Benjamin Ravid (NEJS) delivered the 47th annual Simon Rawidowicz Memorial Lecture Wednesday. Ravid, Rawidowicz’s son, spoke about the problems, stereotypes and mentality associated with Jewish ghettos, from the Middle Ages to today.

Ravid, who was chosen for this year’s lecture in part to recognize his last semester as a professor, described the shifting of words’ meanings, especially in a Jewish context. His primary example was the word “ghetto,” which he defined by three characteristics: compulsory, segregated and enclosed. The term ghetto was first used in medieval Venice, but other such places existed under different names.

Sylvia Fishman (NEJS) described Rawidowicz’s life as the founder of Brandeis’ Near Eastern and Judaic Studies department, a “world-renowned flagship” as one of the first of its kind. After Fishman’s introduction of the event, Jonathan Decter (NEJS) introduced Ravid. He spoke about Ravid’s work researching ghettos, as well as his work to preserve and publish his father’s work, including a collection of letters to and from Rawidowicz that characterized the human side of the lives of scholars of Jewish studies.

Il Ghetto, in Venice, was originally a copper foundry, but as its success worsened, it was sold by the government and converted into a small neighborhood of artisans. There were few Jews in Venice then, but in 1509 there was a mass migration from the mainland of Italy to Venice, including Jews. Despite anti-Jewish sentiment, especially from churches and clergymen, they were allowed to stay as small moneylenders. In 1516, as a compromise, the government made the Jews live on what they called “Ghetto Nuovo,” or “New Ghetto,” the island that was used originally used as a garbage dump, and then as a gathering place for nobles.

Since then, the word “ghetto” has been a negative reminder of the past, Ravid said, a “disenchantment of European life.” Ravid stressed that although some scholars argue that isolation of a group of Jews would allow Jewish culture to thrive by prohibiting intermarriage and other harmful influences, it is harmful to Jewish life in general.

He went on to describe the most notorious of ghettos of the Holocaust in Lodz, Warsaw and other cities. Many scholars consider these ghettos a return to the Middle Ages, but according to Ravid, “the Middle Ages should sue for libel.” Ghettos during the Holocaust had a much worse ideology, he said, and were just a “way station” before death and the Final Solution.

Ravid spoke of Jewish areas of Western cities like London, Paris and New York, saying that although writers like Israel Zangwill called them ghettos, they were really just Jewish quarters. “Every ghetto is a Jewish quarter, but not every Jewish quarter is a ghetto,” Ravid said.

Continued use of the word “blurs the distinction between voluntary and compulsory,” Ravid said, and it is an important part of Jewish, European and world history to differentiate.

This year’s Simon Rawidowicz Memorial Lecture coincided with the opening of an exhibit about Rawidowicz’s life and work in the Brandeis library. The lecture was sponsored by the Tauber Institute for the Study of European Jewry and the NEJS department, and was primarily attended by community members and Brandeis staff and faculty, including Ravid’s colleagues Bernadette Brooten and Eugene Shepperd.