Jews began settling in Venice in great numbers in the 16th century, and the republic soon came to value their services as moneylenders, physicians, and traders. For centuries, the Jewish population was forced to live on an island that now encompasses the Campo Ghetto Nuovo, and drawbridges were raised to enforce a nighttime curfew. By the end of the 17th century, as many as 5,000 Jews lived in the Ghetto's cramped confines.
Venice's relationship with its longtime Jewish community fluctuated over time from acceptance to borderline tolerance, attitudes often influenced by the fear that Jewish moneylenders and merchants would infiltrate other sectors of the republic's commerce under a government that thrived on secrecy and control. In 1516, 700 Jews were forced to move to this then-remote northwestern corner of Venice, to an abandoned site of a 14th-century foundry (ghetto is old Venetian dialect for "foundry," a word that would soon be used throughout Europe and the world to depict an area where isolated minority groups lived).
As was commonplace with most of the hundreds of islands that make up Venice, this ghetto neighborhood was totally surrounded by water. Its two access points were controlled at night and early morning by heavy gates manned by Christian guards (paid for by the Jews), both protecting and segregating its inhabitants. Within 1 century, the community grew to more than 5,000, representing many languages and cultures. Although the original Ghetto Nuovo (New Ghetto) was expanded to include the Ghetto Vecchio (Old Ghetto; the names are confusing, but remember that ghetto meant "foundry," so when the Jews moved into the area occupied by its ruins, they first occupied the newer part of the former foundry and then the older part) and later the Ghetto Nuovissimo (Newest Ghetto), land was limited and quarters always cramped. In 1797, when Napoleon rolled into town, the ghetto as an institution was disbanded and Jews were free to move elsewhere. Still, it remains the center of Venice's ever-diminishing community of Jewish families; although accounts vary widely, it's said that anywhere from 500 to 2,000 Jews live in all of Venice and Mestre. Few live in the Ghetto.
Aside from its historic interest, this is also one of the less touristy neighborhoods in Venice (though it has become something of a nightspot) and makes for a pleasant and scenic place to stroll.
Venice's first kosher restaurant, Gam Gam, opened several years ago on Fondamenta di Cannaregio 1122 (tel. 041-523-1495), near the entrance to the Jewish Ghetto and close to the Guglie vaporetto stop. Owned and run by Orthodox Jews from New York, it serves lunch and dinner Sunday through Friday, with an early Friday closing after lunch.