Con­test­ing what a ‘ghetto’ is

The book traces the term’s de­vel­op­ment from the Re­nais­sance to Nazi Europe to the present day

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - BOOKS - • CAS­SAN­DRA GOMES-HOCHBERG

What does ghetto mean? A term that has been used to des­ig­nate Jewish quar­ters, the last sta­tion to Ger­man death camps, en­claves of African Amer­i­cans; a term that evokes nos­tal­gia, poverty, seclu­sion; a noun that has turned into an ad­jec­tive; a call for so­phis­ti­ca­tion; a sign of long­ing and be­long­ing up to its present race-based con­no­ta­tion. A word that can­not be eas­ily de­fined, as it car­ries a long and cum­ber­some his­tory.

For six years, Daniel B. Schwartz, as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor of His­tory and Ju­daic Stud­ies at The Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity, traced the word back to its in­cep­tion in 1516 in Venice to its us­age in present-day New York City, peel­ing back the lay­ers of its mean­ing in his new book Ghetto: The His­tory of a Word (Har­vard Univer­sity Press, 2019).

“De­pend­ing on how it is used and who is us­ing it, [it] can sug­gest both dan­ger and se­cu­rity, weak­ness and tough­ness, so­cial pathol­ogy and com­mu­nal sol­i­dar­ity, a prison and a fortress,” Schwartz writes.

Schwartz is not only in­ter­ested in amass­ing nu­mer­ous def­i­ni­tions, but also ex­plor­ing it in its his­tor­i­cal and cul­tural con­text. Nav­i­gat­ing through sev­eral cen­turies, the au­thor does not grant own­er­ship of the word to any par­tic­u­lar group, but shows in the book’s five chap­ters an im­pres­sive ar­ray of voices and his­tor­i­cal ev­i­dence on the men­tion­ing and of­fi­cial ap­pli­ca­tion of the term.

From Re­nais­sance Italy to Nazi Europe

While it is a mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion to claim that the idea to en­close its Jewish pop­u­la­tion in one area first took place in Venice, the Ital­ian city was, nonethe­less, the birth­place of the term. Schwartz presents de­bates over the very na­ture of the word, from the Vene­tian “geto,” or foundry, to an area of the city which was de­signed to its then-Jewish pop­u­la­tion al­ready known as “Ghetto Nuovo,” from the Vene­tian verb “gettare,” mean­ing to thrown or to cast, to the He­brew term “gett,” used for bill of di­vorce. The au­thor, how­ever, trav­els a few cen­turies back, show­ing ex­am­ples of “a ghetto be­fore the ‘ghetto,’” such as Frank­furt’s Ju­den­gasse and the Span­ish jud­e­rias of the Mid­dle Ages, where Jews tended to live in quar­ters sep­a­rated by gates – ev­i­dence that even be­fore the term was born, the idea of seg­re­gat­ing Jews had been cir­cu­lat­ing on the con­ti­nent for a long time.

Schwartz takes the reader through vivid ac­counts of the Ro­man Ghetto, where the term took roots and trans­formed into a synonym of ab­ject poverty and forced Jewish iso­la­tion, to the ex­pan­sion of the con­cept and idea to other parts of the con­ti­nent. In the midst of the push to mod­ern­iza­tion through­out the 19th and early 20th cen­turies, Euro­pean Jewry’s re­la­tion­ship to the term be­came fun­da­men­tally am­biva­lent. It sig­naled some­thing “old and ob­so­lete,” a phys­i­cal and men­tal place Jews had to es­cape from in or­der to be­come modern, as well as a term which “pre­serves the mem­ory of a vanishing world.”

As the Nazi regime rose to power and of­fi­cially re­vived seg­re­gated Jewish quar­ters, the term ac­quired its dark­est over­tones. As pointed out by Schwartz, the word ghetto was com­monly in­voked by schol­ars to ad­dress the per­se­cu­tion of Ger­man Jewry and the ac­tive Jewish re­sis­tance in the War­saw Ghetto Up­ris­ing.

The ghetto ar­rives in the US

The word, even­tu­ally, left the old con­ti­nent to ar­rive in the United States. Schwartz re­counts that the then-as­pir­ing au­thor and re­cent im­mi­grant Abra­ham Ca­han, when pitch­ing a story to the New York Sun about life in the ghetto in the late 19th cen­tury, un­der­stood that the term was not part of the Amer­i­can lex­i­con. Ca­han, who later be­came a gi­ant of Yid­dish jour­nal­ism, to­gether with a num­ber of Jewish lit­er­ary voices, in­tro­duced the term – and the life of the new im­mi­grants – to the pub­lic. The term again trans­formed into some­thing be­yond the phys­i­cal place of Jews be­fore moder­nity, but a men­tal place “be­tween tra­di­tion and moder­nity.”

It was in the US as well that the term was un­der­stood as a mul­ti­cul­tural phe­nom­e­non, tres­pass­ing re­li­gious and na­tional bound­aries, turn­ing from a noun into an ad­jec­tive, and spark­ing heated racial dis­crim­i­na­tion de­bate across the United States. In the 1960s, the au­thor points out, the term was al­ready more com­monly as­so­ci­ated with black Amer­i­cans than with Jews, be­ing clearly part of the African-Amer­i­can lex­i­con al­ready by the end of World War II, to con­vey their strug­gle against seg­re­gated neigh­bor­hoods.

The term, at last, ar­rived to modern day Is­rael, where it gained prom­i­nent place in po­lit­i­cal de­bates and once again was met with an­other layer of com­plex­ity and mak­ing its way into the Is­raeli-Pales­tinian con­flict.

Ghetto: The His­tory of a Word is a thor­ough et­y­mo­log­i­cal, his­tor­i­cal, lit­er­ary and cul­tural anal­y­sis of an ever-evolv­ing word. Through his all-en­com­pass­ing ap­proach, Schwartz ex­plores how the term gained sub­stan­tial emo­tional weight by show­cas­ing works of lit­er­a­ture, news­pa­pers’ opin­ion pieces, poems and jour­nal en­tries. The reader fi­nally comes to see the ghetto, as the au­thor first sug­gests, “not as a neat con­cep­tual pack­age, but as a chang­ing and con­tested con­glom­er­a­tion of di­verse el­e­ments, brought to­gether by the con­tin­gen­cies of his­tory and the pro­jec­tions of mem­ory.”

(Vasily Fe­dosenko/Reuters)

A SOL­DIER from a spe­cial ‘search bat­tal­ion’ of the Be­larus De­fense Min­istry takes part in the ex­huma­tion of a mass grave of 730 pris­on­ers of a for­mer Jewish ghetto in Brest, Be­larus, in Fe­bru­ary.

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