Life and Death in the Venice Ghetto

book cover
Destination: 16th Century Venice, Malta

Book: The Midwife of Venice, NEW April 2012 by Roberta Rich


Venice Ghetto, Italy
Venice Ghetto, Italy

There is a corner of Venice, away from the bustle and hustlers of the Rialto and San Marcos that seems too austere to be part of the self-consciously gilded and carved and painted face of the city. While the decaying charm of the palazzi along the grand canal charms most visitors,  the quiet mystery of the Jewish Ghetto stoked Roberta Rich‘s imagination. That area roused my curiosity, too, but not being a novelist, I took some pictures and moved on. Rich pondered the life of the Jews who lived a restrictive life in the Ghetto while the merchant classes prospered and lived sparkling lives, sure of their place in the greatest city on earth. Her ponderings led to this novel that evokes a lesser known life in a certain time in a place that you thought you knew.

In The Midwife of Venice , already a best seller in Canada before its recent release in the United States, Rich tells the story of a Jewish midwife who lives in the Venetian Ghetto. The novel segues between the dangerous choices facing Hannah the midwife when she is asked to illegally provide her services to a wealthy Christian merchant’s wife, and the survival tale of her husband, who has been kidnapped off a merchant ship and taken to Malta where he was sold into slavery.

Although this is her first novel, Rich tells her story so skillfully that I ended the book wondering how she had managed to pack so much of the lives of 16th century Venetians, rich and poor, Christian and Jew, into one not-that-long book. I was so wrapped up in the story with all its twists and dangers that I was surprised when I enumerated the information I had accumulated about the period. From the life of a Venetian courtesan to the life of a nun on the island of Malta, from the beliefs and practices of 16th century Jews to the contrasting beliefs and attitudes of Christians, from the slave trade of the Knights of Malta to the inheritance laws of Venice, from the art of midwife to the business of merchants, Rich has carefully woven solid research into her readable novel.

Don’t get me wrong–this is not a book to read because it is “good for you,” but because you’ll enjoy its universal themes of spousal and maternal love, sacrifice, and making difficult choices.

The characters are distinct and unforgettable. Hannah’s irrepressible husband, Isaac, cannot control his sharp tongue, even when he is on the auction block. His traditional Jewish beard having been shorn, this dialogue takes place at the auction:

The stocky man heckled, “How do I know he is learned if he has no beard? Does not the Jew obtain wisdom from his hairy chin?”

Isaac raised his head and managed to say to his tormentor in a voice hoarse from disuse, “If men be judged wise by their beards, then that billy goat over there,”–he motioned with his chin in the direction of the livestock pen across the square–“would be the wisest among us.”

The non-nonsense nun who rescues Joseph so that she can convert him, is like no female he has ever seen before.

Sister Assunta’s wrists were as big around as Isaac’s biceps, her face as harsh and angular as Malta itself.   Clean water, fresh air, prayer, and wholesome food evidently made nuns grow massive in Valletta.  With those hands and feet and low voice–was she male, female, or a member of a sort of middle sex with the most unpleasant aspects of each gender?

And the author draws every character with the same sharp observation.

Venice Ghetto life, Italy
Venice Ghetto life, Italy

Today, when you visit the Ghetto in Vienna, the first thing you notice is that the buildings are taller than most in the city.  That is because with the Jews confined to this small area, it was necessary to allow them to expand their buildings upward. Even when a dozen people might be living in one room, the ever-growing population needed more space.

Campo, Venice Ghetto, Italy
Campo, Venice Ghetto, Italy

The most obvious landmark on the large campo in the center of these old buildings, is a memorial to Jews who died in the Holocaust. It points up a somewhat ironic fact of history. We are conditioned to associate the term “ghetto” with Nazi mandated restrictions on  where Jews could live, but in fact the Venetian ghetto dates centuries before Hitler, when their skills as bankers and laborers were grudgingly accepted, but the Christian church labeled them as Christ-killers and played on superstitions that blamed them for plague, the death of children, and any other disaster that came along. And even more ironic, as we learn in the later part of the book, the Islamic rulers of Constantinople gave freedoms to Jews that the Christians of Venice denied them.

Venice Ghetto Holocaust Memorial
Venice Ghetto Holocaust Memorial
Venice Ghetto Window
Venice Ghetto Window

This novel will give reader unfamiliar with Venice a kind of map of the city. Unlike  nearly every other famous city, skyscrapers have not replaced historic buildings so Venice today looks very like Venice of the 16th century, plus sanitary systems, minus wandering pigs and  minus the plague. Fortunately, the Ghetto is no longer the dreary cesspool that Rich describes at the beginning of the book.

The other setting of the book, Malta, does not emerge as clearly from the narrative, but I was certainly encouraged to learn more about the history of Malta from reading this novel.  The Midwife of Venice is a definitely good addition to the traveler’s library.

 Note: The publishers provided Midwife of Venice to me for review. I am much too old and crotchety to let that affect my judgment of the book.  All pictures here are my own and I would appreciate your respect for my copyright.  Links enable you to make purchases at, and when you do, A Traveler’s Library makes a few cents. Please, when you are going to shop at Amazon, do so through my links. It costs you no more.

If you’ve been to Venice, did you discover the Ghetto? Did you realize Malta had a thriving slave trade in the Italian Renaissance?


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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

10 thoughts on “Life and Death in the Venice Ghetto

  1. Really interesting. I always think of the Venice you see in the movies – romantic locations with lovers floating down the water on a gondola.

  2. Pen 4 Hire,
    Many thanks for your kind review of The Midwife Of Venice. I am so glad you enjoyed it. I had a lot of fun writing it as well as living in a little studio apartment just outside the ghetto whiel I was researching the book. My hope is tahat it will inspire more people to visit the ghetto and see this under appreciated part of Venice. Roberta

    1. Roberta: I was very excited to see that you had left a comment here. We love engaging authors in our conversation. While Venice as a whole was a bit of a disappointment to me–way too commercial and huxsterish– the ghetto was very moving. Therefore, your book really struck a chord. Looking forward to your continuation of the story.

  3. The character descriptions are intriguing. When I visited Venice I had so little time there I didn’t really get to explore the city–just visit the top tourist destinations and eat a gelato. I suspect for many tourists it’s much the same. I’d definitely like to read this and visit again.

  4. what a great post- loved the pictures!! This sounds like a book I have to get my hands on! Can’t wait to read it.

  5. What a wonderful post—lovingly incorporating your experience of Venice with the review of the book. Makes me want to read and visit!

    1. Irene and Brette: I truly did love the peacefulness of the Ghetto, and it evokes a very different kind of history than the mansions along the canals.

  6. We are visiting Venice this summer and I was actually just reading about the ghetto in a guidebook. Not only did they have to build up, but they had to put their synagogues on the top because people were not allowed to live above a house of worship. I’ll pick up this book to read before my trip!

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