Back to the Ghetto

William Pimlott

Daniel B. Schwartz. Ghet­to: The His­to­ry of a Word. Cam­bridge, MA: Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2019. 288 pp. $38.00.

Bryan Cheyette. The Ghet­to: A Very Short Intro­duc­tion. Oxford: Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2020. 160 pp. £8.99.

Yiddish scholars are no strangers to the ghetto. A large swath of Yiddish writers, poets, and journalists found the term extraordinarily useful for describing the intellectual and material difficulties of immigrant life — it crops up everywhere across Jewish media around 1900. British Zionist Yiddish poet, and Leeds sanitation officer, Phillip Max Raskin (1880-1944), for example, bemoaned his ghetto existence in the poem “a geto lid”:

I was born in the ghetto,
There my youth faded away,
I can never, never die -
I have never lived... 1 1 Raskin, “A geto lid” [A Ghetto Song], Geto Lider (Leeds: J Porton, 1910), 9.
“Kh’bin geborn in der geto,
Dort mayn yugnt hot farshvebt,
Ikh ken keyn mol, keyn mol shtarbn,
Ikh hob keyn mol nit gelebt…”

Raskin’s first poetry collection, Geto-Lider (1910), offered a contradiction. Although in poem after poem he bemoaned the stunted existence that his ghetto life offered him, it was also the fertile basis for his Yiddish Zionist poetics. 2 2 Sol Liptzin, A History of Yiddish Literature (New York: Jonathan David Publishers, 1972), 96-98. Although now almost completely unknown, Raskin found some commercial success in his time, and Sholem Aleichem as well as Israel Zangwill wrote introductions to his poetry collections. 3 3 Raskin himself boasted about selling copies of his later work, Songs of a Wanderer, claiming that it “obtained admission to more than twenty-four thousand homes and libraries in the United States.” Raskin, Songs and Dreams (Boston: The Stratford Co, 1920), vi. The contradiction in his work is also to be found in the better known Jewish Ghetto poets, and their “social lyric,” such as Morris Winchevsky (1856-1932) and in particular Morris Rosenfeld (1862-1923) — politically motivated proletarian poetry which demonstrated the richness of secular Yiddish literature at the same time as it lambasted the poverty it was born in. The Yiddish ghetto is just one moment in the history of this polysemantic modern keyword of urban existence. Two new monographs about the ghetto rethink the evolution of this global and Jewish concept: Daniel Schwartz’s Ghetto: The History of a Word (2019) historicizes its changes in meaning, while Bryan Cheyette’s The Ghetto: A Very Short Introduction (2020) introduces these transformations to a mass readership. While these studies are not principally concerned with the work of poets like Raskin, they challenge Yiddish scholars to look out of their own field to discover what role Yiddish literary creation played in the development of this global concept — and what similarities and differences there are between the Yiddish and other historical ghettos.

Ghetto may be the historical keyword that has traveled farthest from its Jewish origins. More than shtetl, than holocaust, more even than diaspora or emancipation, ghetto as a concept has accrued a global importance as it has become bewilderingly difficult to pin down. Ghetto lies somewhere between noun, adjective, affect, and place, its international resonance leans ironically against its nature. Ghettos are now everywhere, escaping their own containment and segregation. Schwartz and Cheyette aim to recapture the traveling term. The ghetto was an early-modern invention which was abolished in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and then reinstated during the Nazi terror — what started in an Italian city state in the sixteenth century now takes one form or another in every major city across the entire world. The existence of ghettos today points to the failure of integrationist political philosophies while also offering fertile space for resistance towards homogenizing, universalizing practices. With the study of the ghetto there is the potential for Jewish studies to burst its boundaries and engage with postcolonial studies and broader ethnic and postmodern academic inquiry. Jewish and Yiddish studies’ own analysis of the ghetto becomes its opportunity to escape (self-imposed?) ghettoization: in telling this story of serial segregation and containment, Jewish studies tests its own limits.

Bernard Ravid’s classic definition of the ghetto defines it as a space at once “compulsory, segregated and enclosed.” 4 4 Benjamin Ravid, “Ghetto: Etymology, Original Definition, Reality, and Diffusion,” in The Ghetto in Global History: 1500 to the Present, ed. Wendy Z. Goldman and Joe William Trotter (New York: Routledge, 2017), 24. These three facets track the transformations of the ghetto from the sixteenth century to the beginnings of the twenty-first. Ghettos can be understood as both legally enforced and as constrained by choice, as ethnic separation or nascent cosmopolitanism, as a distinct part of a city or as vast regional areas. Cheyette and Schwartz reject the idea that the ghetto is historically fixed to only one of its iterations — that the ghetto should only be understood in its first “classical” iteration. Instead they trace the development, evolution and revolution of ghettos that they both argue must be understood as real lived spaces and as imagined spaces.

Schwartz and Cheyette’s methodological ambitions are broadly similar. Schwartz aims for a genealogy of the term ghetto. Instead of trying to find a “general essence or codification of the term,” Schwartz seeks to unravel the “changing and contested conglomeration of diverse elements, brought together by the contingencies of history and the projections of memory,” understanding the history of the ghetto as also being the history of disputation over its definition. 5 5 Schwartz, Ghetto, 5. Cheyette agrees with Schwartz’ refusal to impose a set definition of ghetto, but has the added motivation of aiming to make the ghetto a test case for his recent work on Jewish studies and postcolonial studies. For Cheyette, the ghetto is a “traveling concept” which can serve as a starting point for a more dynamic conversation between the two disciplines - which can be treated multi-directionally. 6 6 For more elaboration of Cheyette’s position see: Cheyette, “Against Supersessionist Thinking: Old and New, Jews and Postcolonialism, the Ghetto and Diaspora,” Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry 4, no. 3 (2017): 424–439, and Rebekah Vince and Hanna Teichler, “Challenging Binaries and Unfencing Fields: An Interview with Bryan Cheyette,” Exchanges: The Interdisciplinary Research Journal 7, no.1 (2019): 94-113. Cheyette’s article in the Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry triggered a lively series of responses. Schwartz’ work, though impressively broad in scope, remains a more traditional “Jewish” history. Both authors, however, describe how “ghetto” became a term increasingly adrift of Jewish history.

Before ghettos were called ghettos they existed across towns in Germany and Spain in the fifteenth century. Perversely, these ghettos were viewed as a tolerant invention. By enclosing and separating the Jews, and by limiting their prosperity and freedom, the city states and kingdoms were permitting a Jewish presence in their fiefdoms and not simply expelling them — as was increasingly the practice elsewhere in this period. Thus it came to be that Jews were segregated and enclosed in Frankfurt - where the ghetto was named the Judengasse (Jewish Street) in 1462.

The first ghetto that was called as such was created in Venice in 1516. In Venice, a military conflict with rival powers France, the Holy Roman Empire and the papal states, meant that much of Venice’s mainland territory was overrun and refugees from this region fled to Venice. These refugees, many of whom were Jewish, changed the demography of Venice, significantly increasing the Jewish population there. Once the conflict was over, the Venetian government chose not to banish these new arrivals but instead to permit the construction of a new community in an area that would allow the economic presence of Jews in Venice while guaranteeing their segregation. They chose an island on the northern outskirts of Venice where there had been a foundry. “Ghetto”, the word and name, came from the Venetian verb gettare, meaning to throw or to cast, thus linking it to the island’s foundry. This name was arbitrary. Schwartz cites Emilio Tezo, one of the earliest scholars to argue for the connection between foundry and ghetto: “If the Senate had chosen [for Jewish residency] the Bràgora or Castello [another section of Venice] one of the two names would for centuries have sufficed to signify that part of a city reserved for Jewish occupancy.” 7 7 Schwartz, Ghetto, 24. Confusingly, almost as old as the ghetto is the folk (and false) etymology which sees the word derived from the Hebrew term get, a bill of divorce.

The Venetian government expelled the Christians from the area “the Geto at San Hironimo” (while allowing the Christian landlords to increase their rents by a third) and erected two gates which would be locked in the evening. Any Jews caught outside would be punished with fines. In Venice the construction of the ghetto was, in Schwartz’ words, “a move in the direction of greater (if still hedged) inclusion” because it created a Jewish community within Venice. 8 8 Schwartz, Ghetto, 34. When the concept of the Ghetto was copied in Rome in 1555, it represented a punitive oppression of the existing Jewish community, the entirety of which was now forced to live within just one of the formerly Jewish neighborhoods, the Rione of Sant’Angelo. All of the city’s Jews were driven there, to live in a small space “that should have one entry alone, and one exit” as the papal bull Cum Nimis Absurdum put it. Here the ghetto represented punishment with an aim to push conversion. By 1671 ghettos were widespread across Italy.

The ghetto in the classic age of the ghetto had a Janus face. On one hand Jews were banished there to punish them, subjugated by reactionary policies of the Counter-Reformation. But on the other hand their presence in the city permitted economic integration and self-administration, and segregation followed conceptions of urban planning that also applied to foreign merchants. The Italian Jews who lived in the ghettos attained remarkable achievements in philosophy and medicine. But these positive facets of ghetto life were quickly forgotten. Napoleon’s invasion at the end of the eighteenth century of the Holy Roman Empire and Northern Italy brought with it the abolition of the ghettos (although the Rome ghetto lasted until 1870 when the papal states were subsumed in the reunification of Italy). Ghetto as a term was used only in Italy until the 1830s and 1840s when it became more international. As it did so it came to mean more than a particular spatial configuration of the Italian city state. The ghetto, to follow Schwartz’ use of Koselleck’s formulation, was now a “counter-concept to emancipation and assimilation.” 9 9 Schwartz, Ghetto, 85.

Central to this transformation was the new literary genre heralded by a generation of German-Austrian-Jewish authors, Ghettoliteratur, spread most famously by Berthold Auerbach, Leopold Kompert, and Karl E. Franzos. For these writers the ghetto was no longer based in Italy but any Jewish quarter in central and eastern Europe. Their new literary subject was an orientalising “Halb-Asien” (half-Asia) peopled by traditionalist Ostjuden (Eastern Jews) whose fictional landscape spanned the length and breadth of the Pale of Settlement — itself in their eyes a kind of giant ghetto. Works such as Leopold Kompert’s From the Ghetto: Stories (1848) and his later New Stories from the Ghetto (1860), and Karl Emil Franzos’s Jews of Barnow (1868) solidified the growing understanding that ghetto was a metonym for “‘the medieval’ and ‘premodern’, for all that came before emancipation.” 10 10 Schwartz, Ghetto, 79. It was also ripe with nostalgia for a disappearing way of life, prefiguring to some extent later Yiddish literature’s nostalgia for the shtetl. It is in their fastidious attention to the Jewish literary development of the term ghetto over the course of the nineteenth century that Schwartz and Cheyette differentiate their accounts from another recent and highly readable account of the ghetto, Mitchell Duneier’s Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea. 11 11 Mitchell Duneier, Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, The History of an Idea (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016). Duneier’s tracing of the history of the ghetto jumps from the middle ages to America in the twentieth century, excluding a very brief discussion of the closure of the ghettos. Duneier, Ghetto, 10-12. Duneier like Cheyette and Schwartz argues that scholars must think multidirectionally. “When we compare, rather than conflate, the medieval ghetto and the Nazi ghetto, we can see that Venice and Warsaw are completely different. Recognizing this difference not only broadens our historical understanding of these cases, but also allows us to describe how black ghettos have changed over the past century - that they are now characterized by much more social control by outside forces than before, and much less cultural and human flourishing.” Duneier, Ghetto, 222.

Mass Jewish emigration from Eastern Europe to Britain, North America and beyond brought the term ghetto across the world. Now, via Jewish writers such as Israel Zangwill and Abraham Cahan, the voluntary Jewish quarters in Western cities such as London and New York were understood as ghettos. Yiddish and English language writers invented the new Jewish immigrant ghetto. Schwartz, rigorously fair as throughout, insists that not all observers were convinced of this phenomenon. “Why are the quarters where only Christians live not called ghettos? Why is the Jewish quarter a ghetto?” asked the Yiddish journalist Ben Amitai in the Orthodox New York newspaper Yudishe Gazeten in 1898. German-Jewish sociologist Louis Wirth would take this insight further. He moved the ghetto from its Jewish definition to a broader sociological concept in his 1928 book The Ghetto. Wirth built on the Chicago sociologist Robert E. Park’s work on immigrant assimilation — Park would also supervise Wirth’s dissertation — and argued that the ghetto would ultimately disappear as its residents integrated into American society. Patterns of Jewish settlement disproved Wirth’s overarching argument that Jewish (self)segregation would disappear once the ghetto had been left and through increased integration. Jewish suburbanization in the years 1945-65 was equally segregated. However, Wirth had successfully argued that ghetto as a term need not apply exclusively to Jews. As Park commented in his foreword to Wirth’s book, “every people and every cultural group may be said to create and maintain its own ghetto.” 12 12 Schwartz, Ghetto, 163.

African Americans who were campaigning against zoning ordinances in cities on racial lines began to use the concept to protest the imposition of “Jim Crow” laws. “Do you really want a Negro ghetto established here in the Capital of the Nation?” a letter writer asked in an African American newspaper in 1913. 13 13 Schwartz, Ghetto, 167. After the Second World War Jews and African Americans worked together against racist planning strictures, but increasingly some African Americans blamed Jews for their suffering. At once affirming a strained similarity, James Baldwin could write in 1948 that “the more devout Negro considers that he is a Jew… the Negro facing the Jew, hates, at bottom, not his Jewishness but the color of skin. It is not the Jewish tradition by which he has been betrayed, but the tradition of his native land.” 14 14 James Baldwin, “From the American Scene: The Harlem Ghetto: Winter 1948,” Commentary, February 1948. Baldwin stated the position more explicitly in the title of his 1967 article “Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They Are Anti-White” — the African American use of the term ghetto did not necessarily mean an opportunity for solidarity. The ghetto’s cultural baggage now came under fire in a new context where the ghetto was used to pathologize Black poverty: “It’s much better to say you have slums… It’s economic not cultural,” as Ralph Ellison said in an interview in 1965. 15 15 Schwartz, Ghetto, 186. The African American ghetto was, however, also the site of a remarkable cultural and political flourishing — again echoing at some difference the earlier Yiddish experience.

The growth of African American ghettos was far from the only example of the ghetto concept defying linearity, of a refusal to disappear. The revival of ghettos by the Third Reich in occupied Eastern Europe was another vivid demonstration of this pattern. Again ghettos were at the intersection of expulsion and punishment. Reinhard Heydrich, the head of the Reich Main Security office, intended to expel all Jews from Western Poland, which would be fully annexed to the Reich, but called for concentrating Jews in cities in the rest of Eastern Europe. Local Nazi bosses and bigwigs created their own ghettos at different levels of separation from local urban populaces. Along with yellow badges, the Nazi ghetto became a symbol of medieval barbarity, even if there was substantial variation amongst the different ghettos. Zionist Socialist Yitzkhak Zuckerman observed that “The darkest days of the new Middle Ages have come upon us…Our troubles of today exceed…. Those of the past.” But there was still room for hope: “we have already endured hours like these - and perhaps even more difficult than these - and we have continued to exist, to the anger and wrath of our enemies and oppressors.” 16 16 Schwartz, Ghetto, 149-150. Schwartz explores these comparisons in illuminating depth. The tremendous heroism of the fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto offered a final redefinition of the ghetto in the age of the Holocaust. As American Conservative rabbi Israel Goldstein wrote: “a new and proud connotation was given to the word ‘ghetto,’ a connotation not of humiliation and passive submission, but of dignity and active resistance.” 17 17 Schwartz, Ghetto, 161.

Schwartz explicitly argues that the Jewish history of the ghetto brings value to discussions of the ghetto today: “only by understanding the winding journey of the word ghetto within the Jewish experience can we begin to understand the complications that have attended its journey beyond it.” Schwartz’ distinguished and detailed scholarship does indeed satisfactorily “complete” the Jewish history of the ghetto. For Schwartz the ghetto is universalized but “its formerly dominant Jewish associations [are] muted.” 18 18 Schwartz, Ghetto, 202. Schwartz’ elaborate, multilingual exploration of the Jewish relationship to the ghetto is a triumphant success — emphatically demonstrating that the story of the ghetto is also a story of Jewish agency, and of Jewish philosophical and historical conversation. We must also laud Schwartz’ refusal to offer easy interpretations — his rigorous commitment to giving both sides of the question enables an analysis of ghetto that goes far beyond the siren calls of posthistorical argument. The ghetto is thus not an enduring foil to modernity, but part of it, never an externally imposed definition of the Jewish self but instead its own inner partner.

For Cheyette the ghetto must be explored globally. The rise of hip hop and its spread in an era of globalization meant that the ghetto was now the idiom for urban poverty — and cultural resistance to it — all over the world. For Cheyette the ghetto can be a valuable test case for exploring how Jewish studies and Postcolonial studies can work together. It is all the more daring that Cheyette’s practical work in this regard takes the shape of an introduction for a broad audience. The ghetto, for Cheyette, should not be viewed as something whose Jewish history has stopped, nor should the Black or global South history of the ghetto be divorced from the Jewish history. Cheyette’s principle example of this multidirectional history, which Schwartz also cites, follows Michael Rothberg’s analysis of a W. E. B. Du Bois article from 1952, “The Negro and the Warsaw Ghetto.” For Du Bois, the encounter with the remains of the Warsaw Ghetto showed the broader contours of racial violence and the need to link the oppression of Jews and African Americans.

For Rothberg, Du Bois’ article is a model of multidirectional memory because it is both a reflection on memorialization — Du Bois is witness to Warsaw’s reconstruction and Nathan Rappoport’s recently constructed memorial — and “a generous act of memory in its own right that cuts across ethnic boundaries.” 19 19 Michael Rothberg, Multidirectional Memory : Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009), 131-32. The emphasis on this incident forms part of Cheyette’s broader argument: that the study of the ghetto must embrace comparison between Jewish and African American experience, and “the multidirectional expansion of knowledge.” 20 20 Cheyette, The Ghetto, 124. Cheyette extends this call for interdisciplinary interaction to a broader humanist exhortation: “The reason for making distinctions between the powerful and the powerless is so that we can understand the way that ‘ghetto’ can both embolden and coerce those without power. Ethically we need to be on the side of those who are emboldened by the word ghetto for it to remain useful and relevant.” 21 21 Cheyette, The Ghetto, 126. For Cheyette the ghetto moves to a further universalization - its significance no longer Jewish, African American, or global urban proletarian, but instead embracing these signifiers and moving beyond them to mediate power relations between them.

Few would disagree that we should stand on the side of the powerless. But at times the emphasis on the need for multidirectional comparison seems to represent more optimistic well wishing than logical imperative. As Schwartz demonstrates, for all the importance of Du Bois’ parallel, there were intellectuals in both the African American and Jewish communities who poured doubt on the viability of the comparison. The magnification and idealization of Du Bois’ position thus represents a desire for multidirectional engagement rather than evidence of it taking place. More could have been done to find further evidence of comparisons such as Du Bois’. An emphasis on class experience may have been helpful. In what, after all, does power consist of? Cheyette dismisses a class-based analysis of the ghetto, hinting that the ghetto “transcends mere class division,” 22 22 Cheyette, The Ghetto, 126. arguing that Zygmunt Bauman’s definition of the ghetto as a “dumping ground for those for whom the surrounding society has no economic or political use” 23 23 Cheyette, The Ghetto, 121. needs to be qualified. Cheyette states earlier on that “Ghettos include both the softer history of urbanization and class segregation as well as the harder history of racial discrimination.” 24 24 Cheyette, The Ghetto, 2. Class struggle, or the rubric of class analysis, is one way to build solidarity across these “softer” and “harder” barriers — it also points us helpfully in the direction of working out who the powerless are. The reluctance to speak in the language of class, and to investigate more material definitions of ghettos, is in part justified by the imaginative turn that embraced the ghetto in its transformation in the mid nineteenth century. The water is also muddled by the different class configurations within ghettos over the course of their long history. Only in the mid to late twentieth century did their populations come to be conceived as primarily proletarian, and therefore, as Bauman has it, “surplus to requirements”. The contemporary ghetto is an urban space of class and racial segregation - analysis of class is central to its narrative, as it has been to solidarities between African American, Jewish, and Global proletariats.

Both Cheyette and Schwartz must be praised for conceiving of the ghetto as an ongoing Jewish historical subject. Both are willing to explore, if with a certain skepticism, the idea that Israel is now forcing the Palestinian people into ghettos. Schwartz shows that the concept of the ghetto is now gaining significance in debates between secular and religious Jewish communities in North America — the construction of an eruv in Tenafly, New Jersey, being derided as the self-construction of the ghetto by its Jewish, non-Orthodox, opponents. There is little doubt that the Jewish history of the ghetto is continuing to evolve. In underlining this, and in their courageous historical scope, Cheyette and Schwartz contribute to a growing historiographical moment, in line with David Sorkin’s Emancipation: A History Across Five Centuries (2019), where contemporary Jewish historians reject a theory of modernization, whiggish in hue, which argued that emancipation and ghettoization were processes that Jewish experience had left behind after 1945. Instead this historical work points to the haunting presence of the divisions and segregations, as well as resistance, that the ghetto provokes in Jewish and non-Jewish history through to the present day. For Yiddish scholars the presence of the ghetto in so much Yiddish writing is an important prompt to look for multidirectional comparison (and, as Duneier has it, without conflation) to other minority urban literatures of the twentieth century. The crucial intervention of the Yiddish ghetto was to conceive the ghetto as an urban environment of immigrant poverty and artistic ambition. This is now to some extent the global ghetto — emphasizing again that Yiddish studies carries not particularist but universal resonances. The challenge to Yiddish scholars is to look beyond their discipline to measure these echoes and reverberations.

Pimlott, William. “Back to the Ghetto.” In geveb, June 2023:
Pimlott, William. “Back to the Ghetto.” In geveb (June 2023): Accessed Jun 22, 2024.


William Pimlott

William Pimlott is a postdoctoral fellow at the Birkbeck Institute for the Study of Antisemitism.