Daniel B. Schwartz is the author of the new book Ghetto: The History of a Word. He also has written The First Modern Jew: Spinoza and the History of an Image. He is associate professor of history and Judaic studies at George Washington University.
Q: What first intrigued you about the idea of the ghetto, and why did you decide to write a book about it?
A: First, I have a longstanding interest in tracing words, concepts, and images that cross borders, be they borders of time, space, or identity. This was also the focus of my previous book, on the history of interpretations of the 17th-century philosopher and heretic Baruch Spinoza, who is often considered the first modern Jew.
As for the word ghetto specifically, what struck me was that this term, so central to Jewish history, had come to be associated predominantly with African Americans, not simply in the U.S. but globally, even in Europe where both the ghetto idea and the word itself originated.
Most people, when they hear the word ghetto today, think of black segregation, or simply of blackness more generally (and controversially). Yet for nearly 90 percent of its 500-year history, the word ghetto was primarily associated with Jews, albeit in diverse ways that evolved over time.
My main goal in writing this book was to illuminate this “shared” history of the term ghetto, to chronicle the different meanings and connotations the word has borne in the Jewish experience as well as the “transfer” of the word from Jews to blacks in the post-World War II period.
Q: You write, "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." What do you see as the relationship between the Jewish experience and a more universal experience with the word ghetto?
A: I think the main thread that connects the Jewish experience and a more universal experience of the ghetto is an essential tension between its perception as both a kind of hell and a haven.
On one hand, the ghetto is a place to which you are restricted by the majority society, impoverished, dilapidated, desperately overcrowded, crime-ridden, dangerous, full of social pathologies. On the other hand, the ghetto is seen as a sort of fortress, an asylum from an antagonistic world, a site of community and solidarity, a place associated particularly for those who have escaped with authenticity and even home.
I don’t want to imply that these two poles have always been kept in balance. One of the key arguments of my book is that the spaces that have been called “ghettos” have varied considerably in their degree of coercion, segregation, poverty, and pathology.
The ghettos of the Holocaust may initially have been seen by some as a refuge where Jews at the very least would enjoy the protection of living amongst their own, but this proved in the end to be an entirely vain hope, and for anyone sane the Nazi ghetto could not be an object of nostalgia.
The original ghettos of early modern Europe do not appear to have been sites of violent crime.
And perhaps the main point I was trying to convey in the quotation you cited above was that the very diversity of forms the Jewish ghetto assumed (the legal ghettos of early modern Italy, Jewish immigrant ghettos like the Lower East Side, the Holocaust ghettos) makes the issue of comparing ghettos of the present to the “Jewish ghetto” especially fraught—for which past incarnation of the ghetto is being invoked in the comparison?
These caveats aside, I think it is fair to say that there has typically been a fundamental ambivalence characteristic of the ghetto idea, and that this links the Jewish ghetto to its successors.
Q: What would you say are some of the most common misperceptions about the concept of a ghetto?
A: One of the main problems is when people see earlier instances of the ghetto through the lens of one of its later manifestations. It’s difficult for Jews in particular to hear the word “ghetto” today without thinking of the Warsaw Ghetto or Lodz Ghetto of the Holocaust.
But the original ghettos of early modern Europe—though also sites of legally compulsory segregation—bore little else in common with Holocaust ghettos beside the name.
Though there were curfews that required Jews to be back in the ghettos of early modern Italy by a certain hour, when the gates would be shut and locked, Jews (so long as they were wearing some distinguishing garment, typically in the case of the Italian ghettos a colored hat) were free to leave the ghetto by day to conduct business or visit gentile acquaintances.
The boundaries of the ghetto were porous; there were always, at least during the permitted hours, Christians entering and Jews leaving. They were not only physically, but culturally permeable: behind the walls of the ghetto, Jews absorbed everything from the language to the folkways of the surrounding society, even if they tended also to “Judaize” them.
So we make a profound mistake when we impose the prison-like reality of the Nazi ghettos on the ghettos that coined the term. This is why the project of disentangling the various applications of the word “ghetto” is so important.
Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?
A: I researched this book relying on a broad range of materials and media that could attest to the changing meaning and usage of “ghetto.” Digital history sources, historical dictionaries, rabbinic responsa, newspaper and magazine articles, the genre of ghetto literature, historical and sociological studies—all these and more formed the evidence base for this book.
One of the most surprising discoveries I made in my research was the degree to which early modern Jewish communities often found a silver lining in their ghettoization.
The Jewish community of Verona, which was restricted to a ghetto in 1600, held an annual celebration on the anniversary of their ghettoization at which they recited festive hymns and prayers and paraded the Torah scrolls around the synagogue—perhaps in part because they had been ghettoized in the center of the city rather than in an outlying slum, or because ghettoization meant they were spared the far worse fate of expulsion.
One rabbinic opinion in the 18th century portrayed ghettoization as an act of divine providence and even mercy for facilitating the observance of certain Jewish laws. These may have been exceptional cases, but as I explained above, the tendency to find some positive significance in clustering and concentration is a recurrent theme in the history of the ghetto.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’ve just begun work on a multiethnic, multicultural history of arguably the most famous of all immigrant quarters—the Lower East Side—that will trace it from its German-American heyday in the mid-19th century to its gentrification today. But this project is at a very incipient stage so I don’t have much at this point to say about it.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Among other things, Ghetto is about the power of words and language. We tend to think we have minimized the scope of disagreement when we boil a debate down to semantics. ("It's just semantics.") But the reality is that so many of our cultural arguments manifest as arguments over words (terrorism, antisemitism, concentration camps), over what they mean, how they are used, and who gets to define them.
This is one of the central points my book drives home. Any attempt to write a history of the ghetto will repeatedly bump up against the problem, What is a ghetto? How should the term be used and defined? The meaning of ghetto has been stretched and contracted, appropriated for new groups and contexts, reclaimed by its original "owners," and accepted and rejected.
I was reminded of this core idea in my book during the controversy this past summer over the application of the label “concentration camps” to the immigration detention centers on the southern border. Some of the same arguments that were made to rebut this analogy (namely, its trespassing on the memory of the Holocaust) were trotted out in the past to resist the naming of segregated African American neighborhoods as ghettos. So my book speaks to very contemporary issues and concerns.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb