Ghetto: The History of a Word



Just as European Jews were being emancipated and ghettos in their original form--compulsory, enclosed spaces designed to segregate--were being dismantled, use of the word ghetto surged in Europe and spread around the globe. Tracing the curious path of this loaded word from its first use in sixteenth-century Venice to the present turns out to be more than an adventure in linguistics.

Few words are as ideologically charged as ghetto. Its early uses centered on two cities: Venice, where it referred to the segregation of the Jews in 1516, and Rome, where the ghetto survived until the fall of the Papal States in 1870, long after it had ceased to exist elsewhere.

Ghetto: The History of a Word offers a fascinating account of the changing nuances of this slippery term, from its coinage to the present day. It details how the ghetto emerged as an ambivalent metaphor for "premodern" Judaism in the nineteenth century and how it was later revived to refer to everything from densely populated Jewish immigrant enclaves in modern cities to the hypersegregated holding pens of Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe. We see how this ever-evolving word traveled across the Atlantic Ocean, settled into New York's Lower East Side and Chicago's Near West Side, then came to be more closely associated with African Americans than with Jews.

Chronicling this sinuous transatlantic odyssey, Daniel B. Schwartz reveals how the history of ghettos is tied up with the struggle and argument over the meaning of a word. Paradoxically, the term ghetto came to loom larger in discourse about Jews when Jews were no longer required to live in legal ghettos. At a time when the Jewish associations have been largely eclipsed, Ghetto retrieves the history of a disturbingly resilient word.

Product Details

Harvard University Press
Publish Date
September 24, 2019
6.2 X 0.9 X 9.3 inches | 1.3 pounds
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About the Author

Daniel B. Schwartz is author of The First Modern Jew: Spinoza and the History of an Image, which was cowinner of the Salo Wittmayer Baron Book Prize for the best first book in Jewish Studies and was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award in History. He is Associate Professor of History and Judaic Studies at George Washington University and worked on Ghetto as a Kluge Fellow at the Library of Congress and as the Sosland Fellow at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.


Schwartz has written a definitive history of the word ghetto, a vital and important term. A fascinating and comprehensive account that will be read and consulted widely.--Deborah Dash Moore, University of Michigan
Challenging and provocative, Ghetto is to my knowledge the first serious, painstakingly researched, book-length lexical history of this central concept in Jewish history.--David Engel, New York University
From its first use in 15th century Venice to its echoes in cities such as New York and Chicago, Schwartz traces the word's path to modernity while highlighting its Jewish past--etymology that is often overlooked.--Boston Globe (09/13/2019)
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, news papers' opinion pieces, poems and journal entries.-- (10/18/2019)
Charts the development of the term ghetto from its medieval Italian roots through its modern variations...An informative, readable book that illuminates both historical contexts and the evolving use of language.--Choice (03/01/2020)
An interesting and informative study of a word's travels through centuries of historical, political, and sociological developments that kept affecting and changing its meaning.--Mosaic (01/08/2020)
[An] authoritative survey of how this most malleable of words was understood in different ways over the centuries...[A] rich and nuanced work.--Howard Cooper"Jewish Chronicle" (09/27/2019)
If you thought you knew the meaning, origins, and historical implications and migrations of the word ghetto, from the time of the founding of the first ghetto in Venice, in 1516, through the black ghettos of today, this book will open your eyes. It is a must-read.--Kenneth Stow, Professor Emeritus of Jewish History, University of Haifa
Ghetto is a superb history that takes us through the word's various and contested meanings. From location to location and across the centuries, Schwartz is an expert guide, leading us through a history as complex and entangled as the very streets of which he writes.--John M. Efron, University of California, Berkeley
With emphasis on the last 250 years, Schwartz traces how the word ghetto developed from a clear reference to compulsory, segregated, and enclosed Jewish quarters on the Italian peninsula to a general term that denoted any substantial concentration first of Jews and then also of other groups, especially African Americans. As a result, the word lost its specificity and was used to refer both negatively and positively to many different situations, raising the question 'What is a ghetto?' An excellent, nuanced, perceptive, and readable account of the history of Jewish quarters from classical Alexandria to the present.--Benjamin Ravid, Professor Emeritus, Brandeis University