Rediscovering Jewish Palermo

Rediscovering Jewish Palermo

Palermo Cathedral embraces the best of all architectural styles of medieval Sicily, Romanesque, Arab, Norman and Byzantine.	 (Photo by Alex Shaland)
Palermo Cathedral embraces the best of all architectural styles of medieval Sicily, Romanesque, Arab, Norman and Byzantine. (Photo by Alex Shaland)

Rabbi Barbara Aiello, the first female and non-Orthodox rabbi to head the first modern Liberal synagogue in Italy, describes the Anousim or “the forced ones” of the South of Italy as people who are rediscovering their Jewish roots and traditions many centuries after their ancestors were forcefully converted to Christianity. For many, as Aiello said, this new knowledge leads to a new identity: formal conversion to Judaism.

Contrary to popular opinion, Sicily’s Jewish culture was not imported from Spain but came from Judea in antiquity as part of the Diaspora. Some sources date the arrival of the first Jewish settlers in Sicily to the destruction of Jerusalem’s Second Temple in 70 A.D. when Titus brought over 30,000 Jewish slaves to Rome, some of whom were later sent to the island of Sicily. Academics generally agree though that the Jewish presence in Italy began long before that. A sizable Jewish community was likely established in the southeastern part of Sicily in Siracusa during the Hellenistic Greek period. Encyclopedia Judaica quotes the record of the first known European Jewish poet Caecilius of Calacte moving to Rome from Sicily in 50 A.D., 20 years prior to Titus’ slaves. These records prove that the Sicilian Jewish community is the oldest in Europe.

The Phoenicians, a Semitic people, were the first to colonize Sicily in 800 B.C. They established a city-port they called Zis, now known as Palermo. They spoke a language similar to Hebrew and developed the first alphabet that was written like Hebrew. The Greeks came 100 years later, and 500 years later, the Romans. The Vandals came 500 years after the Romans, then the Arabs, the Normans, the Schwabians, the French and the Spanish. The last wave of invaders came after the unification of Italy in 1861. These were the “northern Italians,” as the locals call them.   

When the Arabs conquered Sicily in 831, they required Sicilian Jews to pay special taxes and wear a distinctive badge. But Jews were considered a “People of the Book” and respected. At that time, there were flourishing Jewish communities in Siracusa, Messina, Taormina, Mazara and other cities. The Jews of Palermo conducted lucrative trade between Sicily, North Africa and Egypt and prospered under Muslim rule.

The Normans arrived in 1070 A.D., and though the Jews still had to pay heavy taxes and wear a badge, they were recognized as citizens and allowed to hold public office and buy land. Travelers described the beauty of the Palermian synagogues and the wealth of the Jews. Benjamin of Tudela, himself a Jew, estimated that the 11th-century Palermian community numbered at least 1,500 families or close to 6,000 to 8,000 people. In addition to being noted merchants, the Jews of Palermo were physicians, moneylenders, translators and precious metal workers and had a virtual monopoly on the silk and dyeing industry.

Our Palermian friend and a tour guide, Bianca Del Bello, explained that though Sicily geographically and administratively is indeed part of Italy, the Sicilians culturally and linguistically are not Italians.  “We are the people of the most conquered island in the world, where one wave of invaders just changed another, and so we created and inhabited our own universe, where the past — Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Jewish, Arabic, Norman, French, Spanish —  was never rejected but accepted and embraced.”

La Giudecca: Unlike the European ghettos that were locked in from the outside, Sicilian Jews lived in “La Giudecca,” an open quarter that offered free passage and that was freely chosen by the Jews to be near their fellow co-religionists. The Jewish quarter most likely extended as far west as Salita dell Ospedale in the L’Albergheria quarter. In 2003, Professor Niccolo Bucaria announced his controversial discovery of a 10th-century mikvah, a ritual Jewish bath, under the 15th-century Palazzo Marchesi. The Jesuits built their Church of Santa Maria del Gesu or Casa Professa on the site of the Palazzo. This discovery provoked numerous arguments on whether the structure of what was long believed to be a water reservoir pointed to the location of a second synagogue.  Recently, the City of Palermo installed brown-and-white street signs that show the street names in three languages: Italian, Hebrew and Arabic. Many streets were named after the inhabitants’ professions: Via Calderai for boilermakers or Via Lamponelli for lantern makers. One street sign reads: Vicolo Meschita, the mosque.

The Meschita: The Great Synagogue, admired by numerous travelers from all corners of the earth, was the center of the Jewish quarter. Architectural historians think that the synagogue structure most probably resembled other Norman-Arab buildings of worship of the time: square in shape, Romanesque in style, and with graceful arches and a cupola. In the 17th century, the church and the monastery of St. Nicolo Tolentino were built on the site of the Great Synagogue of Palermo. In the late 19th century, part of the synagogue’s and the monastery’s ruins were rebuilt as the City Archives. The street nearby is called Via Meschita or the mosque. Was it ignorance that prompted Sicilian Christians to name the synagogue street “the Mosque?” Or was it a historic memory? The physical place occupied by the entire La Giudecca since the 10th century used to be the Arab quarter.

Darker times began in the 14th century with the Aragonese (Spanish) rule.  In 1492, striving to maintain Catholic orthodoxy and “purify” their kingdom, Ferdinand and Isabella ordered the forced expulsion or conversion of all Jews in their lands on pain of death. Historians suggest that there were probably 52 Jewish communities spread out across Sicily, numbering somewhere between 35,000 to 100,000 people. The infamous Edict of Expulsion brought an end to the flourishing Jewish culture in Sicily and to the highly important role the Jews played in the regional economy.

The imposing 14th-century building was originally constructed as the private residence of the powerful Sicilian lord Manfredi III Chiaramonte. However, the palace owns its infamous place in history between 1600 and 1782 when it served as the tribunal of the Holy Inquisition.  Today, the palace is a museum dedicated to those who suffered within the Steri walls, including the converted or “neofiti” Jews accused of secretly practicing their old faith. A generation after the Expulsion, the Palermian new Christians were still identified as Jews, and persecuted as such.  

 Sentencing the accused, or auto-da-fe, was staged as a grand public entertainment and a solemn holy day to impress and teach the masses. This ceremony took place either on the Cathedral Square or in front of the Palazzo Steri. The condemned were burned at the stake on the square near the Steri, now a park called Villa Garibaldi. June 6, 2011, explained Bianca, marked the 500-year anniversary of the first mass execution by the Inquisition of “Judaizing” heretics on that very square.  

In her 2009 article “The Italian Anousim that Nobody Knows,” Aiello writes that burning synagogues and the neofiti forced Italian Jews to take their traditions into cellars and secret rooms of their homes. The memories and stories were kept alive, even when descendants forgot their exact meaning. The number of those with a “call of blood,” who think they had a Jewish ancestry and want to learn more about it or even embrace their newly-discovered heritage is on the rise throughout Southern Italy. Classes on Hebrew, Jewish culture, and art are held all over Palermo, and in 2011, Aiello officiated a bar mitzvah ceremony of Salvo Asher Parrucca, the first bar mitzvah in Palermo in 500 years.

In the contemporary European context of increasing anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli attitudes, Sicily presents a new and unusually optimistic chapter in the history of the Jewish Diaspora. The destruction of synagogues and the burning of “Judaizes” five centuries ago failed to extinguish the Jewish spirit. Aiello told numerous stories, some from her own family, of traditions whose meaning was often forgotten, but that survived in their homes’ secret cellars and in people’s hearts. Cooking continued to conform to kosher dietary laws. Family burials were done outside the church with bodies rapped in simple shrouds. Special marriage blessings were recited in a “strange language” at home under a crocheted canopy.  Deathbed confessions of Jewish ancestry to the families were common. The Anousim descendants, whose heritage was so cruelly stolen, hidden, and ignored, sustained their history in their flesh and blood.  And perhaps it is the call of blood that drives a continuously growing number of “B’nei Anousim” to search for their historical legacy and reclaim it.