Jews lit Hanukkah candles in homes, synagogues, and public squares across the world this week. But on Wednesday night they took the annual ritual to an unlikely location — a Spanish Inquisition prison in which medieval Jews were tortured.
Shavei Israel, a nonprofit that aims to bring groups with Jewish ancestry to Israel and reconnect them to Judaism, organized the ceremony in Sicily’s Steri Palace Prison, which served as the seat of the chief tribunal of the Holy Inquisition in Sicily from 1601 to 1782.
Shavei Israel’s emissary to the Marrano, or Crypto-Jewish, community in southern Italy and Sicily, Rabbi Pinchas Punturello, led the Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony. One hundred Crypto-Jews from the Palermo region joined as well.
The idea for the ceremony began germinating in Rabbi Punturello’s mind after he ran a seminar at Steri for Marranos in October. He reached out to Palermo’s mayor, who readily agreed to support the historic event.
“Centuries after the Steri Palace Prison was used to try and extinguish the light of Israel, we came here to show that the flame of Judaism continues to burn,” Shavei Israel founder and chairman Michael Freund said, according to a press release. “For 200 years, Jews were tortured within the palace’s walls, and many were then burned at the stake by the Inquisition for secretly practicing Judaism.”
“In the place where the darkness of the Inquisition once predominated, the flicker of our Hanukkah candles now prevails,” he added.
The walls of the prison are known for graffiti left by the prisoners, some of them in blood or feces. Two inscriptions are written in Hebrew letters.
The history of Sicily’s Jews is long and complex. The community may stretch back to the Second Temple period, with some traditions saying that Jews who fell captive after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE were exiled there. Noted sage Rabbi Akiva visited the island around 120 CE and found a Jewish community there. Sicily produced famous Jewish intellectuals and rabbis, who wrote about Jewish law, mathematics, poetry, and astronomy.
However, in the 14th century, Jews suffered under a series of edicts, and forced conversions became increasingly common. The island fell under the rule of the Crown of Aragon, whose monarch Ferdinand II played a central role in initiating the Spanish Inquisition, the brutal effort by Spanish Catholic rulers to enforce religious orthodoxy in their lands. The 1492 Edict of Expulsion ordered all remaining Jews, spread out across 52 local communities, out of the country. They were nearly all gone by the end of the year, and those who had been forcibly converted were forced to remain to face the horrors of the Inquisition.