MILAN — Growing up in the small Sicilian coastal town of Palma di Montechiaro, Angelo Leone knew that his family was different. His great-grandmother Giovanna Milano would never go to church, lit candles every Friday afternoon, and baked unleavened bread around Easter.
“Moreover, my family celebrated Christmas and other holidays with a lot less participation than what happened in other households,” the 49-year-old professor of histology at the University of Palermo says in a phone conversation with The Times of Israel. “The truth is that there was always some sort of awareness that we weren’t really Christian.”
His story is not an isolated case.
The first traces of Jewish presence in Sicily date back to the first century CE, and in the 15th century there were already between 25,000 and 40,000 Jews living on the island, spread out over dozens of communities — more than in the numerous states and kingdoms on the Italian peninsula at that time combined.
This Jewish reality came to an end on January 12, 1493, with the Edict of Expulsion by the monarchs of Spain, who had control over southern Italy. Many Jews left and many pretended to convert to Christianity while maintaining a Jewish life in secret. Generation after generation, certain traditions did not fade away, although their meaning was often lost.
500 years later, many Sicilians have started to figure out the origin of the apparently bizarre customs of their families and are interested in learning more. National and international Jewish organizations have come to help: The Union of Italian Jewish Communities started a specific program called Progetto Meridione (Southern Project). Shavei Israel, an Israel-based organization that focuses on reaching out to “lost Jews” and assisting them, appointed former chief rabbi of Naples Pierpaolo Pinhas Punturello as emissary to Italy.
Currently living in Jerusalem, Rabbi Punturello travels to Sicily and other parts of Southern Italy on a regular basis to support Jewish life in the area. Among other duties, he organizes Torah classes, prayers and Shabbat gatherings.
This resurgence of Judaism in Sicily is starting to gain notice.
Every year on January 12, a conference is held in Palermo on a topic related to the Jewish history of Sicily. This year the focus was on Sicilian Jewish communities living off the island. The colloquium featured Serena Di Nepi from the Sapienza University of Rome and Rita Calabrese from the University of Palermo.
After all these centuries, January 12 offered a further reason to celebrate. In the presence of a small but passionate group of Jews, the Archdiocese of the city donated the building of the Oratory of Santa Maria Delle Grazie al Sabato to the Jewish community.
Shavei Israel founder Michael Freund, vice president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities Giulio Disegni, and Evelyne Aouate of the Sicilian Institute of Jewish Studies — a pillar of Palermo cultural Jewish life — were on hand to receive the one of a kind gift.
“The facility is located in the complex of the monastery of San Nicola da Tolentino, at the heart of the ancient Jewish neighborhood, where the synagogue used to stand,” Punturello explains.
“The great scholar Ovadia of Bartenura called it ‘the most beautiful in Europe,’ when he visited it in 1487. The name of the street, ‘Via della Meschita’ is also eloquent — in the dialect of the time, Meschita meant a non-Christian religious building.”
The space will serve as a synagogue and a study hall.
“Step by step, despite the difficult times we are facing, we are harvesting the fruits of an honest path of dialogue and a warm friendship,” wrote the archbishop of Palermo Corrado Lorefice in a note for the occasion.
To celebrate the event, the Jewish community of Naples, which serves as the point of reference for all of southern Italy, established a new official branch in Palermo.
“The granting of a space from the Archdiocese of Palermo is a historic event, the concrete testimony of the Jewish revival 500 years after the infamous expulsion,” read a joint statement by the president of the Union of Jewish Communities Noemi Disegni and president of the Jewish Community of Naples Lydia Schapirer.
In the past few years, Sicilian Jewish life and heritage are indeed experiencing a new beginning.
Palermo mayor Leoluca Orlando replaced the street signs in the historic city center with new ones featuring the names of the streets in Hebrew and Arabic letters as well as Latin, to pay homage to the island’s multicultural past.
Since 2013, Palermo hosts a public lighting of a Hanukkah candelabra in the Palazzo Steri, the former headquarters of the Catholic Inquisition. There, many Jews were detained, tortured and killed. The walls are still covered by the prisoners’ graffiti — among which are many Jewish names and some Hebrew inscriptions.
“Until a few years ago, we were all trying to live our Jewish lives by ourselves, but then we started to gather regularly to study, celebrate the Jewish holidays or Shabbat. Keeping mitzvot here is not easy. There is no kosher store, so we have to rely on kosher products in regular supermarkets, while we have the meat brought in from Rome,” says Luciana Pepi, 54, who teaches Medieval Philosophy and Jewish Culture at the University of Palermo.
“There are about 15 of us who meet on a regular basis, while many more join from time to time, also from the rest of Sicily, plus the tourists and some Israelis who live here,” she says.
Pepi explains that she grew up Catholic, but at some point she started to feel attracted to Judaism.
“When I spent time in Israel to study at the Hebrew University, I understood that I had found who I was. My grandmother’s surname was also of highly likely Jewish origin. It took many years, but then I decided to pursue a giyur [conversion],” she adds.
Today, she is an active member of the group, which includes converts as well as Jews from birth, some of whom moved to Sicily from other locations in Italy and the rest of the world.
She says she hopes “the fact that we finally have a physical space will also encourage other people to learn more about their roots.”
According to Leone, the number of Sicilians of Jewish origin could be as high as 25% of the 5 million population.
“For instance, in my town Palma, many people bear Jewish surnames, which can be found in documents about Jewish families from before the expulsion,” Leone says.
He further explains that Palma itself has an interesting Jewish history. It was established in 1630 and many families of Jewish origin moved there from the surroundings.
“This happened because, almost a century and a half after the Edict, the descendants of the Jews who had converted were still not considered true Christians and therefore were second-class citizens,” says Leone.
“Many of them were suspected of being ‘giudaizzanti,’ leaning to Judaism, and kept under surveillance, for example checking whether they lit candles on Friday night. We have documents that prove that this was still happening in the 18th century. That’s why when a new village was established by the local signore, they seized the opportunity to move there where nobody knew who they were,” Leone says.
“In my family, everyone feels a special connection to Judaism, although I am the only one who formally converted. I have lived in London and in Paris, where I could enjoy a very active Jewish life. However, the rebirth of a Jewish community in Palermo is nothing less than a miracle,” he stresses.
“The new synagogue is not an end point, but a starting point,” says Rabbi Punturello.
“From now on we can work on a real project for the Jews of Palermo, and this means joy, but also implies greater responsibility, like the birth of a child. Together with the immense happiness, there is a sense that the meaning of our life has changed,” says Punturello.
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