Judaism in Palermo has regained importance thanks to a woman: Evelyne Aouate, a French Jew born in Algeria. She experienced the wandering that led her and her family to Paris. She was raised in an observant family and when she was very young, she decided to stay in Sicily after a trip. “I thought I was the only Jew in Palermo, but I was wrong, even though there wasn’t a reference organisation. When I found out other Jewish realities I was very happy. Then, accidentally, Miriam Ancona came looking for me. She had heard from one of my clients that I am Jewish and she came to see me in my shop.”
After many years of work, came the decision to retire, and it is right at this moment that Evelyne starts to be approached from outside Palermo. “Three and a half years ago I decided to retire and in that period I was approached by rav Pierpaolo Pinhas Punturello to organise a seminar to talk about Judaism. It was an unknown field, but with the support of a friend who is a bookseller, we did it and we saw that the people are very curious to see, to know, to understand what Judaism is. At the end of the seminar, rav Punturello suggested kindling the lights of Hanukkah. I thought it was an ambitious plan, but nonetheless we wanted to try. We presented the idea to the university: we proposed just one day, but the rectorate wanted the kindling for the eight days of the holiday. It was especially moving because they were the prisons of the Inquisition. From there every institution of the city has opened its doors to us. We were well received, we never got a no. That’s why Palermo is special, for its past of hospitality and domination.”
The light of Hanukkah seems to have lit the path that Evelyne took with the others Jews of Palermo and with many scholars, curious people, and the local Catholic personalities. “Since then we have organised a lot of cultural events, with the Sicilian Institute of Jewish Studies (Istituto Siciliano di Studi Ebraici) founded in 1992 after my meeting with Miriam Ancona. We started with few things, but soon the appointments have multiplied and we became a reference point of the city.” Evelyne looks at the Catholic world with gratitude because also thanks to that environment it was possible to reclaim the Jewish presence in the city and have a synagogue, a place that was desired and needed and where it is possible to meet up to study and pray. “The meeting with bishop Lorefice, a man capable of listening, was fundamental. We asked for this place also to give back the hospitality we received in the churches and in the mosques. When the bishop announced the donation of Santa Maria del Sabato, the church broke into a spontaneous, thunderous applause. This is the sign that the city understands our will to be a part of the society and the authenticity of our project.”
The attention and the interest in Sicilian Judaism is also the recognition of the continuity with the past. “There’s a will to go back to before, 524 years ago, after a presence of 15 centuries and before the oblivion. Many people ask me if their name has Jewish origins, many people are fascinated, they want to know the History and our stories.”
Evelyne doesn’t conceal her emotion and her surprise. “My brothers tell me that maybe I had to come to Sicily. When I decided to retire I was approached by rav Punturello, when we went to the bishop our request was accepted immediately. There are not many of us, but we are a community that welcomes all the Jews in the world, from Canada, United States, France, Sweden. It’s very exciting, even though it’s difficult and tiring, but everything I am able to finish is a joy for me. A journalist of the New York Times gave me a letter of a Jewish American man, we stirred some memories.” It’s a daily work that keep the whole community busy.
“Now my goal”, Evelyne continues, “is to complete the project of the synagogue, because it will also be a Jewish studies centre. The good will is necessary, but we need money too and we hope that with the donations we can regenerate the entire Jewish quarter and bring out its 15 centuries of history. We have a lot to do, we also need a library as a place to study.” For all these years her home has been a meeting place, where she has welcomed a lot of different people who came to Palermo from all over the world to live in or just to visit. “I mainly considered Judaism my identity, also because I thought I was alone. I’ve taken back my awareness, my sense of belonging, that I’ve never denied, and they have grown with my life in Palermo. If you don’t know where you come from, you don’t know where you’re going. Judaism, even if there were only two people, can be born again.”
*Translation made by Sara Volpe, student at the Advanced School for Interpreters and Translators of Trieste University, intern at the newspaper office of the Union of the Italian Jewish Communities.