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Jews in Catania, before the Spanish expulsion

For Jews of Catania, Sicily, the day of June 18th 1492 marked an ultimatum. The Alhambra Decree, the Spanish edict that forced thousands to leave and others to convert to Roman Catholicism, became executive. From then on, their millenary presence, traditions, trades, and religious rituals must be erased. However, that memory survived about five centuries in documents and still tells us how Catania’s Jews used to live, work, and pray. The first to recover papers and maps was Carmine Fontana, a student who in 1900 majored with a thesis on Jews in Catania. In his research, he transcribed a vast collection of about 600 documents regarding the Jewish presence in the area from Middle Ages to the Modern Era. It was a massive task, that became even more valuable in 1944, when a fire set by a group of draft dodgers destroyed the municipal historical archives. Starting from that work, another young scholar, Andrea Giuseppe Cerra, PhD student in Political sciences, recently reconstructed the life of Jews in the city in the book Gli ebrei a Catania nel XV secolo, tra istituzioni e società (preface by Giuseppe Speciale, Bonanno Editore).

The work focuses on the complexities of the relation between the Jewish community and public institutions, investigating specifically the role of the supreme judge of the community, the “dienchele”. Many interesting persons emerge, the most intriguing that of Virdimura, the first Jewish woman doctor who in 1376 was authorized to practice medicine. From commercial activities to worship, many aspects come back through these pages to the reader, depicting a vibrant and flourishing community. Not surprisingly, life in Sicily was considered safe and Jews back then considered it less dangerous and tough than in other countries. Documents show that Jews were in Sicily at least since the first century CE and remained on the island until the 1492 edict. At one point, there were 51 communities here, Palermo being the largest and most important.