The revival of the Jewish community in Sicily

By Rheanna Bello*

As we grow, we tend to have questions about our family and heritage. In my case, I learned from my father, a first-generation Italian-American, to put the pieces together. We always knew that our family most recently emigrated from the Naples area, but we were unsure where they had lived before that. My grandmother Josephine’s story is interesting, but not unique. Josephine and her family have origins in Southern Italy and Sicily going back generations, but moved to the Naples area for unknown reasons. Despite being devout Catholics, my grandmother’s family has always celebrated Jewish holidays and practiced Jewish traditions.
My family and I never knew exactly why my grandmother engaged in certain Jewish practices; although we have extensive family records as well as my father’s memories of my grandmother celebrating the High Holy Days and Passover. Before my grandmother Josephine’s family left Sicily for mainland Italy, they changed their last name to Fiore, perhaps because they had a Jewish last name and did not want to continue using it. My family suspects that my grandmother’s case is likely a Marrano situation, meaning that her ancestors were Christianized Jews, or Jews who converted to avoid persecution. This was quite common beginning in the late fifteenth century, when Jews were given the ultimatum to convert to Christianity or suffer expulsion from Spain and its territories, including Spanish-controlled Sicily. Many Jewish families officially converted to Catholicism in order to remain in their home, but continued practicing Judaism in hiding.
As a consequence of the Spanish persecution the present-day Jewish community in Sicily is quite small; until recently there were not enough men in Palermo to create a minyan, the quorum of ten adult Jewish men required for certain religious rituals. The precise number of Jews living in Sicily still remains unclear. Many descendants of Sicilian Jews are now rediscovering their roots and attempting to revive the rich Jewish history of Sicily.
The Jewish population of Sicily was thriving until their expulsion from Spain and its possessions in 1492. This decree, handed down by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand II of Spain, was not limited to merely expelling the Jewish people from their territories, but it was also aimed at completely eradicating any signs of Jewish life. Luckily in recent years, the Jewish community in Sicily has been working on restoring some Jewish life to the island. Buildings and documents have been unearthed; such as the mikveh in Siracusa, discovered in 1977 under the Church of St. Philip the Apostle.
The history of this ritual bath predates the expulsion of 1492, meaning the Church was later built on top of the sacred Jewish site. The movement to rediscover Jewish history and artifacts on the island has been progressing. In early 2020, a temporary exhibit opened at Palermo’s Regional Archaeological Museum Antonio Salinas, entitled “Documents of Jewish History,” in which Jewish artifacts from Sicily were on display. Featured items included ancient coins and medieval burial inscriptions.
After more than 500 years, there has been progress in opening a modern synagogue in Sicily’s capital. In 2017, the Archdiocese of Palermo transferred an unused church to the Jewish community for use as a synagogue. The unusual name of the deconsecrated church, the Oratorio di Santa Maria delle Grazie del Sabato (Oratory of Saint Mary of the Graces of Saturday), points to the history of the site as the location of a synagogue (Saturday being the Jewish sabbath), as well as its location in the Giudecca (the old Jewish neighborhood) on a street called vicolo della Meschita (an Italianization of the Arabic masjid, meaning “place of worship”).
Plans have been made to rehabilitate the empty church in order to return the site to its use a synagogue. Due to its rich Jewish history, for the first time in over five centuries a Jewish community in Palermo is coalescing. It is a shared vision by both Michael Freund, a founder of Shavei Israel which works on restoring old Jewish communities, and the archbishop of Palermo, Mons. Corrado Lorefice. More than just a place of worship, the synagogue is intended to be a heritage site, a study center, and a place of meeting for the Jewish community.
As often happens, the history of a minority gets glossed over. Until recently, this was certainly the case of the Jewish history of Palermo, which had been forgotten and nearly eradicated. Now the Sicilian community is trying to embrace its Jewish — as well as its Muslim — history, even in small symbolic ways such as, posting street signs around the capital in Hebrew, Arabic, and Italian. Although the translations are a bit off, the effort is being made to pay tribute to their Jewish roots. The creation of these signs, the museum exhibit of Jewish-Sicilian artifacts, and the creation of the first modern synagogue (on the site of a medieval one) are concrete gestures of friendship and hope between the greater Sicilian community and the revived Jewish community of Palermo.

Above, the unused Baroque oratory known as Santa Maria del Sabato, located in what used to be the city’s Jewish Quarter.

* This piece is part of a series of articles written by students of Muhlenberg College (Pennsylvania, USA) enrolled in a course on the history and culture of Jewish Italy, taught by Dr. Daniel Leisawitz, Assistant Professor of Italian and Director of the Muhlenberg College Italian Studies Program.