Jewish life in Sicily reborn
by Michael Freund
Tucked away in the southeastern Sicilian city of Syracuse (or Siracusa in Italian), lies one of Europe's least-known Jewish treasures.
Down a charming, narrow street just a block or two away from the Mediterranean Sea, in the heart of the ancient Jewish quarter, sits the Alla Giudecca hotel.
Inside the guest house, a long and uneven stone staircase descends a perilous 30 feet underground, forcing a visitor to weigh each step carefully before proceeding.
At the very bottom, inside a large chamber carved straight out of the bedrock, is an unexpected site. In the middle of the floor lie three small pools, flanked on both sides by private rooms, each with its own bath.
Welcome to the mikva (Jewish ritual bath) of Syracuse. Dating back to the Byzantine period, it is said to be the oldest ever found in Europe.
The mikva was discovered when a Sicilian woman purchased the building and undertook renovations to transform the structure into a hotel.
Like much of the island's Jewish history, it was buried for centuries, covered over by the passage of time and all but forgotten.
But now, the mikva has become a symbol, not only of Sicily's Jewish past, but also of its promising future.
For just as this sturdy remnant has once again come to life, so too a nascent Sicilian Jewish community is now rising from the ruins after lying dormant for more than five centuries.
Last week, Shavei Israel, the organization I chair, ran a seminar in Syracuse together with the Union of Italian Jewish Communities. Dozens of Italian Bnei Anusim ("children of the forced [ones]," whom historians refer to as Neofiti or by the derogatory term Marranos) from Sicily and the southern Italian regions of Calabria and Puglia were in attendance.
Their Jewish ancestors had been compelled to convert to Catholicism half a millennia ago, but they had somehow managed to preserve their identity despite the Inquisition's attempts to crush it.
And now, after so many generations, a growing number of them are looking to reconnect with our people.
One of them is Salvatore Zurzolo. A tall and gregarious man, he is a prominent attorney who handles both civil and criminal cases. Raised as a Catholic, Zurzolo learned of his Jewish ancestry when his grandmother revealed it to him as she lay on her deathbed.
Propelled by the discovery, he began to learn more about Judaism. Zurzolo became religiously observant, visited Israel numerous times, and embraced the faith that had been pilfered from his forefathers.
Last December, together with a group of other Italian Bnei Anusim, Zurzolo immersed in the Syracuse mikva before a rabbinical court, formally returning to Judaism and closing a painful historical circle.
Many of those who took part in the ceremony along with him now form the nucleus of the budding Syracuse Jewish community.
Much of the credit for this rebirth belongs to Rabbi Stefano di Mauro, the first Orthodox rabbi to serve on the island since 1492. He opened a small synagogue in 2008, and has lovingly tended to the growing number of locals seeking to reclaim their Jewish roots.
To fully appreciate how remarkable this revival truly is, it is worth recalling that the Jewish presence in Sicily dates back some two thousand years.
Some historians say the first Jews were brought there as slaves by the victorious Roman legions during the Second Temple period. The community steadily grew in the ensuing centuries despite various periods of persecution, and produced an array of great scholars and rabbis.
Towards the end of the 14th century, Sicily's Jews were confined to ghettos and faced increasingly harsh decrees as well as massacres and forced conversions to Catholicism.
At the time, Sicily was under the control of the Spanish crown and in 1492, the anti-Semitic measures reached their peak with the Edict of Expulsion, which ordered the remaining Jews to leave.
There were 52 Jewish communities spread out across Sicily, numbering at least 37,000 people. Many left by December 31, 1492, but large numbers of forcibly-converted Jews were compelled to remain behind, where they suffered under the heavy hand of the Inquisition.
Indeed, this year marks the 500th anniversary of the first auto-da-fé in Sicily, when the Inquisitors executed nine Sicilian Bnei Anusim in Palermo in June 1511 for secretly practicing Judaism.
Despite the danger they faced, the crypto-Jews of Sicily and southern Italy persisted in keeping alive the memory of their ancestors and their faith. Many are now coming forward to reclaim it as their own.
"I believe we have seen only the tip of the iceberg," said Dr. Gadi Papierno of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities' Department of Education and Culture.
"It is known that there are many families, and sometimes entire villages, where descendants of Jews succeeded in preserving Jewish traditions after 500 years," he said, adding, "We have to help them to recapture the awareness of their roots and to support their Jewish growth."
Thankfully, the Italian Jewish community is doing just that, with guidance and encouragement from Rabbi Shalom Bahbout, the Chief Rabbi of Naples.
This embrace by the Italian Jewish establishment is a source of great hope to Sicily's Bnei Anusim, a sign that the Jewish people are ready at last to welcome them back into our midst.
The Italian Jewish community's stance should serve as an example to Jewish communities worldwide, where Bnei Anusim often face a less-than-cordial reception.
Their return to our people is an extraordinary testimony to the power of Jewish memory and its ability to outlast even the most stubborn of foes.
The Inquisition and its henchmen ruthlessly sought to extinguish Jewish life in Syracuse and elsewhere, and they nearly succeeded.
But now, after all these centuries, a Jewish community in Sicily has been reborn. And that is perhaps the sweetest revenge of all.