Tucked away in the southeastern Sicilian city of Syracuse (or Siracusa in
Italian), lies one of Europe’s least-known Jewish treasures.
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
Inside the guest house, a long and uneven stone staircase descends
a perilous 30 feet underground, forcing a visitor to weigh each step carefully
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
“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
“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.”
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
The Italian Jewish community’s stance should serve as an example
to Jewish communities worldwide, where Bnei Anusim often face a
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
But now, after all these centuries, a Jewish community
in Sicily has been reborn. And that is perhaps the sweetest revenge of
all.The writer is Chairman of Shavei Israel (www.shavei.org), a
Jerusalem-based organization that assists lost tribes and hidden Jewish
communities to return to the Jewish people.