Tucked away in a southern corner of Italy, an ancient synagogue with an unusual
past is in danger of falling silent with the passing of its one and only
Avraham Zecchillo was a proud descendant of Italian Bnei
Anusim (to whom historians refer by the derogatory term “marranos”). He resided
in the beautiful port city of Trani along the Adriatic coast where, he liked to
say, his Jewish ancestors had lived “forever, for thousands of years.”
was among the first of their progeny to formally return to the Jewish people in
modern times, and after living in Israel and serving in the IDF, he returned to
Trani to devote himself to rekindling the Jewish presence in the area.
recent years, he had lovingly cared for the city’s Scolanova (Italian for “new
school”) synagogue, which dates back more than 750 years.
he would walk the streets of the city’s giudecca, or Jewish Quarter, unlock the
door to the synagogue, and then pray in silent devotion.
Zecchillo was a congregation of one, defying history and logic to stubbornly
assert that the Jewish presence in Trani had come alive again after almost being
snuffed out in the late 13th century.
But this brave and determined man,
whose historical consciousness was equaled only by his sidesplitting sense of
humor, recently returned his soul to his Maker, succumbing after a long battle
I met Avraham twice on visits to southern Italy in search
of Bnei Anusim. He was the type of local figure who walked the age-old streets,
stopping on nearly every block to say hello to a friend or neighbor, make small
talk or just share a tale.
But beneath the quick smile was a firm resolve
to reclaim what had been stolen from his ancestors centuries ago.
Jewish presence in southern Italy is well over 1,000 years old. After the Muslim
invasion of Sicily in the late ninth and early 10th centuries, the community was
bolstered by new arrivals, who turned Trani and the surrounding region of Puglia
into a thriving Jewish center.
The traveler Benjamin of Tudela, who
visited in 1166, wrote that “Trani is located on the sea, where all the pilgrims
gather to go to Jerusalem, for the port is a convenient one. A community of
about 200 Israelites is there, at their head being Rabbi Elijah, Rabbi Nathan
the Expounder, and Rabbi Jacob. It is a great and beautiful city.”
the Talmudic scholars it produced are Rabbi Moshe of Trani (known as the Mabit),
and Rabbi Isaiah of Trani, considered one of the outstanding sages of the 13th
It was during this period, thanks to the benevolent rule of King
Frederic II, that Trani’s Jews flourished commercially and spiritually, building
impressive synagogues such as the Scolanova.
But a few decades after
Frederic’s passing, a wave of anti- Semitism struck without mercy, and by 1290
the Jews of Puglia had been hit hard by persecution and forced
Trani’s four synagogues, including the Scolanova, were
confiscated and later transformed into Catholic churches, their Jewish symbols
stripped away and their former congregants compelled to practice Judaism in
secret. These crypto-Jews were known by the Italian word neofiti, and they
suffered from discrimination at the hands of their
Nonetheless, in the 15th century, there was a brief revival of
Jewish life in Puglia after Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 settled in the
But when the Spanish monarchs captured the region in 1510, a series
of further expulsions began, and by 1541 the Jews were all but forced to
That, however, was not the end of Trani’s Jewish
Thankfully our people have long memories, which is one of the
qualities that have kept us alive throughout the millennia.
AND SO it was
that six years ago, in an unusual move, the Scolanova synagogue was at last
returned to the Jewish people. This was largely thanks to the efforts of
Francesco Lotoro, a local professor of music who prodded the authorities to
restore the building to its rightful owners.
Lotoro and his wife, who are
themselves Bnei Anusim, underwent formal conversion to Judaism by Italy’s Chief
Rabbinate several years ago.
Built in a simple yet elegant Gothic style,
the Scolanova’s stone interior and 36-foot-high ceiling are unusually moving and
even grand, so much so that after the Church seized the building, it made
scarcely any changes.
Nonetheless, with a wicked sense of irony, the
ecclesiastical authorities removed the Holy Ark from its niche in the wall, and
in its place put a portrait of Mary.
Centuries later, when Lotoro and
others sought to reestablish the house of worship as a synagogue, they found
themselves in a quandary. Since the structure was protected under local law,
they could not remove the medieval image. But how could a synagogue function
under such circumstances? With guidance from the late chief rabbi of Israel,
Mordechai Eliyahu, a solution was found: The painting was covered over by an
internal wall, and the Holy Ark was restored to its rightful place, making
Trani’s synagogue the only one in the world that contains its own portrait of
the Virgin Mary.
When Avraham told me this story, he could barely conceal
his delight at how history had reversed course. The Church had seized the
synagogue and forced its Jews into hiding, but now it was the Church’s symbols
which were being concealed.
And then, with a twinkle in his eye, he took
me outside and pointed to the bell-tower over the building. When the authorities
returned the synagogue, Avraham told me, they refused to take down the cross
that stood at its top, insisting that the Catholic symbols remain in
“They told me it had to stay, but I was not going to allow this
insult to my ancestors to stand,” he said. And so, one night, he had climbed up
to the roof of the building and replaced the cross with a large Star of
It stands there to this day – testimony both to Trani’s Jewish
past and to Avraham Zecchillo’s efforts to ensure its Jewish
Recently, Shavei Israel, the organization I chair, partnered with
Naples Chief Rabbi Shalom Bahbout and the Union of Italian Jewish Communities to
assist the Bnei Anusim of southern Italy, a growing number of whom wish to
return to the Jewish people.
The passing of Avraham Zecchillo is a tragic
blow, and I pray that his memory will provide a blessing for these
The Scolanova synagogue he cared for is all but bare, waiting
for Avraham’s fellow Italian Anusim to return. Our task now must be to fill its
seats once again.The writer serves as chairman of Shavei Israel
(www.shavei.org), which assists “lost Jews” seeking to return to the Jewish