The death of an Italian marrano

Fundamentally Freund: The passing of Avraham Zecchillo, a proud descendant of Bnei Anusim, who for years cared for his city’s local synagogue which dates back over 750 years, is a tragic blow to Italy’s Jewish community.

By
June 16, 2011 04:29
Michael Freund

Michael Freund NEW 58. (photo credit: courtesy)

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 stalwart member.

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.”

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He 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.

In recent years, he had lovingly cared for the city’s Scolanova (Italian for “new school”) synagogue, which dates back more than 750 years.

Every Shabbat, 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.

Avraham 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 with disease.

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.

The 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.”

Among 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 century.

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 conversions.

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 neighbors.

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 area.

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 leave.

That, however, was not the end of Trani’s Jewish story.

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 place.

“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 David.

It stands there to this day – testimony both to Trani’s Jewish past and to Avraham Zecchillo’s efforts to ensure its Jewish future.

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 efforts.

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 people.


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