Something extraordinary is happening in Palermo, the capital of Sicily.
More than five centuries after the forced conversion to Catholicism of large numbers of Sicilian Jews, followed by the expulsion of the rest, a nascent rebirth is well underway, as growing numbers of Sicily’s Bnei Anousim (whom historians refer to by the derogatory term “Marranos”) now seek to embrace the heritage of their ancestors. This remarkable development is a stirring testimony to the indestructibility of the Jewish spirit, and it behooves us all to take note and encourage it.
The extent of the revival was on display this week, when an unprecedented series of public events were held to commemorate the tragedy of January 12, 1493, the date when all Jews had to depart from the island.
More than 1,000 Palermo residents from all walks of life, including senior municipal and church officials, professors, journalists and even groups of high school students participated in various activities aimed at ensuring that this dark chapter in Sicily’s past is not forgotten.
The day included the screening of the film La passione di Giosuè l’Ebreo (The Passion of Joshua the Jew), which explores the persecution endured by Sicilian Jews in the years leading up to the expulsion, as well as a discussion led by the film’s director, Pasquale Scimeca, who is a descendant of Sicilian Bnei Anousim.
Participants later gathered at Palermo’s municipal historical archives for a moving panel, where heartbreaking testimonies culled from the archives of the Inquisition were read aloud, giving all those present a sense of the cruelties that were perpetrated so long ago.
Like the story of Samuele Sala, a Sicilian Jew who had been forcibly baptized, although his pregnant wife was not. When the date of the expulsion arrived, Sala was prohibited from leaving, as he was considered to be a Catholic, but she was compelled to do so. Consequently, the authorities in their boundless brutality sent a soldier to accompany Sala’s wife abroad so that when she gave birth, the newborn child could be seized and brought back to Sicily to be raised in the Church.
This week’s events in Palermo were coordinated by Rabbi Pinhas Punturello, emissary of Shavei Israel, the organization that I chair, in cooperation with the Istituto Siciliano di Studi Ebraici (ISSE, or Sicilian Institute of Jewish Studies). As the oldest and largest organization in the world working with Bnei Anousim, Shavei Israel has been active in Italy for several years, where we work hand in hand with the UCEI, the Union of Italian Jewish Communities.
To fully appreciate how remarkable this nascent renaissance is, it is worth recalling that the Jewish presence in Sicily may date back some 2,000 years. Some historians believe that the first Jews arrived on the island as slaves who were brought there by the Romans 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. Toward 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.
At the time, there were 52 Jewish communities spread out across Sicily, numbering at least 37,000 people, and possibly many more. Many left, but large numbers of forcibly-converted Jews were compelled to remain behind, where they suffered under the heavy hand of the Inquisition.
The first auto-da-fe in Sicily took place in Palermo in June 1511, when the zealous Inquisitors executed nine Sicilian Bnei Anousim for covertly remaining loyal to Jewish practice.
But despite the dangers they faced, the crypto-Jews of Sicily persisted in keeping alive the memory of their ancestors and their faith. And many are now coming forward to reclaim it as their own.
Just last year, a number of Sicilian Bnei Anousim underwent a formal return to Judaism overseen by a rabbinical court, and they now live and practice as observant Jews, setting the stage for the eventual renewal of Jewish communal life on the island.
Among them was a family that has resided in the same home for nearly four centuries. The house contains a covert mikve (ritual bath) that their family used surreptitiously for generations, away from the prying eyes of the Inquisition.
The return to the Jewish people of the Sicilian Bnei Anousim underlines the power of Jewish memory and the pull of Jewish destiny.
We owe it to them and to their ancestors to welcome them back and do everything possible to facilitate their return.
Against all odds, the Jewish spark in Sicily is once again coming to life. Our task now is to ensure that it is never again extinguished.
The writer is founder and chairman of Shavei Israel (www.shavei.org), which assists lost tribes and hidden Jewish communities to return to the Jewish people.