Searching for the rich Jewish past in Sicily, Italy

There are a few physical reminders of the community that once existed in Sicily, but much has been destroyed or expropriated over the centuries.

 QUATTRO CANTI (Four Corners) in Palermo’s center. (photo credit: Itiel Schnitzer)
QUATTRO CANTI (Four Corners) in Palermo’s center.
(photo credit: Itiel Schnitzer)

Earlier this year, I traveled to Sicily with my adult son to explore the roots of the Jewish community in Palermo, the island’s largest city, and to attempt to get acquainted with the renewed Jewish presence there. It was indeed a fascinating experience, but the region’s rich Jewish past belies its tenuous Jewish present. There are a few physical reminders of the community that once existed there but much has been destroyed or expropriated over the centuries.

As we learned in grade school, Sicily is an island, kicked into the Mediterranean by the toe of the Italian boot. It only became part of Italy in the 19th century when its people agreed (and some argue that their consent was not entirely voluntary) to join the newly formed Italian state. In the preceding centuries, Sicily was ruled by the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Spanish and French, and developed its own language (Sicilian) and culture. Consequently, there are rich, overlapping layers of diverse civilizations that can be seen even today in the local traditions, handicrafts and architecture. Palermo is known as the most conquered city in Europe.

Jews, sweets and Cosa Nostra

The Jewish presence in Sicily dates from Roman times and developed into a significant community in the Middle Ages. Ferdinand and Isabella’s 1492 edict expelling Jews from all countries under Spanish rule put an end to approximately 15 centuries of creative and flourishing Jewish life on the island. Some historians argue that the expulsion caused severe damage to Sicily’s economy and its subsequent development in a number of areas.

Sicily is famous for its pastries and desserts; marzipan, a confection made from almonds, is a local specialty. In Palermo, we visited Museo di Dolci (sweets museum). This was an impressive presentation of delectable creme-filled pastries, sfogliatelle and cannoli (which our non-Jewish guide earnestly warned us are usually made with lard), as well as beautiful marzipan creations, for sale in a convent near the Piazza Pretoria. We took advantage of the lovely garden there to eat the lunch we had brought with us. Granita (lemon-ice, also available in other flavors) is another local specialty.

 MOORISH ELEMENTS in the Palermo Cathedral. (credit: Itiel Schnitzer) MOORISH ELEMENTS in the Palermo Cathedral. (credit: Itiel Schnitzer)

Even more famous than sweets is the Mafia, often known as Cosa Nostra (our affair). As a consequence of government neglect and the lack of services and law enforcement, local strongmen moved into the gap in the 19th century, providing some social services, as well as extorting money from legitimate businesses and engaging in outright criminal behavior. Tourists do not come in contact with the Mafia (which has been dealt a number of severe blows by the authorities in recent years) except in the memorials to magistrate Giovanni Falcone, executed by the Mafia in 1992, and Don Giuseppe Puglisi, a Roman Catholic priest murdered in 1993; the Anti-Mafia Museum; and related walking tours. The last thing the Mafia wants is to make Sicily seem unsafe to tourists, so there is little violent crime in its streets.

Palermo – squalor and magnificence

Many of Palermo’s streets are rundown-looking and some are quite dirty, but they are reasonably safe. But even in some of the most neglected-looking areas, you can find amazing architectural gems. The outdoor markets are well worth visiting. They are similar to Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda, just somewhat less clean. There are swordfish and octopus prominently displayed for sale, along with tatty but colorful tourist souvenirs.

There are also local almonds, cashews, herbs and spices, as well as excellent quality fruits and vegetables, so we did not go hungry, despite the lack of any kosher shops or eateries. Do not expect to find a Chabad House in Palermo in the near future. We stayed in a very nice and inexpensive apartment between the Palermo Cathedral and the Ballarò market, so we had several opportunities to pick up groceries coming and going.

If you’re into wearing caps, they are very popular and even emblematic in Sicily. You can purchase custom-made caps in a wealth of patterns, styles and materials for a considerable price in exclusive shops or buy one that looks nearly as nice for about 10 to 15 Euros from a street vendor. There are traditional ceramics, Sicilian marionette puppets and other local handicrafts available. Sicilian almonds, herbs and spices are also nice souvenirs.

Palermo has some shockingly poor areas, often inhabited by recent immigrants from Africa. As one of Europe’s southernmost ports, it is a destination for refugees hoping to have a better life. We saw a shop of African textiles and clothing in the Ballarò market and immigrants from that continent are very much a presence in the city, which has a long history of multicultural life. A local legend speaks of a Moor who fell in love with a Norman lady with tragic results, and their images are commonly found on the ubiquitous ceramic cups and vases for sale all over Sicily.

There are also a number of palatial houses, some museums and some still-private residences of titled families. We visited Palazzo Mirto, an exquisite 18th-century home that is now a museum, willed to the state by its last noble denizen in the 1960s. I attempted to reserve a visit to the home of Conte Federico, an Italian count and antique car enthusiast, but the contessa (countess) wrote back that the house would remain closed until mid-April. Our guide told us that one local principessa (princess) offers tours of her own home and hosts events there to earn income, since royal titles don’t pay bills. Palermo continues to be a city that is home to vastly different types of people, most of whom are both frustrated with it and love it dearly.

Sicilian friends

A number of years ago, I had an online correspondence with Giovanni Augello, a Palermo writer and travel blogger. He is also an accomplished photographer and musician. Giovanni made a video singing about his very mixed and mixed-up city. I had hoped to meet up with him, but he was out of town. Giovanni insisted, in typical Sicilian fashion, that I meet another friend of his, Giuseppe, a local lawyer and travel enthusiast. We took a stroll together in the vicinity of the cathedral, and Giuseppe told me about Sicilian customs, the Mafia, holiday celebrations, traditional puppet theater, games, and more regarding the island’s culture and history. It was fascinating to speak with a born-and-bred Palermitano about his city and country. Of course, I urged Giuseppe to come to visit us in Gerusalemme, as Italians call the holy city.

Exploring the city

Most of Palermo is quite accessible by foot, so we enjoyed two walking tours, as well as our own explorations without taking advantage of public transportation, except for the train, which we took to leave the city. On of the tours, the guide explained that participants could pay what they felt appropriate. I had to suppress a smile when I heard her mutter “La parsimonia commincia” (the stinginess begins) as people reached into their pockets.

We visited many well-known sites: Quattro Canti (four corners) a crossroads surrounded by four richly decorated Baroque buildings, replete with fountains, statues of kings and local saints; the cathedral (originally a mosque); the unofficially titled Fontana della Vergogna (Fountain of Shame), known as such because of its nude statues (unusual in conservative Sicily, where the Renaissance never really arrived); and the impressive Teatro Massimo, the largest theater in Italy, built in the 19th century to bring some culture to primitive Sicily. We later took a tour of the theater, which was even grander and lovelier inside.

I had booked a Jewish-oriented private tour in advance with Jacqueline Alio, a charming and erudite tour guide who relocated from California to Sicily, the home of her ancestors. Jacqueline is not Jewish, but she has researched and published extensively on many topics related to Sicily, including its Jewish past. She was quite generous with her time and gave me much-needed advice in advance. She scheduled a meeting with representatives of the Jewish community of Palermo and arranged a visit to the disused Catholic chapel, which the local church had signed over to the Jewish community for use as a synagogue in 2017 as an act of reparation for the confiscation of Jewish property and synagogues in 1492.

 THE WRITER stands strategically in front of  a modern statue of Icarus and the ancient Temple of Concordia. (credit: Itiel Schnitzer) THE WRITER stands strategically in front of a modern statue of Icarus and the ancient Temple of Concordia. (credit: Itiel Schnitzer)
Uncovering a Jewish past

Before I had set off for Palermo, I saw a moving video on YouTube of Archbishop Corrado Lorefice, overcome with emotion, handing over the key to the former chapel to Rabbi Pierpaolo Pinhas Punterello from the Shavei Yisrael organization, which helps descendants of Jews who had become separated from the Jewish people, usually by forced conversion or persecution, reconnect with their Jewish heritage and the Jewish people. The Palermo Jewish community is officially a branch of the larger and more established Jewish community of Naples, the closest major city to Sicily.

Unfortunately, the meeting with the Jewish community fell through, and we were only able to see the chapel, formerly called Santa Maria del Sabato (Sabato is Italian for “Saturday,” and some suggest that the connection between the chapel and the Jewish Shabbat is not by chance), from the outside. It is within the confines of the original Jewish neighborhood of Palermo and not far from the site of the main synagogue, which Rabbi Ovadiah Bertinoro declared one of the finest in all of Europe. The synagogue gate is still extant, but the original building was destroyed. A church stands in its place, and an inscription mentions the synagogue that once stood there.

The motivating force behind the reconstruction of the Jewish community in Palermo was Signora Evelyne Aouate, of French and Algerian background, who moved to Palermo. In the 1990s, she was successful in establishing the Jewish Studies Institute, which holds conferences and lectures on Jewish texts, while she dreamed of a synagogue for Palermo. At the time that we visited, Aoute was gravely ill and sadly died several weeks afterward at age 81. Her hope of an active synagogue remains a dream.

Jewish remnants in Sicily

The number of Jews expelled from Sicily is estimated by some sources as nearly 36,000 – approximately 5-8% of the entire Sicilian population. A number of cities have vestiges of their Jewish past: a stone Aron Kodesh in Agira; some alabaster panels with biblical scenes and a converted synagogue wash basin (now a baptismal font) in Siculiana; and a mikveh in Siracusa. Palermo also has a mikveh, but it is not usually open to the public.

In La Giudecca, the former Jewish quarter of Palermo, there are streets that bear the names of the occupations of the Jewish artisans who once worked there, and there are still workshops where these crafts are perpetuated. Recently, street signs have been put up in Italian, Arabic and misspelled Hebrew.

We visited the courtyard of the Magione church to see a nearly illegible Hebrew inscription in stone. Moved to that spot after World War II, it is apparently a tombstone or a memorial dedication from a synagogue, bearing the name of Daniel, son of Rabbi Saadia, a young Jewish man who died in the 1300s. Catholic marriages are occasionally celebrated there and a local journalist speculated whether Daniel would have smiled upon seeing these festivities take place. The local monsignor advocated removing the memorial tablet from its place outside the church to an appropriate museum but was overruled by the Church hierarchy.

Another place where the Jewish presence is somewhat evident is Palazzo Steri, once a prison for the victims of the Inquisition. Some Hebrew words can be spotted among the graffiti on its cell walls. In 2013, Hanukkah candles were kindled there in a special ceremony, symbolically bringing holy light to one of the darkest periods of European history.

Persecution of Jews in Sicily did not end with the 1492 expulsion or the subsequent burning at the stake of New Christians (Jews who had outwardly converted to Christianity but maintained some Jewish practices). We saw a memorial tablet at the University of Palermo dedicated to students and faculty who were victims of the Holocaust, reminding us that this traumatic event left its terrible mark on all European Jews.

A fortunate encounter in Agrigento

Our visit to Sicily included a trip to Agrigento, in the southernmost part of the island, home to one of the largest archeological parks in the world. Once part of Magna Grecia (Greater Greece), the Valley of the Temples is the site of many stunning Greek ruins. We spent most of a day there, arriving by train – a trip of about two hours from Palermo. If you make this trip, be sure to get off at Agrigento Centrale, not Agrigento Bassa – the stop before it, as we did.

We found no bus or train leaving within two hours, and not a cab was in sight in this sleepy suburb of a small town. I saw a driver getting into his car and asked him if perhaps he knew how I could get to the Valley of the Temples, and he kindly invited us to join him and his friends who were going right there. He made sure to tell me how generous and hospitable southern Italians are, and I enthusiastically concurred. ■

The writer has lived in Israel since 1984. A Jewish educator, librarian, translator and writer, his articles and stories have appeared in The Jerusalem Post, Makor Rishon and other publications.