Little-known Jewish history of Sicily on display centuries after expulsion

. “After 1492, Jews had to leave the island and their possessions were sold, destroyed or reused for other purposes, as it happened to many of the Jewish sites."

Burial inscription of Zosimiano, 4th-5th century CE (photo credit: MUSEO ARCHEOLOGICO “A.SALINAS")
Burial inscription of Zosimiano, 4th-5th century CE
Walking in historic Palermo, regional capital of Sicily – the vast island off of the boot of the Italian peninsula – visitors will see street signs written in Hebrew and Arabic, as well as Italian. The newly-placed signs pay homage to the island’s Jewish and Moorish roots. Though little survives, the Jewish presence in Sicily dates back to the Roman era and represents an important page of the island’s history, as explained in the temporary exhibit “Documenti di storia ebraica dalle collezioni del Museo Salinas,” (Documents of Jewish history from the collections of Salinas Museum) at Palermo’s Regional Archaeological Museum Antonio Salinas.
The thriving Jewish community abruptly ended in 1492-1493, when non-Catholics were expelled from the island, as well as the other territories under Spanish rule.
“We have decided to organize an exhibition on the Jewish history in Sicily to honor the Holocaust Remembrance Day,” Lucia Ferruzza, co-curator of the exhibition together with the museum’s director Caterina Greco and Elena Pazzini, told The Jerusalem Post.
Ferruzza explained the museum collection includes very few relevant artifacts because of the deliberate destruction of the local Jewish community following the expulsion edict issued by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand.
“This void has been our starting point in creating the exhibition,” Ferruzza explained. “After 1492, Jews had to leave the island and their possessions were sold, destroyed or reused for other purposes, as it happened to many of the Jewish sites.
“An interesting example of these vicissitudes is represented by a pair of decorative finials for Torah scrolls from Sicily which, as historical documents attest, were sold to a merchant and today are part of the treasure of the Cathedral of Palma de Mallorca in Spain,” she added.
A picture of the rare artifacts is included in the display.
“After the last Jews left in 1493, a community that since the 3th century and even more so in the Medieval, Islamic and Norman periods had represented an important part of the Sicilian society, also from an economical and cultural point of view, faded into oblivion. This is why for the Holocaust Remembrance Day we felt it was important to remember this page of the island’s history, which also happens to be very little known,” the curator explained.
Among the artifacts on display are several coins from the series of the so-called Iudae Capta coins minted by Titus and his father Vespasian after they conquered and destroyed Jerusalem to celebrate their victory. One of them features a woman crying and kneeling under a palm tree as a personification of the Jewish nation and the Emperor Vespasian in a triumphant attitude.
Another artifact on display is a burial inscription in Greek dating back to the 4th or 5th century CE remembering a man named Zosimiano and carrying a stylized menorah.
Under Islamic rule a few centuries later, Sicily became home to a thriving and affluent Jewish community.
A glimpse of the extraordinary richness of the Jewish life in Palermo right before the expulsion is offered by the journal of Rabbi Ovadiah ben Abraham of Bertinoro, author of a famous commentary to the Mishna. Born in the city of Bertinoro in central Italy, the rabbi sojourned in Palermo during his travels en route to Jerusalem, where he died in c. 1515.
“The synagogue in Palermo has no equal in the country and among the nations. In the outer courtyard grows vines on stone pillars… From there a stone stairway leads to the court before the synagogue, surrounded by a portico on three sides, equipped with chairs… There is a fine and beautiful well,” Bartenura wrote, describing a 850-family strong community “concentrated in a neighborhood located in the best part of the city.”
Apart from the synagogue, the community enjoyed a ritual bath, kosher slaughterhouse and hospital. While the first ghetto in the Italian peninsula was established in Venice in 1516, Jews in Palermo were unrestricted in where they could live.
As explained in the exhibition, only several centuries later the oblivion surrounding the Jews of Sicily began to lift, with scholars starting to take a new interest in the topic.
“In the second half of the nineteenth century, studies on the Jewish world flourished,” Ferruzza told the Post, noting that already in 1748, when King Charles III of Spain for the first time allowed Jews to reside in some cities in Sicily, a tractate on the Jewish history of the island was compiled, albeit with a decisive antisemitic perspective. The volume is on display.
The turning point was represented by the Risorgimento (the unification of Italy in 1870), a process that saw Italian Jews heavily involved and on the front line. In the newly-established kingdom, Jews also receive full equality in all its territories for the first time in history.
“After the unification of Italy, we had a number of articles on the topic of the Jewish presence in Sicily, often promoted by Italian patriots who seemed to think that in order to build the Italian national identity was important to bring to light the memory of this important element of Sicilian history that had been forgotten,” the curator highlighted. “It is a topic that we would like to further explore.”
Today only a few dozen people in Sicily identify as Jewish. Palermo has only recently officially become a branch of the Jewish Community of Naples after in 2017 the Catholic Church offered to local Jews the use of the Oratory of Santa Maria del Sabato, a monastery believed to stand where the magnificent synagogue described by Bartenura was once located.
As it happened in Spain, in 1492, many Jews who were forced to either leave or convert pretended to do so and kept their Judaism secret. Centuries later, their descendants are often re-discovering their Jewish roots and seeking a connection. For now, it is still isolated cases. But the history of the Jewish presence in the island might be far from over, after all.
The exhibition will be open until March 1.