The Human Spirit: A Sicilian lesson

Palermo makes me feel more optimistic about Europe, but the history of this place is sobering.

barbara sofer 88 (photo credit: )
barbara sofer 88
(photo credit: )
The tourist information kiosk in Palermo, Sicily, is closed at 1 p.m. in spite of what it says in the guidebook. I knock hopefully on the shuttered window. Nearby, the elderly newsstand proprietor holds up three fingers: it won't open until three. And then I notice his T-shirt: Jerusalem 2000. I couldn't have been more surprised if he'd introduced himself as Elijah the Prophet. Jewish, I brazenly ask? No, Catholic. A pilgrim who braved visiting the Holy Land despite the intifada and fell in love with the city. All this said mostly in pantomime. Nearly six years after coming to Israel, he's still wearing a faded but legible shirt to boast about it to strangers. He insists on giving me a map of the city. Later, when the kiosk finally opens, trying for a word that will surely be understood in Italian, I describe the area of Palermo we're looking for as the "ghetto." "We never had a ghetto," said the woman in charge, straightening with pride. "What you're looking for is the Jewish quarter." We find it. Signs in Hebrew and Arabic mark the Jewish streets and the site of the former synagogue of the capital city of an island that was once alive with Jewish life. A small Jewish community exists today, but most Italian Jews prefer the industrial, commercial North of their country. Nonetheless, more than 500 years after the Jews were forced to close their sea trading businesses, their fish stalls and their medical practices, Sicily still preserves the history of the former Jewish sections: Via Della Giudecca and Via degli Ebrei in the northwestern port town of Trapani, for example. There are no rows of shops selling Jewish trinkets to make remembering profitable, so it can't be a commercial strategy as it is in other countries that continue to benefit from the former presence of their Jewish community. Despite the toxic algae and jellyfish which have marred their appeal, certainly the beaches and winding streets are what lure tourists. Yet the Sicilians we meet seem proud of their Jewish past. This preservation of the past, the stories of the Hagana getting assistance from Sicilians in exporting arms through New York ports and the enthusiastic reactions we receive from Sicilians when we reveal that we're from Israel make us feel less jumpy on our first excursion outside Israel since the second Lebanon War and several overnights in the North. The local people we meet shake their heads sadly at the mention of Hizbullah. Graffiti are ubiquitous, but none of them denounce Israel. And the Italians have volunteered to be a major part of the so-called peacekeeping force in Lebanon. SO ON one hand Sicily makes me feel a little more optimistic; from Israel, Europe looks so hostile. On the other, the Jewish story in Sicily provides a sober lesson. Jews lived on this beautiful isle and its surrounding smaller islands for 14 centuries. There were more than 30,000 here by the 15th century, when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain (which ruled Sicily) decided to rid their kingdom of Jews. According to historian Gaetano Cipolla (in the journal Arba Sicula, 1994) Sicilians of high authority, including the Grand Justice of the legislature, petitioned Ferdinand and Isabella to rescind the order. They argued that in Sicily the Jews were not guilty of the charges of proselytizing and usury of which they had been accused. Just the opposite. They were good citizens and vital contributors to commerce and the economy. All the island's metal workers on whom the shipping trade depended were Jews. According to Cipolla, "the tone of the petition, written in Sicilian, is one of dismay, sadness and disbelief." It was followed up in a second letter similar in tone written to the viceroy by the municipal government of the City of Palermo, clearing the Jews of accusations against them. "And for this reason the action must not be continued against this regnum since there are no reasons for it." But the locals were unsuccessful, and on January 12, 1493 the Jewish community had to leave. WHENEVER THE names Isabella and Ferdinand come up, I'm always reminded of how these monarchs were presented as heroic in the elementary school in Connecticut where I grew up. The correct answer on exams about the discovery of America always began with a description of the foresight and sacrifice of the same Queen Isabella, selling her jewels to launch Christopher Columbus. No Torquemada. No Inquisition. No banishment of Jews and confiscation of their assets. The history we learned as children in New England papered over the Jewish tragedy. We are no longer helpless vassals in the lands of others. We cannot rely on others, even the warmest of friends. We are entering a new period of our history and have to invest our best intellectual, military and spiritual resources in protecting ourselves. This is a cheerless conclusion as we enter the Rosh Hashana period of personal and national stocktaking, but one which may be a prod to our creativity. The personal integrity which we must demand of ourselves and our leaders is a necessary strategy in securing the Divine promise of our country. As we read in the Torah portion Nitzavim, "For the mitzva which I command you this day, it is not beyond you, nor is it remote from you. It is not in heaven. It's not across the sea. Rather, it's very close to you, in your mouth, in your heart, that you may do." Fortunately we have a New Year which provides the confidence that we can correct our mistakes and work harder for a joyous feature. May we all be inscribed and sealed for a good year.