The Jews Of Sicily

What’s left of the Jewish permanence in Sic­ily? Not much remains to the untrained eye, but the integration of the Jews with the rest of the population left marks on Sicilian customs and traditions.

History of Jews in Sicily

What’s left of the Jewish permanence in Sic­ily? Not much remains to the untrained eye, but the integration of the Jews with the rest of the population left marks on Sicilian customs and traditions

By Gaetano Cipolla, Arba Sicula

As I search my memory for anything associated with Jews during my years of growing up in Sicily, all I can come up with is a ditty in Sicilian that we as children chanted when performing acts of cruelty on lizards and frogs (how painful to recall the mindlessness of it!). The ditty was “Non fu eu e manca Deu, fu la spata du judeu” (It was not I, nor was it God, it was the sword of the Jew!), which in retrospect took a lot of gall on our part. There we were about to sever a lizard’s tail or worse and we were ac­cusing the Jews! The anti-Semitism contained in the ditty, however, was not of a personal nature; it had to do with the biblical guilt of the Jews as the people who had failed to recognize the divinity of Jesus and had killed him, which is what Catholics were taught through catechism (that is, before the Church had adopted a more enlightened approach). I and my comrades had no personal knowledge of Jews as persons of flesh and blood. They were an ancient people who had lived “in illo tempore.” As far as I knew, (and I regard my experi­ences there as typical) there were no Jews in Sicily, nor had they ever lived on the island. It is not that I was particularly uninformed or oblivious to my surroundings. There seemed to be no physical signs in Sicily from which you could infer that Jews once had inhabited the island in large numbers. I had never seen a synagogue, or a ghetto, or a building that could be identified as Jewish. I knew no word in Sicilian that betrayed the presence of Jews on the island. I knew no food that could be recognized as Jewish.

On the other hand, I could easily spot influences of other groups that have inhabited Sicily throughout its tormented history. Physical signs of the presence of Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans are commonplace, as are those of the Arabs, Normans, Swabians, French, Aragonese/Spaniards, and even Americans, who were the last to enter Sicily as conquerors. If you look at a map of Sicily and see cities such as Caltanissetta, Caltagirone, or Caltavuturo, you have an example of the Arabic presence on the island — “Kalt” means “castle” in Arabic; if you hear Sicilians speaking their ancient language, you will recognize traces of the various languages its people have spoken at differ­ent times in their three thousand year history: Phoenician, Elymian, Siculian, Greek, Latin, and Sicilian; words like “bruccetta” (fork) or “custureri” (tailor) are echoes of the French domination (“brochette, couturier”). If you read a Sicilian love poem chances are that some of the imagery and words are derived from the Provencal tradition that they exploited when they created the first vulgar language worthy of poetry in the XIII century; the Normans come to mind while admiring the cathedrals of Monreale and Cefalù; the Romans’ presence is ubiquitous as is the presence of the Greeks and the Arabs and the Phoeni­cians. But nothing of the Jews was visible to my uninitiated eye. Of course, they never conquered Sicily like the others and they never left monuments to themselves for posterity. But they lived there for fourteen long centuries, sharing bad times and good times, side by side with pagans, Christians, Greek Orthodox Byzantines and Muslims, in relative harmony, as teachers, mer­chants, doctors, farmers, textile workers, dyers, and shoemakers, contributing not little to the economic and cultural life of Sicily. Yet today, those fourteen hundred years of history seem to have been erased from the consciousness of Sicilians.

Who were these Sicilian Jews, where did they live, what did they con­tribute to Sicilian history and what made them disappear from our collective consciousness? In trying to answer these questions, even as incompletely as I can on this occasion, I was attempting to fill a void in my understanding of Sicilian history, a part of which has been wiped off the slate. I was attempt­ing to come to terms with a puzzle whose pieces finally began to fit although the history of the Jews in Sicily has not been fully explored and much more remains to be learned.

Fortunately things are changing and that history is beginning to be written. In November 1992, in Salemi (province of Trapani), a convention was organized by the Institute of Jewish Culture “SLM” headed by Titta Lo Jacono, to discuss the historical importance of the Jewish communities in Sicily. The week-long convention, attended by important Catholic and lay personali­ties, represented a solid beginning and an invitation to start studying those things not destroyed by time: the documents that gather dust in town archives and in libraries.

The date of the conference was chosen, of course, to coincide with the five hundredth anniversary of a momentous event in history. No, not the 1492 discovery of America by Christopher Columbus! I am referring to another event that echoed even more loudly in the hearts of European Jews: the edict by Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, the Catholic Monarchs, expelling the Jews from all their realms. This was a tremendous blow to Judaism comparable to the Exodus from Egypt with one qualitative exception: in the first exodus, the Jewish masses could look forward to finding the promised land at the end of their journey, but in the expulsion from Sicily the Jew literally had few places in the world that wanted them, no promised land awaited them, only the beginning of a hopeless dispersal to the four corners of the known world.

So let us begin from the end of the sojourn of the Jews on the island they had called home for fourteen hundred years, from which they were evicted not by popular animosities of their neighbors and townsmen, but by the actions of a distant king from a distant land. Sicilian Jews were caught in the vortex of a turbulent drama that was begun else­where, and precisely in the Spain of Ferdinand and Isabella, to whom Sicily belonged at the time.

Having driven the Moors out of Granada, Ferdinand and Isabella, wanted to eradicate from Catholic Spain any other religious groups and set about the task by ordering a massive campaign to convert or drive out the Jews. Under pressure from the Grand Inquisitor Torquemada, they signed an edict in which they accused the Jews of proselytizing and of eating away at the well-being of Christians with their usury, and ordered them to leave all Spanish realms within three months on pain of death and confiscation of their wealth. Their expulsion from Spain was deemed essential to “extirpate… the apostasy and iniquitous perversion of the Jews who by their practice and conversations have induced many Christians into heresy and in some errors.” The only way to circumvent the expulsion was to convert to Christianity. If the Jews abandoned their faith and embraced Christ, they would be considered like all the Christian subjects having the same legal liberties and rights. In Sic­ily, governed at that time by Viceroy Don Ferdinand de Acugna, one of the better Viceroys, the anti-Semitism rampant on the Iberian Peninsula was not shared by the majority of Sicilians and they did not want to see their numerous and long-standing Jewish communities leave the island. The Viceroy, sensing the enormous impact that the edict was going to have on the island, did not make it public until June 18, 1492, two and a half months after its proclamation in Spain (March 31, 1492), perhaps hoping that its implementation would not take place. He sensed that an action of that magnitude was bound to create animosities, especially among the powerful members of the Sicilian Camera Regia (Sicilian Parliament) that could have objected not only on legal grounds but also for moral and economic reasons. Losing the entrepreneurial skill of the Jews would be catastrophic to the island and the elite knew it. Public opinion was also against the mandate because the Jews, having lived in Sicily for so long, were well integrated into the country’s social fabric.

The opposition of the Sicilian officials had additional motives for objecting to Ferdinand’s edict. Francesco Renda made it clear in his La fine del giudaismo siciliano (The End of Sicilian Judaism) that the Sicilian authorities were attempting to safeguard privileges and constitutional guarantees that the Sicilian Regnum had enjoyed for a long time against Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain’s centralization moves. The version of the edict that was sent to Sicily was different from the one published for the Spanish provinces. In the Sicilian edict Ferdinand cites a more determinant role for the General Inquisitor Torquemada in his reaching the conclusion that the Jews had to be expelled for the good of the nation. Renda suggests that the difference was due to Ferdinand’s attempt to wrest control of the Holy Inquisition that in Sicily was administered by the Roman Church through its Sicilian bishops, even though the General Inquisitor Torquemada had jurisdiction on the island. But Torquemada’s power was ineffective in Sicily. The ecclesiastical hierarchy there strenuously defended, with the covert help from the Roman Curia, its jurisdiction over matters of faith. Thus, the expulsion of the Jews was tied to other sticky political questions that involved the Papacy in its long-standing relationship with Sicily, the Sicilian Parliament and Ferdinand’s desire to gain greater control over his realms and possessions.

Whatever the power politics at play, once the edict was made public, Sicilians in positions of authority, which included the count of Adernò, Tom­maso Moncada — Grand Justice of the Regnum as well as the Judges of the Magna Curia, the Masters of the Royal Patrimony, the Treasurer of the Regnum, wrote a petition to Ferdinand and Isabella in an attempt to stop the edict from taking effect. Other bodies protested to the Viceroy with let­ters and personal appearances. These petitions contradicted the religious rationale given by the King for the expulsion and focused on a number of points of legal, economic and social importance. Specifically, they pointed out that:

  1. In Sicily the Jews did not try to convince Christians to abandon their faith nor did they cause heresies;
  2. The Jews spent nearly one million florins a year to feed and clothe themselves and if they were evicted the island would lose this enormous sum (equivalent today to three quarters of a billion dollars);
  3. The commerce between Jews and Christians would end, causing hardship on Christians;
  4. The island would lose the iron works industry, totally in the hands of Jews with disastrous consequences on ship building;
  5. The island would lose low-wage workers employed in the construction of city defenses against pirates’ incursions;
  6. The state coffers would lose the income from taxes levied on the Jews;
  7. Some islands belonging to Sicily, like Malta, Gozzo and Pantel­leria, inhabited in large numbers by Jews, would be deserted;
  8. The Jews, finally, except for a few individuals and families, were generally so poor that if the three months deadline were not extended, many would starve to death.

The tone of the petition, written in Sicilian, is one of dismay, sadness and disbelief. In a second letter written to the Viceroy by the municipal gov­ernment of the City of Palermo, the Jews were cleared of the accusation of proselytizing and of usury: the letter stated categorically that there were no reasons for proceeding against the Jews since the accusations were not founded on fact:

Sicilian Jews did not engage in money lending, even though they had been given permission to charge 10% on loans by the Emperor Frederick II in his Melfi Charter of 1231. Thus, even if some of them practiced usury, they were not committing a crime, unless they charged more than the permitted rate. The expulsion of the Jews was considered an act of violence against their natural rights and against the position of the Popes, reiterated on a number of occasions, that the Jews were allowed to live among the Christians in the hope that they might convert. Nevertheless, the edict stood and was carried out on the legal justification that pertained to their special status as “Servants of the King”.

This special status was instituted by Frederick II in the 13th century. It was a way to legalize the pres­ence of non-believers in the Christian societies of Europe and it remained as an institution in the Catholic monarchies of France, Spain, England and Germany and even in free City-States and principalities. The status of “servants” was considered a form of punishment for the Jews’ involvement in the crucifixion of Christ and their unwillingness to recognize the divinity of Jesus by the Christian monarchs and by the Catholic Church. They were condemned to a condition of eternal serfdom. They lived in Sicily at the King’s pleasure. Indeed, their bodies literally belonged to the King. Ferdinand’s edict could be considered morally and ethically unsound, but the special status of the Jews as his “servants” gave him the cover he needed. The King basically said that the Jews were his property and he could dispose of them as he wished.

The Sicilian officials, having broken a lance in behalf of the rights and privileges of the Sicilian Parliament, had to acquiesce and thus began a pain­ful and traumatic experience for the Jews who were Sicilians, who spoke Sicilian, indeed who contributed no small part to the development of the Sicilian language, that culminated in their abandonment of the land where they had lived in relative safety for over a millennium.

The presence of the Jews in Sicily and in Southern Italy goes back to the first century before the modern era. While conquering Roman armies operating in the Mediterranean basin brought a good number of Jews into Italy as slaves, the largest number was brought back by Pompey after he sacked Jerusalem in 63 BC and by the Roman Proconsul Crassus who is said to have sold thirty thousand of them as slaves. To these groups a good number of merchants trading with Rome and operating out of the Eastern Mediterranean, and particularly Alexandria, may be added to make up the first nucleus of Jews to reside in Sicily. In time, their small communities grew in importance through immigration from other parts of the Mediterranean. By the time they were expelled, there were fifty-two Jewish communities throughout the island, the largest being in Palermo with 5000 people. Trapani, Messina, Catania, Marsala, Sciacca, Agrigento, and Mazara had large communities ranging from 2000 to 3600 people; medium sized com­munities ranging from 350-1500 individuals existed in Bivona, Caltagirone, Caltabellotta, Mineo, Modica, Noto, and Polizzi; smaller communities existed in Salemi, with 320 Jews, in Taormina, Castroreale, Randazzo, Augusta, Erice, Paternò.

It is difficult to quantify the number of Jews living in Sicily. According to some scholars the total Jewish population of Sicily was 100,000 people, which represented 10% of the total Sicilian population. Others adopt a more conservative estimate of 50,000. Even so, it still constitutes a large nucleus whose weight in the life of the community, owing to the restless activism of the Jews who traveled back and forth between their communities, was certainly felt. Sicily was the land with the highest percentage of Jews in Europe. In Spain the number of Jews was estimated at 200,000 which represents barely 2, 2.5% of the to­tal Spanish population. In Sicily even if we accept the lowest estimate, they represented 5% of the population. This number may not seem like much, but the percentage varied from town to town and in a few cities, Jews represented nearly half the total population, as in Marsala for example which had 46.9%. The highest percentages of Jews were in Sciacca (31.9%), Trapani, with many other places with percentages higher than 10 such as Agrigento (12.4), Randazzo (11.3), Castroreale (15.2), Savoca (11.2), Palermo (14.9), and Polizzi (11.6). Such high percentages confirm that the Jews must have had an important role to play in the life of their communities. Even though they lived in “giudecche,” their presence could not be ignored and had to have an impact on the daily lives of their fellow townspeople. Such a long presence in Sicily is also proof of the relative integration of the Jews into the larger society. The Sicilian people shared a long tradition of tolerance for different religious beliefs and Jews, Muslims, and Christians had lived in relative peace side by side for many centuries. Indeed, in the depth of the Middle Ages, while Europe was experiencing savage repressions and massacres of an ethnic and religious nature, Latins, Greeks, Muslims and Jews lived in harmony in Sicily, practicing their individual religions without interference from the government. It was so under the Arabs and it continued under the Normans and the Swabians, and to a lesser degree under the Aragonese.

No other dominant group had as much influence on the Sicil­ian Jews as the Arabs did. The Jews enjoyed certain privileges, together with the general population, including the right to own real estate and to have synagogues, but they were forbidden to carry arms, to enter the army, and to build more synagogues. They had to pay, like other groups, a tax known as “ghezia” for practicing their religion freely and they had to wear a distinctive sign — a yellow belt and a special turban — that was instituted for the first time ever in Sicily in 887. These measures notwithstanding, the similarity of customs, culture and languages between Arabs and Jews worked in favor of the Jews who became the natural liaison between Arabs and Christians. The Jewish community in Palermo flourished to become the largest in Italy. Other communities existed in Agrigento, Siracusa and Catania. Sicilian Jews had even constituted a small community in Egypt.

The golden age of Judaism in Sicily came during the twelfth and four­teenth centuries, under the Norman-Swabian dynasties. Under the Normans who came to power in 1066 and remained until the last of their dynasty, Constance of Hauteville married Henry VI, the son of Frederick Barbarossa, the Jews enjoyed parity of civil rights with other citizens. They could hold public offices, own property, except Christian slaves. They were free to engage in commercial activities, to travel and work. A medieval traveler, Benjamin of Tudela, who was not unlike Marco Polo in spirit of observation and interests left us a detailed description of the various Sicilian Jewish communities he visited between 1170 and 1173, giving information as to their numbers and occupations. He describes Sicily as a kind of earthly paradise and the Jews who lived in it as a large and flourishing community. The Jews were engaged in many activities too diverse to list here, but two occupations in which they held a monopoly were the silk and dyeing industries. While the Arabs had brought the silk worm to Sicily, and built a thriving industry, it was the Jews who eventually made it grow into a monopoly. King Roger II, returning from an expedition against Byzantium in 1147, stopped off in The­bes, Greece, where the silk industry was in the hands of Jews. He captured the town and took the Jewish silk workers with him to Palermo, giving a great boost to the native industry, guaranteeing for Sicily four centuries of domination of the market. The dyeing industry, which required special skills, was another favorite occupation of the Jews. They were also adept as fishermen, artisans and skilled workers of every kind.

But the happiest and most productive time for the Jews came when Emperor Frederick II (“Stupor mundi,” the wonder of the world) ascended the throne. While he was forced by political necessities to adopt policies that at times seemed inimical to Jews, he expressed his true feelings for them in his Melfi Charter, published in 1231, in which he declared that Jews were under his personal protection and that they had the same rights as all other citizens. In addition, for the first time in history and against the power of the Church, which had just lifted its excommunication from his head, he declared that money lending, as noted earlier, was not illegal for the Jews as long as they did not charge more than 10% interest. While Jews did not immediately embrace money lending, it was to become an important activity for them. The Church, of course, had maintained all throughout that charging interest on money lent was sinful. The Jews figured prominently in Frederick’s plan for economic reforms. He gave them absolute control of the silk monopoly. The Emperor at one point closed all dyeing shops in the realm except those in Capua and Naples, placing these under the direction of two Jews, as a way of monopolizing that industry as well. Under Frederick’s rule, Jews prospered, be­ing able to conduct their activities with the support of the sovereign and under his protection. Their highly specialized skills with silver, gold, (the Jews were linked to these arts so much that “orefice,” a word that signifies “goldsmith” used as a family name indicates that family’s Jewish ancestry), coral and iron made their contribution to the economy of their island nearly irreplaceable. Always weary of the sudden change in political climates, Jews have tended to be an urban people but in Sicily Jews felt safe and many of them were farmers cultivating the land and growing vineyards while living in small towns. Frederick II was only one of the last in a long line of rulers who by their action instilled such abiding faith. But he was the one who was the most appreciative of the business acumen of the Jews, and of their spiritual and cultural patrimony. Things changed for the worse, however, after the death of Frederick and of his successors and the arrival of Charles d’Anjou in Southern Italy and in Sicily.

The destinies of the Jews in Southern Italy were parted when Sicily rebelled against the greed and abuses of the French in 1282 and threw them out, slaughtering every Frenchman in sight. Sicily became a separate kingdom under Charles of Aragon, while Southern Italy remained under the Anjou dy­nasty. While there is no question that Sicilian Jews fared a lot better than their counterparts under French domination, it is true that in the Kingdom of Sicily which lasted from 1302 to 1402, when it was demoted to a Vice regency, the Jews suffered a setback due to the deteriorating economic conditions. A crisis caused by dynastic strife and in fighting among local barons engulfed the island. In addition, as the economy changed from industrial/agricultural to strictly agricultural, the Jews who had occupied key positions in the silk manufacture and dyeing industries were forced to shift their attention to trading in agricultural products. Slowly their wealth diminished. The political climate also changed. Under the Aragonese, harsher laws against Jews were enacted. Jews could not practice medicine on or give medicines to Christians, they could not hold public offices or associate openly with Christians. But as happened in the Vatican, these laws were not adhered to in daily practice. In fact, Jewish doctors frequented the Court and were received honorably there as “familiars.”

Many of the problems that rose between Christians and Jews can be ascribed less to the Aragonese government than to the action of the Church, which, through preachers, inflamed the population against the “mur­derers of Christ” and was in part responsible for some episodes of brutality against the Jews. Typically, the time of the year Jews dreaded most was the Holy Week, which culminated in the reenactment of the passion of Jesus. Jews, in fact, stayed indoors as a matter of course during the last three days of the Holy Week. Although some terrible atrocities were committed against the Jews, fanaticism is normally alien to the Sicilian modus vivendi. Sicilians are very pragmatic people. They are extremely rationalistic and will not perform acts of brutality unless family honor is at stake. Sicilians, as Tomasi di Lampedusa observed, have a way of changing everything that comes to them from the outside and the hot wind of anti-Semitism in crossing the Mediterranean sea became much cooler when it reached Sicily and even then it was not easily tolerable. Racism, as Titta Lo Jacono wrote, is an imported plant, but unlike the prickly pears or orange, it has never taken roots in Sicily.

By and large, in the 15th century Jews continued to enjoy autonomy as a collectivity, have their own synagogues, cemeteries, ritual baths, slaughter house; they were free to choose their work, they could own property, and they could own slaves, except Christian ones. These privileges were not cheap, however, since the authorities frequently made demands on the Jews for special purposes, to renew a license, for example, or to extend a right or to confirm a privilege already obtained. One of the most ironic “donations” the Jews ever had to make was when they paid Ferdinand 2,500 Ounces in 1481 and another 1,000 Ounces again in 1489, ostensibly to obtain assurances from him that their previously established rights were not going to be altered. Ironically, the money helped finance the war against Granada, the outcome of which destroyed the last stronghold of Arab power in Spain and sealed the destinies of the Jews. Unwittingly they contributed to their own expulsion!

But that was not the only irony. Once the edict was announced and the machinery set in place to extract as much wealth from the departing Jews as possible, the Spanish authorities registered and sequestered Jewish properties to make sure that any outstanding debts or obligations were paid. The most outrageous of ironies was a demand by the government to be reimbursed for all the future taxes that it was not going to collect from the Jews.

The departure from Sicily was traumatic for those who remained and those forced to leave. The expulsion order, however, had different effects in Sicily than it had had in Spain. Out of 200,000 Jews in Spain, 150,000 accepted banishment rather than convert to Christianity. In Sicily, there seems to be agreement among historians that a great number of Jews, and particularly those that belonged to the upper classes, preferred to convert, rather than lose their capital and their homeland to which undoubt­edly they had become attached and which had been very hospitable to them. The percentage of those who left is difficult to calculate but it is generally accepted that most of the poor Jews preferred to leave, no doubt hoping to find better economic conditions elsewhere. There were also many who accepted conversion but continued to be Jews within the sanctuaries of their homes. It is safe to assume that at least a quarter of the Jewish population and perhaps more than that accepted baptism in order to remain on the island. That was the percentage of Jews who opted for con­version in Spain where the conditions were a lot harsher on account of the relentless pursuit of the Spanish Inquisition of those whose conversion was not deemed sincere. But in Sicily in 1493 and until 1500, the Inquisition was still in the hands of the local bishops and was relatively mild in comparison. Thus the marranos, that is, the converted Jews could be Christians to the outside world but practice Judaism — a difficult thing to do considering they had no access to books, temples, and all the other necessary objects of their faith — within the confines of their home.

The Spanish style Inquisition took over in 1500 but it did not begin working as it had in Spain until the arrival of Viceroy Ugo Moncada and the new Grand Inquisitor Alonso Bernal in 1511, personally appointed by King Ferdinand. The relentless campaign to eradicate every trace of the Jewish presence on Sicily was indeed successful. All the synagogues were either destroyed or converted to Christian churches. They were sold at auction and bought by wealthy Sicilians. The synagogue of Messina became the Madonna della Candelaia, those of Salemi and Calascibetta were renamed after Santa Maria della Catena. All the Samuels, Abrahams and David became Giovanni, Francesco and Salvatore, that were the three most common Christian names chosen by the marranos. To give an idea of how complete the obliteration of the Jews was let me make a few parenthetical remarks. When this article first came out an old friend pointed out to me that I should have known at least one typically Jewish artifact, the so-called “marranzano” which sometimes Sicilians also call “scacciapinseri” and which in English is known as a “Jews’ harp.” The observation threw me for a loop for a little while. Why did I not think of it as Jewish? Primarily because as a youth growing up in Sicily, I did not know that “marrano” meant a converted Jew. Thus, I saw no connections between “marrano” and “marranzano”. After some research I discovered that the Sicilian definition of the word “marranu” differs from the Italian definition. In Italian, the word is “an offensive title given to the Moors or the Jews recently converted to Christianity,” which is close to the English definition of the word. In Sicilian, however, “marranu,” according to Piccitto’s dictionary, means “villano, individuo zotico” (peasant, uncouth individual). The meaning given for the adjective is “maledetto, scomunicato” (damned, excommunicated). In the provinces of Catania, Enna etc.. it actually means “storpio, sbilenco” (crippled, crooked), and in Messina it means “cornuto” (cuckold). The meaning of converted Jew is not part of the Sicilian dictionary. The Jews, as you can see, were eradicated even from the language.

The Jews who had lived in Sicily since the first century BC left the place they called home on January 12, 1493, never to return again. Many of them went to Rome, where the Popes surprisingly adopted generally a protective attitude towards them. Even the Borgia Pope, Alexander VI, who was a Span­iard did not share the Spanish monarch’s preoccupation with Jews and offered them his protection, even against the petition by local Jews who feared that the influx of many others would cause problems in their community. The city that received the largest number of Sicilian Jews was Reggio Calabria where the Jewish communities of Messina and Siracusa moved en masse. They were welcomed by King Ferrante of Naples who offered them his protection and disposed that the new arrivals should be treated as though they had been long-time subjects of the crown. But it was not long until Ferdinand took control of Naples, marking the end of their sojourn there. In 1515, most of them were forced to leave again. A small number of rich families remained in Naples for another 30 years. But in 1541, when these families were forced out, the history of the Jews in Southern Italy came to an end. Many went to the North, and especially to Rome and Ferrara, others preferred to leave for farther destinations in Albania, Greece, Syria and Palestine. The authorities made two attempts, in 1740 and in 1747, to recall the Jews in the hope of stimulating economic activity in the realm, but no Jewish communities ever returned to Sicily or Southern Italy. Yet the memory of their residence in these places lived with them for a long time, for when midway through the 16th century, they established themselves in Salonicco, Constantinople, or even the island of Corfù — many “Aljiamas” bore the names of the places they had been forced to leave. In Salonicco a dozen synagogue-communities were called “Sicilia,” “Puglia,” Calabria,” “Otranto,” and “Messina.”

What’s left of the Jewish permanence in Sic­ily? Not much remains to the untrained eye. But serious efforts are being made to try to recover a part of the past because respect for history is a barometer of civilization. Much work remains to be done. Each of the fifty-two towns in Sicily had its own “giudecca” — its own cemeteries and synagogues. While a great number of the physical remnants of the Jewish presence have been destroyed or transformed, a great deal remains; town archives contain masses of documents that need to be studied and catalogued. The most visible evidence of the Jewish presence is probably in the use of names that are common in Sicily. Names of cities such as Messina, Catania, Palermo, Piazza. Trapani, while not automatically Jewish in origin were adopted by them with great frequency; names of professions like Orefice, (goldsmith) Ferraro, Ferro (iron monger was a profession almost exclusively reserved to Jews) Barbera (with its many variants — Barbieri, Barberini, Barberis — identifies people who worked as barbers but who also performed small operations, pulled teeth etc.), Zavatteri, Zapateri identified shoemakers. Jews frequently used last names such as Angelo or D’Angelo. It was translated directly from the Hebrew (Angelo is Malechai in Hebrew). Palumbo was a translation of the name Jonah; other common Sicilian Jewish names are: Sala, Lo Presti, (probably a variant of Pristo-Preste, priest which is a translation of the Jewish “Cohen”), Forte, Leone and Moncada (this last name, belonging to one of the most renown aristocratic families of Sicily was common among the conversos). The name Jaffe became Bello, Lo Bello. Those who converted were given the permission to use the names of noble Sicilian families such as Torres, De Castro, Martines who sponsored them, and when they had no other name to fall on, they chose the days of the week. Some maintained their Jewish names, but that was deemed as suspicious by the Inquisition who interpreted the choice as an unwillingness to embrace their new Christian identities.

The integration of the Jews with the rest of the population left marks on Sicilian customs and traditions, even if we are not aware of them. The Jews continued culinary traditions imported by the Arabs and brought them north after the expulsion. Until the 1600s Sicilians normally used animal fats for cooking. Gradually they began to favor olive oil, which was part of the Jew­ish culinary tradition. A typical Sicilian dish of Jewish origin is meat fried in olive oil with garlic and sage. Another is “Artichokes alla giudea.” Who knows what other Jewish customs have entered the mainstream of Sicilian life? Who knows how many people of Jewish origin walk among Sicilians without know­ing anything about their ancestors?

This is a shorter version adapted from Siciliana: Studies on the Sicilian Ethos and Literature, Legas, 2014. The idea is to encourage people to buy the book.


  • Isidoro La Lumia, Gli ebrei in Sicilia, Palermo: Sellerio, 1984
  • Attilio Milano, La storia degli Ebrei in Italia, Torino: Einaudi, 1963
  • Lo Jacono, Judaica Salem, Palermo: Sellerio, 1990
  • Carmelo Trasselli, “Gli Ebrei in Sicilia” in Nuovi Quaderni del Meridione VII.
  • Titta Lo Jacono, Judaica Salem, and by Aliyahu Ashtor, The Jews and the Mediterranean Economy 10th-15th Centuries, London, Variorum Reprints 1983.
  • Mary Taylor Simeti’s Pomp and Sustenance, New York: A. Knopf, 1990.

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