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Sicilian Mosaic Magen David.
News and Opinion

The Jews of Sicily
A unique culture.

--Sergio Caldarella

The saga of Jewish history has no simple chapters, and the chapter on Sicilian Jews is certainly no exception. While the histories of Galician, Indian, and Japanese Jews have been studied extensively, one of the oldest communities of the Diaspora has been generally neglected. The biggest island of the Mediterranean Sea, Sicily, has been for millennia one of the most important crossroads of the early civilizations.

17th century ap of Sicily. (Cartographic Associates)
The story told in the Odyssey and the Iliad, the foundation myths of the adventurous Greek spirit, locates mythical creatures such as the Kyklops Polyphêmos, son of Poseidon, in Sicily. Popular imagination still identifies two of the weathered cliffs in the harbor waters of Catania as the stones the giant threw at Odysseus. The strait between the island and the mainland is still named after Skylla and Kharybdis. From ancient times the Greeks settled colonies in Sicily. It is generally accepted that the continental Greeks played a fundamental role in the future Western civilization by stopping the advance of the Persians in Europe. Yet it is often forgotten that it was the army of the city-state of Syracuse, a former Corinthian colony that fought against the Carthaginians for centuries and stopped their expansion. The differences are clear: Greeks invented democracy, with all its contradictions, while their enemies were totalitarian states. Not only were the Carthaginians totalitarians, but they practiced human sacrifice until, after a military defeat, Agathocles, the King of Sicily, forced them to sign a peace treaty in which they renounced this horrible practice. Thus, it can be said that if the continental and Sicilian Greeks had been defeated, a culture other than Greek would have been predominant in the region, and the Judeo-Christian influence on Western Civilization would have been totally different. Sicily was, of course, not just Greek. Phoenicians, Carthaginians, and Romans in antiquity, and later the Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Swabians (Hohenstaufen), French (Angevins), and Spaniards (Aragonese) also entered the island as conquerors.

The history of the first Jewish settlement in Sicily is controversial, although we know for sure that Sicilian Jews played a fundamental role in the islands' history until the infamous edict of March 31, 1492 by Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain that expelled all Jews from the territory controlled by Spain. There is extensive documentation of the brutal anti-Semitism of Spain, sustained in particular by malignant figures like the Grand Inquisitor Torquemada. However, the anti-Semitism of Spain was not shared by the Sicilian people. The Viceroy of Sicily, Don Ferdinando de Acugna, did not make the edict public until two and a half months after its proclamation. Some parts of Sicilian territory, for instance Pantelleria, a little island in the Channel of Sicily, were entirely populated by Jews. The expulsion effectively ended fifteen centuries of Jewish history. Today in Sicily there is more Jewish archaeological evidence than in the entire country of Spain. Catacombs are abundant in Sicily, and the ones in Syracuse--so extensive that you can easily get lost in them--are proven to be of Jewish origin.

At the end of the Punic wars against Carthage, the central Mediterranean area was secured for the Romans, and Sicily became a strategic point for the empire. In a relatively short time, the Romans cut down a large part of the Sicilian forest in order to transform the island into the granary of the empire. This began an unnatural process of desertification in the central island, which is visible even today. Some scholars have already pointed out that part of the largest number of Jews captured and enslaved by the Romans after the sack of Jerusalem by Pompey in 63 B.C.E. could have ended in Sicily. The Proconsul Crassus sold thirty thousand captured Jews, and it's not far-fetched to assume that some of them would have gone to Sicily, an important part of the empire.

In a famous paper published in 1957, Cecil Roth--among other things, author of A History of the Marranos--tells us that "the first native-born European Jewish writer of whom we have knowledge is Caecilius Calactinus . . . who flourished in the first century before the Christian era" and was also well known outside the Jewish intellectual community. This is the first name in a long list of scholars, rabbis, poets, and various other Jewish Sicilian intellectuals. Among the many were Samuel ben Nissim al-Masnut, author of Synagogal poetry, midrashic commentaries, and a book on Job, Ma'ayan Ganim, republished in Berlin in 1899. Samuel ben Nissim was born in Palermo and emigrated later to Spain where he was generally called "Sikilli" or "the Sicilian" a name we find for many Jews in the entire Mediterranean area long after the expulsion. Aaron Abulrabbi, who compiled a lost defense of Judaism and a profound commentary on Rashi, was born in Catania. Abu Aflah, author of theosophical and magical works, studied by eminent scholars as Gershom Scholem, was from Syracuse.

At the end of the twelfth century, Anatoli ben Joseph, a rabbinical judge in Alexandria, Egypt, posed a difficult question to the rabbis of Syracuse in Sicily, and they submitted the topic to Moses Maimonides, who provided the answer in one of the Responsa. The intellectual work of Sicilian Jews extended from astronomy to mathematics and poetry. Yehuda Shmuel ben Nissim Abu'l Farag, from Agrigento, was a convert to Christianity under the name of Raimondo da Moncada and "one of the most eminent European Hebraists of the fifteenth century." He translated the Koran and taught Hebrew and Kabbalah to one of the most eminent figures of the Italian Renaissance under the name Pico della Mirandola.

The discovery of the Cairo Geniza confirmed not only the existence of an extensive Jewish trade in silk and books between the tenth and twelfth century, but also the existence of sea and land routes that were in daily use between the Sicily and Palestine. In Acts (28:12), the author reports that Saul of Tarso, better known as the apostle Paul, spent three days in Syracuse on his way to Rome, but does not mention a Jewish community there. Yet at another stop on his journey he refers to a Jewish community in Pozzuoli, where the Apostle spent seven days. In any case, the fact that the author did not mention something cannot be taken as proof of its non existence. In fact, less than one hundred years later (ca. 120 CE), Rabbi Akiva stopped in Syracuse during one of his trips and reported the existence there of a small Jewish community. Today in almost every major Sicilian city there exists an area referred to as "la Giudecca," "the Jewish quarter," and there it is still possible to find the location of a mikveh. In Syracuse, for example, the original ritual bath of the community is located under the church of San Filippo in the center of la Giudecca.

Sicilian Jews had unique words for Jewish things. For example, the celebration of Simchat Torah became "La festa della Mortilla"; kosher meat became carne tajura (possibly from the Hebrew tahor, or pure); and the synagogue is not Bet Knesset but la meschita (or in some cases muschitta).

Jews have left their mark in many Sicilian areas, from their language, to their culinary traditions, to the topography of cities, and in the names of the people. Most of these connections remain to be investigated, and much is yet to be done to better understand these Jewish communities, which have lived for more than fifteen centuries on the island, leaving us precious pearls still waiting to be discovered.

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