The Jewish presence in Sicily seems to date back at least two thousand years. Some archaeological traces and the life of personalities of the time, such as the historian Caecilius of Calacte, attest to this.
The various conquests of the island, particularly by the Arabs and the Normans over the centuries, also evoke their presence. The cities of Palermo, Syracuse, Naso, Messina and Catania are all examples.
In 1171, Benjamin of Tudela mentions in his famous travel diary the existence of Jewish communities in the cities of Palermo and Messina.
In the 14th century, Frederick II (1296-1337) protected the Jews from the persecutions of the Crusades and religious threats, also allowing them to practice different trades, especially in silk processing. However, they were not allowed to practice medicine or governance. Frederick III gave similar protection to Jews from religious threats.
From the end of the 14th century to 1474 the situation of the Jews improved, especially with the lifting of occupational and urban restrictions.
Nevertheless, in that year 360 Jews were massacred in the town of Modica. And probably about 500 in Noto. The chain of violence continued, despite the occasional attempt by leaders to protect them.
Following the measures taken by the Inquisition in Spain, the 30-40000 Jews of Sicily were forced to leave the island when a decree was issued in 1493.
Most left, some converted and others lived as Marranos. There were then about fifty communities, the largest of which was Palermo with 5000 Jews.
Few Jews returned since, despite some attempts in the 18th century mainly. It is estimated that in 1965 only about 50 Jews lived there. Nevertheless, contemporary research shows that there are many Sicilians who probably have Jewish origins.
Renewed interest in the island’s Jewish cultural heritage was sparked by the discovery of a mikveh in 1987 in the city of Syracuse. Especially since the mikveh was very well preserved over time. Rabbi Di Mauro, who was born in Sicily before emigrating to the United States, returned to the island in 2007 and re-established Jewish life.
In the 2000s, associations began to organise festivities, research and conferences in Palermo, notably by the Italian Institute of Jewish Studies, in order to highlight the Jewish history of Sicily. This was done in connection with the Jewish community of Naples, the main one in Southern Italy.
The South is very different from the rest of the Italian peninsula because of the Jewish presence that was brutally interrupted by the expulsion of 1510, as this is reflected in the rather small archaeological heritage.
The Orthodox Jewish community today does not exist as such in Calabria, as there are few practising Jews and a few dozen are on their way back or converting to Judaism. For this reason, Calabria depends on the community of Naples, but it is rich in Jewish history. However, a new breath of fresh air has come from the United States thanks to a progressive Jewish woman, Rabbi Barbara Aiello, an American-Calabrian, who is determined to contribute to the resurgence of the anusim, the descendants of the Jews of the south who were forced to convert at the beginning of the 16th century. In 2007 she created the Ner Tamid (Eternal Light) synagogue in Serrastretta (province of Catanzaro), with the aim of reviving this Calabrian Judaism that has existed for centuries in a latent state and that was just asking for it under the southern Italian sun.
Of all this Calabrian history, we recall that Shabbetay Donnolo, a famous physician and philosopher, operated in Rossano around the year 1000; that in Reggio Calabria, on 5 February 1475, Rashi’s commentary on the Pentateuch was printed, the first work in Hebrew with the date indicated. Moreover, the parents of the great Kabbalist Hayim Vital, known as “il Calabrese”, came from the region.
It is worth noting that the 4th century synagogue of Bova Marina, rich in mosaics, the oldest in the West after that of Ostia Antica, bears witness to a flourishing community. Archaeological evidence of the Jewish diaspora can also be seen at the National Archaeological Museum of Reggio Calabria, at the Antiquarium Leucopetra di Lazzaro, a hamlet in Motta San Giovanni, in Vibo Valentia, and at the National Archaeological Museum of Scolacium in Roccelletta di Borgia.
Nowadays, in the province of Cosenza, there is Ferramonti, the remains of the concentration camp for foreign Jews, built during the last world war. On the Cedar Coast (between Tortora and Cetraro, concentrated around Santa Maria del Cedro), every year in August, rabbis from all over the world come to harvest the excellent Calabrian citrus fruits that are an integral part of the Sukkot celebrations.
In Cosenza, for the recurrence of the Jewish Festival of Lights, a majestic candelabra is publicly lit in Largo Antoniozzi, in the historic centre, near the old Jewish quarter. In addition, the Calabria Kosher Food Festival was inaugurated in 2019.
A curiosity: in Reggio Calabria, the tourist can walk along a beautiful street dedicated to Aschenez (great-grandson of Noah) who, according to a legend, founded this beautiful city that looks out over the Mediterranean.
Text written by Riccardo Guerrieri
Interview with Vincenza Triolo, curator and creator of a website dedicated to Calabrian Jewish heritage.
Jguideeurope: Do you think that there is a renewed interest in the Jewish cultural heritage of Calabria?
Vincenza Triolo: Yes, certainly. However, we must also note that in some cases it is nothing more than a passing curiosity and, unfortunately, in others, we can see phenomena of cultural marketing, the search for a new regional business whose profits would go to the usual characters who exploit the resources of the region to the detriment of all those who wish to intervene honestly in the territory.
When did this revival begin?
In the last two decades or so, the activities of promotion, diffusion and valorization of the Calabrian Jewish culture and cultural heritage have intensified. The publication of new researches has favored an awareness of the Jewish presence in Calabria over the centuries and, consequently, of its impact on the history and the destiny of Calabrian villages.
What prompted you to create the site and what does it offer?
In 2013, when I saw, for the first time, at the Antiquarium of Leucopetra, the oil lamp (“lucerna”) with its printed Menorah, I had a strange feeling of familiarity with this object. This is what made me go in search of something, without knowing what exactly. I myself am a researcher and an expert in the field of cultural heritage, and it wasn’t long before I made discoveries about the Jewish cultural heritage of Calabria. Thus, I was contacted by Dr. Roque Pugliese, responsible for the District of Calabria for the Jewish Community of Naples within the UCEI, with whom I started to collaborate. The need soon arose to start a blog and web pages where I could work within the rules, but without restrictions for the needs of others. Thus was born the blog “Jewish Calabria – Jewish Culture and Heritage” to share all possible information in this field. My main goal was to make the local population aware of the contribution of the Jewish culture to the Calabrian identity, but also to contribute concretely to revive the Jewish presence in Calabria, and to break the prejudices.
What little-known part of this heritage deserves more attention?
It is difficult to answer. In fact, I believe that all the sites of cultural interest deserve it, as well as the objects linked to the cultural heritage exhibited in the various Calabrian museums or the remains of ancient Jewish quarters (“giudecche”). My website offers ample presentations (also in French) of all the sites currently listed and my Facebook page gives almost daily information, in Italian, on all the discoveries and events concerning the Jewish presence in Calabria (and in various regions of Italy).
Can you share an anecdote with a visitor that particularly moved you?
The most beautiful anecdote is related to a visit of a lady in Bova Marina, in the Archaeological Park of “San Pasquale”, where the remains of the ancient Synagogue remain. This lady, after a guided tour, told me: “Thank you, here my soul felt particular vibrations; I felt at home”. These words moved me enormously!
The presence of Jews in Lorraine dates at least from the Carolingian period. In the Middle Ages, the main administrative documents found relating this presence were mainly linked to expulsions. In the cities of Metz, Verdun, Toul, Nancy, Lunéville, Sarreguemines …
The first great Jewish figure being Gershom Ben Yehouda, who was born in Metz in 960.
In the centuries that followed before the French Revolution, there were back and forth trips depending on authorizations to settle and charges of all kinds and expulsions. Thus, the city of Boulay had a synagogue in the 17th century.
In 1733 there were 180 Jewish families in the region. A rabbi was officially appointed three years later. In the 1780s, synagogues were built in Lunéville and Nancy. Among the important players in the emancipation of the region’s Jews during the era, Isaac Behr and of course Abbot Grégoire.
During the French Revolution, 500 Jewish families were counted in Lorraine, 90 of which were in Nancy. Two central consistories were created in Metz and Nancy.
These two towns, with 6,500 and 4,200 Jews respectively, received the vast majority of the region. Synagogues were then built in Epinal, Phalsbourg, Sarreguemines, Toul and Verdun.
Following the conflict of 1870, many Jewish refugees from Alsace and Moselle moved to Lorraine. The Jewish population gradually increased until World War II. The leaks and the large number of deaths in the region during the Holocaust drastically reduced this number.
The arrival of a few hundred Jewish families from North Africa in the 1960s helped rebuild Jewish life in the region after the war. The Jews of Lorraine now live mainly in the cities of Metz, Nancy, Sarreguemines, Thionville, Lunéville, Forbach, Epinal, Sarrebourg and Sain-Avold.
Little is known about the history of the Jews in Gallo-Roman Armorica before the Council of Vannes which, around 465, legislated on their relations with clerics.
Their ancient and lasting establishment in Brittany is however attested in the 13th century, in Rennes, Fougères and, above all, in Nantes. The anti-Judaism which marks the crusades ends after a period of looting and murder, in their expulsion from the Duchy (ordinance of Ploërmel, April 10, 1240).
It was not until the 17th century and especially the 18th century to find traces of their presence in Nantes, but also in Saint-Malo and Rennes, frequenting the great fairs of Brittany.
Having become French citizens, the Jews experienced a long period of peaceful life in the 19th century. Very few in number, they are hardly more than two hundred throughout Brittany, but nevertheless form dynamic communities in Brest and Nantes where in 1871, the first synagogue in Brittany was inaugurated.
The anti-Semitic violence of 1898 and 1899, (year of the second Dreyfus trial in Rennes) did not spare the region. Leading academics were teaching in Rennes at the time: Henri Sée, Victor Basch, the latter was founder (on January 22, 1899) of the Rennes section of the Human Rights League which, in ten years, grew from 21 members to more than 600.
The presence of Jews at the time of the Second World War is authenticated by the commemorative plaques installed in the community center, recalling the names of the 70 families deported from Ille et Vilaine: 131 (250 disappeared for the whole of Brittany).
It was in the early 1960s that the Jewish community of Rennes was formed in an organized form with mainly Jewish families from North Africa joined by a few Ashkenazi families, including survivors of the extermination camps.
In 1963 a first association was born chaired by Mr. Rozenfeld who organized meetings at his home and who organized the first office of Yom Kippur. Subsequently, on each Yom Kippur, the Hall of Fine Arts was rented to accommodate the offices led by an officiant who came from Paris with a Séfer.
At the end of 1969, the relentless activity of a group of friends gathered around Mr. Henri Ohana led to the inauguration of the first premises allocated by the municipality to our community now under the presidency of Mr. Jacques Habib. We obtained from the mayor Mr. Henri Fréville a very small room then a second less cramped room still in the district of Maurepas.
Later, the municipality granted an apartment in the Maurepas neighborhood house where it was possible to build the first synagogue worthy of the name and which dominated the community for twenty years.
In the twenty-first century, the combined efforts of the Mayor, Mr. Edmond Hervé, the Safra Foundation, the Jewish community and its president, Mr. Bernard Lobel, led to the construction of a real cultural and religious center, the Edmond Center. J. Safra, which was inaugurated on January 20, 2002.
(Source: Israelite Cultural & Religious Association of Rennes)
The Medieval Route of Rashi in Champagne, new route of the Council of Europe Jewish Heritage Route
By Delphine Yagüe – CulturistiQ Cultural laboratory – RMRC project manager
In the heart of the Aube, the former county of Champagne, rich and powerful, had prestigious prosperous medieval Jewish communities from the 11th to the 13th centuries: Troyes, Ramerupt, Dampierre, Villenauxe, Lhuître, Ervy-le-Châtel, Chappes, St-Mards-en-Othe, Bar-sur-Aube, Mussy-sur-Seine, Brienne, Plancy, Trannes … Apart from the current Department of Aube, it also included other Jewish communities in Vitry, Provins, Joinville, Sens or Château-Thierry… After Rashi, born in Troyes in 1040, many scholars originally installed in the villages of Champagne, claim to be from his École champenoise and influence other Jewish communities in the interpretation of the Bible and the Talmud.
The name of the prestigious county of Champagne then spread through all the Western Jewish communities through them. Their comments and legal decisions are the only testimonies of that time, attesting to intense intellectual activity and a flourishing local Jewish life. The native language of the Jews of Champagne is Champagne, dialect of the language of Oïl. They speak and know Hebrew poorly. Also, in their comments, the Sages of the Jewish communities often translate Hebrew words into Champagne and describe situations of daily life there. A method that facilitates access to reading and studying sacred texts. They thus transmit to us the words of a forgotten living language and very many testimonies on the local life of the time: trades, clothing, fauna, flora, relations between Jews and Christians, organization of the county…
Rashi’s sons-in-law and grandsons founded the Tossafist school. It first radiated from the village of Ramerupt until 1146. Dampierre then Sens – then located in the county of Champagne -, then took up the torch. When the county entered the kingdom of France between 1285 and 1305, Paris became the epicenter. Great educators, Rashi and the Tossafists sometimes use drawings and describe their daily lives in their comments, in order to better explain the laws and concepts of sacred texts. Thus they give a lot of information on the tools and techniques allowing to work the vine and to produce wine, but also to make bread, to work the glass or to build houses or wells. They are true passers of history and unknowingly leave us with the fundamental elements which today make up the exceptional heritage of the Aube and in particular the cultivation of the vine, the production of wine (from Champagne) and the art of stained glass!
It is the story of this strong Jewish presence and of the fruitful and original daily, intellectual and economic interactions and relationships between Jews and Christians that the Medieval Route of Rachi in Champagne has sought to promote since 2019. This Route, a new European Cultural Route integrating the Council of Europe’s Jewish Heritage Route, aims to promote the Jewish memory of the Department of Dawn, an invaluable cultural heritage shared by Jews around the world and the historic heritage of a territory of very first plan – the former county of Champagne – with national and international influence.
To energize the territory, it is currently implementing numerous projects to create a global cultural and tourist offer around the history of the former Jewish communities of Champagne in Troyes, in the villages of Aube and beyond. A difficult challenge in the context of the promotion of an intangible cultural heritage, but fascinating and unifying around many local, national and international actors among communities, associations and scientists. On the program to come very quickly: tourist activities in the territory, program of exhibitions, signage, creation of new visiting devices … To discover step by step, on the page of the Departmental Committee of Aube carrying the project.
In 1815, North African Jews whose ancestors had been expelled from Spain came to the Azores. The island was duty free and allowed them to import and resell to local businesses. In 1820, the Portuguese liberal revolution led to religious diversity.
In 2004, a genetic study concluded that 13,4% of the Y chromosome of Azoreans is of Jewish origins, a fact that suggests the importance of the Jewish presence in the Azores over many centuries. There are 3 major instances of the Jewish presence in the Azores. The first dates back to the original settlement of the Azores in the 15th century; the second takes place in the first quarter of the 19th century; and the third coincide with the Nazi period.During the Second World war, the Azores became a haven for German and Polish Jews who managed to flee Europe. Commerce was the main economic activity of the Azorean Jewish community.
The first documented Jewish settlement began in 1818; by 1848 the number rose to 250. Most of the community lived in Ponta Delgada.
In an abandoned synagogue in the Azores, far from the historical centers of Jewish life, the Azorean Heritage Foundation, whose mission is to bring to light the history of the now extinct community of Sha’ar HaShamaim (Gate to Heaven) that was established in the town of Ponta Delgada in 1821 by a group of Moroccan Jews. The community’s small synagogue, which had been for years in disrepair, has been restored. The geniza materials -filling about 50 large boxes- have been recovered and deposited in the Municipal Archives of Ponta Delgada.
The contour of the community have begun to emerge thanks to the documents found in the geniza. Communal documentation and commercial letters confirm that this was a mercantile community dominated by a few wealthy families. It was a distinctly North African community, but strongly oriented toward Europe. A commercial letter discussing trades in textiles mentions Liverpool, Lisbon, and Hambourg as cities that were part of the trade network.
The community thrived for generations, but in the 1940s, its number had so dwindled, through emigration and conversion, that the synagogue did not have a minyan.
In February 2014, on the island of San Miguel, the restoration of the synagogue began. It was built around 1820, and consecrated in 1836. It is Portugal’s oldest synagogue built after the Inquisition.
The synagogue which had held services in the 1950s is located on an upper floor of a building that also included the rabbi’s house. The narrow building has plain walls, arched windows, an ornate chandelier and wooden fixtures, including the Ark, benches, bimah and wall panelling. The restored synagogue includes a museum and library in the building’s complex. In 2009, the Lisbon Jewish community donated the synagogue to the Ponta Delgada city hall, on a 99 year concession in exchange for guarantees that it would be restored.
In addition to the cemetery, you can find Jewish cemeteries on the islands of Sio Miguel, Terceira, and Faial.
Thanks to its geographic position and the presence of Brindisi, Otranto, Bari, Trani and Barletta ports, Apulia has been a transit point for many Jewish exiles -most heading to Israel. This crossing point therefore made of Puglia a privileged region for the Western Europe diaspora.
The first evocation of a Jewish presence in Puglia was written by Rabbi Akiva (17-137): en route from Jerusalem to Rome to plead the cause of the Jews of Jerusalem to the occupant, Akiva made a stop in Brindisi as mentioned in his diary.
Not all the Jews who settled in Apulia arrived directly from Palestine, as refugees from Jerusalem. Some arrived by sea from the Balkans, others from Spain and Portugal, or overland from France, Central Europe and other parts of Italy. In Apulia they assimilated with existing groups, creating a Judaism with its own unique profile.
Jewish culture in Apulia, whose legacy is today primarily known in areas outside Italy’s peninsula, was highly esteemed in the Middle Ages. The twelfth-century French rabbi, Rabbenu Tam, compared Bari and Otranto to Jerusalem, paraphrasing Isaiah 2.3: “From Bari the Torah will come out and the word of God from Otranto.”
Traces of Jewish multiculturalism in Southern Italy are everywhere evident in the collection of annotations of the Pentateuch known as Sefer ha-Yashar (Book of the Righteous), that is believed to have been compiled in Naples in the late fifteenth century from pre-existing materials – the authors taking their cue from the narrative sections of Genesis and Exodus, to tell parallel stories that occurred in other periods and areas. One of the central themes of this work is the migration of peoples. It explains, for example, that the population of Apulia and Italy all originate from biblical figures; and that Aeneas – the founder of Rome – was closely related to the patriarchs. Their tendency to draw parallels between different cultures shows that the Jews of Southern Italy were not closed to the traditions of other peoples, and that their ability to adapt was considerable.
An interesting illustration of the kind of multiculturalism that distinguished Medieval Apulia can be found in the decorative plan of the mosaic floor of Otranto Cathedral – the work of a twelfth-century Byzantine monk. The author fused elements drawn from the Bible and other Jewish narratives (similar to those that make up the Sefer ha-Yashar), elements that are rooted in a multi-ethnic culture, where Neo-platonic and Aristotelian traditions coexist with mythological material derived from Celtic folkloric literature. Realized during the Norman Era, this work is a tribute to the great Byzantine capacity for cultural synthesis that the new rulers sensibly adopted – doubtless to safeguard the diverse heritage of their newly conquered territories.
As time passed and dynasties succeeded one another, the centralization of culture in the capital led to a weakening of Jewish culture in the peripheral areas of the kingdom. This phenomenon may also be associated with instability due to socio-political feuds. The social composition of the community continued to change. At the time of the transition of power from the Byzantines to the Normans, many Jews migrated to northern Italy and from there to the Rhineland, where they contributed to the formation and enrichment of Ashkenazi liturgical and philosophical traditions.
After World War II, Apulian Judaism got a new lease of life for a few years between the end of the conflict and the establishment of the State of Israel, when thousands of Jewish refugees from central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans, mainly survivors of Nazi concentration camps, stayed in the transit camps managed by the United Nations. To prevent them from reaching Palestine, the Allied Forces temporarily relocated them to Santa Maria al Bagno, Santa Maria di Leuca, Santa Cesarea, Tricase, Bari, and Barletta where they immediately recharged community organizations, religious schools and political institutions. Source : Fabrizio Lelli, « Judaism in Puglia as a Metaphor for Mediterranean Judaism »
Interview of Sara Brownstein, head of HaShorashim, which organizes trips to Europe and in Israel, enabling to reconnect with Jewish cultural heritage, and who recently organized a big trip to the region of Puglia.
Why did you choose to travel to the region of Puglia?
We’re always interested in traveling « back in time » and find traces of a Jewish presence somewhere. We had proof through our texts of a Jewish presence in Italy dating more than 2000 years. Yehuda Makabee (of whom we celebrate the victory over the Greeks in Hanukka) had sent there his brother to negotiate the support of Rome for his rebellion against the Greeks. Traces from that era of numerous communities can be found in the South of Italy. What attracted us was the possibility of building, as we enjoy doing, an itinerary in a not well known region, off the beaten tracks, far from the cities of Northern Italy and their Jewish ghettos such as Rome and Venice who are much more touristic.
This region is also where an entire village of Italians converted to Judaism in an era which witnessed the rise of fascism. The Jews of San Nicandro inspired many books. We have by the way visited their descendants, quite an emotional encounter.
The lesser known regions are challenging for those who only eat kosher food, because no structure exists capable of accomodating their needs. Which is why we went their ahead, in order to scout places and organize the logistics. We were marveled by the landscapes and the kindness of the inhabitants who are often « snobbed » by their fellow countrymen of the North. We thus had the winning ticket to start our trip.
How was your stay there?
As I said, the people were very welcoming and deeply moved by the number of persons we brought. They’re not used to see so many tourists. Being a group of 60, it was quite hard sometimes to accomodate us all, whether on a boat, during the visit of a museum or at a restaurant which accepted to let us “kosherize” its kitchen for the event. They were all proud to show us their region. We have centered our visits, as we usually do, on the theme of the « lost tribes », on the footsteps of our Jewish brothers, which is the common thread of all our trips. But we also visit the unmissable sites, as here in Puglia with places like the little town of Alberobello, worthy of tales and legends or the magnificent caves of Castellana.
We have been subjected to a lot of attention. The Italians, at least the ones we met, are mostly traditional and regular churchgoers. Families go to the mass together and then stroll down the street in arms, all generations alike to enjoy an ice cream. When they asked us where we came from and heard that itw as Israel, they were very moved. Travellers coming from the Holy Land! We have by the way kept in touch with our hoteliers and guides.
Which place had a particular impact upon you?
The shabbat service in the synagogue of Trani, built in 1234, was a particularly strong moment. We had invited the descendants of Jews of Trani and Lecce to join us for the office and lunch.
The story that was told us concerning the local Jews during the Holocaust was also very emotional and surprising. While the Allied forces move up from the South to the North of Italy, soldiers liberated the internement camps, among which Ferramonti. Thousands of Jews were left on the road. The Jewish Brigade which came from Palestine (then under British mandate) who fought alongside the English forces, had received the order to regroup them. Thus, men, women and children in a precarious state of health were split in four small villages of fishermen far in the South of Puglia.
Their inhabitants, simple and generous persons, welcomed them, sharing the rare bits of food they had and offering the human warmth they so much needed. We were lucky to encounter a man who was 8 years old back then and who remembered that era very well. A nice museum in Santa Maria Al Bagno shares that incredible story.
Is the cultural and historical Jewish heritage well preserved in this region?
Puglia has kept the memory of Jewish presence. A fascinating museum in the city of Lecce traces the journey of this ancient community. It was created by a non-Jewish university professor who explains all the details of our history.
Another Italian man has found, while his house was being fixed, ruins which he couldn’t identify at forst hand. After having done some research on the history of his town, Manduria, he understood that his home was actually a former synagogue with mikveh dating from the Middle-Ages. His transformed his home in a museum and is glad to welcome visitors to explain them the history of the Jews during that era.
It must be highlighted that certain small villages in the deep parts of Puglia and Sicily maintain traditions which seem very close to ours, like the way they cover mirrors of the home of a deceased person for 7 days.
What are the next trips you envisage in Europe?
We have a strong demand to organize again trips in Portugal and Andalusia. Every new destination requires a important amount of work scouting the area, many months of research to deliver historical explanations during our stay but also to enable our participants to “relive” the history of those communities. If among those trips we manage to find some time, Sicily could also be one of our next ones. A fascinating destination where traces of Jewish communities from 2300 years can be found. But everything can change. A single testimony of an inhabitant about a tradition which reminds us of our ancestors can open other horizons and launch our program HaShorashim (our roots) in new adventures!