For more than half a millennium there was no Jewish life in Sicily, as if it had been buried under the volcanic ash of Mount Etna.
The Spanish expulsion reached the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea on June 18, 1492 with the Alhambra Decree—officially ending 15 centuries of a Hebraic existence there for tens of thousands of Jews, who were forced to flee or convert. Jan. 12, 1493 was the last available day for all Sicilian Jews to leave, convert or die.
In recent years, however, in places like Palermo and Catania, Judaism has begun to sprout again, although not without its challenges. It was a natural return so many generations after the ethnic cleansing policy of Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, the former ruling the island through the Crown of Aragon.
The revival of Jewish life in Sicily and southern Italy is a powerful symbol of hope and perseverance in the face of historical persecution.
“Generally speaking, there has been a big revival in terms of Judaism in the last 10 years all over southern Italy, not only in Sicily. We can see it in the territory of Apulia and in the territory of Sicily,” said Moshe Ben Simon, an expert on Jewish history in Sicily and a tour guide based in Catania. “Those are our two main revivals,” he told JNS.
Ben Simon is a member of the Naples Jewish community (Comunità Ebraica Napoli), one of 21 communities under the umbrella of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities (Unione delle Comunità Ebraiche Italiane, UCEI), which is headquartered in the capital, Rome. Naples is the southernmost community on the Italian Peninsula, with branches in Calabria, Apulia and Sicily.
According to Ben Simon, despite the increased interest over the past decade there is “not a massive conversion back to Judaism” in Sicily that would significantly add to the 28,000 Jews across Italy officially recognized by UCEI.
He noted that there are around 20, mostly converted, Jews that make up the Palermo Jewish community, and 30 to 35 Jews in the entire island, a far cry from the tens of thousands of Jews who lived in Sicily on the eve of the Edict of Expulsion, who comprised more than half of Italian Jewry.
These Sicilian Jews believe that they are bnei anusim, the descendants of Jews forcibly converted during the Spanish Inquisition. Judaism refers to the process of returning to Judaism as teshuva (“return” in Hebrew) instead of conversion.
Celebrating Sukkot after a five-century absence
A castle-turned-synagogue adorned with Magen David symbols sits in the shadow of imposing Etna, the largest active volcano in Europe, in Sicily’s eastern port city of Catania.
On Sept. 29, 2023, this journalist was among the Jews there celebrating what they said was the first Sukkot holiday (and the first High Holidays overall) celebrated there since the Spanish Inquisition.
The sukkah was constructed on the top-level terrace next to the worship hall, with stunning views of Mount Etna, Catania and the Mediterranean.
Additionally, a Chanukah menorah stands prominently overlooking the ancient city, reminding us of the enduring Jewish presence in Catania despite centuries of persecution and expulsion.
As a cool fall breeze coming in from the Gulf of Catania and the darkening skies above ushered in Shabbat, the group gathered in the sukkah just as the Jews of Sicily once did. It was made possible thanks to a donation of a Sefer Torah on Oct. 28, 2022, by Shmuel Herzfeld, an Orthodox rabbi from Washington, D.C.
The Comunità Ebraica di Catania opened the synagogue in 2022 in Castello della Leucatia (Ghost Castle), a building constructed in 1911 in the northern district of Canalicchio, which since 2001 has been home to a municipal library and auditorium. The municipality purchased the building in 1960.
According to popular legend, a wealthy Jewish merchant established the castle as a wedding gift for his daughter, Angelina Mioccios, who rejected the arranged marriage and committed suicide by jumping from its tower. The Stars of David located along the battlements of the towers appear to confirm the Jewish origins.
The fact that it was also built on top of an ancient necropolis contributed to the rumors that the ghost of the Jewish bride haunted the castle.
In an ironic twist of history, the German Nazi forces occupied the fortress during World War II.
After returning from Catania, where he administered the High Holidays, Rabbi Zev Schwarcz shared his thoughts with JNS during a phone call from his home in Parma, northern Italy, where he serves as the community’s rabbi.
“I felt that there’s not only a redemption of the Jews for 500 years who were tortured and closed down because of the Inquisition that reached Sicily, but also a personal redemption for the family that built this building and the daughter who never used it; it is now being used as a synagogue,” he said.
UCEI and the Jews of Catania
While the Catania synagogue has a capacity of 100 souls, there weren’t enough people for a minyan (a prayer quorum of 10 adult Jewish males) on Sukkot, even with this Jewish journalist visiting from Israel. Jewish law requires a minyan for a synagogue to perform public prayers and rituals.
UCEI does not recognize Catania as an official community and plans to take the Catania Jews to court for operating without authorization from Rome.
“The Union of Italian Jewish Communities has denounced this Jewish community in Catania because it’s not really a Jewish community,” said Ben Simon.
“The only organization in Italy, legally speaking, which is allowed to create a Jewish community is the Union of Italian Jewish Communities. In this case, this is actually someone private who decided that he’s going to open a synagogue, something that he cannot do officially,” Ben Simon continued, adding that under Italian law, only UCEI has the authority to use the name “Jewish community.”
Moreover, UCEI in a 2022 statement accused the Catania synagogue of violating federal legislation that recognizes UCEI as the official governing body of the Italian Jewish community, with the sole authority to create new communities.
It accused the Catania Jews of “misleading the local institutions and deluding believers and sympathizers into adhering to traditional religious rites, never actually recognized or authorized by the Italian rabbinical authority.”
Ben Simon said that the court will decide the case of the Catania Jewish community’s legality “very soon.”
For its part, the community acknowledges that it is not affiliated with UCEI and believes that there is no legal basis for the national association’s attacks.
Baruch Triolo, a Catania lawyer who converted to Judaism, formally established the community in 2017 and currently serves as its president.
In an interview with Sicilian media during the opening of the synagogue in October 2022, he said that the community had no intention of registering with UCEI.
“The UCEI says that the law, with the agreement of the state, allows only it to nominate the communities. But that law, in fact, is nothing more than a stretch, because the right to exercise one’s faith is enshrined in the Constitution. As long as there is democracy, there will be no way for anyone to decide who or what can be called a community. The law they cite is a legal abortion. If they were to sue us, we would challenge everything before the Constitutional Court,” he was quoted as saying at the time.
Jewish life returns to Palermo
In contrast to the situation in Catania, Ben Simon highlighted the example of Palermo; UCEI officially recognizes the island’s capital as a section of the Naples Jewish community.
“The newborn Jewish community of Palermo is also mainly people who converted to Judaism, and [UCEI] recognizes them as a Jewish community,” he noted.
However, Angelo Leone, a professor of histology at the University of Palermo and a member of the Jewish community in London, argues that UCEI is hindering the revival of Jewish life in Sicily and that the organization has abandoned Palermo.
According to Leone, born in Palma di Montechiaro in Sicily and raised in Palermo, the seeds of Jewish revival in Palermo were planted in 2012 when a small group of Jews began gathering.
As their first act, they decided to plan a significant Chanukah ceremony in coordination with the University of Palermo and its then-rector, professor Roberto Lagalla, currently the mayor of Palermo. This inaugural event occurred in 2013 at a university-owned building that, during the Spanish Inquisition, served as a prison and tribunal: Palazzo Chiaramonte-Steri. Its walls bear the scrawls of Jewish inmates, including some in Hebrew.
“After 521 years, it was the first public Chanukah holiday celebrated in Palermo, which was very emotional,” Leone explained to JNS. Palermo has been celebrating Sukkot since 2013, too, Leone noted.
He said they also organized a conference on Jewish Palermo, and the UCEI in Rome became curious, eventually creating a bridge between Palermo and UCEI.
The interest in the revitalized Jewish community of Palermo continued to grow, with rabbis visiting from northern Italy, Jerusalem and the United States. The New York Times published a piece, and people sent Chanukah menorahs and other objects for placement in a future synagogue. The archbishop of Palermo also became involved, participating in a large Passover meal with the Jewish community.
Then, on Jan. 12, 2017, the Church of Palermo gave the Jewish community the key to the Oratory of Saint Mary of the Graces of Saturday, a deconsecrated church, for a future synagogue and cultural center—in the same place from which the Jews were expelled in 1492.
Moreover, the church’s name indicates that it was the site of an ancient synagogue at one time. Its location in the heart of the old Jewish neighborhood of Giudecca, in an alley named Vicolo Meschita, is another strong indication of its Judaic past. While meschita means mosque, the term was commonly used for synagogues during the Middle Ages under the rule of the Saracens of North Africa, as the Jews adopted the Judeo-Arabic dialect during this period.
These details underscore the deep roots of the Jewish community in Palermo and the significance of reclaiming this space for their cultural and religious heritage.
According to the Jewish Community of Naples, the Sicilian Institute for Jewish Studies will use the cultural center and the synagogue under a collaboration between UCEI and Shavei Israel, an Israel-based organization founded by Michael Freund in 2002 that aims to reconnect the descendants of anusim and others of Jewish heritage to the Jewish people.
However, Leone claims that UCEI “abandoned” the Palermo Jewish community after they received the key to the building and had hired an architect to do a “perfect kosher” project to renovate the structure, which a rabbi in Jerusalem approved. According to Leone, UCEI ignored the work of the local community and hired another architect to transform the church into a synagogue, at a much higher cost.
“We feel that they are making a business around the synagogue in Palermo, and we won’t accept it. We are going to make problems,” said Leone.
“You see in Catania what they did? Eventually, Catania decided to cut any connection with UCEI, and they opened the synagogue with the help of the Jewish Orthodox community in Washington,” he added.
According to Ben Simon, the issue of the Palermo synagogue is more complicated. The archbishop’s donation of the church building to the Jewish community was symbolic, and Palermo City Hall still retains control and jurisdiction over the structure, he said.
“Therefore, any change of structure and use must be authorized by the Antiquities Authority and City Hall. So, to create something, all authorities have to work together, and it is not only a UCEI decision. In addition, there are funding problems. The works are very expensive, and a full agreement between all sides has to be reached,” he said.
According to Leone, “nothing has been done to ensure that there is a place of prayer in Palermo” since the Naples Jewish community officially received the chapel on loan. He added that “now and then, there were meetings in Palermo, but they never led to results for a synagogue to be born.”
Leone stressed that it was a shame that at a time in Sicily when the Jewish people should be coming together, there was this disunity. He said that the attitude of UCEI causes Sicilians with Jewish ancestry to become distant instead of reconnecting with their heritage.
According to Leone, the number of Sicilians of Jewish origin could be as high as 25% of the population of 5 million, or 1.25 million. This figure comes from scholarly literature showing data that only 30% of Jews left Sicily in 1493, with the remaining 70% forcibly becoming Christians and their descendants not knowing of their Jewish ancestry.
“All those people are rejected all the time because these Jewish people in Rome, they feel that they are the first-class Jews and they have just the direct line with Hashem,” Leone complained. “We are very upset in Sicily with the official institution in Rome.”
Leone left the synagogue project out of frustration with the lack of progress as the seventh anniversary of the Palermo church returning the oratory to the Jewish community approaches. He currently lives in Israel.
“No one in Palermo wanted to raise their voice with the UCEI and insist on having a place of prayer,” Leone lamented.
Schwarcz also expressed his disappointment in UCEI, emphasizing that their lawsuit against the Catania Jewish center is the opposite of what the official rabbinate should be doing, calling it a “grave injustice.”
In contrast, Ben Simon reiterated UCEI’s stance, further spotlighting the divide between Sicily and Rome: “There is no official Jewish community of Catania. Some locals are claiming to be Jews, who are trying to promote Judaism in their own way. Perfect. Not a problem. But you are not a community. Therefore, they are going to be brought to the court,” he said.
History of Jews in Sicily
According to some accounts, the Jewish presence in Italy dates to the 1st century C.E., before the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in the year 70.
However, the book “Between Scylla and Charybdis: The Jews in Sicily,” by Shlomo Simonsohn, suggests a later date. An epigraph on a Catania tombstone dated 383 C.E. provides the first documented evidence of Jews in Sicily. The first line written on the tombstone of Aurelius Samuel and his wife, Lasia Erine, is in Hebrew, containing Samuel’s name and “peace onto Israel.” The rest of the epigraph is written in Latin. Samuel had a Hebrew and Latin name, and his wife had a Greek name.
“The use of a Hebrew phrase, albeit a short one, is also significant,” Simonsohn writes. “It demonstrates the relatively close ties of Aurelius Samuel with Hebrew culture compared to that of the Graeco-Roman culture of most Diaspora Jews, who used no Hebrew even in their epitaphs.”
Five other Jewish tombstones found in Catania demonstrate this embrace of Hellenism, containing Greek epigraphs. However, Jewish symbols such as the menorah, palm branch, and shofar adorn nearly all of them.
These early Sicilian Jews spoke Greek in the first centuries of their presence on the island. The influential Greek city of Syracuse on the coast of eastern Sicily was home to a thriving ancient Jewish population.
An ancient mikveh (Jewish ritual bath) was uncovered in 1989 beneath a medieval palazzo on the small island of Ortigia in the historical center of Syracuse. It is Europe’s oldest and largest mikveh discovered to date, providing insight into the ancient Jewish community in Sicily.
Jews also settled in western Sicily, with their first documented presence in Palermo dating to 598.
Furthermore, starting with the Arab conquest of Sicily, which lasted from the 9th until the 11th century, Jewish life flourished, with 51 settlements, that included North African Jews who immigrated to the Emirate of Sicily. The Jews of Palermo even built a suburb there around the year 1000, called Hârat ‘al Yahûd (the neighborhood of the Jews) and later called Guidecca, which they inhabited until the expulsion of 1492.
Toward the end of the first millennium, the Jews of Sicily were living in close geographical proximity to the great Talmudic centers of learning in the Apulian towns of Bari and Otranto in the southeastern part of the Italian Peninsula.
According to Fabrizio Lelli, associate professor of Hebrew Language and Literature at the University of Salento (Lecce, Italy), the future Roman Emperor Titus brought 8,000 Jewish captives from the First Jewish-Roman War to Apulia in southern Italy. Lelli asserts that “the European Diaspora began in Apulia” as Jews who settled in southern Italy from Judea spread throughout the Italian peninsula and across Europe.
Some accounts suggest that the first Jews who established the Ashkenazi rites in the Rhineland in Germany, migrated there from southern Italy and Sicily in the 9th century at the invitation of Carolingian Emperor Charlemagne.
This suggests a historical connection and migration patterns from southern Italy to other parts of Europe, shaping the development of Jewish communities across the continent.
“In the past, the most important Jewish community and the most important part of Italy was the south, not the north. That was the richest area culturally and economically,” Ben Simon explained. “It attracted many Jews to settle in all these territories in the past, and Jewish authorities, the Sicilian, Neapolitan and Calabrese Jewish authorities, were very influential. They were much more important than the central and northern parts [of Italy]. Jewish communities in the central and north parts would develop later.”
The Edict of Expulsion in 1493 significantly impacted the Jewish population in Sicily. Estimates on the eve of its execution put the number of Jews in Sicily somewhere between 25,000 and 40,000, residing in over a dozen communities across the island, including Syracuse, with 14 synagogues and a Jewish population of 5,000. This population was more significant than those of the Kingdom of Naples, the Papal States and other kingdoms and states on the mainland Italian Peninsula combined.
Furthermore, the Jewish population in Sicily included refugees from Spain who then had to face again the choice of leaving or converting when the Inquisition came to Sicily. In addition to North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula, Jews from Germany and the southern part of France had also settled in Sicily over time.
“Here in Sicily, they are all going to mix up together and to bring something, which is very interesting because it’s the conversion of all those cultures together into one place,” said Ben Simon.
As a result of the Edict of Expulsion, many Jews fled for neighboring Calabria on the mainland, where the Inquisition would later arrive. Most exiled Sicilian Jews settled in the Ottoman Empire in places like Greece, Cyprus and Turkey.
Unfortunately, the more than 2,000 Jews who stayed behind and became New Christians, called neofiti by Sicilians (from the Greek word neophytus, meaning newly planted), suffered for 50 years, from 1500 to 1550, during the Spanish Inquisition.
Additionally, the Spanish brought the auto de fé (“act of faith,” an Inquisition-era practice of public punishment, typically ritual execution) to Sicily, accusing the anusim of practicing crypto-Judaism and of “Judaizing.” The 2002 article “Auto de Fe in Palermo, 1511: The First Executions of Judaizers in Sicily,” by Israeli researcher Nadia Zeldes, describes these rituals in detail. Other accounts indicate that inquisitors executed nine bnei anusim in total in the first auto de fé in Palermo in June 1511 and burned 81 Jews at the stake in total in Sicily from 1511 until 1515, and 40 others in effigy who had already died or were killed.
Jewish revival in Sicily
Schwarcz said that the Catania Jewish community reminded him of his time as a rabbi in Algarve, Portugal’s southernmost region, where people were returning to Judaism over 500 years after King Manuel I signed the decree that expelled most of the Jews from Portugal on Dec. 5, 1496.
When he arrived in Catania from Parma, he was struck by how young the community was regarding their level of observance and knowledge of religious traditions. “They had not done a Rosh Hashanah properly. They had not done Yom Kippur or Sukkot. [It was their] first one. When I began to understand that, my whole way of looking at things was different. They are extremely good-hearted people,” the rabbi explained.
He also told a story of meeting a woman and her daughter at the Ne’ila concluding service on Yom Kippur and hearing that it was her first time in shul for the holiest day on the Jewish calendar in the 17 years that she was living in Catania after moving from France.
“They want to keep going and continue learning and growing,” the rabbi said. “It will be a slow process, but I believe they are ready to do it.”