Best of Sicily
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Map of Sicily
Aragonese - People and dynasty of Aragon in northeastern Spain.|
Inquisition - ecclesiastical tribunal and judicial system established in 1233 but popularized in 1400s to suppress heresy and other 'crimes,' often through torture.
Jews - Semitic ethnic group originally identified with Judaism as religion and Palestine as homeland.
Latin - Language of Rome, also Italic culture of Rome, the Western Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church.
Orthodoxy - Relating to the original Christian Church and its traditional teachings maintained in the East, as opposed to the Roman Catholic Church of the West.
Roman Catholic - Church of Rome, particularly following the Schism of 1054.
Spain - Nation of the Iberian peninsula except for Portugal and Andorra, established in late 1400s.
In the Middle Ages the term "Jew" referred not simply to those whose religion was Judaism but to those descended from Jews whose origin was Semitic and rooted in the Middle East --in other words, the ancient Hebrews and Israelites. Like early medieval Islam (initially identified closely with Arabs), Judaism was linked to a certain people, and the Jews of Sicily may be said to have shared cultural similarities with the Sephardim (of Spain) and the Mizrahim of northern Africa and the Middle East. In certain quarters (Russia in particular) recent genetic testing seems to indicate that modern European Jews are closely related to the larger national populations of which they are a part. Whatever the case, Sicily's Jews were in most respects a distinct ethnic group in the Middle Ages, although their vernacular Semitic language, as spoken in medieval Sicily, was more similar to Arabic than Yiddish is to German.
The infamous Spanish edict of 1492 brought to an end the Jewish influence in
Sicily. It outlawed the practice of the Jewish religion, and though a number of Jews
left Sicily the greater number (like the conversos of Spain) converted to Catholicism and stayed.
By the 1520s, acts of baptism and marriage in Sicilian churches near formerly Jewish communities listed a
number of families bearing surnames such as de Simone (son of Simon), Siino (Sion) and Mosé (Moses), or
Nero or Porpura (for the colours of the fabrics they dyed), and baptismal names such as Isacco, Beniamino,
Abramo, Iasué and Davide, formerly rare among Sicilian Christians. The simplest response to
the question "Where are Sicily's Jews?" is that, like the island's Byzantine Greeks,
Catholic Normans and Muslim Arabs, "they are us." (The subject of Jewish genealogy in Sicily is discussed elsewhere.)
Like the Albanian
refugees who founded several towns late in the fifteenth century, the Sicilian
Jews never constituted a dominant or colonising class, but their contribution to
the fabric (literally) of Sicilian society was important. Many Sicilian
communities had Jewish populations, and many Jews were involved in fabric dying
and (less frequently) weaving. By the time of the edict, Sicily was essentially
Roman Catholic. Except for a few Albanian Orthodox churches. It had been a few
centuries since the Muslim
Arabs and Byzantine
Greeks had amalgamated to form a fairly homogeneous Sicilian population. In
1492 the Jewish Sicilians were a small but important part of the island's
population, as much as six percent by some estimates. They were hardly
"outsiders" in any conventional sense.
The first Jews to arrive in Sicily probably settled as traders in Syracuse
during the final centuries of the ancient Greek era. The Romans brought some Jews to Sicily as slaves or poorly-paid
servants, though it appears that only a minority arrived under such conditions.
By the time the Arabs arrived there were flourishing Jewish communities in
Messina, Panormos (Palermo), Syracuse, Mazara and elsewhere. The Normans were tolerant and
even protective of the Jewish population, and the same might be said of the Swabians. Indeed, the Jews
of Sicily experienced little overt antagonism from their fellow islanders until
the fourteenth century. The Spanish and Sicilian Christians certainly understood
the differences between Muslims and Jews, but both were Semitic peoples whose
way of life (at least superficially) seemed quite similar. We should consider
that in Norman times even many Christian women wore veils in public. Just as
Palestinian Jews and Palestinian Muslims are, after all, Palestinians, Sicily's
Muslims, Jews and Christians were, as recently as 1200, fairly similar socially
and culturally - even if they kept different sabbaths (Friday, Saturday and
Sunday respectively). It is often (and conveniently) overlooked, but Judaism,
with its monotheism and moral code, forms the framework of subsequent Western
faiths; if there had been no Judaism there would have been no Christianity or
Islam - at least not in the forms in which they actually developed.
The infamous edict of 1492 was issued in an atmosphere of zeal in a time when
Catholicism's influences (including the Inquisition) had displaced those of the tolerant
twelfth century. The Moors had finally been defeated in Spain, and the Jews were
a convenient target. Easy prey, it could be said. Christianised Jews were
allegedly the focus of a riot in Palermo in 1516, and even if the story is
untrue it proves that Sicilians descended from Jews were still identified as
such a generation after the infamous edict.
It appears that by 1492 the Jews of Palermo
constituted the largest Jewish community in Sicily, followed by that of Siracusa,
whose mikveh (Europe's oldest Jewish ritual bath) is preserved.
Much of our knowledge of Mediterranean Jews, including those of Sicily, in
the twelfth century comes from Benjamin of Tudela, a Spaniard and comtemporary
of Abdulla al Idrisi. In
addition to visiting Sicily, Benjamin also described many Gentile groups, and
mentioned China. He estimated that there were 200 Jewish families in Messina in
the 1170s. That Frederick II employed Jews at court to translate Greek and
Arabic works implies a high level of literacy among Jewish Sicilians.
In the early 1060s Sicily's Jews often made common cause with the Arabs
against the Normans, as at the Battle of Messina and subsequent compaigns in the
Nebrodi Mountains of northeastern
Sicily. There were occasional expulsions for political reasons, but the
communities survived until 1493, when the final effects of the edict were
applied. Estimates vary widely, but in the early 1490s there may have been as
many as 35,000 Jews in Sicily. Of the Jews who then departed for Rome, Ancona,
Venice, Malta or elsewhere, some adopted surnames such as Palermo or Messina in
reference to their city of birth - though this is not to imply that all
Italians bearing such surnames are descended patrilineally from Jewish
Few traces of Sicily's Jewish heritage remain beyond a handful of
inscriptions and small structures scattered around the island - though there is
much documentary evidence. Judaic law constituted one of the four civil codes
imposed by Robert Hauteville and his brother Roger, the others being
"Latin" (Catholic), Greek (Orthodox) and Shari'a (Islamic), even if
their enlightened, if complex, policy of "ethnic law" did not survive
the Norman era. It is believed, however, that certain localised Catholic
religious traditions may be based on Jewish ones.
Most Sicilian Jews were involved in craft or trade but at least a few lended
money. Frederick II made
usury a crime for most private citizens but Jews could lend money at up to ten
percent interest. This implies that during the thirteenth century Jewish
Sicilians, though rarely the holders of feudal privileges (as barons or
knights), enjoyed the special fiscal trust of the authorities.
The cuisine favored by Sicily's medieval Jews seems to have been similar to
Arab cuisine. (The dearth of medieval Sicilian pork recipes may reflect the
Muslim and Jewish proscriptions on its consumption.) There exists a popular
(though unproven) theory that the Italian dish now known as pizza was
invented by Jews in Sicily or around Naples. The traditional Sicilian pizza is
sfincione, topped with tomatoes, onions and anchovies (the tomatoes are
an American ingredient unknown in Italy in the Middle Ages).
If Jewish communities survived in other parts of Italy, the cruel
anti-Semitic laws promulgated by little King Victor Emmanuel III and his cohort
Benito Mussolini had little effect in Sicily, where Abraham's faith had long
ceased to inspire.
About the Author: Jackie Alio is a historian based in Sicily. She
has published original, scholarly research on the Jews of Palermo and written
about Margaret of Navarre and other historical figures.