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Finding Jewish Roots in Sicily
by Luigi Mendola

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Judaism's timeless legacy.There is a growing interest in tracing the lineages of Jewish ancestors in Sicily and much of southern Italy. Genealogy is becoming more popular generally, particularly in the United States, and Sicily's Judaic heritage is undeniable. Unfortunately, the entire topic of Jewish genealogical research among Sicilian families - as it has been presented to the public by some amateur historians and by a few professionals who should know better - brings with it certain complexities and contradictions. This concise introduction to the subject will address such research areas as lineage, onomastics, genetics, demographic factors and familial traditions. These generalities are supported not only by the work of Sicilian scholars over the last five centuries, but by Jewish scholars (researching here in Sicily) over the last few decades.

The Jews and 1492

There is space here for little more than a perfunctory outline of Jewish history in Sicily (see the profile article in our Peoples of Sicily series). The first Jews were present during the Roman period. Until 1282, with the Sicilian Vespers and subsequent Aragonese and Spanish influences ever more evident in Sicilian society, the Sicilian Jews could be identified as Mizrahim. Sephardic influences were widespread by 1492, when Spain ordered the expulsion or conversion of all Jews in the places it ruled, including the Kingdom of Sicily, but to describe Sicily's Jews unequivocally as "Sephardim," even at that date, is an oversimplification. Sicily's Jewish culture was not imported from Spain; it came from Palestine in antiquity as part of the Diaspora.

Though Jewish communities dotted the island by 1492, Jews represented far less than ten percent of the general population. Estimates vary, but it is probable that in 1493 around half of Sicily's Jews left while the other half converted to Christianity and remained. Some went to mainland Italy; in the Kingdom of Naples, a realm still separate from Sicily in 1493, the Inquisition had not yet squelched freedom of worship as it was then doing in Sicily.

Most of Sicily's Jews had been fabric dyers or merchants. Many owned small stores. At times Jews lent money or practiced medicine, but legislation occasionally restricted their activity in these fields. There are even a (very) few cases of Jews owning landed estates, but these were typically fiefs (smaller feudal properties) rather than counties or baronies, and actual farming was undertaken by Gentiles.

In Sicily the Jews who remained after 1493 and became Catholic (comparable to the conversos of Spain) were called neofiti (neophytes).

What's in a name?

The general use of surnames in Sicily (and the rest of Italy) occurred during the fifteenth century, by around 1430. Onomastics is a complex subject in itself. Several points should be made regarding the surnames of Sicilian Jews after 1492.

• Very few Sicilian surnames are exclusively Judaic in origin, and it must be remembered that the spoken language (and hence an influence on many surnames) of Sicily's Jews was a dialect with strong Arabic elements. Moreover, Jewish converts usually adopted existing Sicilian surnames rather than directly "translating" their Jewish surnames into Sicilian.

• Here is a typical case. Presti and Sacerdoti (meaning priest), for example, are not Jewish but Christian in origin, and as often Byzantine as Latin. We know this because the lineages of many such families to circa 1500 are well known, and they are not Jewish. This does not mean that no Sicilian Jewish family (of the priestly class or Cohanim) ever assumed such names, but it is ridiculous to presume that every family bearing such a name was Jewish. It is not unusual for a surname to be shared between two or more unrelated families on opposite sides of Sicily - or by Sicilians and mainland Italians.

• Some Jews, particularly those whose godfathers were noblemen, took their sponsors' surnames (Moncada or Aiutamicristo, for example). It is worth mentioning that the same thing sometimes occurred when a (non-Jewish) servant of a nobleman assumed such a surname. Also, children born outside marriage to a titled man, if recognised by their biological father, might be given his surname. A typical example is the large number of families in Castelbuono named Ventimiglia but not related to the local counts as heraldic heirs.

• If a Jewish woman married a Christian man, her children, though Jewish (until 1493), would bear his surname. This certainly does not mean that every Sicilian bearing that particular surname was Jewish.

• A few - very few - specific surnames, such as Siino (Zion), appear to be Judaic in origin but, again, generalisations should be avoided. The only way of determining this with certainty is to conduct lineal research to circa 1500. No list implying that "these surnames are Jewish" should be taken as prima facie "proof" that specific Sicilian families bearing those surnames were, in fact, ever Jewish. Without knowing when an ancestor assumed a surname it is impossible to determine much of anything; what if a "Jewish" surname was actually given to a foundling in 1800?

• It has become a cliché that surnames based on the names of major cities (Napoli, Palermo, Messina) usually reflect Jewish ancestry. This simply is not true. Only in a minority of cases are these surnames indicative of Jewish ancestry.

• Most converts simply assumed surnames already in common use among Sicily's Catholics, whether based on a phonetic similarity to their prior (Jewish) names or an approximate translation. And some assumed given (Christian) names having no Judaic roots or references and gave such names to their children: Francesco, Calogero, Cristina or Gaetana rather than Beniamino, Zaccaria, Sara or Rebecca.

• As regards surnames, there are at least a few which in most cases are associated with Jewish families: Tintura (literally "dyer"), Bottega (shop), Ebreo (Jew), Giosuè (Joshua), Giobbe (Job), Siino (Sion), Ziino (Zion), Isaìa, Isacco and Sacco (Isaac), Giudeo and Iudeo (Jew), Iudecca and Giudica ("from the Jewish quarter"), Giuda (Judas).

• In conclusion, it is not possible to simply consult a list of supposedly "Jewish" Sicilian surnames, without knowing anything about a family's history over several centuries, and instantly ascertain Jewish ancestry before 1493.

Establishing a lineage

There's nothing more illogical than a statement by a Sicilian who cannot trace his family history to before 1800 swear that his patrilineal Catholic ancestors were "Jewish" until 1493.

Yes, it's amazing how readily the most fundamental research dicta and historical facts are tossed out the window when emotions and desires come into play. The idea of a living line descended from Jesus Christ (an idea expounded in Holy Blood Holy Grail and The Da Vinci Code and such books) is a good example of this.

Nobody who has not traced a patrilineal genealogy (through the father's father's father, etc.) to at least the middle of the sixteenth century can draw any reliable conclusion that his or her Sicilian family was ever Jewish unless somebody else in a closely-related branch of the same family has already confirmed this with documentary records.

Working backward, such research begins with vital statistic records to 1820, then church records (baptisms, marriages, etc.) and tax census acts into earlier centuries. That's how it works.

It is important to remember that fundamental research using scientific methods applies as much to a purportedly Jewish lineage as to any other.

If, arriving at a point around 1550 - which is quite possible in Sicily - one encounters a series of typically Jewish given names in a locality known to have had a Jewish population, then the proof is self-evident. On the contrary, simple speculation about a surname being exclusively "Jewish" (when Sicily has reliable onomastic references which may refute such a theory) does not constitute valid research.

(See the genealogy page for basic information on tracing Sicilian lineages.)

The magic of DNA

Genetic genealogy is a growing field. Companies such as Family Tree DNA (in the US) can confirm a haplogroup and even identify a haplotype typical of Jews, such as the Cohen Modal Haplotype. It is presumed that in Sicily most Jewish families were in Y haplogroup J1 or J2. But so were most non-Jews descended from Greeks and Arabs, and many of them also have the Cohen Modal Haplotype.

The point to be made regarding genetic genealogy, useful as it is, is that in the great majority of cases it answers a few general questions but not too many specific ones. It should be pursued in combination with "traditional" documentary genealogy, not apart from it.

Without documentary research, even a "coincidence" cannot prove Jewish ancestry. For example, having an allegedly Jewish surname (that is non-Judaic onomastically) and testing positive for the Cohanim Modal Haplotype does not conclusively establish a Jewish link.

Family Traditions

The relevance of culinary, folk and oral traditions should not be dismissed out of hand, but several points should be considered and three questions should be asked: Where did the tradition come from? How was it most likely brought into the family and how long has it been in the family? How does it fit into the context of Sicilian history?

• In many cases, a certain culinary tradition which coincides with kosher observance may well be Jewish in origin, particularly if it is followed in a locality that had a Jewish community before 1493, but this cannot be taken to imply that a specific family was Jewish. The tradition may well have been adopted by the entire locality. Also, certain traditions were followed by more than one religious group; the dearth of pork recipes in Sicily is as much a Muslim characteristic as it is a Jewish one. Sicily is the world's most conquered island, so its cuisine is full of "foreign" influences. Not everybody who prepares arancine (rice balls) is descended in the male line from Sicily's Muslim Arabs.

• Certain customs are not Judaic per se. The Inquisition tortured a young woman because she reportedly changed her undergarments every Saturday, this being the Jewish Sabbath. She swore she was not engaging in a Jewish custom but something her mother had taught her to do. In those times most people did not bathe or change their clothes every day. Nevertheless, it's shocking to think that a Sicilian woman was punished for changing her underwear - on whatever day of the week!

• The sad truth (the Inquisition aside) is that until the last decades of the nineteenth century "ordinary" Sicilians knew precious little about their own social history. The average person had no real knowledge of the Elymians, the Greeks, the Muslims or the Jews, and into the latter decades of the nineteenth century illiteracy was over 75 percent. Granted that they arrived in Sicily quite recently and were allowed to practice their religion (so we do not have a precise analogy), the Albanians know their Byzantine history and language. True, the former Jews had to keep many traditions hidden from Catholic authorities. Still, unless the "tradition" in question is overwhelmingly evident, such as an actual practice (sitting shiva) rather than a "family legend," it should be taken with a few grains of salt.

• Sicily's Jews were a highly literate population boasting a strong tradition of learning. While generalities should be avoided (for there are always exceptions), and though socio-economic vicissitudes take their toll over time, it makes sense that a christianised family willing to keep certain Jewish traditions over several centuries would also have maintained a culture of at least basic literacy. By 1492, most Sicilians were illiterate, but not the Jews! It could be argued that strong traditions die a very slow death, so it is rather unlikely (but not impossible) that a family shown to be illiterate farm workers from 1850 back to circa 1550 were Jews in 1492.

• As regards historical research, the statement that "We were Jews" should be treated with the same caution and objectivity as "We were of the nobility." The difference, of course, is that connections to the aristocracy are easier to prove or disprove. Again, we have the example of the Albanians, who arrived in Sicily just as the Jews were leaving (or converting); they seem to have maintained certain traditions despite the Inquisition and other challenges to the practive of their faith (being Greek Orthodox rather than Roman Catholic). Their traditions were not those of the Jews, but the point is that historical continuity consists of more than hearsay or an oral "tradition" invented just a few generations ago.

• It should be noted that specific familial traditions survive from all of Sicily's historical faiths. The tradition of fasting (from meat) not only on Fridays but on Wednesdays is not originally Roman Catholic but Greek Orthodox in origin. Sicily's Christians were all Orthodox before the arrival of the Normans in 1061.


Statistical models are important in population studies. If Sicily's Jewish population in 1492 was less than 10% (probably less than 8%) of the general populace, and if at least half of these families emigrated in 1493, with very few returning, nothing short of a disproportionately high birth rate among their descendants in the male line over the last five centuries could leave us with very many Sicilians descended in the male line from Jews. Taking into account such factors as genetic drift and "bottlenecks," it is clear that Jewish ancestry in Sicily must be far less frequent than, for example, descents from Greeks and Arabs.

The expulsions and conversions in the Kingdom of Naples (most of peninsular Italy south of Rome) were essentially complete by 1553. A greater residual presence of Judaic traditions was preserved in some isolated localities in Apulia, Calabria and Basilicata.

Sicily has scant archaeological traces of Judaism - no standing synagogues (except those over which churches were built) but a few inscriptions and the vestiges of two mikvahs (ritual baths), in Siracusa and Palermo.

About the Author: Luigi Mendola is a historian based in Sicily.

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© 2010 Luigi Mendola