One Italian's Secret Jewish Heritage

Unearthing Family Roots in Small Town Sicily

City on a Hill: Castelmola, a tiny municipality perched above Taormina, in Sicily, has many signs of long-forgotten Jewish life.
Arnoldius/Wikimedia Commons
City on a Hill: Castelmola, a tiny municipality perched above Taormina, in Sicily, has many signs of long-forgotten Jewish life.

By Susan J. Gordon

Published January 30, 2013, issue of February 01, 2013.
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When my Sicilian father-in-law converted to Judaism at the age of 60, he said he felt “a strong pull toward home, as if I always had a Jewish soul.” Several years earlier, Joe had survived colon cancer and several complicated surgeries. His long recuperation gave him time to read, and to think.

His second wife was Jewish, and Joe was curious about her religion. He began to pore over books about Jewish life, culture and history. He mastered Hebrew, studied Torah, gave up shrimp marinara and other dishes he’d adored, and insisted that his wife establish and keep a kosher home.

Eventually, Joe became chairman of the ritual committee. He was also the gabbai, assisting congregants at the bimah in his synagogue. He wrote a letter to his three children about his conversion. “I had no focus before, no compass spiritually,” he explained; the Catholicism of his childhood had little impact on him.

Looking back, it’s easy to see that Joe was exposed to elements of a Jewish past, although he didn’t know it at the time. He was 11 years old when he and his family left Castelmola, a small town above Taormina, but he never forgot a peculiar ceremony he watched on Friday nights: The priests would exit the old church carrying large and beautiful silver “relics” — which I would later learn were likely Torah embellishments — on pallets, and reverently parade them around the courtyard.

The procession moved solemnly, as the priests recited unintelligible, prayerlike words. “Nobody knew why they did this, but we knew it was important,” Joe said. Furthermore, his mother’s family history is murky and mysterious: His mother had been a foundling left on someone’s doorstep in San Fratello, a Sicilian town that once had a Jewish population.

Five hundred years ago, about 40% of Sicilians and Calabrians were Jewish, according to Rabbi Barbara Aiello, the American-born founder of the Italian Jewish Cultural Center of Calabria. Tantalizing tidbits of what she calls “anecdotal evidence” persist today in subtle ways, often drawing the descendants of conversos — Jews who renounced their faith and adopted Christianity during the Spanish Inquisition — back to Judaism.


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