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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Jews probably came to southern Italy almost 2,000 years ago, especially around the time when the Maccabees, fearing annihilation by Antiochus’s forces, sent scouts in boats into the Mediterranean to search for new homes. In recent years, the “evidence” of their arrival in Italy has been resurfacing. The remains of a fourth-century synagogue were found in Bova Marina, in Reggio di Calabria, and a mikveh of similar age was uncovered in Siracusa, Sicily. The island, 9,925 square miles, is situated alongside ancient trade routes and the straits of Messina, and would have been a good location for merchants and traders, most likely including Jews. At least three vestiges of the past endure in 21st-century Taormina: a pedestrian shopping walkway called Traversa Degli Ebrei (Street of the Jews); a veterans hall with a three-sided second-floor balcony that suggests its probable history as a synagogue, and a municipal building with three plaster Stars of David prominently placed on its facade.

I thought about all this last summer, when I attended workshops on “The Archeology of Memory Reclaiming Hidden Sephardic Jewish Roots,” and “The Captives Return: B’nai Anusim (Children of the Forced Ones)” at the International Conference on Jewish Genealogy, held in Paris. As an amateur genealogist, I found the workshops intriguing. The speakers were Doreen Carvajal, an American journalist and author of “The Forgetting River: A Modern Tale of Survival, Identity, and the Inquisition,” and Jonina Duker, an educator and genealogist who is the main founder of the organization Kulanu, which reaches out to lost and dispersed Jewish communities everywhere.

Recalling my father-in-law’s reflections, I understood what Carvajal meant when she talked about “ancestral memories.” “The blood calls” is how Duker described Jewish souls finding their way back to the mainstream of the Jewish people.

The sessions also reminded me of the visit to Castelmola that my husband, sons and I made in 1990 and how startled we were to see leaded Stars of David in windows of the old church, which was about 800 years old. The leaded windows were set in stone panels on two sides of a bell tower.

Had this place once been a public building, or even a synagogue, in what had been the Jewish quarter? Later we would learn that when formerly Jewish structures were converted into churches or secular buildings during and after the Inquisition, superstitious inhabitants often preserved small signs of the past religion to guard against retribution (and soothe their guilt). Maybe it was bad luck to get rid of all the Judaica.


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