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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Carvajal — whose name in Spanish means “lost place,” or “rejected” — sought answers to timeless questions: “Who am I?” and “Where do I really come from?” Driven to find answers, she moved with her family to an Andalusian town where her ancestors had lived long ago. There she would uncover hidden, ghostly intimations of Jewish life that had been whitewashed but not obliterated entirely, and by doing so she would confirm her Jewish heritage. Subsequently, she was able to track her DNA and was stunned, but not surprised, to learn that it was linked to Sephardic Jews in Spain.

Identity is often complicated and foggy. My family members also wondered about their ancestry. Could DNA testing help us? In 2009, at a conference on Italian-Jewish genealogy held in Manhattan, speakers confirmed the merits of DNA testing when “the paper trail no longer exists.” Joe had questions, too; was he a Jew because he “felt” he was Jewish, or was it in his DNA? Was he descended from neofiti, as Italian conversos are called? As I watched my husband swab his father’s cheek for a DNA sample, I couldn’t help but think: Long ago, terrified Jews concealed their true identities to survive; now, our goal is to uncover them. A few weeks later, a DNA analysis confirmed that Joe’s haplogroup belongs to a significant number of Jewish men and is especially common among Sephardic Jews. We still don’t know for certain that Joe’s heritage is Jewish, but the test brought us much closer to believing it to be so.

During a break at the conference, my husband and I met Rabbi Aiello, and my husband mentioned his father’s recollections to her. “Did you say he came from Castelmola?” Aiello asked. “It was also my mother’s birthplace. She, too, would describe to me the silver brought out on Friday nights. I believe they were the ‘ribbones,’ the silver tops with tinkling bells that adorn the Torah, and also the breastplates — the decorations.” Smiling, she added, “You know, probably, that whole town was Jewish!”

Joe smiled, too, when we repeated her story to him. Now 102 years old, he enjoys looking at old photos of Castelmola. Home never changes, even if you, yourself, have changed.

Susan J. Gordon has just completed a memoir about her journey to uncover her own family’s Jewish history. She blogs at www.susanjgordon.com.


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