Jews in Sicily celebrated traditional Sabbath services for the first time in 500 years last month when Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Washington, D.C. delivered a Torah to the newly established synagogue in Catania. Having been expelled from Spanish territory, which then included Sicily and southern Italy, by Queen Isabella of Castile and King Ferdinand of Aragon in 1492, many Jews fled. Those who remained were compelled to convert to Catholicism. But Herzfeld’s visit changed the trajectory of Jewish history in Sicily.
American historian Michael Ledeen’s lifetime work on the history of Italian Jews inspired him to work with the few remaining Jewish people in Catania to secure the gift of the Torah from Ohev Sholom, a synagogue in Washington. The lodestone of Jewish learning, the Torah consists of the first five books of the Old Testament handwritten in Hebrew on a long piece of parchment. It is essential to Jewish community.
“The Jewish community which is being reborn in Catania is a beautiful development,” Ledeen told me. “We are privileged and grateful to have had the opportunity to help make the dream real. The community is resolved to continue building the Jewish infrastructure here.”
Catania native Baruch Triolo, secretary of the city’s Jewish community, coordinated the donation and renovation of the synagogue. Located on the top floor of the city-owned Castle of Leucatia, the new synagogue has a capacity of about 100 and suits its setting perfectly. Its floor-to-ceiling doors open to a large terrace with views of the sea to one side and views of Mount Etna, the volcano with its smoking plumes, to the other. Windows opposite the doors admit a constant sea breeze.
Rabbis from three countries officiated at the October 28 transfer of the Torah to Catania’s synagogue, and people came from as far away as Uruguay, Israel, and America, as well as from all over Italy, to witness and participate in the historic event. Some Sicilians are discovering their Jewish roots and welcomed the opportunity to learn about Judaism and connect with their religious community. A handful have even converted to Judaism. In stark contrast to Sicily’s former persecution of Jews, Catania’s authorities facilitated the dedication of the new synagogue and provided a visible police force to protect the Jewish worshipers.
A revitalized Jewish community could be key to the economic development of Catania, whose 15 percent unemployment rate is nearly twice the average unemployment rate in Italy. The city’s synagogue represents a Jewish-Sicilian renaissance and growing interest in Jewish-Italian history, demystifying Jews and Jewish worship, and it is attracting visitors from around the world. Kosher restaurants are popping up around Catania, and plans to produce kosher wines are in the works at luxurious vineyards surrounding the city. Already, an advertisement in Hebrew appears at Catania’s airport, where one restaurant offers kosher food. These enterprises will create much-needed jobs in Sicily.
Stars of David are stenciled just below the roofline of the century-old Castle of Leucatia, home to Catania’s synagogue. Now owned by the city, it originally belonged to a family of Jewish heritage whose only child, Angelina Mioccios, leapt to her death from the top-floor terrace in grief at being forced into an arranged marriage. During World War II, the building became a Nazi headquarters. Sicily once boasted one of the most advanced societies in the world, but it has declined since around the time it expelled its Jews. No longer does an aura of sorrow hang over the island, though. With the establishment of Catania’s synagogue, a new era for Sicilian Jews has arrived.
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