In Sicily, Jews reach out to descendants of Inquisition-era forced converts

Rabbi Stefano di Mauro has jump-started a tiny Jewish community in southern Sicily. (Alex Weisler)

On her deathbed, Salvatore Zurzolo’s grandmother confided a long-held secret: Their family was Jewish.

Zurzolo, of Calabria in southern Italy, had been flirting with Judaism for years, ever since choosing to stay with Parisian Jews during a Catholic youth trip to the city when he was 18.

After his grandmother’s confession, Zurzolo contacted the central Italian Jewish community in Rome and asked to begin the conversion process.

“For 20 years I was told it was not possible,” Zurzolo said.

But he didn’t give up, keeping kosher, wearing a yarmulke and a Star of David necklace, and visiting Israel 10 times in two decades, according to his account.

Finally, last December, Zurzolo formally converted to Judaism with a dip in the ancient mikvah of Siracusa, Sicily’s fourth-largest city and one of Italy’s southernmost municipalities.

Last week, Zurzolo returned to the site of the ritual bath, which sits below an upmarket hotel, for a first-of-its-kind conference aimed at “Ebrei di Ritorno,” the Italian term for “Returning Jews” — descendants of Jews forcibly converted during the Inquisition era who are now exploring the possibility of coming back to the religion.

The gathering, which brought together a passel of prominent Italian rabbis and more than a dozen mostly Sicilian descendants of Jews, was an important step for Siracusa: It marked the first time that the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, or UCEI, the umbrella group for the Italian Jewish establishment, offered formal recognition and support. Among the attendees were Rabbi Eliyahu Birnbaum, chief rabbi of Turin; Rabbi Shalom Bahbout, chief rabbi of Naples; and Rabbi Roberto Della Rocca, head of the UCEI’s culture and education department.

Sicily now has its first rabbi in 500 years, and Siracusa’s tiny one-room synagogue — occupying the bottom floor of an apartment building in the city’s outskirts and drawing from a revolving door of about 40 interested locals — is one of only two or three Jewish communities in Italy south of Naples.

Perhaps most important, Italian Jewry seems open to welcoming newly converted Jews from Siracusa. Rabbi Gadi Piperno, project manager for southern outreach for the UCEI’s department of education and culture, came to Siracusa for the recent outreach seminar.

“We used to say that Naples was the frontier” of Italian Jewry, he said. “But now, at the end of Italy, we have a community — so this is the new frontier.”

At the two-day conference, participants told personal stories of discovering their heritage, pored over Torah passages — including the Book of Ruth, which is focused on the conversion of Naomi’s daughter-in-law — and heard from Michael Freund, founder and chairman of the Shavei Israel Foundation, which seeks to facilitate connections between descendants of Jews, Israel and the Jewish people.

Freund, whose group has worked with descendants of Jews in India, South America, Poland and the Iberian Peninsula, said the Siracusa event was his first foray into the so-called anusim communities of Italy — descendents of forcibly converted Jews.

Sicily had a Jewish population of at least 50,000 at the time of the Inquisition, and Freund believes that welcoming back descendants of Jews is the best way to avenge the violence and intimidation of that era.

“The sweetest revenge for what the Inquisition did to these people’s ancestors would be to bring back as many of these people as possible,” he said.

Participants said they didn’t find their way to Judaism by poring over family trees. The narrative varied by individual, but the gist was the same: There was a gut feeling, an inescapable, always-known truth — with or without the evidence to back it up.

Elisabetta Barbera made the trip from Rome to attend the conference. She said she suspects that her family has Jewish links and that definitive proof is not the point.

“Being 60, it’s my right to die like a Jew. That’s it,” she said. “It’s my feeling, my link, my faith.”Event attendees said the seminar made them feel less alone.

Maria La Cara traveled from the Sicilian capital of Palermo, nearly a three-hour drive. Raised Catholic, she began attending Pentecostal services at 18 and found herself getting consistently hung up on the word “Israel” when she came across it in prayers.

La Cara says one of her family’s surnames, Scimonetto, is a common converso name in the southern Italian region of Reggio Calabria, but she has no definitive proof of Jewish ancestry.

“I think I’d feel better if I found out I was Jewish,” she said. “If my past is more clear, then so is my present.”

La Cara said she has received support from her family, but that’s not a universal experience in heavily Catholic Sicily.

Carlo — a biochemistry student from Catania, about 40 minutes north of Siracusa — didn’t want to provide his last name because of his family’s discomfort with his growing Jewish identity.

When he was 8 or 9, Carlo dreamt that his mother and grandmother told him he was Jewish; he has Jewish roots on both parents’ sides. But when Carlo began exploring the religion in his mid-teens, it upset his family.

“My family is a total Sicilian family — it’s Catholic,” he said. “For them it’s not a good decision. I’m not decided on whether I’ll complete my path to Judaism.”

Amid all the existential questions and sweeping rhetoric at the gathering were practical concerns.

This was the central issue for Rabbi Stefano di Mauro, a Sicilian native who converted to Judaism when he was about 30 and was later told of his family’s Jewish roots.

Now that Siracusa has a synagogue again, he is focused on making the city a welcoming place for the community of anusim.

“The next step is to create a permanent beit din [religious court] for the South and give the opportunity to the ones who want to come back to Judaism to be helped faster,” he said. “I’m not so young anymore to get so excited, but it seems like God wants this to happen. So many things are coming together.”

Next up is a Shabbaton weekend retreat in Calabria, at the southern tip of Italy’s boot. Then in December, the UCEI plans to hold a large event in Naples focusing on ethics and politics that also will serve as a chance to update the Italian Jewish community on the progress of the outreach initiative in the South.

Beatrice Macca, a young pharmaceutical student who discovered her Jewish roots about a year ago and has since taken to keeping kosher and attending synagogue, said the support of the Italian Jewish establishment is incredibly important.

“For Rabbi Piperno to come from Rome, it shows that we’re getting stronger,” she said. “Before we were alone. Now I have the hope of changing the culture that’s predominant in Sicily.”