Last week, the Union of Italian Jewish Communities (UCEI) held an unprecedented conference at the Sicilian city of Siracusa for "Ebrei di Ritorno," or "Returning Jews"—descendants of Jews forcibly converted during the Inquisition who are now seeking a return to Jewish identity and faith. The conference marked the first time Italy's Jewish establishment has officially embraced these "returning Jews." 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—is one of only two or three Jewish communities in Italy south of Naples. "We used to say that Naples was the frontier" of Italian Jewry, said Rabbi Gadi Piperno, project manager for southern outreach for UCEI's education and culture department. "But now, at the end of Italy, we have a community—so this is the new frontier." (JTA, Sept. 12)
Jews first arrived in Sicily in Roman times, brought as slaves after the conquest of Palestine (then Judea). They prospered under Muslim rule (827-1061 CE), and fought alongside the Arabs against the invading Normans. The Inquisition came to Sicily in the 13th century, under the House of Aragon, later to rule Spain after the 1492 reconquista from the Moors. By then, there were Jewish settlements, or giudeccas in fifty cities and towns on Sicily, as well as on some of the outlying islands. They varied in size from about 350 to 5,000 people. King Ferdinand's notorious 1492 Edict of Expulsion affected the Spanish and Sicilian Jews alike. The facts of an apparent 1516 pogrom against crypto-Jews in Palermo are contested by historians. (Genealogia Dieli Genealogy, Best of Sicily)