17 June 2020

A postponed plan to
search for the Jewish
heritage of Bari

Remaining Jewish gravestones in Bari … I had planned to visit Bari this week (Photograph: JGuide Europe/The Cultural Guide to Jewish Europe)

Patrick Comerford

I was supposed to be in Bari, the Adriatic port in southern Italy, this week, but my plans have been cancelled because of the lockdown and the Covid-19 pandemic.

With these changed circumstances, I have continued to take part in the weekly ‘webinar’ seminars on Sephardi history organised by the Bevis Marks Synagogue in London.

Last night, Rabbi Shalom Morris introduced Dr David Sclar, a research fellow at the Centre for Jewish Studies in Harvard. He discussed ‘(Re)Forming Identity: Books and Portuguese Rabbinicization in Early Modern Amsterdam.’ His paper drew extensively on his recent research on books in the library of the Ets Haim Yeshiva, attached to the Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam.

In many ways, last night’s seminar was a compensation for not being able to fulfil my plans to visit the Jewish sites in Bari and other parts of Puglia this week. The earliest known depiction of the Star of David as a Jewish symbol was found in Puglia on a tombstone in Taranto.

Bari was once of a flourishing Jewish centre, and tradition says it was founded by captives brought to Puglia by the Emperor Titus. Roman records of the first century tell of the Jewish communities of Bari, Oria, Otranto and Taranto. Other legends tell of Jewish captives deported from Judaea by the Emperor Titus after the fall of Jerusalem in the year 70.

Official documents from the Western Roman Emperor Honorius in the year 398 confirm there were several Jewish communities in Puglia. Many tombstone inscriptions, some entirely or partially in Hebrew, have been found throughout Puglia. However, no inscriptions survive to show that the community in Bari can be traced back to the Roman period, and the Jewish community in Bari may have developed at a later date.

The miracle-worker, Aaron of Baghdad, visited Bari in the ninth century. An epitaph dating from the ninth century commemorates Eliah ben Moses strategos and a stele of uncertain date commemorates Moses ben Eliah, a devoted teacher of the law and poet who is compared to the biblical Moses.

The Jews of Bari were included in the edicts of forced conversion issued by the Byzantine emperors in the ninth and 10th centuries. The Jewish quarter was destroyed ca 932 in mob violence and several Jews were killed.

But the community found new life soon after. Legend talks of ‘four rabbis,’ who sailed from Bari in 972, were captured at sea by Saracen raiders, and sold into slavery in Spain and North Africa. They included Moses ben Hanoch, who was taken with his young son Hanoch to Córdoba. There he was redeemed by the Jewish community, in the year 945 or 948.

After all four rabbis were ransomed, they founded famous Talmudic academies. Moses ben Hanoch became the community’s rabbi in Cordoba and through him Córdoba became the seat of Jewish scholarship. He died ca 965. The legend indicates how Bari had become known as a centre of Talmudic learning.

The women’s balcony above the entrance to the synagogue in Córdoba … Moses ben Hanoch became Rabbi of Córdoba after being captured in Bari (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The scholars who taught at the rabbinical academy in Bari in the 10th and 11th centuries include Moses Calfo, who is mentioned in the Arukh of Nathan ben Jehiel.

Andreas, who was the Archbishop of Bari from 1062 until at least 1066, and probably later, travelled to Constantinople in 1066 and there, at some point, he converted to Judaism. He later fled to Egypt, where he died in 1078.

Bari’s reputation for rabbinical scholarship is confirmed by the adage cited by Rabbeinu Tam (Jacob ben Meir) in the 12th century: ‘From Bari shall go forth the Law and the word of the Lord from Otranto’ (a paraphrase of Isaiah 2: 3).

But for four centuries, the Jews in Bari suffered from the rival claims of the king and the archbishop to levy taxes on the Jews of the city, between 1068 and 1465. The Jews of Bari were also victims of the campaign to convert Jews to Christianity initiated by Charles of Anjou in 1290.

In 1294, 72 families were forced to adopt Christianity, but they continued to live in Bari as Neofiti or crypto Jews. These crypto Jews, known in Hebrew as Anusim, were frequently forced to live in special quarters known as Giudecca and were seen as heretics by local Christians.

There followed a century and a half of tranquillity until the Jewish quarter was again attacked in 1463. A notable figure in this period was the physician David Kalonymus of Bari. Kalonymus and his family were offered citizenship of Naples in 1479, along with exemption from commercial taxes, and he later petitioned the Duke of Bari for the same rights in Bari as he enjoyed in Naples.

After the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, many Spanish and Portuguese Jews settled in Puglia, leading to a small revival of Jewish life in the area.

When the French invaded Bari in 1495, Jewish property worth 10,000 ducats was pillaged. But when Puglia fell to the Spanish in 1510, the Spanish Inquisition extended its reach to Puglia, searching for Jews, crypto Jews and Neofiti in the area, and a series of expulsions began 1511.

Most Jews and Neofiti were expelled and or tortured to death, most Jewish property was seized, and all remaining synagogues were rededicated as Catholic Churches.

The expulsion of Jews from the kingdom of Naples in 1510-1511 sealed the fate of the Jews in Bari. Although small number were readmitted in 1520, they were finally forced to leave in 1540-1541. These last expulsions brought an end to Jewish life in Puglia. Most of the remaining crypto-Jews were driven so deep underground that their presence finally came to an end too.

Some of the Jewish refugees from Puglia fled north, but most settled in Greece and the Aegean islands, and set up new congregations in Corfu, Arta and Thessaloniki. Sadly, the last remnants of the Jews of Puglia were murdered during the Holocaust.

Inside the Nuova or New Synagogue in Corfu … Jewish refugees from Puglia founded a synagogue in Corfu and continued to speak Judaeo-Greek or Yevanic (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Jewish communal life in Bari was briefly resumed during World War II, when in 1943 many Jews from other parts of Italy and from Yugoslavia took refuge in Bari from the Nazi-occupied territories. Towards the end of the war, a refugee camp was established at Bari. The beginning of the ‘illegal’ immigration to Palestine movement in Italy was in the area around Bari. During that period, Jewish soldiers, mainly from Palestine, were active in aiding and organising the refugees.

The early Jewish inhabitants of Puglia spoke Greek and Latin as their everyday languages. Later these evolved into hybrid languages known as Jewish Koine Greek and Judaeo-Latin. After the decline of the Roman Empire, Jewish Koine became Judaeo-Greek or Yevanic, while Judaeo-Latin gave way to different forms of Judaeo-Italian known as Italki.

The Jews of Puglia followed the Romaniote rite, with some of their own peculiarities and piyyutim. After their expulsion, Yevanic and Italki remained the mother tongue in the new communities in Greece. Some of the best known examples of spoken Italki were found among the Jews of Corfu.

However, Yevanic and Italki are now virtually extinct as spoken languages as a consequence of the assimilation of the Romaniote communities by the Ladino-speaking Sephardi Jews, the emigration of many of the Romaniotes to the US and Israel, and the murder of so many Romaniotes in the Holocaust.

Only two synagogues survive in Puglia, both in the Jewish quarter of Trani, about 50 km north-west of Bari. The Via della Sinagoga – now the Via Sabino – in Bari is a reminder of this former community in the Adriatic city, and there are several early mediaeval tombstones in the Provincial Museum.

The Jewish Museum in Thessaloniki … many Jews from Bari found refuge in Thessaloniki and other parts of Greece (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

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