27 October 2023

The Jewish presence in
Taormina should not be
relegated to a footnote
in the history of Sicily

The façade of the Palazzo dei Giurati in Taormina displays Stars of David, indicating it may have been tin he heart of the Jewish district (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Throughout this week, the reflections in my prayer diary on this blog each morning have drawn on places I have visited in Eastern Sicily, including Giardini Naxos, Noto, Syracuse and Taormina.

Taormina has long been a popular tourist destination. It is, arguably, the prettiest town in Sicily, with breathtaking views, food, restaurants, shops and hotels, with majestic Mount Etna as a backdrop and an ancient Greek amphitheatre. The crumbling Victorian follies in the Villa public gardens were once owned by Lady Florence Trevelyan.

According to the Encyclopaedia Judaica and the Jewish Encyclopaedia, at one time there were 37,000 to 100,000 Jews living in 52 different places in Sicily. Rabbi Barbara Aiello, the US-born founder of the Italian Jewish Cultural Centre of Calabria, claims about 40% of people in Sicily and Calabria were Jewish 500 years ago.

Jews probably first came to southern Italy almost 2,000 years ago, perhaps at the time when the Maccabees, fearing annihilation by Antiochus and his forces, sent scouts out across the Mediterranean to search for possible new homes.

The remains of a fourth century synagogue have been found in Bova Marina in Reggio di Calabria, and when a mikveh from the same time was uncovered in Syracuse in 1987 it sparked renewed interest in Sicily’s rich Jewish heritage.

Early records date from 734 BCE, but the town did not begin to prosper until the fourth century BCE. There are references to the town throughout Roman history, and remains of its Greek and Roman past are still visible.

Taormina’s well-preserved Greek theatre is the second largest amphitheatre in Sicily. It was built in the third century BCE and was later renovated by the Romans.

The theatre, which is built into the hillside, has natural acoustics and offers amazing views of the Ionian Sea below and of Mount Etna. A brick with a Greek inscription from the Greek-Roman theatre was probably inscribed by some Christians who respected Saturday as a holy day. It was restored in modern times and is now used for summer performances.

A Greek inscription in the Greek-Roman theatre in Taormina was probably inscribed by Christians who respected Saturday as a holy day (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

From the 14th century on, the Jews of Sicily faced open discrimination and in some places were forced to live in ghettoes.

Taormina once had a Jewish Quarter and a small Jewish community is referred to in documents from 1415 on. The Jewish quarter was in the area to the west of the cathedral. The imprint of their presence lives on in the placenames and street names in Taormina, such as the shopping street known as Vicolode gli Ebrei (Street of the Jews) and Via Giudecca (Jewish Street).

The façade of the Palazzo dei Giurati in the Piazza del Duomo, on the same square as the duomo or cathedral in Taormina, still displays three Stars of David, indicating many of the building there have Jewish origins and that this may have been the heart of the main Jewish district of Taormina.

A veterans’ hall has a three-sided second-floor balcony that may suggest, perhaps, that it was once a synagogue. In Castelmola, a hilltop village above Taormina, leaded Stars of David can be seen in the windows of the old church, set in stone panels on two sides of a bell tower.

However, there were frequent episodes of intolerance in Taormina. The Dominican friars twice forced Jews to move from the synagogue and the cemetery, claiming they were disturbed by their loud prayers.

This intolerance eventually led to a riot in in 1455, when the synagogue was destroyed. Finally, when the Spanish Inquisition reached the island, a decree was issued in 1492 ordering the expulsion of Jews from Sicily. The edict was similar to those issued in Spain, and by 1493 all Jews had either left Sicily or had been baptised in forcible conversions.

The Greek-Roman theatre in Taormina was built in the third century BCE and is the second largest amphitheatre in Sicily (Photograph: Patrick Comerford; click on images for full-screen viewing)

The descendants of the Italian conversos were later known as neofiti, and many secretly continued some Jeiwsh practices. The Spanish-run administration in Sicily invited Jews to return to Sicily in a proclamation on 3 February 1740. A small number responded, but they felt insecure and returned to the Ottoman Empire.

Rabbi Barbara Aiello is both the first female rabbi in Italy and Italy’s first non-Orthodox rabbi. She was born in 1947 in Pittsburgh to a family of Italian Jewish descent and was ordained at the Rabbinical Seminary International in New York at the age of 51. In 2005, she conducted the first Passover seder in Sicily since 1492, when the Jews were expelled. She founded the Italian Jewish Cultural Center of Calabria and Sinagoga Ner Tamid del Sud in Calabria.

Rabbi Stefano Di Mauro, who was born in Syracuse in Sicily, is a descendant of neofiti. He emigrated to the US in his teens, but when his mother was dying he learned that his family was Jewish. He converted, returned to Syracuse in 2007, and opened a small synagogue in 2008. He was the first orthodox rabbi in Sicily for more than 500 years, and said many descendants of neofiti were being drawn back to Judaism.

Eventually, however, according to a report in the Jewish Chronicle five years ago (2018), his relationship with Italy’s established Jewish authorities broke down irretrievably, his community in Syracuse is no more and he is now living in Israel. He says Italy’s Jewish establishment was not being welcoming enough, an accusation that is rejected by the Union of Italian Jewish Communities.

Since 2013, Palermo has hosted a public Menorah lighting in the Palazzo Steri, the former headquarters of the Inquisition, where many Jews were detained, tortured and killed.

The Archdiocese of Palermo donated a building to the Jewish community in 2018 to build a synagogue in Vicolo Meschita, the old Jewish quarter. Archbishop Corrado Lorefice was honoured with the Wallenberg Medal for enabling the rebirth of the Jewish community of Palermo and for promoting interfaith dialogue.

It is said locally that former Jewish buildings in Taormina were converted into churches or secular buildings during and after the Inquisition, but that subsequent residents often retained and preserved small signs of their Jewish past Jewish. Perhaps this was to guard against retribution, perhaps it was to soothe guilt, perhaps it was a sign of remorse for the end of the Jewish presence in Taormina.

The signs and symbols of a once thriving Jewish community and a former Jewish Quarter in Taormina usually go unnoticed by most residents and tourists alike. But they are signs and symbols of a community that must never be relegated to a mere footnote in history.

Shabbot Shalom

The Sicilian coastline below Taormina (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Daily prayers in Ordinary Time
with USPG: (152) 27 October 2023

The Church of San Pancrazio or Saint Pancras in Taormina stands on the site of a Greek temple dedicated to Isis and Serapis in the third century BCE (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

We are in Ordinary Time in the Church Calendar, and the week began with the Twentieth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity XX, 22 October 2023).

Before today begins, I am taking some time for prayer and reflection early this morning.

My reflections on the Week of Prayer for World Peace concluded on Sunday, and my reflections each morning for the rest of this week are following this pattern:

1, A reflection on a church or cathedral in Sicily;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

The shrine of Saint Pancras above the High Altar in the Church of San Pancrazio in Taormina (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Church of Saint Pancrazio (Saint Pancras), Taormina, Sicily:

Saint Pancras is the patron saint of Taormina, and the church in Taormina dedicated to this first century bishop and martyr was built in the late 16th and early 17th century on the ruins of a Greek temple dedicated to Isis and Serapis and built in the third century BCE.

The sanctuary of Isis and Serapis, dating from the Hellenistic period, was in the northern part of Taormina. Much of the temple survives in the walls of the Church of San Pancrazio or Saint Pancras. The temple stood on a high podium and is generally dated between the late third and early second century BCE.

Two inscriptions, one in Greek from the second century BCE, the other in Latin from the first or second century CE, identify the temple with the cult of the two Egyptian deities, Isis and Serapis. A statue of a priestess also survives from the second century CE.

The Church of Saint Pancrazio or Saint Pancras stands in an arcaded courtyard. Traces of Greek masonry can still be see in the south walls of the church, and the large blocks of stone that are now seats in the courtyard are also Greek.

According to legend, Saint Pancras (Greek: Παγκράτιος; Italian: Pancrazio) was born in Antioch in Cilicia (modern Adana). He travelled to Jerusalem with his parents during the time of Christ. Later, the entire family was baptised in Antioch. Pancras withdrew to a cave in Pontus where he was found by Saint Peter, who sent him to Sicily in the year 40 as the first Bishop of Tauromenium or Taormina.

A miracle attributed to Saint Pancras says he saved the city of Taormina from destruction by the pagan commander Aquilinus. He was martyred there with two of his disciples, the holy women Aesia and Susanna, by stoning to death.

He is the patron saint of Taormina and Canicattì. His feast day in the Roman Martyrology was on 3 April, but this was later changed to 8 July. More often he is celebrated on 9 July, the traditional day of his martyrdom. Most of his relics are preserved at Rome, and a portion of his relics are kept on Mount Athos.

Saint Pancras of Taormina should not be confused with Saint Pancras of Rome, a young man who was martyred by being beheaded ca 304 and who gives his name to two churches in London (see HERE and HERE).

The Church of Saint Pancras is built of Taormina stone. The outside is plain apart from the west door with its marble columns and statues of Saint Pancras and Saint Procopius, who was the Bishop of Taormina at the time of the Arab conquest of Sicily. The church has a small attached bell tower.

The Baroque-style church dates from the second part of the 16th century. The main doorway has jambs and architraves in Taormina stone. Two Ionian columns decorate each side of the doorway.

Inside, the church is quite bright considering the only light is through the door and small windows at the base of the ceiling. The decorative work is Baroque with decorative plasterwork and pillars.

The High Altar is a splendid Baroque marble altar set in the apse at the east end. It is lavishly decorated with polychrome marble slabs and an Ionian column on each side. At the centre is a seated statue of Saint Pancras that is processed around the town on 9 July, his feast day. Above, in a small roundel is the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child surrounded by putti. At the top is God the Father. On either side set in decorative plaster frames are images of Saint Pancras arriving in Naxos.

A fresco to the right of the High Altar depicts the martyrdom of Saint Pancras during a banquet.

There are paintings in oil on canvas above the two side altars to the right, one depicting the torture of Saint Nicone and the other the consecration of Saint Maximus, the successor of Saint Pancras. Between the two other side altars to the left, a fresco depicts Teofano Cerameo, Taormina’s last bishop in the 11th century.

The side walls are lined with altars with large paintings depicting different periods in Taormina’s religious history. Running round the top of the walls is a shelf with small paintings and urns.

The organ is in the gallery above the west door, and there are interesting and elaborate marble memorials set in the nave floor.

The bell tower of the Church of San Pancrazio in Taormina (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 12: 54-59 (NRSVA):

54 He also said to the crowds, ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, “It is going to rain”; and so it happens. 55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat”; and it happens. 56 You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

57 ‘And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right? 58 Thus, when you go with your accuser before a magistrate, on the way make an effort to settle the case, or you may be dragged before the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer throw you in prison. 59 I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny.’

There are interesting and elaborate marble memorials set in the nave floor in the church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayers: USPG Prayer Diary:

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Praying for Peace.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday with a prayer written by the Revd Tuomas Mäkipää, Chaplain of Saint Nicholas.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (27 October 2023) invites us to pray in these words:

We pray for the Diocese in Europe which serves diverse communities across the continent and has been pivotal in providing support to refugees fleeing Ukraine.

The Collect:

God, the giver of life,
whose Holy Spirit wells up within your Church:
by the Spirit’s gifts equip us to live the gospel of Christ
and make us eager to do your will,
that we may share with the whole creation
the joys of eternal life;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post Communion Prayer:

God our Father,
whose Son, the light unfailing,
has come from heaven to deliver the world
from the darkness of ignorance:
let these holy mysteries open the eyes of our understanding
that we may know the way of life,
and walk in it without stumbling;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Yesterday’s Reflection

Continued Tomorrow

Looking out of the church into the courtyard (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

The Church of San Pancrazio stands in an arcaded courtyard, where the seats are masonry from the Hellenistic temple (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)