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)

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