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Sicily's ancient Jewish presence revived with discovery of Europe's oldest mikveh

In January 2013, for the first time in more than 500 years, Syracusans listened to their rabbi read the Book of Esther.

 

An attractive island in the Mediterranean, Sicily has been a hub of migration routes for millennia. Jews are thought to have been part of the patchwork at least as early as the 1st century, after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD.

At the end of the 15th century, Spain, which ruled in Sicily, expelled the Jews from its entire domain. Now the serendipitous discovery of an ancient mikveh, thought to be the oldest in Europe, has excited archaeologists and historians – and spurred the revival of Jewish life on the island.

An ancient Jewish presence

Ortygia, the oldest neighbourhood of Siracusa (Syracuse), the ancient Greek town in the southeast of the island, has its own Giudecca (Jewish quarter) that used to have 12 synagogues and, just before the Spanish edict, counted a community of at least 5,000 Jews.

Developed on the Eastern side of Ortygia –it is said probably to symbolically face Jerusalem – the Giudecca is a labyrinth of narrow stone-paved vicoli (alleys) crowned by tiny balconies with wrought-iron railings and vases of geraniums and basil.

The Giudecca reveals distinct marks of the ancient Jewish presence: a Jewish star on the facade of a Gothic building, Jewish medieval tombstones now displayed in a museum, or an inscription in Hebrew in the apse of the church of St. John the Baptist, which had once been a synagogue.

In 1987, a remarkable treasure was discovered: an abandoned mikveh dating to the Byzantine era, which is thought to be the most ancient in Europe.

The finding was as revealing as it was serendipitous. During the conversion of a palazzo into a hotel (Residence alla Giudecca) on via Alagona between vicolo alla Giudecca III and IV, architects faced an unusual arrangement in the pavement of a courtyard, a stone’s throw from John the Baptist’s Church. Underneath the courtyard hid a ceiling and an underground chamber.

It took several truckloads of debris to uncover a limestone staircase that reached
down to a room brimming with water.

The water turned out to be fresh - and emerging from five mikva’ot in perfect condition. The space, entirely dug through stone, contains a series of ribbed vaults that survived Sicily’s strongest earthquake on record in 1693.

One central area encloses three mikva’ot, arranged as clover leaves. Two additional ones are located in small adjacent rooms.

Possibly after the Edict of Expulsion, Jews in Syracuse decided to preserve the bath by covering it up with dirt so that it would not end up in the hands of Christians.

Coming back to life

The discovery of the ritual-bath complex catalyzed a renaissance for the Jewish community, which had remained latent for more than half a century. Today the community has a new leader. After serving as a doctor for almost 50 years in the United States, Rabbi Stefano Di Mauro, born in Sicily, migrated back to the island in 2007.

Ever since his return, Di Mauro has dedicated himself to reviving Judaism in Syracuse and on the rest of the island.

"This is a momentous period," says Di Mauro. "After more than 500 years, a growing number of people are asking me to help them rediscover their Jewish roots."

At the time of the Spanish banishment, most Jews left Sicily and pressed east toward the Ottoman Empire. Those who stayed were forced to convert to Christianity and give up their Jewish identity, though some of them kept it alive in secret.

For centuries, some families in Syracuse had maintained habits and rituals they no longer remembered were Jewish. For instance, they lit candles on Fridays, without being aware of Shabbat. They covered mirrors during periods of mourning, not realizing that was a shiva custom, or they thoroughly cleaned their houses in anticipation of Easter, not knowing that they were following the tradition of keeping their homes free of traces of chametz.

The small, but compact current community now reunites in a synagogue on via Italia. Rabbi Di Mauro has celebrated conversions –some in the underground mikveh– as well as a few marriages. "For me, the most rewarding gift of being at the helm of this small, but growing community is to know that I am helping a lot of people rediscover their past. I am helping them to come back home," he concluded.

Regaining 'ownership' of 'Purim Katan'

Rabbi Di Mauro has also revived a long-buried celebration on the island, that of a purim katan.

The ritual had long been time misattributed to the city of Saragosa in Spain, but historians recently recognized that it actually originated in Syracuse. Its origins were traceable in piyutim and celebrations among the Sicilian Jews of Ioannina and Thessaloniki in Greece.

In January 2013, for the first time in more than 500 years, Syracusans listened to their rabbi read the relevant megillah in their new synagogue.

The story tells of a favourable twist of fate for the Jews of Syracuse under the reign of the Aragon king Martin I, only a few decades before their expulsion.

According to the megillah, for 12 consecutive years, each time the king would visit the Giudecca he would be greeted by a procession of religious personalities coming from the 12 synagogues in town and presenting him the Sifrei Torah as a sign of reverence and submission. However, on the 13th year it was decided that, out of respect for the Torah itself, only the empty wooden cases would be shown to the monarch.

Haim Šami, a Jew who had recently converted to Christianity and sought to cozy up to the court, revealed this stratagem to the king, who the following day – the 17th day of the month of Shevat – visited the Giudecca by surprise and checked the wooden cases himself, with the intention of punishing the Jews for their choice.

However, the legend then recounts that the prophet Elijah revealed the plot in a dream to the guardian of one of the synagogues, making it possible for the Torah books to be shown to the king and for the plot to be foiled.

The rediscovery of this Purim is symbolic of an overall auspicious fate for the Jews of Syracuse. Forgotten for too long, they are coming back home.

 

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