Q. What do Socrates and a spleen sandwich have in common?
A. Read on to find out!
There was already a significant Jewish population here in Sicily by the 5th century BC.
They came with the Greeks from Athens, which also had a large Jewish community. Since the Jews influenced Greek culture a great deal without really planning to, and the Greeks brought it over as the foundation of Sicilian culture, I had better tell you about them.
The Jews in Athens unintentionally contributed to the humanist movement and Socratic philosophy, which remains to this day the foundation of Western philosophy and science. How did they do that?
Just imagine you’re an Ancient Greek who routinely sacrifices sheep to Zeus, just to make sure he doesn’t get really pissed off with you and strike you down with lightning. You’re dead scared of suddenly turning impotent too, so you often make offerings at the temple of Venus. Having no food to eat would be a disaster, so you have to ensure the crops grow by offering grain in the temple of Ceres. But on the way there is the temple of Athene, and if she got jealous of the attention you’re giving Ceres, she could make the Persians invade and hack you to death with swords, so you’d better offer her a sheep too. Keeping on the right side of all these different gods is terrifying.
Then you notice these people called Jews. In reality there were many religions in the cosmopolitan city of 5th century BC Athens, but the Jews and their monotheism were the ones who really stood out. They insist only one God exists, and he doesn’t want sacrifices. They never offer anything to your gods at all. They don’t get struck by lightning! The Persians haven’t killed them! They’ve got kids so their willies obviously work properly! And these Jews are rich, too.
Gosh, that’s interesting.
If you’re a thinking man, you reason that religion cannot be an absolute truth. Different nations have different religions. They must have invented them. Whatever religion and rules you choose makes no difference! We think we’ve got the truth all worked out but, really, none of us knows anything.
If you’re Socrates, you go round telling this to everyone you meet. You tell them just when they’re bustling about the marketplace with three shoulder-cracking bags of shopping and a toddler having a tantrum, it’s so hot they feel delirous, all they’ve got for refreshment is some warm water out of a goat skin that tastes of hair, and they’re playing tug of war with a very stubborn sheep which they want to drag to the temple of Ceres, whilst the sheep has just peed on their sandals and wants to go in the other direction and eat some wild clover. Eventually everyone in Athens found Socrates so damned irritating they decided to kill him.
After he was dead, his students Plato and Aristotle continued pursuing the humanist implications of realising that religion is arbitrary, and optional. And that led to science, mathematics, and astronomy (as opposed to astrology). This led to navigation by the stars, and exploration. The rest, as they say, is history.
And the Jews who had inspired it all just carried on as usual.
As I said, the Jews came to Sicily with the Greeks. By the middle ages, the Jews of Palermo were part of the very rich elite. The North African Muslims who conquered Sicily made them wear a distinguishing badge, usually a yellow cord on their clothes – which gives me the creeps because of echoes in more recent history – and charged them extra taxes, but allowed them to follow their faith without harassment.
When the French Normans arrived, they banished all the restrictions on the Jews and allowed them to hold public office. The Jews could hardly believe it, and were delighted. They were allowed to govern their own community under Halakah law (whilst the Muslims governed themselves under Sharia law). Most Jews at that time were traders, goldsmiths, translators and scribes. The majority of the educated classes in Sicily at that time were Jews. They flourished in this period, even though the Normans resumed the Christian obsession with trying to convert them. As time went by, the attempts at religious conversion were becoming obnoxious, and perhaps for this reason breakaway Jewish communities spread into other cities in Sicily. They also diversified into other professions. All the best doctors in Sicily at time were Jewish.
They were a community of 5,000 at its peak, yet hardly a trace of them remains in Sicily today. What does remain, in modern Sicilian society, is Palermo’s Classic Offal Cuisine.
Jews don’t eat offal, do they? And that’s the whole point. For every rich Jewish family in Palermo, there was a dirt-poor Christian one whom they kept alive, by giving them every last scrap of offal every time they had an animal slaughtered for dinner.
The Catholics of Palermo used these poopy-tasting scraps to create a palatable menu which they relish to this day. Fast food in Palermo, which you buy on the street the way a New Yorker buys a hot dog, is exclusively made of offal. You can pick up spleen sandwiches (U pani ca meusa), small-intestine kebabs (stigghiola), or fried-subcutaneous-fat-chunks in a bun (frittola). If you want a ready meal from the supermarket your choices are limited in Sicily, but you can always find tongue and hoof salad salad. (I know, you want to know what it’s like eating a hoof, don’t you? It is like terrifically chewy jelly, with no taste.)
Well now, let’s change this offal subject and get back to the Jews.
Jewish charity did not stop at dishing out entrails to the needy. The oral history of Sicily passes down the memory that the rich and highly educated Jews sustained many impoverished Catholics with a wide range of charitable works.
In the 13th century the Spanish took over Sicily, and brought the Spanish Inquisition with them. This was when persecution of the Jews began in earnest. They were fined, taxed to the hilt, and punished for perfoming maintenance work on their synagogue. In 1492 a Spanish edict declared Judaism was banned, so all Jews must leave, or convert. The Jews disappeared from Palermo.
Just when the rest of Europe was passing from the Dark Ages into the Renaissance, Sicily was truly entering its own Dark Ages. With the departure of the Jews, and the Muslims long gone, almost the entire educated class of Sicily vanished. The number of literate people fell to nearly nobody. There were almost no real doctors at all. Foreign diplomats and envoys could not find interpreters. The client families that depended on Jewish charity were left destitute and many must have starved.
The synagogue fell into dereliction, and eventually a church was built where it had stood. Eventually, the Catholics who remained in Palermo had so totally forgotten what being Jewish actually meant that they named the road where the synagogue once stood, “Mosque Street.”
Nowadays, there is a tiny revivial of Judaism as some Sicilian families discover their Jewish roots.
Q. What do Socrates and a spleen sandwich have in common?
A. They were both inspired by Jews!
I AM ON HOLIDAY IN ENGLAND TILL THE END OF AUGUST, BUT GREATLY LOOKING FORWARD TO READING YOUR COMMENTS AS SOON AS I CAN GET ONLINE!