About Jews, Greek Philosophers and Offal sandwiches

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.

Socrates (from the Louvre): Seeing this pain in the arse in the market place of ancient Athens always triggered “Jehova’s Witness Syndrome,” and the urge to run away and hide behind a very large amphora of olive oil.

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.

A classic Palermo delicacy: small intestines wound around spring onions, barbecued by the roadside and eaten by happy Sicilians

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.)

A spleen sandwich – ah, delicious!

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!



27 Comments Add yours

  1. Brainstorm says:

    Interesting piece! Who knew that the Jews had so great an influence on Sicilian and Greek culture!? Look forward to tasting the offal kebab some day. 😉


    1. Don-t forget to taste the spleen sandwich too! That one really is delicious. 🙂


  2. Amazing – you just got me interested in history! You should write an alternative history book for visiting Sicily- your humour makes history fun 🙂 Well done- fab post that must of taken a lot of research (hopefully you didn’t taste the spleeln sarnies and intestine kebabs just for us…. I’d feel so bad).


    1. Thank you – I’m glad you liked the article.
      I’ve been enjoying the spleen sarnies for years, as they really are delicious. As for the rest, ahem, it’s usually not hard to find someone willing to finish off what you don’t fancy!


  3. Loved this! Interesting and funny and I now know I will never, ever try a spleen sarnie.
    Enjoy your vacation!


  4. T. Franke says:

    Ok, it’s irony, but just to make it clear: Socrates was of course *not* influenced by Jewish culture. Earliest traces of Jewish culture in Greece date back to approx. 300 BC, so even Plato cannot be influenced by Jewish culture. And … there were of course sacrifices in the Jewish culture, at the temple in Jerusalem, until it was destroyed in 70 AD.


    1. By the 5th Century BC, the City-State of Athens, by grace of its central position geographically and accessibility by land and sea, had become the functional “capital” of Greece, and representatives of all ethnic groups and political alliances in Ancient Greece and the surrounding territories were constantly streaming through the city, trading and eventually settling. How credible is it that the Jews were the only nation to exclude themselves from what was then global trade all around the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern coastline?

      Athenian styled tetradrachms used in the 5th century BC have been excavated at Bethsaida in Israel. These were the most trusted and internationally used currency in the Ancient world. Metallurgical analysis has confirmed that they were authentic coins, minted using silver from Athens’ silver mines at Laurion. Since the silver reserves in the mines of Laurion were almost fully exhausted by the end of the 5th century BC, at which time Athens turned to different sources for its silver, this dates the coins, and therefore Jewish Israeli trade with Athens, to the time of Socrates.

      Click to access rbn157_ponting-gitler-Tal.pdf

      Just to make it clear, when I was doing my BA Hons. degree and my MA in Classics at Cambridge University, England, I was taught that a group of Jews called Ρωμανιῶτες (Romaniotes) started migrating to Greece in the 6th century BC. If you believe in the historical accuracy of some of the Old Testament you would attribute that to their exile from Babylon, though I have not studied that in depth and would not comment on the veracity of that detail. It is true that they did not immediately form a significant community in Athens, as there were larger communities in Thebes, Ioannina, Chalcis, Corfu, Arta, Corinth and on the islands of Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Rhodes and Cyprus. There are, however, literary references to their presence dating from about 300BC, as you say.

      The fact that Jews were making sacrifices in their synagogue in Jerusalem was, of course, something Socrates never saw and I doubt he was aware of it: The relevant point is that the Jews in Athens were NOT making sacrifices to the Greek gods.


      1. T. Franke says:

        Thank you for releasing my comment!

        I learned something when looking up “Romaniotes” on Wikipedia: You are right, Jews have lived in Greece (possibly) since the Babylonian exile although the earliest evidence is from 300 BC as already said. Alas, this is scarce evidence for Jewish presence, and I cannot see any evidence for an influence on Socrates and Plato. Especially not when digging deeper into the religious and philosophical concepts: The philosophical god and the religious god of the Israelites are *very* different. Furthermore Socrates and Plato blended the Greek mythology into their philosophical views *including* traditional gods and sacrifices (Socrates made the offerings to the gods as he says in the Apology) – you are fully right that Jews would reject this.

        It is always a temptation to see continuities in history where there are none. Another more prominent example is the monotheism of Egypt’s pharao Akhenaten which allegedly inspired the monotheism of the biblical Moses. But academic scrutiny does not support this idea. Ok, some academicians still support it … but IMHO their case is clearly lost. Consolidating political power by consolidating religion (by concentrating on one highest or even only god and one central place of worship) is a phenomenon which occured several times in history. In case of the Egyptians it was Akhenaten. In case of the Jews it was king Josiah (watch a lenghty but well-done documentary here: http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLB21B8E0D2D8EA963 ). The concepts of the Chinese and Japanese monarchy repeat the same historical pattern. Lately Tom Holland claimed that Islam came into being for the same reasons: After the Arabs created their empire they (allegedly) consolidated religion to consolidate the new empire, resulting in Islam. For the Roman empire Constantine chose Christianity to consolidate his power and since Christians were in quarrels about the nature of Jesus the Roman emperor pressed the church to find a unifying solution, the dogma of trinity. And so on and so on. – There is even a theory that Plato inherited his theology by the Zoroastrians. But also this is not likely, to say the least. I even heard of Hindu and Buddhist claims to have influenced Socrates and Plato because of the cyclical re-birth philosophy …..

        Nevertheless, the question of influences on Socrates and Plato is interesting, as well as the idea that Jews arrived on Sicily with the Greeks. Let me add, that even Plato was in Sicily! And what did he bring to the island?


      2. Thank you for commenting again.
        I think perhaps you interpreted my comment about Socrates being influenced by the Jews rather too directly, in the sense that he took on some of their beliefs. What I meant was that, by noticing their refusal to worship the gods that the Greeks feared and worshiped, he was able to perceive his own religion as a human construct rather than an unquestionable truth. Having made this leap, he went on to develop his own ideas entirely different from those of the Jews – for his very realisation was that not only was his own religion a mere human invention, but so was theirs.
        In this modern world of multiculturalism, atheism, and widespread free choice, it may be hard to imagine what a huge intellectual leap that is for someone brought up in a very coherent religious system, where every person has the very same beliefs and nobody questions them. It did indeed trigger the Socratic revolution.
        As for the actual beliefs of Socrates, he never wrote them down, and nobody in Classics faculties (of the UK and Italy at least) believes what Plato wrote was an accurate record of Socrates’ ideas. We merely know that he opened the door, so to speak, for all the successive philosophers and, as I mentioned, scientists, to enter into intellectual enquiry free from religious brainwashing.


      3. T. Franke says:

        @The Sicilian Housewife:

        I see your idea of the whole thing. Not a bad view on the events. Besides marginal differences I enjoy your blog again and again. You surely know of Mary Taylor Simeti and her book “On Persephone’s island”? I read it recently and was overwhelmed by the insights into Sicilian life. Only her interpetations of ancient mythology bewildered me at first glance … but it was her personal view, and so it was ok: Not academic statements but mythology *used* in everyday-life. Quite interesting. Myths are living in Sicily …


      4. I have never heard of that book, but it sounds very interesting. Thank you for mentioning it – I must look into it!
        I am glad you’re enjoying the blog, and thank you for taking the time to comment. I always love getting into debate and learning from my blog readers. 🙂


  5. Expat Eye says:

    I’ve just lost my appetite.


  6. Rosaria in South Florida says:

    You’re on a roll here!!! With more Sicilians discovering their Jewish roots perhaps someday, somewhere, somebody will come up with a spleen sandwich prepared in accordance to kashrut law. By virtue of flashes of deja vu and a little research my family carries surnames that are thought be names assigned or adopted by Jews who took up the Cross rather than leave Palermo during Grand Inquisition. Maybe this happen stance explains why I absolutely cannot stand vastieddi (maritati or schietti). Never mind how much the aroma of cooked spleen is redolent of a fine standing rib roast. Which reminds me of the Antica Focacceria San Francisco in Palermo where huge vats of spleen are cooked up everyday except Monday. I digress but the following link regards two new Antica Focacceria S. Francesco in Rome and dovetails on the Mafia blog here. http://travel.nytimes.com/2013/07/07/travel/taking-a-bite-out-of-crime-in-rome.html?nl=travel&emc=edit_tl_20130706&_r=0


  7. So interesting. A wonderful piece. Thank you.


  8. seagypzy says:

    As always, you concurrently educate and amuse me:). I will stay away from roadside fast food in Sicily.
    Sent from my BlackBerry® wireless device from WIND


  9. beba says:

    Fascinating post and very entertaining! Now, about getting online in the UK. Back in May, I found it way less possible than we are used to in the USA. The hotels (and commercial internet providers) wanted to charge us by the minute for internet access, a scheme which was given up years ago by US hoteliers, who mostly provide not only free, wireless internet access but also business centers where you can use their computers, printers, etc at no extra charge. The only practical way I found for checking my email, etc in the UK, was to find a Starbucks and sit there, having a lovely cup of hot chocolate, and also enjoying their free WiFi.


    1. I’m amazed UK hotels were trying to charge you by the minute. How odd!!!!


  10. yangszechoo says:

    Loved this! Chinese people eat all kinds of offal, of which I’m rather fond of tripe and intestines, but I don’t think i’ve ever eaten spleen! What does it taste like? Is it chewy, like sweet breads?


    1. Not chewy at all – it is like red meat, but very, very tender and with a lovely “clean” sort of taste. I am not an offal fan at all but I love spleen.
      My husband is a major offal fan like you, and I find some of it so off-putting to look at, that I have to erect a visual barrier down the centre of the table using mineral water bottles, ketchup jars etc. so that I cannot see his plate!!!!
      Years ago I had a Singaporean Chinese boyfriend and I’ve often thought that Sicilians and Chinese have a lot in common, one of their shared characteristics being a love of eating anything that has ever been alive, and a genius for making literally anything taste delicious!! Maybe I should give that tripe soup a chance….


  11. You make such offally good connections you would be an excellent philosophy teacher. Based on their Talmudic tradition many Jews still answer questions with a question (a standing Yiddish joke). Maybe this is another connection with Socrates?


    1. Oh thank you! I go by gut instinct really, then do the background research when I can stomach it. It can be galling when I realise one of my theories is wrong but I liver more interesting life as a result.
      That idea of a connection with Talmudic tradition is a fascinating idea, though I know basically nothing about the Talmud. I thought it was a book of laws??? Please enlighten me…?
      I think one of the comments made about Jesus was that he often answered questions with another questions and the Romans found that darned irritating – perhaps in much the same way the Greeks found Socrates irritating. Constantly asking questions is of course the foundation of any scientific enquiry, so this is probably the absolutely key point to the whole start of Western philosophy.
      I am looking forward to more information and insight from you!


  12. Diane C says:

    How interesting! I read somewhere that hundreds of years ago that the colour of your house indicated your family background and that yellow/orange was the colour for Jewish homes. I just remembered that because our house in Sicily is orange.


    1. That’s interesting! I wonder why there is this connection of yellow with Jews in different places and times in history.
      In my town, all houses have to be yellowish orange. In Italy you have to get planning permission if you want to change the colour of your house or shutters, and they never grant it, so literally every building is a sandy colour. I think this applies to many towns, or perhaps it is the preferred colour of Sicilians. I do wish there was more colour really, it gets a bit monotonous, especially as we’re by the beach which is of course the same colour!


    2. T. Franke says:

      This colour scheme could be a remainder of the Islamic influence in Sicily. Muslims were the first to command Jews to wear special (yellow) clothings in order to set up a kind of apartheid system. For Christians, by the way, the colour Blue was reserved, in order to make clear that they live in a subordinate status, too. Are there blue houses in your neighbourhood? Find more information here (search for “yellow” and “blue”): http://coursesa.matrix.msu.edu/~fisher/hst372/readings/bosworth1.html


  13. Karolyn Cooper says:

    Interesting post.


  14. James Conglose says:

    Great peice. I had a feeling there were more cultures left out of Sicily that I didn’t know about. That explains why Sicilian food, and food from the South (United States) are so good. They had a limited amount of ingredients to work with.


    1. Necessity is the mother of invention, definitely!


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