There was a Jewish presence in Sicily for centuries, possibly from before the birth of Jesus. The Jews were the only outsiders who made their homes in Sicily and became part of her population without invading. They simply turned up, fitted in and made themselves indispensable.
The Jews were the literate and educated members of society and they also taught their children all the different languages they knew. This guaranteed them work as interpreters and scribes.
In Palermo, they lived and set up their shops in the Jewish quarter of Palermo, where they also build very modest synagogues, and schools to pass on their knowledge to their children. They were the educated and wealthy elite. Their skills made them indispensable to successive waves of conquerors, who realised they could not run the island without the help of the men who understood all the different languages of Sicily and who knew how to write the contracts and interpret the law.
Some sources say that the Jews were all kicked out by the Muslims who invaded from North Africa in the 12th century. Yet we find evidence of them in the pictures on the walls of Palazzo Steri in Palermo, seat of the Inquisition. 1492 was the year the Jews of Sicily were told by the Spanish they were no longer welcome in Sicily. Spain had decided to make Sicily universally Christian and universally Sicilian-speaking. Interpreters were no longer required.
The Jews had to leave or convert to Christianity. Their synagogue was demolished without a trace and a new road built, cutting right through the Jewish quarter, so that it is hard even to work out where it once stood.
Many Sicilians are now discovering that they have Jewish ancestry. One of the clues can be found in the typical Jewish surnames. For example, a Sicilian whose surname is a city in Italy most likely had a Jewish ancestor, like my friends Giuseppe Palermo and Mario Napoli. There is a complete list of Jewish Sicilian surnames here.
Palermo nowadays has no traces of a synagogue and no remaining sign of Jewish buildings. What the city does have, though, is the street names of the Jewish quarter – not only unchanged, but written in Hebrew, as if the Jewish ghosts of those who no longer remain might need to read them carefully to find their way back home.
A great article by Gary Drake about the Jews in Sicily has recently been published by the Times of Sicily, called Days of Awe in Siracusa.
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