The Jewish Ghosts of Palermo

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.

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Possibly the most important Jewish street in Palermo, the Via dei Cartari was where all the Jewish scribes drew up any contract needed by the citizens of Palermo

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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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12 thoughts on “The Jewish Ghosts of Palermo

  1. Extremely interesting – I never knew that Jews were part of the population before the birth of Jesus. However I do know that there were Jews living in Palermo in 40s and 50s as matter of fact the Cantiere of Palermo was owned by a Jew I don’t remember their names. I do remember there were other owners of businesses one was Levy and changed their name to ivel.

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      1. Actually, a Jew from Palermo, Guido Jung, was a very influential politician during the fascist regime. Guido Jung was ministry of finance for 3 years. IRI, the public holding company tasked to rescue and restructure the companies bankrupted during the great depression, was a brainchild of three men, Mussolini, Beneduce and Jung. IRI became a behemoth, it was for decades the largest industrial conglomerate outside the USA.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. What an interesting post. As an Australian expat in Italy (of mixed Calabrese-Sicilian origin) I’ve been surprised to by what I’ve found out about the Jewish history of southern Italy. Funnily enough, I started learning about this when I wanted to find out about the citrons of Diamante. This citrus fruit probably would have been exitinct were it not for the cultivation of it (it was and is still used for the Feast of Tabernacles) by the Jewish population residing in Calabria…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh that’s interesting!
      I woulder if they decided to destroy all trace of the Jews in Sicily because they had been such a powerful section of society? There has to be some interesting story behind sparing them in Toledo but not in Sicily.

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  3. There is a 10th century mikvah in Palermo. It is below the Palazzo Marchesi carved into the limestone rocks of the byzantine cistern. Accessed down by very steep stairs

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    1. There is a 10th century mikvah in Palermo. It is below the Palazzo Marchesi carved into the limestone rocks of the byzantine cistern. Access is down very steep stone stairs,

      Liked by 1 person

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