Jewish Life in Italy after the Inquisition
Vie Jul 27 2012 (8 Av, 5772)
It all started during Inquisition time when in 1492, Jews had been prosecuted by the Christian Church and been accused of many "crimes," ranging from heresy to the murder of Christians. The persecution continued for over 350 years and many of them fled the Country, which, at the time called "Regno delle due Sicilie" (the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies) with Naples as its capital. These persecuted Jews had not been able to practice Judaism openly, and in most cases all their Hebrew books had been burned. It was a time where being Jewish was not only difficult, it was practically impossible. There were only two ways for Jews of this period to continue their traditions and pass them along to their next generation. One option was to flee to a new Country. The other alternative was for them to practice their Jewish traditions in secret. Historians now recognize that southern Italy was home to extremely observant Jews, and cities from Siracusa, in Sicily and north to Otranto, and Nicastro (now called Lamezia), and continuing further north to Napoli – these areas were home to important Jewish families, along with famous Rabbis, Kabalists and Talmudists. These prominent Jews had established and promoted the major Jewish Literature of southern Italy, which, prior to the Inquisition,had been a vibrant and secure place for Jews to live.
Economics dictated where and how the Jews of southern Italy lived and resulted in the development of two groups of Inquisition Jews in Italy. One group, the wealthy ones, were those who emigrated to other countries, especially to the north. The other group were the poorer Jews who had already left Sicily but did not have enough money to continue their journey.
It is to this point that we distinguish two kinds of intention and traditions. We find that Portuguese Jews settled mainly in the northern Italian areas and were known as marranos. Jews from the marranos tradition generally hid their Jewish status beneath a Christian lifestlye. These marranos were known to have maintained Jewish traditions in secret while participating in all levels of secular society. Theirs was an economic autonomy that allowed them to move into thriving areas like Istambul and other oriental areas. As these marranos Jews relocated, they passed through two major ports – Venezia and Ancona – which allowed them to develop trading partners with oriental countries. As these Jews grew in wealth and power, they helped other Portuguese Jews to settle in areas such as Greece, Rhodes, Turkey and what is now modern day Israel. Livorno also had a large number of marranos which allowed the community to became strong and insular, especially since they ccepted only Portuguese Jews from the Iberian peninsula.
The Sicilian Jews, many of whom already came as conversos, from Spain, are more appropriately referred to as "anousim," because they had been forced against their will to abandon Judaism. Once expelled from the Island they had lost all economical strength and settled in Calabria, hoping that one day they would be able to return to Sicily. But this never happened. Instead these Jews were forced to continue to hide, and through the years more and more families moved into the mountainous areas and founded Jewish settlements there. In fact, these communities are often called "Serre" from the Spanish term for "forrest," and they existed so that Jewish families could live in these small communities undisturbed. The Conversos were known to have an extensive education tradition received from their fathers – a, strength that allowed them to pass family traditions from generation to generation. These traditions survived by word of mouth because books and religious observance was forbidden. For these converso families, it was the father who transmitted Jewish ritual and observance within a framework of love for one's heritage. Children learned that when a ritual is practiced with love, a person will want to continue with that practice and teach others to do the same. Examples of traditions that remain to this day include the dietary laws of kashrut, hand washing rituals, "Netillat Yadaim" along with family celebrations that incorporated local customs, called "superstizioni," as well as candle lighting traditions that were designed to obscure a Shabbat observance.
Although there are many similiarities between marranos and conversos, what distinguishes one group from the other is the intention with which these practices were carried out. Both groups intended to remain Jewish, however the marranos achieved this by maintaining their economic power in the society, while practicing Jewish traditions in secret. And within these secret societies the marranos had hidden synagogues and rabbis which offered guidance and support. The second group, the conversos, lost everything. The only way a converso family could maintain a Jewish life was to emigrate, and, when they found themselves in a new place, such as Sicily or Calabria, they would lead a double life – Christian on the outside, and Jewish within the walls of their own homes. For conversos it was the family, and not the larger society or a secret society, that kept Judaism alive. For these true "anousim," nothing was mechanical. They could rely on no one, so their most important asset was their children and passing Jewish tradition along to them. For these conversos/anousim, it was more important to give the next generation the identity and the knowledge they needed to continue these traditions, often minimizing the fact that these precious traditions were Jewish.
Faith, a strong faith, played an important role in preserving Jewish tradition. These conversos truly believed that living life openly as a Jew would one day again be possible, while in the meantime, traditions would not be lost. Faith is one of the major characteristics common to all Anusim. It has always been a part of their minds and their souls. They knew they were Jews and they believed that the day would come when they could return to an open practice of their Jewish faith.
Today we find remnants of these anousim Jews throughout Calabria and Sicily, as well as in Naples where many of these Jews found themselves as they ran north through Italy in order to escape torment and persecution. Many moved on to the surrounding mountains of Sorrento while in Puglia, a port with access to Turkey and Greece, we find a mix of both marranos and conversos–ancient Jews who assimiliated well into the more cosmopolitan life of larger cities. The difference between the more assimiliated marranos and the family-tradition oriented conversos is apparent even today, especially in Calabria, some parts of Naples and remote communities in Campania. It is here in the remote mountain towns, especially high in the Calabrian hills, that many of these ancient family traditions survive and thrive. To this day in small villages such as San Pietro Apostolo, Amato, Serra San Bruno, Tiriolo, Serrastretta (where the first anousim synagogue was established in 2006 by Rabbi Barbara Aiello), and dozens of others offer a look into the past as many families engage in Jewish ritual and tradition from centuries ago. It was their ancient belief, that persists even today, that emphasis on education and "l'dor v'dor," from generation to generation, that demonstrates that the conversos of Calabria are truly Italy's anousim.