Monday, March 13, 2017

Jews of Sicily

Nadene Goldfoot                                    
We think of Sicily being just part of Italy and their history, but it is an island very close to Italy and was formerly an independent kingdom.  Remains of archeology and literature show that Jews lived in Sicily in the Roman days, perhaps as early as the 1st century BCE.  

Italians could have some Jewish genes.  "Jews were the only ones to migrate to Sicily instead of invading. Nobody knows exactly when they came but they were here before the Moors invaded."   
Pope Gregory I, born in 540 in Rome  who protected the Jews, shows an active settlement of Jews in Sicily  in the 6th century. " Gregory wrote of limiting the Jews from exceeding the rights granted to them under imperial law - particularly in relation to the ownership of Christian slaves."  Pope Gregory was going against many of the positions towards Jews taken at the 1st Constantine Conference. 

 "In Epistle 1.14, Pope Gregory expressly disapproved of the compulsory baptism of Jews.
June 591 : "Censure of Virgil, bishop of Arles, and Theodore, bishop of Marseille, for having baptized Jews by force. They are to desist.
"For it is necessary to gather those who are at odds with the Christian religion the unity of faith by meekness, by kindness, by admonishing, by persuading, lest these...should be repelled by threats and terrors. They ought, therefore, to come together to hear from you the Word of God in a kindly frame of mind, rather than stricken with dread, result of a harshness that goes beyond due limits."
It continued during the Arab occupation period fro the 9th to the 11th centuries as Mohammad had died in 632 and his proselytizers were quickly moving across land to spread Islam.  The Arabs left a profound impression on the language and culture of Sicilian Jewry.  

The Jews' high point of their prosperity under the Norman rulers.  In the later Middle Ages, Jews were thickly settled throughout Sicily, and number about 40,000.  In the 15th century, the head of the Jews was the Dienchelele, appointed by the king.
 From 1282, the island was ruled by the House of Aragon and closely influenced by Spanish ideas and event, that that by 1391, There was a devastating wave of massacres, and another in 1474.  The Spanish Inquisition was introduced in Sicily in 1479.  As part of the Aragonese territories, Sicily was included in the edict of expulsion from the Spanish dominions in 1492. (In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue).  "When the decree of banishment, dated March 31, 1492, reached Sicily, there were over 100,000 Jews living in the island in 52 different places." Most of the Jews exiled found their way to the Italian mainland and the Levant area of the Middle East that includes Palestine.  
By 1785, an unsuccessful attempt was made to attract Jewish settlers again to Sicily.

"Most of Sicily's Jews had been fabric dyers or merchants. Many owned small stores. At times Jews lent money or practiced medicine, but legislation occasionally restricted their activity in these fields. There are even a (very) few cases of Jews owning landed estates, but these were typically fiefs (smaller feudal properties) rather than counties or baronies, and actual farming was undertaken by Gentiles.

In Sicily the Jews who remained after 1493 and became Catholic (comparable to the conversos of Spain) were called neofiti (neophytes).  Today's Jewish population is insignificant.  

For those wondering if they bear Jewish roots and know they came from Sicily,  "it is not possible to simply consult a list of supposedly "Jewish" Sicilian surnames, without knowing anything about a family's history over several centuries, and instantly ascertain Jewish ancestry before 1493."  It's because of the strong Arab influence in naming.  "There's nothing more illogical than a statement by a Sicilian who cannot trace his family history to before 1800 swear that his patrilineal Catholic ancestors were "Jewish" until 1493." says the bestofsicily research.                                    

Here's where DNA testing comes in.  "Genetic genealogy is a growing field. Companies such as Family Tree DNA (in the US) can confirm a haplogroup and even identify a haplotype typical of Jews, such as the Cohen Modal Haplotype. It is presumed that in Sicily most Jewish families were in Y haplogroup J1 or J2. But so were most non-Jews descended from Greeks and Arabs, and many of them also have the Cohen Modal Haplotype.
The point to be made regarding genetic genealogy, useful as it is, is that in the great majority of cases it answers a few general questions but not too many specific ones. It should be pursued in combination with "traditional" documentary genealogy, not apart from it.
Without documentary research, even a "coincidence" cannot prove Jewish ancestry. For example, having an allegedly Jewish surname (that is non-Judaic onomastically) and testing positive for the Cohanim Modal Haplotype does not conclusively establish a Jewish link. The Cohen model is of the J1 haplogroup and J1's are also found in Arabs as well, being both came from Abraham as the Bible shows and DNA agrees.  

One Sicilian man, husband of a writer below in references, wrote,  "For Hubby, we got 81% Italian, a lot of “broadly southern European” and a little “broadly northern European” (this means they cannot work out exactly where it comes from), a little bit of Spanish and a little more French and German, about 4.4% Middle Eastern and North African, and about 1% west (sub-Saharan) African.  There are plenty of national and ethnic groups in the list of invaders which did not make an appearance in my husband, but which might be heavily concentrated in other Sicilians. Based on Sicilian people who have told me their DNA, the variety is immense. Some had as much as 24% Middle Eastern DNA in their report. Some were 20% German. One was nearly a quarter Greek."

"The personal names adopted by the Jews were often local in origin, or were Latinized Jewish names, as Angelo, Donato, Benedictus (= Baruch), Gauden (= Simḥah). The intimacy between the Jews and some of their Christian fellow citizens is shown, for instance, by the fact that in Castrogiovanni a Christian acted as godfather at the circumcision of a Jewish boy."

"The expulsions and conversions in the Kingdom of Naples (most of peninsular Italy south of Rome) were essentially complete by 1553. A greater residual presence of Judaic traditions was preserved in some isolated localities in Apulia, Calabria and Basilicata.
Sicily has scant archaeological traces of Judaism - no standing synagogues (except those over which churches were built) but a few inscriptions and the vestiges of two mikvahs (ritual baths), in Siracusa and Palermo."  This is from " Luigi Mendola is a historian based in Sicily. and writer of bestofsicily website.  
Brunetto and Dante
Let's take Brunetto Latini, a name found also as a surname in Sicily.    Did he have Jewish roots?   "Brunetto (c. 1220 - 1294) was a prominent guelph (The name Guelph comes from the Italian Guelfo and the Bavarian-Germanic Welf. It is a reference to the reigning British monarch at the time Guelph was founded, King George IV, whose family was from the House of Hanover, a younger branch of the House of Welf sometimes spelled as Guelf or Gwelf) who spent many years living in exile in Spain and France--where he composed his encyclopedic work, Trésor ("Treasure": Inf.15.119-20)--before returning to Florence, Italy in 1266 and assuming positions of great responsibility in the commune and region (notary, scribe, consul, prior).  He was "One of the most important figures in Dante's life and in the Divine Comedy, Brunetto Latini is featured among the sodomites in one of the central cantos of the Inferno.Although the poet imagines Brunetto in hell, Dante-character and Brunetto show great affection and respect for one another during their encounter in Inferno 15.   Was there any religious reason about Brunetto that Dante thought he would end up in hell? Did Dante suspect Brunetto of having Jewish roots?  

On, the implication is that Brunetto  was guilty of" denying and has blasphemed the deity.  "   Dante and Brunetto did show they liked each other, probably because both were poets.  

One needs to take an autosomal test at a DNA company to find out about one's roots and what people they would match today with some of the same genes found on our 23 chromosomes.  familyfinder is such a test at FTDNA. also is an autosomal test as well as 23&Me.  

I have found out that I have deep Italian ancestry through DNA and through DNA's triangulation work, found out for sure that I'm related to a very important Italian family;  the Kalonymus family of southern Italy.  I'm Ashkenazi and Italians would be Sephardim.  "  8% of my DNA comes from southern Europe from Spain to Italy to Greece.  3% came from the Middle East of Asia Minor.  I used FTDNA.  

Members of the Kalonymus family resettled in Mainz and Speyer, Germany.  These are cities that became Jewish centers and were some of the first attacked besides Worms by the Crusaders. "
The New Standard Jewish Encyclopedia from Sicily


  1. love the articles nadene. keep 'em comin' ;)

  2. Thanks, Andre. I keep on learning myself when I start searches.