Shavei Israel | Journey to Lost Jewish Naples

Journey to Lost Jewish Naples

Journey to Lost Jewish Naples

Journey to Jewish Naples

After nearly 500 years, descendants of Marrano Jews living in southern Italy have awoken; while many adhere to their Christian identity expressing just symbolic solidarity to their roots, others seek to return to Israel. • Journey to Naples and its environs – and later historical correction.

Ariel Bolstein

The Hebrew article was originally published at the website of ‘Israel Hayom’

Walking with Chiro d’Avino in downtown Naples is much more than sightseeing. As befits a proud Neapolitan, Chiro is familiar with the labyrinthine network of alleyways and passageways, knows every house and every stone, and also knows about his beloved city, something absent from the rest of the citizens. Unlike them, Chiro is able to dive into the depths of the past and find the lost layers of Jewish Naples. His diligence removes from the church buildings or from abandoned ruins the contemporary appearance and brings us back, at least in the imagination, to the synagogues that operated inside these buildings more than 500 years ago.

“Here was the Street of the Jews,” he points to a high wall blocking the passage. “And here are the Marranos, those Jews who were forced to convert and accept Christianity, but in secret they continued to lead Jewish lives.”

Senor D’Avino, with a huge Star of David pendant on his chest, is descended from Marranos. In fact, his surname immediately makes you suspect his Jewish roots as it is the Hebrew word “Avinu,” a nickname for Abraham. He proudly tells me that this is a family name of Sephardic Jews from the kingdom of Aragon, who also moved to France in the 13th century. According to him, his last name was very common in the area of ​​Soma and Zubiana, where a Jewish community lived, whose citizens were apparently forced to convert to Christianity in 1515. According to the records of the Spanish Inquisition, anyone who bore a name or similar name was considered of “Jewish blood”. Today, on many mailboxes in Naples, you can find other typical surnames of the Marranos: Simauna, Escallone, Cavaliera and others – all of them of Jewish roots.

In those dark days, conversion did not remove the threat to the descendants of the Jews. Those who were suspected of being a secret Jew awaited torture and death. The fear of the Inquisition in Spain and southern Italy was strong, and because of it many Jews abandoned the customs of their forefathers. Many generations have passed since their descendants were completely assimilated into the Christian environment. However, it turns out that all was not necessarily lost. In some families the Jewish tradition has passed from generation to generation, hidden and perhaps changed in form, but anyone who is familiar with local life will recognize the desire to preserve these traditions, albeit in a symbolic way.

“Sometimes you meet your grandfather or grandmother, and they tell you about an unusual family tradition that does not match the pattern of life in their hometown,” observes Rabbi Pinchas Punturello, who works from Naples and meets the Bnei Anousim people throughout southern Italy. “For example, they tell about the custom that the entire family is buried in a certain corner of the cemetery, not among the other graves, or a family tradition not to pray in the village’s main church with the rest of the residents, but in a small, remote church in a former Jewish quarter.

“These generations no longer remember why they do this, but they know full well that this is what their ancestors did.” Sometimes, the strange practice is to pray and perform religious ceremonies, such as a marriage in a small church devoted to the holy grace. “Why Hannah?” Rabbi Punturello asks: “Because in Christianity she is considered the grandmother of Jesus, and this family attribution implies pre-Christian Judaism.”

The Jewish Catholic

The same was true of Chiri’s family, who came from a small town near Naples: an inexplicable avoidance of visits to the church, with the exception of necessary rituals, strange traditions of forbidden foods, stories from their grandmother. When he realized that he was a descendant of the Jews, Chiro decided to convert, but he complains that the Anusim are not always treated favorably by the organized Jewish communities. The suspicion against them is a deterrent, and in his opinion the Jewish people have lost a number of potential returnees. The difficulties did not deter Chiro, and he completed the process as early as the 1980s, when only a few had heard of the process of the descendants of the Marranos returning. After the conversion he added his first name, so characteristic of Naples, to the name Moses (Moshe).

According to Rabbi Punturello, new Bnei Anousim arrive almost every day. “It is a matter of post-modernity,” he explains, “our age has led to the search for identity, people are looking for belonging and roots, but the entry of modern life destroys all traditions and roots in Italy. We can also witness the daily proofs that preserve the remnants of the Marranos. ”

Paradoxically, even the archives of the Inquisition can help return. The Catholic Church’s investigative arm was known for its strict guardianship of the documents. It has already happened that residents of southern Italy felt that they had Jewish roots in the past, converted to Judaism, and only then, when they carefully searched the archives, did they discover that one of their fathers had been interrogated by the Church’s Thought Police. Rabbi Punturello brings an interesting statistic: in 70 percent of the cases of converts who converted to Judaism, it emerged that they came from a family of Anousim, without him or others knowing it. There is no rational explanation for this.

It is still difficult to estimate the extent of the appearance of the Anousim in Naples and southern Italy as a whole. However, it is clear that this phenomenon is expanding, even though every passing year distances us from the days when whole branches of the tree of the Jewish people were torn down by force. Not everyone who discovers his Jewish past intends to go all the way back to the people of Israel. One can only imagine what a person feels, who is exposed to his true identity after years or flies decades of regular life as an Italian Catholic. Sometimes, says Rabbi Punturello, after the initial enthusiasm for discovering roots, the descendants of the Marranos disappear.

There were even people who came to Rabbi Punturello and told him stories of fiction intended to confirm a Jewish origin, which they did not have. In addition to those who sought to deliberately “falsify” Judaism, there are those who are influenced by the discourse on the Marranos, the stories of the discovery of others, and in total innocence convince themselves by belonging to this group: “The collective narrative of the region affects the specific memory of each family. He is a descendant of the Jewish people, “explains the rabbi.

Nevertheless, the oral tradition, even one that has not been verified by scientific or legal evidence, can lead a person to embark on the long journey of return to his people. “Many people converted in Naples,” says Rabbi Punturello, who immigrated to Israel eight years ago. In the last four years he has been in contact with the descendants of the Marranos, on behalf of Shavei Israel, he has encountered about 200 “truth cases.” Beyond Naples, this phenomenon is gaining strength in other parts of southern Italy – Calabria, Apulia and especially Sicily – and their real numbers are much greater. An indication of this came in a most surprising way. The Italian tax system allows each person to designate 8 permils of tax, which he owes, to one of the religious communities of his choice.

And, to everyone’s astonishment, the great dedications of this tax to the Jewish community were recorded in southern Italy, where according to the accepted approach there are no recognized Jews. The dry government figure indirectly points to a very large number of Bnei Anousim, who thus express their repressed identity.

Roots work

The Shavei Israel organization was founded by Michael Freund about 15 years ago, in part, to help the descendants of Marranos throughout the world. Activity in southern Italy began when the Union of Jewish Communities of Italy (UCEI) encountered an interesting phenomenon. The members of the union wanted to hold cultural days in various places in Italy, with the aim of exposing the Jewish and non-Jewish audience to an Italian-Jewish audience. They came to various places in the south, and while they were expecting a few dozen participants, they were surprised to see hundreds of meetings. Moreover, after the events, the union’s lecturers encountered a growing stream of inquiries from those who claimed to be associated with the Anousim.

According to Freund, this awakening shows the tremendous power of the Jewish spark that no obstacle in the world – not even threats and intimidation combined with the factor of time – can extinguish: “Their fathers were abducted from us, they were taken against their will, despite the brutal persecution and Inquisition. Now that their children are knocking on our collective doors and asking to return home, we have a moral, historical and Jewish duty to help them. ”

Should Israel take the initiative to locate the descendants of the Marranos?

“First of all, the time has come for the State of Israel and the Jewish people to recognize the blessed phenomenon of the return of the Anousim to our people and to act accordingly, and ultimately it will strengthen the Jewish people and the State of Israel. This is the closing of an unprecedented historical cycle in the annals of the nations. Even if someone discovers his Jewish roots and chooses to remain a Catholic in Naples, the very fact that he understands that he has a historical and personal connection to the Jews will make him more friendly, more attentive to the Jewish people and certainly not anti-Semitic or anti-Israel”.

Indeed, descendants of Marranos want to be friends of the people of Israel. “For example, in the small town of Caltanista, in the center of Sicily, there is a community that calls itself ‘Bnei Ephraim’, they know that they have Jewish roots, and even though they remain in a Christian framework , they are grateful to the people of Israel – these are people who, prior to praying in the church, sing Hatikvah.

However, most often it attracts – and rightly so – the same Marranos who, like Chiro d’Avino, want to become an integral part of the Jewish people again. Shavei Israel reaches out to them. The descendants of Marranos in southern Italy need cultural and spiritual assistance, and the organization does everything possible to guide them through this arduous journey. After all, the return to Judaism after 500 or 600 years is not easy, to say the least.

However, according to all parties involved, this is certainly a wonderful experience.

Traditionally observant

The Internet plays a central role in the story of the awakening of the Anousim. Over the last hundred years, the people of southern Italy, including those who suspected their Jewish origin, had no way of acquiring knowledge about Judaism. The growth of the information network has largely solved this problem. Anyone who became interested in the history of his family could learn about the phenomenon of the Marranos, learn similar stories and find them as reinforcement and inspiration for the continuation of the process. Thus a virtual community of the Anousim grew up in the network, and it is considered to be the catalyst for the journey of return to Judaism within them.

But today, too, the traces of the Marranos of southern Italy are not only in the virtual world. As noted, Chiro wanders through the narrow streets of central Naples and seems to be traveling through time. In the area known as Bacoli it flourishes: here, in the second half of the 16th century, was the stronghold of the Marranos, and here they developed a group and neighborhood identity based on the observance of ancient Jewish customs. To escape the scrutiny of the priests of Naples, some families left the areas close to the sea in the area of ​​the hill of Pozilipo and settled in Bacoli, which was then considered a separate town. The old buildings are in no hurry to release the secrets of the past besieged between the moss walls, but in one house a mikvah and a house are discovered after a synagogue.

At the same time, more evidence emerged. In the records of St. Anne’s Church, to which the Bacoli neighborhood belongs, there are no marriage records or baptisms of the Marranos until 1704. Incredibly, but for two hundred Bacoli residents, they remained faithful to their original religion and did not submit to the ruling Christianity.

The population of Bacoli remained homogeneous until World War II. This isolation can sustain certain Jewish customs for generations. It is said that circumcision was maintained here until the beginning of the 20th century, and even today, in several nuclear families bearing the surname Cordoba, they continue to circumcise infants. In Chiri’s opinion, this is a family of mohels, and that is why the custom is rooted.

The burial in Bacoli was also a practice that preserved Jewish tradition. The bodies were washed thoroughly by a specially trained man who wrapped them in linen sheets. Even if they were brought to a cemetery on a cart (and later in a coffin), they would be removed and buried in the ground only in shrouds. Even the remembrance of other commandments, such as the observance of the purity of women and the observance of the Shabbos, did not completely disappear from the neighborhood until the modern era. Women in Bacoli used to gather on Shabbos in the courtyards and read the Bible together.

The culinary tradition of the neighborhood, as presented by Chiro, can not leave any indifferent Jew. Only plain fish – sardines, blue fish and anchovies – were cooked in Bacoli. To the question of why seafood is not available, the women stubbornly replied that preparing it was difficult and required a lot of time. This answer did not convince anyone, and the explanation that links Bacoli’s customs to the kashrut considerations that were passed on from mother to daughter seems more reliable.

One way or another, the communities of the Anousim are preserved under impossible conditions for half a millennium, a miracle. The results of this miracle are now at our doorstep. It is indeed difficult to turn the wheel of history back to the intersection where the Marranos were separated from the Jewish people, but if it is difficult, it is possible.

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Esther Surikova
Esther Surikova
esther@shavei.org