In her Jewish Renaissance in the Mediterranean lecture Irene Shaland invites you to travel to the south of Italy that presents an unusually optimistic chapter in the history of the Jewish Diaspora. Visiting with Irene the islands of Sicily and Sardinia and the tip of the Italian “boot,” Calabria, you will discover a world of little-known Jewish history: centuries marked by fear and secrets, decades filled with the search for one’s identity, and courage to defy conventions by reinventing oneself.
These are the stories of B’nei Anousim, or “children of the forced ones” from the south of Italy. The elimination of institutional Judaism by the infamous 1492 Edict of Expulsion and the Inquisition did not mean the end of Judaism itself. The destruction of synagogues and the burning of “Judaizers” five centuries ago forced the Jews of Sicily and Sardinia to take their traditions down to the cellars of their homes where the memories and stories were kept alive, even when descendants forgot their exact meaning.
And now, the number of those with a “call of blood,” who think they have Jewish ancestry and want to learn more about it, or even embrace their newly-discovered heritage, is on the rise throughout the south of Italy. Let the story of the Anousim lead you into the world of hope – the cultural and spiritual reawakening – The Return of The Jews.
In visiting Calabria with Irene, you will also discover how the Jews from the south of Italy coped with- and persevered through- Coronavirus Pandemic.
Free Lecture at New City Library: Unknown Gems of the Mediterranean Jewish History: Malta and Corsica
Sunday October 6th, 2019 2:00 PM
The Malta archipelago, a miniscule spot in the middle of the Mediterranean, still remains unknown to most US travelers. And this is a pity, because if you do visit Malta, you will be forever inspired and spiritually enriched by the magical beauty of this gem that remains still-hidden for many. And don’t be fooled by Malta’s size: this tiny nation packs an extraordinary amount of history, including Jewish history, into its three compact islands: Malta, Gozo, and Comino. From Israelites sailing there with Phoenicians three thousand years ago, to the first Jewish traveler, a Biblical Paul, arriving in Malta in the 1stcentury CE, thorough the dark times of slavery during the Knights of St. John’s rule in the 16th century, to today’s small but blossoming community – Maltese Jewish history manifests a fascinating trajectory still under- the-radar for most historians.
Like Malta, Corsica, the “Island of beauty,” as the French call it, is not on the vacation map for many American globe-trotters. Yet Corsica’s chic seaside resorts and its untamed natural magnificence are arguably the Mediterranean’s best. The island’s Jewish narrative reveals an irony of Omerta (Mafia’s code of silence) that led many Corsicans to risk their lives in saving thousands of Jews fleeing the Nazi-occupied mainland France to escape deportation and death.
Travel with Irene Shaland through these islands to learn the captivating stories of Malta and Corsica she brings to her audiences.
Sardinia is an island famed for its unearthly beauty. Sardinia is second only to Sicily in its size among the Mediterranean islands. Like Sicily, Sardinia attracted numerous waves of invaders: Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, the Italian city-states of Pisa and Genoa, and the Spanish Kingdom of Aragon—all succeeded one another in dominating the island. The Northern Italians came last, with Garibaldi himself falling in love with the island. He chose to live the last years of his life in Carpera, Sardinia.
Renowned for its great beaches and luxury resorts overflowing with tourists from all over the world, Sardinia tightly guards its ancient secrets, but for the persistent Jewish history pilgrims, these secrets reveal themselves, one story at a time.
The beginning of the Sardinian Jewish story
The first facts about the Jews in Sardinia came to us from Flavius Josephus, born Joseph ben Matityahu. This first-century Roman-Jewish scholar recorded in his study Antiquities that in 19 AD, four thousand Jews were deported to Sardinia from Rome by the Emperor Tiberius. Flavius noted with sadness that the emperor “punished so many” for the “crimes of the few.” These “few” were four crooks who persuaded a senator’s wife, a convert to Judaism, to invest large sums of money in a non-existent synagogue, which these liars claimed to represent. The Emperor hoped that the Jews would perish in Sardinia. Instead, the numerous descendants of the exiles built a prosperous life for themselves and became indispensable for the island’s rulers in trade, finance, money-lending, crafts, and medicine. In the city of Alghero during the Aragonese (Spanish) rule, the Jews were exempt from paying customs duties and were even allowed to display the royal coat of arms on the synagogue as a sign of their importance to the Crown. While the island’s largest Jewish community was in Alghero, thriving communities existed in a number of other Sardinian cities, like Sinai, Nora, and Cagliari, the island’s capital.
As recorded inJewish Encyclopedia, archeologists note that Sardinia is one of the few places in Italy with catacombs containing Jewish inscriptions written in “ebraico-latino” or Hebrew with Latin. Even today, the Sardinian language contains what linguists call “a hint at a Jewish presence,” a few words that might represent an influential Jewish presence. For example, the word caputannifor September is a literal translation of Rosh Hashanah as “head of the year.”
Walking through Jewish Cagliari
In Cagliari, our first stop was the Il Castello district of the island’s capital. Named after the medieval hilltop castle, Il Castelo or Su Castedu in Sardinian is one of the most photographed iconic images of Cagliari. Built first by the Pizans and then by the Aragonese, this city within the city with its gothic and baroque palazzi of Italian and Spanish aristocrats was also a home to a prosperous Jewish community. Even today, 500 years after the expulsion and total annihilation of the Sardinian Jewry, the area of Il Castelo called Ghetto degli Ebrei is one of the most attractive places in Sardinia for Jewish history pilgrims. The former Jewish Ghetto is located north of the medieval Torre del’Elefante, built by the Pizans as a defensive structure against the Aragonese. In the late 1400s, all Cagliari Jews were forced to move into this small area located between the streets Via Santa Croce and Via Stretta and to wear special identifying clothes. In the years preceding the infamous Edict of Expulsion, the ominous influence of the “Most Catholic Monarchs,” Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, was painfully felt in Cagliari.
Walking though the winding narrow streets of Ghetto degli Ebrei, we found the Church of Santa Croce. During this trip we learned that in both Sicily and Sardinia, the churches’ names like St. Giovanni (John the Baptist) or Santa Croce (Holy Cross) served often as an indication that they were built on the foundation of a demolished or reconsecrated synagogue. As a 2006 restoration confirmed, Cagliari Santa Croce was indeed built using the main synagogue’s structure. Only the neighborhood’s name “Ghetto degli Ebrei” points at the historical Jewish presence, while the former military barracks built on the foundation of the old Jewish houses display the sign “Centro Comunale d’Arte e Cultura il Ghetto.” But this is an exhibition place now, with no connection to Sardinian Jewish history.
Garbage dump on the site of a Jewish cemetery
Rabbi Barbara told me that the Cagliari Jewish community, though not the largest in Sardinia, created an important center of Jewish life in the island’s capital. In the late 1990s, Rabbi Barbara’s friend, a Sardinian engineer named Giacomo Sandri, helped to discover an early medieval Jewish site in Cagliari. The site represented a complex world centered on the synagogue with a mikveh and a garden for a sukkah around it. The entire archaeological site was soon covered up to make way for new construction, and today, a garbage dump covers the ancient Jewish cemetery. Discovered artifacts were sent to the Cagliari Museum. However, when we visited the museum in September 2014, none were on display; instead, the Jewish artifacts were kept in storage for preservation. One artifact that I was interested in was shipped, as the curator on duty explained, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City for their show “Assyria to Iberia at the Dawn of the Classical Age.” It was the famous Nora Stone, the oldest existing example of the first alphabet, also called Proto-Canaanite or early Hebrew alphabet.
Little-known connections: the city of Nora and early Hebrews
Our next stop was the city of Nora situated on the south coast of Sardinia. Believed to be the first city founded in this island, Nora dates to the 11th century BC. This ancient city, most of which is said to be underwater, is of high interest to archaeologists. Nora was one of the most important centers of Phoenician expansion in the Mediterranean. Enterprising maritime traders, the Phoenicians were a Semitic people who spoke a language similar to Hebrew and were the first group to colonize both Sicily and Sardinia, attracted by Sardinia’s strategic location near important sea routes linking the Mediterranean with the Near East. The area was also rich with metal deposits, such as copper, iron, lead, and silver. The Phoenicians established their stronghold on the island; archaeological findings in Israel prove they imported silver during biblical times.
For me personally, Nora with its famous Nora Stone is placed forever at the roots of all recorded history and written literature of Western civilization. The Nora Stone, dating to the 9th century BC, was found at Nora in the late 1700s. The stone’s incised writing is considered to be the first alphabet. Unlike cuneiform script, one of the earliest known systems of writing that relied on multiple pictorial symbols, the Nora alphabet used less than thirty letters, one for each sound, and was written like Hebrew, from right to left. This Phoenician invention—alphabetic writing—spread across the world they colonized. By the first millennium BC, the people of the Levant, including the Phoenicians and Arameans, or Hebrews, were using a standardized alphabet, which was soon transformed to create other written languages such as Greek, Etruscan, and Latin. The very word “alphabet” comes from “aleph” and “bet,” the first two letters of the Phoenician writing system.
In Nora, not much is left from the Phoenicians. What visitors see today is mostly from the Roman period. The sunken city of Nora, as it is called, seems suspended between the sea and the sky, and walking through its ruins was almost a mythical experience. I could not help but think that, like the Phoenicians, who disappeared from history by being absorbed into much stronger civilizations of the Carthaginians and the Hebrews, the Jews of Sardinia were also pushed into historic oblivion, by forces of anti-Semitism and religious intolerance.
Jewish Sardinia today
Only a few Sardinian Jewish families returned to their ancestral island after the establishment of the unified state of Italy in the 1880s. Tragically, most of their descendants were killed during the Holocaust. Today there are very few Jews living in Sardinia, and there is no formal Jewish community on the island. However, just like in Sicily, an increasing number of people who suspect that they have Jewish roots are rediscovering these roots through the study of Judaism. Giacomo Sandri, an engineer from Cagliari, who assisted in discovering the ancient Jewish site there, wrote a book on Sardinian Jewish history and made an Orthodox-style conversion to Judaism. Since 1992, Rabbi Barbara has been officiating at conversions of the Sardinian Anousim, descendants of those who were forced to give up their Jewish identity over 500 years ago.
Today, Sardinia seeks to demonstrate the island’s resolve to remember its Jewish history and to preserve the evidence of Jewish civilization in Sardinia. On September 22, 2013, a square in Alghero was renamed Plaça de la Juharia(the Square of the Jews), recalling the fact that the square was once the center of the city’s Jewish quarter and the place where the main synagogue was located. This event, which was attended by hundreds of people, opened with the song “Avinu Malkeinu” performed by a local band. Taking part in the inauguration were Alghero’s mayor as well as the Israeli ambassador to Italy, who said: “This is a historic and symbolic gesture.” The mayor then delivered a speech and said that he would like to rectify the injustice caused to the town’s Jews in the past. He concluded by calling on Jews to return to Alghero. “Welcome home,” he said (Israel Jewish Scene, September 30, 2013).
The Anousim: what we learned from the “Children of the Forced Ones” in Sicily and Sardinia
In the contemporary European context of increasing anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli attitudes sometimes escalating to violence, Sicily and Sardinia present a new and unusually optimistic chapter in the history of the Jewish Diaspora. Our own journey in search of Jewish stories on these two islands brought our understanding of both Jewish history and Jewish identity to a new level.
The destruction of synagogues and the burning of “Judaizers” five centuries ago failed to extinguish the Jewish spirit. Rabbi Barbara told numerous stories, some from her own family, of traditions whose meaning was often forgotten but that survived in their homes’ secret cellars and in people’s hearts. Cooking continued to conform to kosher dietary laws. Family burials were done outside the church with bodies rapped in simple shrouds. Special marriage blessings were recited in a “strange language” at home under a crocheted canopy. Deathbed confessions of Jewish ancestry to the families were common. The Anousim descendants, whose heritage was so cruelly stolen, hidden, and ignored, sustained their history in their flesh and blood. And perhaps it is the call of blood that drives a continuously growing number of B’nei Anousimto search for their historical legacy and reclaim it.
Most Anousim have no records to prove their Jewishness, they just know that this is who they are. Traditional Judaism does not recognize their claim. It took over twenty years for Conservative Judaism to pass a resolution recognizing the Anousim and creating a welcoming space for those who want to return to the Jewish people. In the early 1990s, Rabbi Barbara Aiello, the first reform Rabbi in Italy, became a leader of the southern Italian B’nei Anousim movement. For over 25 years, Rabbi Barbara has been performing numerous conversions, Bar Mitzvahs, and weddings, and organizing educational events for Jews and non-Jews alike. In Sicily and Sardinia, a Jewish cultural and religious renaissance is on the rise, with events centered on Jewish history taking a prominent place in the intellectual environment of the south of Italy.
While working on my Sicilian-Sardinian study, I came across Steven Spielberg’s speech addressing the audience during the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of Auschwitz liberation. “If you are a Jew today,” said the founder of the Shoah Foundation, “you know that we’re once again facing the perennial demons of intolerance. Anti-Semites, radical extremists and religious fanatics that provoke hate crimes — these people want to, all over again, strip you of your past, of your story and of your identity … causing Jews to again leave Europe.” (World Jewry Digest, January 2015). It seems, I thought, that southern Italy and especially my beloved Sicily, prove to be different, once again trying to recreate the once and future world of acceptance and multiculturalism. Sheh Elohim Yevarech Othca—may this be blessed.
Dyson, S. Archeology and History in Sardinia from the Stone Age to Middle Ages: Shepherds, Sailors, and Conquerors. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.
Sorge, A. Legacy of Violence: History, Society, and the State in Sardinia. University of Toronto Press, 2015.
Read other little known stories of Jewish communities around the world in Irene Shaland’s book “The Dao of Being Jewish and Other Stories”
Free Lecture: Jews of the Jungles and Cities in Brazil
Lecture presented by IRENE SHALAND on Sunday April 14th, 2019 at 2:00 PM
Join Irene Shaland, an internationally-published travel writer and author of several books for a captivating journey through 500 years of Jewish history in Brazil. Encounter little-known stories of Brazil discovery in the context a twisted world of the 15thcentury politics, deceptions, and intrigues. Learn about the key role the Crypto-Jews played in this country’s exploration and development. Find out why Anna Novinsky, a renowned expert in Jewish history residing in Sao Paolo, claimed that “Brazil was built by the Jews!”
Journey from the 15thto the 21stcentury of Brazilian history and visit Salvador Bahia, Manaus, the Amazon, Brasilia, Rio de Janeiro, and the Iguassu Falls to uncover fascinating Jewish narratives of this unique country and to meet the Brazilian Jews who dwell in its cities and in the jungle.
Lecture is free, but Reservations is Required: Call 845-634-4997, ext. 139.
Address: New City Library 220 N. Main Street, New City, New York 10956
Read more Jewish stories from all corners of the world in Irene Shaland’s latest book “The Dao of Being Jewish and Other Stories”
Cuyahoga County Public Library — Orange Branch — PRESENTS Irene Shaland’s Lecture
An Island within an Island: In Search of a Jewish Story through 500 Years of Cuban History
Thursday March 7th2019 7:00 PM
Lecture is FREE, but advance registration is recommended. Call 216.832.4282 to register.
The Cuban Jewish storyreflects a struggle for survival through assimilation and acculturation. It is also based on a narrative depicting not a single community but rather a mosaic of several communities that varied greatly in their languages and cultures, and which was built by five distinctly different waves of Crypto-Jewish and Jewish immigrants.
The contemporary Cuban Jewish narrativedepicts a fascinating trajectory. First, a descent from vibrancy and prosperity to almost oblivion after the mass exodus of the 1960s and direct efforts to destroy the Jewishness during the years of revolutionary atheism. Then, a recent phenomenon: a sudden ascent to becoming a Celebrity of Tropical Diaspora, turning into, arguably, the most visited and photographed of the world’s Jewish communities.
The extraordinary characteristic of the Jewish experience in Cuba one finds todayisthe fundamental sense of community that survived an almost complete dissolution after Castro’s revolution, followed by decades of a totalitarian regime with its poverty, deprivation, and strong anti-Israeli attitudes.
Take a journey with internationally published art and travel writer Irene Shaland to rediscover this unique island and to learn how Cuba is finding its way back to the future.
Orange Library Branch, Cuyahoga County Public Library
Reprinted with permission of the author, Rabbi Barbara Aiello
Throughout Israel, especially in Tel Aviv, the last day of the year is “party night.” On December 31st Israelis will celebrate along with the rest of the world but instead of shouting “Happy New Year,” Israelis do something different. As the year turns from one year to the next, Israel’s Jews will wish each other a “Happy Sylvester,” a New Year’s greeting that invokes, of all things, the name of a Catholic saint!
Israel is the Jewish state and the Jewish New Year of Rosh HaShanah is marked on the Hebrew calendar on the eve of the first day in the Hebrew month of Tishrei – a Jewish Holy Day that occurs in the fall of the year. Rosh HaShanah is the day to greet friends and family with “Shanah Tovah,” a Hebrew phrase that means “a good year,” or “Happy New Year.” Hence the dilemma – What to say to differentiate the secular new year from the religious one?
That was the problem that immigrants from Western Europe faced when they first came to Israel. These newcomers still wanted to celebrate the secular New Year as they had done in their home countries and to avoid confusion they needed a new greeting. But why Sylvester?
Israeli writer and columnist Daniel Rogov did some digging and found that for years no one was certain who Sylvester really was. Until recently many scholars believed that the original Sylvester was a Catholic saint, however there was always some confusion about his life. Speculations included one popular story that Sylvester was an obscure Catholic priest who became famous for walking from Bordeaux to Jerusalem – barefoot!
Others believed that the saint was really a Roman Catholic pope whose claim to fame was that he had brought an animal back to life. Pope Sylvester, legend has it, raised a bull from the dead. Others opined that Sylvester was an Italian monk known for his “friendly relationships” with the local young ladies.
Recently new information about the illusive Sylvester has come to light. Historian Georges Duby in his recently published book, “France in the Middle Ages,” speculates that Sylvester may have been Peter Sylvester, who was the bishop of Beauvais in 1431 when Joan of Arc was arrested in his city.
Sylvester earned the respect of his fellow Frenchmen because his was the voice of calm among the hype and hysterics surrounding Joan of Arc’s rise to fame. Apparently, Sylvester was the only cleric who did not believe that young Joan was acting under the influence of the devil. Sylvester defended Joan of Arc as “a good Christian, a woman of purity who lived according to the rules of the church and who had no evil in her.” Although Sylvester’s colleagues were determined to bring Joan to trial and subsequently execute her, Sylvester spoke out against such harsh treatment.
On the morning of December 31st, Sylvester himself was arrested, thrown into jail and tortured there. Several minutes before midnight the 82-year-old Sylvester died, but not before saying his final words, “The year ends and so do I.”
Bishop Sylvester, as one who stood up to the Church authority and who died for his beliefs on the last night of the secular year, became the “Sylvester” of the Israeli greeting offered at the beginning of each secular year. So, in his honor and memory, Happy Sylvester!
Rabbi Barbara Aiello
Read more fascinating Jewish stories on Rabbi Barbara’s website blog
Don’t look for the Steinedererinnerung in your guidebook: the murdered Jews of Austria have neither a Rick Steves nor a Frommer. And Vienna, basking in its Baroque and Art Nouveau splendor, would rather have you waltzing from Schonbrunn palace to Sachertorte’s shops instead of searching out the synagogues and homes of long-gone Jews. An Austrian sarcastic proverb, as noted by Magrit Reiter in her conference presentation “Antisemitism in Austria after the Shoa,” declares that Germans were the “better Nazis,” while Austrians were definitely the “better anti-Semites.”
The Holocaust victims’ destiny was, for the most part, determined by three key factors: the degree of control the Nazis had in the region, the history of Jews there, and the actions of the locals. The latter is where the Viennese truly excelled. Austrian inventiveness and viciousness quickly turned the city of Mahler and Freud into the city of “Hitler’s willing executioners,” using the title of the famous book written by Daniel Goldhagen. In this controversial study, Goldhagen argued that virulent “eliminationist antisemitism” was the cornerstone of German national identity. Austrians, in their zeal to eliminate their Jewish countrymen, managed to surprise even the Germans.
Vienna was by no means the only European city where the “final solution” had been successfully carried out. However, the delight the Viennese took in humiliating, torturing, and killing their Jewish neighbors was truly extraordinary. In that 1938 photograph I mentioned, the people in the laughing crowd taking such a delight in humiliating a Jew, were the very ones (or their parents) who elected the rabidly anti-Semitic Karl Lueger as a mayor of Vienna five times between 1897 and 1910. Hitler adored Lueger and considered the Viennese mayor to be a major influence on shaping his views on race.
According to the Austrian Jewish Community statistics, in 1938, 206,000 persons of Jewish decent had been living in the Austrian capital; one out of ten Viennese residents was Jewish. Less than 2,000 survived the camps. Practically no one returned. The flourishing Jewish community of Austria was all but obliterated during World War II. At first, Austrian Jews were lucky: unlike Germany, Austria had exit avenues open for a while and almost two thirds of the country’s Jews left. Those who stayed died wretched deaths at places like Theresienstadt and Auschwitz. One Vienna resident, Sigmund Freud, went to London with his family; his two elderly sisters stayed and perished.
After the war, Austria’s official position was that the country had been the very first victim of the Nazis’ aggression. Austria had no Nuremberg-like trials for crimes against humanity, and this fictional claim went unchallenged for many decades.
Continue reading “The Dao of Being Jewish and Other Stories” currently available on Amazon:
In “The Dao of Being Jewish and Other Stories” Irene Shaland presents a collective Jewish narrative from various parts of the globe. She takes the reader on a fascinating journey, both familiar and unknown, from Europe to Asia and Africa, from Vienna to Delhi and Nairobi. The fate of the brilliant Jewish community of Vienna annihilated during the Holocaust shines a disturbing light on the stories of the current rise of Antisemitism in Scandinavia and throughout Europe.
Two-millennium old tales of little-known Jewish communities of India and China, who never knew religious persecution, reveal happy chapters in the history of Jewish Diaspora filled with so many tragic events. And striking stories of the uplifting revival of Judaism in Sicily and Sardinia after 500 years of the expulsion of the Jews from these islands give us hope for a more harmonious future. Based on the author’s interviews during her travels to ten countries and three continents, this book is Irene Shaland’s passionate quest to preserve the Jewish heritage, identity, memory, and history.
New book of stories from Irene Shaland is now available in paperback. In The Dao of Being Jewish and Other Stories Irene Shaland presents a collective Jewish narrative from various parts of the globe. She takes the reader on a fascinating journey, both familiar and unknown, from Europe to Asia and Africa, from Vienna to Delhi and Nairobi. The fate of the brilliant Jewish community of Vienna annihilated during the Holocaust shines a disturbing light on the stories of the current rise of Antisemitism in Scandinavia and throughout Europe. Two-millennium old tales of little-known Jewish communities of India and China, who never knew religious persecution, reveal happy chapters in the history of Jewish Diaspora filled with so many tragic events. And striking stories of the uplifting revival of Judaism in Sicily and Sardinia after 500 years of the expulsion of the Jews from these islands give us hope for a more harmonious future. Based on the author’s interviews during her travels to ten countries and three continents, this book is Irene Shaland’s passionate quest to preserve the Jewish heritage, identity, memory, and history.
Irene Shaland is an internationally-published art and travel writer, educator, and lecturer. She is the author of two books and numerous magazine articles published in the U.S.A., Canada, Kenya, and U.K. Her lectures on cultural travel are enthusiastically received by audiences in museums, libraries, synagogues, and theaters throughout the country. Irene and her husband, travel photographer Alex reside in Lyndhurst, Ohio.