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Where the Jews are nearly gone

We looked for traces, threads, shadows of banished Jews in Malta and Sicily; one surprised me in a Midwest high school
Illustration by Avi Katz
Illustration by Avi Katz

The Senate of Palermo promulgates, by the public crier Simone de Perino, the edict issued by King Ferdinand the Catholic in Granada, on March 31, 1492 with which it is ordered that within three months all the Jews, male and female, must be driven out of all the territories of his kingdom, and return there under pain of death.

A crier announced the edict of expulsion to the Jews of Palermo, and a scribe faithfully recorded the words. (Sally Abrams)

Over 500 years later, these words still have the power to shock.

On a recent trip to Sicily and Malta, my husband and I sought traces of the Jewish communities that lived in these lands for 15 centuries. In 1492, southern Italy, Sicily, and Malta were all under Spanish control. Thus, the edict of explusion applied to the Jews there too. Some Jews converted to Catholicism in order to remain. Some Jews converted outwardly, but continued to practice Judaism secretly (conversos).

Jews who wanted to remain Jews had to leave.

In 1492, about 30,000 Jews lived in 51 communities across Sicily. Today, there are 50-60 Jews in Palermo, with a growing number of Sicilians discovering Jewish roots. Palermo’s archbishop has granted the nascent community the use of an unused oratory, to be transformed into Palermo’s first stable synagogue in five centuries.

But it’s fair to say that Sicily has yet to recover from King Ferdinand’s edict of expulsion. The same is true for tiny Malta.

So our visit was a search for what was. To find those traces, threads, shadows of these banished Jews.

We began in Palermo’s municipal archives building, staring at the document on which the order of explusion was written.

I imagined Palermo’s public crier calling out the order of the Spanish monarchs. I visualized the scribe, diligently recording the words, lest there be any question later. If a Jew thought, “Can’t be true. We don’t really have to convert or leave,” here was the bracing truth: Yes, you do.

Jews came to Sicily around 70 CE, after Jerusalem fell to the Romans. The Jews were not conquerers like the Greeks, who left behind magnificent temples and other buildings. Jews lived as a minority, leaving traces, a soft footprint.

We looked for the street name, “Giudecca” — still on the walls in Siracusa — telling us that the Jews once lived there. We spotted a Star of David high on a wall. It would have been easy to miss it.

(Sally Abrams)

But Siracusa is also home to an astonishing discovery. In 1989, during a building restoration, workmen uncovered a mikveh — a five-pool mikveh — fed by an underground spring and dating to the fifth century CE. It lies 30 feet below ground, under the Residenza Alla Giudecca hotel, in the heart of what was once the town’s Jewish quarter.

Hotel guides (not Jewish) lead tours to the mikveh several times every hour. They explain its history with reverance and respect. A five-pool mikveh attests to the size of the community that once used it, our guide said. Some 5,000 Jews lived in this neighborhood in the Middle Ages. It is believed that the Jews themselves sealed the mikveh off before leaving Sicily, protecting it from desecration. Perhaps they thought they’d be allowed to return in a few years.

As I dipped my hand in the cool, clear water, I thought about the last person who used it. Someone had to be the last.

Whenever we mentioned our interest in Jewish history, no matter where in Sicily we were, the locals asked, “Did you see the mikveh?? Did you see it??” Their pride in the discovery of a substantial Jewish artifact was touching. And yet, it was the essence of Jewish life as artifact. The mikveh remains, the Jews are largely gone.

Like Sicily, Malta’s Jewish presence dates to about 70 CE (although some say that Jews sailed along with the Phoenicians, circa 800 BCE). Jewish traces can be found if you know where to look. A street sign “Triq tal-Lhud” tells you Jews once lived there. Another sign notes “The Old Jewish Silk Market.”

(Sally Abrams)

Malta’s catacombs include Jewish burial sites from the fourth-fifth century CE, marked with a faint menorah carved into the wall.

(Sally Abrams)

But the most unforgettable Jewish site in Malta is the tiny Kalkara cemetery, a small walled space with a few visible gravestones.

“This cemetery was established in 1784 by the Leghorn fund for ransoming Hebrew slaves, at its own expenses, for the burial of the dead of its race.” (Sally Abrams)

We were met there by a remarkable guide and scholar, a non-Jewish woman whose area of expertise is the Jewish history of Malta. We took note of the graves around us, dating to the 19th century. And then we learned why this plot was purchased.

Our guide told us what happened when the Knights of St. John (a Catholic military order) controlled Malta from 1530-1798. The Knights captured merchant ships — especially those of the enemy Ottoman Empire — and took the Jewish and Muslim passengers hostage. Jewish captives served a twofold purpose: as slaves, and as a source of ransom money, paid by the Jewish Societies for the Redemption of Captives. Not every Jewish slave was redeemed. Some died as slaves. Slavery in Malta was abolished when Napoleon invaded in 1798.

I was moved by the history, but even more moved by the empathy and scholarship of the woman telling it. I said to her: “Yad Vashem honors the righteous gentiles who saved Jewish lives in the Holocaust. We need some way to honor the righteous gentiles who give our history back to us.”

What became of the Jews that left Spanish controlled lands in 1492?

Many of them fled to the Ottoman Empire, North Africa, elsewhere in Europe and the Arab world. Some ended up in the New World — Central and South America and the American Southwest. “The Converso Comeback” describes the growing number of Hispanics who are discovering their Jewish roots.

A week after returning home, I was speaking about Judaism at a high school. It was a few days after the massacre in Pittsburgh. The teacher asked me to include an explanation of anti-Semitism and context for what had just happened.

In simple terms, I explained anti-Semitism’s long and tragic history. And to help them understand what “expulsion” meant, I told them a bit about what we saw in Sicily and Malta.

As is my practice, I ask each student to tell me something new he or she learned as they file out of class. One girl hung back, waiting until all the students were gone.

If the teacher hadn’t been there to hear this, I would think I’d dreamed it.

“I’m Hispanic, raised Catholic,” she said. “There is a song I’ve sung to myself ever since I was very little. No one taught it to me. No one knows how I know it. Would you like to hear it?”

And with that, she sang, in perfect Hebrew, “Hineh Ma Tov.”

I stood there, speechless. Did a connecting thread of what I’d just seen turn up here, in this classroom?

“No one can explain how I know this,’ she repeated. “I can even pronounce the ‘ch’ sound in ‘achim‘, which no one in my family can do.”

She paused.

“My mom says I know this song from another life.”

I can’t explain it. I won’t even try.

About the Author
Sally Abrams co-directs the Speakers Bureau of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas. She has presented the program “Israel and the Middle East: the Challenge of Peace” at hundreds of churches, schools and civic groups throughout the Twin Cities and beyond. A resident of suburban Minneapolis, Sally speaks fluent Hebrew, is wild about the recipes of Yotam Ottolenghi, the music of Idan Raichel, and is always planning her next trip to Israel. Visit: sallygabrams.com
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