Although most of us think
of Italy as the cradle of Catholicism, in fact, the oldest Jewish community in the world is in Rome. Jews have been in Italy
since the 2nd century B.C.E. Their initial arrival from Palestine was because Judah Maccabeus formed an alliance
with Rome. In 70 A.C.E. Jews arrived in large numbers many prisoners of war after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.
Italian Jews fall into
3 major strains. The Italkim are Jews who have been in Italy since the 2nd century B.C.E. The Sephardim came from
Spain and Portugal after the Spanish Inquisition of 1492. Finally, there are the Ashkenazim, who came from Central Europe
in the 14th century.
In the earliest times, the largest Jewish communities were in the south especially Sicily. Estimates place the Jewish
population of Sicily between 20,000 to 100,000. From the 8th to 15th century the Jews thrived under
the Ottomans and then the Normans. They were active in the silk and cloth trade and in the practice of medicine. The majority
were artisans: weavers, dyers, cobblers, silver workers, blacksmiths, and carpenters.
Jews were expelled from Sicily in 1492 since it was a Spanish pocession. They made a brief return
on the eve of WWII and left or were interned. In 1992 500 years after their expulsion the town of Salemi invited the Jews
to return and built a monument with jewish lettering as a marker to this event. Today there are Jews once again in Sicily
and I am hoping to meet up with them and attend high holiday services.