25 August 2007

Sicily: Some Jewish history

A posting on Harry Stein's Sephardim.com referenced an interesting page on the Jews of Sicily.

The article mentions some interesting facts:

--Sicily's Jews were a distinct ethnic group in the Middle Ages. Their vernacular Semitic language in medieval Sicily was more like Arabic than Yiddish is to German.

--The Spanish edict of 1492 brought to an end Jewish influence in Sicily. It outlawed the practice of Judaism. Some Jews left Sicily but the majority converted to Catholicism and stayed. By the 1520s, baptism and marriage records in Sicilian churches near former Jewish communities listed families with such surnames as de Simone (son of Simon), Siino (Sion) and Mosé (Moses), Nero or Porpura (for the colours of fabrics they dyed), and such baptismal names as Isacco, Beniamino, Abramo, Iasué and Davide, formerly rare among Sicilian Christians.

--The first Jews in Sicily were probably Syracuse traders in the final centuries of the Greek era. The Romans brought some Jews to Sicily as slaves or poorly-paid servants, though the author says only a minority arrived under such conditions. By the time the Arabs arrived there were flourishing Jewish communities in Messina, Panormos (Palermo), Syracuse, Mazara and elsewhere.

--Christianised Jews were allegedly the focus of a 1516 Palermo riot. Even if the story is untrue, it proves, says the author, that Sicilians descended from Jews were still identified as such a generation after the infamous edict.

--Much of our knowledge of Mediterranean Jews, including Sicily, in the 12th century comes from Benjamin of Tudela, a Spaniard. He visited Sicily, described many Gentile groups, and mentioned China. He estimated some 200 Jewish families in Messina in the 1170s. Frederick II employed court Jews to translate Greek and Arabic works which reflects a high level of literacy among Jewish Sicilians.

--In the early 1060s Sicily's Jews often fought together with Arabs against the Normans (Battle of Messina and other compaigns in the Nebrodi Mountains). There were occasional expulsions for political reasons, but Jewish communities survived until 1493.

--Estimates vary widely, but in the early 1490s there may have been as many as 25,000 Jews in Sicily. Of the Jews who then departed for Rome, Ancona, Venice, Malta or elsewhere, some adopted such surnames as Palermo or Messina in reference to their cities of birth --though this is not to imply that all Italians bearing such surnames are descended patrilineally from Jewish forebears.

--Few traces of Sicily's Jewish heritage remain beyond a handful of inscriptions and small structures scattered around the island --things like a piece of Hebrew graffiti carved in the cloister courtyard of Palermo's Magione monastery-- though there is much documentary evidence.It is believed, however, that certain localised Catholic religious traditions may be based on Jewish ones.

--Sicily's medieval Jewish cuisine was similar to Arab cuisine, and the lack of pork recipes may reflect proscriptions by Muslims and Jews. There is a popular - unproven - theory that pizza was invented by Jews in Sicily or Naples. The traditional Sicilian pizza is sfincione, topped with tomatoes, onions and anchovies, although tomatoes only appeared after the discovery of the New World.

Michael Maddi has created a Family Tree DNA geographic group for people with Sicilian roots; some individuals have tested as having the J2 haplogroup, which indicates Jewish ancestry.

The project was established to study Sicily's genetic heritage - a crossroads of civilization for at least 3,000 years of recorded history. DNA testing for both maternal and paternal lines can provide a picture of the deep and recent ethnic background of Sicilians and their descendants. This includes Greek, Italian, Arab, Sephardic Jewish, Norman and Spanish backgrounds, among others. An extensive list of surnames represented in this project is provided.

For more information, or to join this DNA group which currently has 230 members, visit The Sicily Project.

Family Tree DNA also hosts the Sephardic Heritage Study. Its data will be utilized by Dr Doron Behar in his Sephardim Migration Study. The project is sponsored by the International Institute of Jewish Genealogy

For more information and to contact group co-administrator Alain Farhi, click here. The project is sponsored by the International Institute of Jewish Genealogy.



  1. We visited Sicily last spring and, from we've read and seen, understood that the largest Jewish community was in Syracuse. There are actually remains of a mikva and a synagogue. According to some estimates, it is possible that Jews made up to 10% of Syracuse population.

  2. Linda Palanza7:52 AM

    My maternal grandmother was from Calabria ~ her maiden name was Gallo and her mother's maiden name was Fabiano. My maternal grandfather was from Napoli and his mother's maiden name was Angelino. My father's parents with both from Vieste with surnames, Dimauro and LaTorre. Are any of these names of Jewish origin

    1. Anonymous8:21 PM

      Yes, I know for sure that Gallo is. My mother was from Sicily and her maiden was Gallo.

  3. Anonymous10:38 AM

    My wife's family emigrated from the town of Polizzi Generosa in the early 19th cent. to Brooklyn, NY. They were Christians but she says that she had relatives named Zafferana whom she thought were originally Jewish. She saw a menorah in the house of one of these relatives when she visited Sicily as a young girl with her mother in the 1950's. Does anyone monitoring this blog know if this family was originally Jewish?

  4. Anonymous9:57 PM

    The Sicilian surname Salama was also the surname of a Medieval Jewish merchant living in Cairo. There is a book on this topic or an article. Anyone know the publication's name?

  5. Anonymous10:29 AM

    My grand mother on my mums side has jewish sicilian origin, her great grand mother surname was yousef. We have links Calabria

  6. Anonymous6:55 AM

    This is a great little blog. I found this researching my own Sicilian ancestry, and have a little information I'd like to share. My grandfather was from a little village in Enna called Calascibetta. The village was established around 851 by the Saracens though there is evidence of inhabitation dating back to the 8th or 9th century BC. Relevant to your work, there is a quarter in Calascibetta that was given by King Alphonse to the Jewish community in 1428, and which is said to still exist today though I have not verified this. Here's the link: http://www.italyworldclub.com/sicilia/enna/calascibetta.htm

    Sicily was certainly the great melting pot of the Meditteranean, and as someone of Sicilian heritage I take great pride in knowing that I am the product of so many cultures.

  7. does anyone knows if there is any jewish community nowdays???

  8. hi guys,
    does anyone knows if there is still a jewish community nowdays??

  9. Anonymous11:01 AM

    One branch of my family came from Ragusa, Sicily. My family research has revealed that two of my families, the Cabibbos and Xiumes, were of Jewish origin and were forced to convert during the inquisition. According to an article published by city historians, Ragusa before the inquisition had a thriving Jewish quarter. After 1492, all the remaining Jews were forced to convert (conversos), if they wished to remain in the community. In fact one of the old churches was the original site of the city synagogue. The article states that the city can trace its Jewish population from Roman times but there is also evidence that some Jews came from Tunisia when the Arabs invaded Sicily. Sephardic names from Ragusa were listed as Burrafato, Cabibbo, Amato, Azzara, Cassì, Cassisi, Ioppulo, Liuzzo, Sammito, Sciacca, Zacco and Xiumè.

    1. Anonymous3:39 PM

      My maiden name was Cabibbo and I always was puzzled why it really didn't sound Italian as a young girl. I can't remember where my paternal grandfather was from but that he was an orphan and was taken in by nuns along with his two sisters who did not immigrate with him.

    2. Anonymous4:07 PM

      My grandfather was a Cabibbo and he was from Comiso which is 14 mi from Ragusa. In 1997 I met a native born Israeli who told me that I had Jewish roots but there was no confirmation til reading all this. I am a strong supporter of Israel but do not practice the Jewish faith.

  10. Anonymous12:40 PM

    You must not to be suprized.
    In the roman Empire the Jews where about 15 %.
    Those Jews didn't evaporiten in the air.
    By some studies the Jewish/Pinician DNA is about 25-40% in Spain, Portugal, Sicily,Malta
    south Italy, Tunisia and more.
    Test your DNA.