By Rochelle Maruch Miller
On the last night of Chanukah, Shavei Israel organized a historic candle-lighting ceremony in the infamous Steri Palace Prison in Palermo, Sicily, which served as the headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition from 1601 to 1782. The ceremony, which was the first of its kind, was led by Rabbi Pinchas Punturello, Shavei Israel’s emissary to the “Bnei Anousim” community (also known by historians as Crypto-Jews or–derogatorily–as Marranos) in Southern Italy and Sicily. Participants in the ceremony included Professor Roberto La Galla, the dean of the University of Palermo; Mr. Roberto Jarach, vice-president of UCEI-Union of Italian Jewish Community; and approximately 100 Bnei Anousim from the Palermo area.
“Centuries after the Steri Palace Prison was used to try and extinguish the light of Israel, we came here to show that the flame of Judaism continues to burn,” said Shavei Israel founder and chairman Michael Freund. “For over 200 years, Jews were tortured within the palace’s walls, and many were then burned at the stake by the Inquisition for secretly practicing Judaism,” he said, adding that, “In the palace where the darkness of the Inquisition once predominated, the flicker of our Chanukah candles now prevails.” Freund also highlighted the fact that the prison’s dungeon cells are notable for the graffiti that still stains their walls; two inscriptions are written in Hebrew letters.
The idea for the event originated when Rabbi Punturello visited the Steri during a three-day seminar for Bnei Anousim organized by Shavei Israel at the end of October. The seminar drew 80 people from across southern Italy and Sicily. After Rabbi Punturello visited the Steri Palace, he contacted the mayor of Palermo, who readily agreed with the rabbi’s proposal that the time had come to replace darkness with light.
The history of Jews in Sicily dates back more than two millennia, to the era of the second Beis Hamikdash. Despite enduring various periods of legal restrictions and persecutions over the ensuing centuries, the Jews of Sicily flourished and produced many great scholars and rabbis.
In the late 14th century, Sicily’s Jews were confined to ghettos, and faced increasingly harsh decrees, as well as massacres and forced conversions to Catholicism. These measures culminated in 1492 with the Edict of Expulsion, which ordered the remaining Jews to leave. At the time, there were at least 52 Jewish communities spread out across Sicily, numbering more than 37,000 people. Nearly all had left by December 31, 1492. Large numbers of forcibly converted Jews were compelled to remain behind, where they suffered under the heavy hand of the Inquisition.
Shavei Israel is a nonprofit organization founded by Michael Freund, who immigrated to Israel from the United States with the aim of strengthening the ties between the Jewish people, the State of Israel, and the descendants of Jews the world over. Currently active in nine countries, the organization provides assistance to a variety of different communities such as the Bnei Menashe of India; the Bnei Anousim in Spain, Portugal, and South America; the Subbotnik Jews of Russia; the Jewish community of Kaifeng in China; descendants of Jews living in Poland; and others. v