It’s not exactly known when the first Jews arrived in Sicily—some accounts say 1400 years ago, some say 2000; some say as captive slaves after the 1st-century fall of Jerusalem, some say they were there even before—but one’s things for sure: there were Sicilian Jews for centuries, and today there are barely any, having long been exiled or forced to convert.
Like Jewish communities the world over, Sicilian Jews enjoyed relative peace—including a couple hundred years under Arabic rule starting in 831—until, well, they didn’t.
Sicilian-flavored persecution of Jews began in the 14th century, during which King Frederick II ordered that Jews mark their clothes and shops with the “red wheel” (King Fred’s precursor to the yellow badge). And how fun to be included: in Marsala, Jews were forced to participate in Christmas festivities before being chased home and stoned by mobs.
After the 15th-century expulsion, some Jews found refuge under Ferdinand I in Naples and Calabria, but when a disease called “French fly” broke out—who do you think was blamed and driven away?
Now, Palermo plays host to a fledgling Jewish community—the Ner Tamid Palermo, founded by Italy’s only female rabbi, Barbara Aiello, helps long-lost Sicilian Jews get in touch with their history. But fledgling it truly is—you’d be hard pressed to find a Sicilian who knows even a single Jew.
August 1, 2016