Five years ago, I had never heard of Oria, let alone its Jews—even after a decade of regular sojourns in Puglia (Apulia), the southeastern province that occupies the heel of Italy’s boot. Traces of Greek, Carthaginian, Byzantine, Arabic, French, Norman, Spanish, Turkish, German, and even Gypsy culture: all these I had encountered. But I’d concluded that this remarkable region wasn’t a place where Jews had made much of an impression.
True, I knew the story of San Nicandro, some of whose inhabitants had converted to Judaism at the oddest time imaginable, just as Hitler had begun massacring communities all over Europe. True, too, remnants of an earlier Jewish population could be found at the functioning synagogue of Scolanova at Trani, in Puglia’s north. Descendants of 13th-century forced converts to Christianity under the Angevins, they had continued to practice their faith in secret until free to return openly to Judaism. But these days? Reveal your Jewish provenance to a Pugliese, and he’ll likely smile and say you’re the first Jew he’s ever met.
So when, answering an ad for a 17th-century country mansion (masseria), I parked for the first time outside one of the entrances to Oria’s medieval center and beheld in front of me a giant bronze menorah, I was astonished. But I shouldn’t have been. As a plaque on the wall announced, I was at the entrance to the Rione Giudea (Jewish quarter), and more specifically in the Piazza Shabettai Donnolo.
My real-estate agent enlightened me further: though the town had once hosted a significant community, there had been no Jewish presence in Oria for about a thousand years. Delighted to learn that I was a Jew myself, he drove me down the tiled central street of the old Jewish quarter, whose twisting alleys, blind passageways, and tiny lanes decorated with archways, portals, and steep stairways struck me as reminiscent of the ancient Middle East or North Africa.
As weeks passed, and negotiations for the masseria drew to a close, the agent put me in touch with an Orthodox British Jew named Graham Morris who recently had been visiting Oria on a regular basis, often escorting groups of American Jewish tourists around the town’s Jewish landmarks. In his first email to me, Graham remarked that he was fond of telling “the worthies in Oria that at the holiest hour of the holiest day of the year, several million Jews sing a hymn crafted in Oria a millennium ago!”
This got to me. As the regular High Holy Days cantor at a synagogue in central London, surely I had to be one of those millions. And indeed Graham’s “hymn” turned out to be Ezkerah Elohim, a piyyut (liturgical poem) composed by Amittai ben Shephatiah, who lived in Oria in the 10th century. In the Ashkenazi tradition, the hymn is recited during the final supplications of the Yom Kippur service, and I had been chanting it for twenty years.
I remember, oh God, and lament
When I see every city built on its foundations
And the City of God degraded to the nethermost pit.
The thought that a prayer of such importance had been written in this quiet, forgotten southern Italian town where I had just bought a home made me shiver.
Cantor Tzvi Weiss sings Leib Glantz’s setting of Ezkerah Elohim.
What had life actually been like in this beautiful town, set in an agricultural landscape dominated by olive groves and vineyards? Through Graham Morris I came to meet Giuseppe d’Amico, whose short book, La Communità Ebraica Oritana e il suo Rione (“Oria’s Jewish Community and its Quarter”), provides as good an introduction as any to the subject. A septuagenarian teacher of classics who still entertains himself by writing Latin elegiacs and ancient Greek alcaics, d’Amico took me to the site of the Jewish cemetery, its tranquil charm marred only by a telecommunications tower visible for miles around. From here, he was able to point out the perimeter of the much larger medieval town in which the Jewish community once lived. Oria had been a city of considerable importance, and the Jewish cemetery was situated just outside it.
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D’Amico reeled off a few salient points of local history. Most notable was the black year of 925, when a Saracen army sacked the city, killing 6,000 of its men and taking 10,000 women and children prisoner. Among the dead were no fewer than ten rabbis, a figure itself suggestive of a sizable Jewish presence. Later, guided by d’Amico’s book, which is infused with the same passion as his speech, I gleaned a fuller portrait not only of the town and its Jews but of the rich Jewish history of Puglia itself.
Greek-speaking Jews had lived in Puglia since Roman times, and it was here that rabbinic scholarship gained its first foothold in Christian Europe. A medieval legend explains how talmudic erudition spread from its older center in Babylonia (Iraq) throughout the Mediterranean. It seems that four rabbis, having set sail from the port of Bari—Puglia’s largest city— were captured en route and sold into slavery at various locales. Ransomed by the local Jews, they proceeded to plant the seeds of Torah study in Tunisia, Egypt, and Spain. Ashkenazi Jews, too, trace their intellectual heritage to Puglia. Jacob ben Meir Tam, the great talmudist of 12th-century France, is said to have declared—playing on Isaiah 2:3—that “the Torah shall come forth from Bari, and the word of the Lord from Otranto.”
In this setting, Oria’s Jews exhibited their own brand of scholarly activity. Between the 9th and 11th centuries, in addition to numerous religious and mystical works, they produced important scientific and medical treatises, plus an important work of history (more on this below). Whether they were equally productive as farmers is uncertain, but an 11th-century manuscript copy of the Mishnah bears marginal annotations in the obscure and colorful dialect of southern Puglia, written in Hebrew script and referring almost entirely to agricultural terminology and procedures. “Mittene litame cannizza i vardezzona” (spread a wattle of dung and grass), says one, citing a technique for protecting trees from harmful insects. “Karmenatu in unu filatu intessutu” (carded, spun, and woven) says another, referring to the preparation of wool.
In Italy’s most fertile zone, were Oria’s Jews no less a people of the land than their neighbors? Oria’s chief product at the time was cloth, especially silk, and Mediterranean Jews, one scholar writes, were in general known “as planters of mulberry trees, breeders of silk-worms, weavers, and dyers of silk and purple fabrics. They carried the art into Sicily and became its chief promoters and artisans there. . . . From Sicily it was easily transmitted to Italy where it was developed with equal skill and enterprise.” It is thus quite possible that this was a trade in which the Jews of Oria also excelled and to which their wealth may be attributed.
To return to that work of history: through d’Amico I was introduced to the extraordinary Sefer Yuḥasin (“Book of Genealogies”) a hodgepodge of legend and chronicle written by a certain Aḥimaats ben Paltiel in 1053 and known also as “The Chronicle of Aḥimaats.” I saw a copy in the town’s library: an elegant edition with parallel Hebrew and Italian texts and commentary by Cesare Colafemmina, the subject’s foremost authority.
Sefer Yuḥasin (not to be confused with the later work of that name by Abraham Zacuto, 1452-ca.1515) was the first book to shed light on Jewish history during the period long dismissed as the “Dark Ages.” Surviving in a single manuscript copy, Aḥimaats’s book was rediscovered in 1869 in Toledo in a codex dating from the 14th or 15th century. Colafemmina believes it to be one of the Jewish texts stolen from the long-suffering Jews of the Roman ghetto and carried off on 38 carts one night in April 1753 by agents of the Vatican.
Its significance cannot be underestimated. Sefer Yuḥasin sets the southern Italian Jews of that period, as well as such important figures as Amittai ben Shephatiah, the author of Ezkerah Elohim, in their correct historical context. Basing themselves on Amittai’s mournful output, scholars had once placed him either close to the time of the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE or, alternatively, at the end the 11th century (just after the First Crusade). Thanks to Sefer Yuḥasin, we now know that he wrote in the 9th century, in the wake of the brutal persecutions initiated throughout the Byzantine empire by the icon-worshipping emperor Basil I (867-886).
Of course, as a true historical source, Sefer Yuḥasin is unreliable. But it is highly readable and entertaining. Among its accounts of miracles wrought by wonder-working rabbis is the tale of Abu Aaron of Babylon (773-816), who visited Oria in the middle of the 9th century and found there “tents of study set up by rivers, planted and thriving like trees by the waters, schools established, rooted like cedars growing at the side of flowing streams.” Aḥimaats tells us how Abu Aaron restored to human form a boy who had been turned into a mule by an evil sorceress and bound to a millstone “to make him grind as long as he lived.” Another miracle, wrought by none other than Shephatiah, father of the poet Amittai, relates to the historically verified edicts of Basil I, in which Jews of Puglia who failed to convert were ordered to be crushed in an olive press.
“Basil had a daughter whom he loved as the apple of his eye,” Aḥimaats informs us. “An evil spirit tormented her. He could not find a cure for her. He spoke to Shephatiah in secret and with earnest entreaty said, ‘Help me, Shephatiah, and cure my daughter of her affliction,’ and Shephatiah answered, ‘With the help of the Almighty, I will surely do so.” Shephatiah then exorcised the spirit, stuck it in a leaden chest, and dropped it into the sea. When the delighted emperor invited Shephatiah to request a boon, the latter replied, “in sorrow and bitter weeping, ‘If thou, my lord, wouldst favor Shephatiah, let there be peace for those engaged in the study of the law. Do not force them to abandon the law of God, and do not crush them in sorrow and affliction.’”
Basil, infuriated by this request, which he perceived as spurning his offer, nonetheless issued an edict “commanding that no persecution take place in the city of Oria.” But Oria was to be the exception. For “then the wicked king continued to send emissaries into all the provinces and ordered his agents to fall upon [the Jews], to force them out of their religion and convert them to the errors and folly of his faith. The sun and moon were darkened for 25 years, until the day of his death. Cursed be his end.”
Though we also learn from Sefer Yuḥasin about the later, brutal incursions of the Saracens, responsible for the devastation of 925, it is the Byzantines for whom Aḥimaats reserves his ire—perhaps because, while the Saracens targeted all of the citizens of Oria, irrespective of religion, Basil’s legislation was rooted specifically in anti-Semitism.
The strangest aspect of Sefer Yuḥasin is not what is written in it, but what is left out. The chronicle contains no mention of Oria’s greatest son, Shabbetai Donnolo, whose name graces not only the square where I first became aware of the Jews of Oria but also a street and a hospital in Tel Aviv. Why a hospital? Donnolo’s milestone work, Sefer ha-Mirkaḥot (“Book of Mixtures”), was the first medical text to be written in Italy after the fall of the Roman empire and the oldest Hebrew medical text in Europe. It also makes generous use of non-Jewish sources. (Could this have struck the ever-proud Aḥimaats as an unforgivable transgression?) Donnolo was also an accomplished poet, the author of an important work on astronomy and astrology, and the coiner of many Hebrew words and phrases still in use today.
While Aḥimaats’s anger is stirred by the Byzantines, Donnolo’s own bitterness was quickened by the Saracens who in 925 destroyed his community and sold him into slavery. It is he, I realized when I came to read Andrew Sharf’s The Universe of Shabbetai Donnolo, who detailed the atrocities committed by the Arabs in that fateful year, not least among them the murder of the ten rabbis.
What would Shabbetai Donnolo have thought had he known that Arabs were to return to Oria a thousand years later in rather different circumstances? I had arranged to meet Giuseppe d’Amico just outside the old Jewish quarter where I would be translating his reconstruction of local Jewish history for the benefit of a group of 80 Anglophone Jewish tourists who had come to Puglia to celebrate Passover. D’Amico began by repeating Donnolo’s bitter threnody on the events of 925, and I thought I detected a contemporary overtone in his words.
To an outsider, Oria’s streets may have seemed calm, but its citizens were uneasy. At the town’s corners and cafes, young men from Tunisia—home territory of the Saracens who had ravaged the town a millennium earlier—were congregating every day. They were refugees who, after arriving by boat in the wake of the 2011-12 Arab Spring, had been sent to a holding camp halfway between Oria and Manduria, five miles away. Indeed, our group had been advised to take a detour to our next stop, a tiny 16th-century synagogue, lest we bump into any of these Arab youths as they drifted aimlessly about, warned by notices in their language not to linger at café tables for longer than fifteen minutes.
In Manduria itself, a contingent of military police was on hand to prevent any local outbreak of violence. But this was gratuitous; most of the Tunisians were waiting in the camp, hoping to receive permission to leave an area where they had no prospect of employment and head instead for relatives in France. Quite a few had already done so after a mass breakout from a former World War II U.S. airbase. Meanwhile, some had harmed themselves protesting their internment; one had set himself alight, another was killed on the road. Thus did the latest Arab invasion of Oria and its environs bespeak both tragedy and farce.
As for the Jews, in their old quarter one can see the only freestanding building in the town’s historic center. What looks like a rather unprepossessing, whitewashed, modern family home, d’Amico believes was once a synagogue. “My grandparents used to circle its walls at times of illness in the belief they would be cured,” he told our party. “The Jews of Oria were famous doctors and pharmacists, so it makes sense. They brought light to this town at a time when the rest of Italy was darkened by barbarian invasions.”
Most modern Oritani share d’Amico’s pride in their town’s Jewish heritage. Each September, a festive conference is held in the city and papers are read to mark the ancient Jewish presence there. But it would be naïve to infer from such nostalgic philo-Semitism that the town holds contemporary Jews in equal esteem. Following Israel’s incursion into Gaza last year, I was privy to the following exchange on Facebook between two Oritani, one of whom had “friended” me on the site:
A: What’s the matter with those awful people? You’d think after what happened to them [in the Holocaust], they’d have learned!
B: It’s a shame [the Nazis] didn’t finish the job and wipe that filth off the face of the earth.
I have never met the authors of these words, and I hope I never will. I also firmly believe that none of my own Oritano friends and acquaintances shares these all-too-frequently expressed sentiments of our historical moment. Still, even as I continue to enjoy my own privileged status as the first Jew to return to Oria after a thousand years, I am mindful of a fact that one should never lose sight of: it is as easy to idealize dead Jews as it is to demonize living ones.