Once home to some of the oldest Jewish communities in Europe—which were eradicated five centuries ago—Sicily is now experiencing a rebirth of Judaism. S. D’I. and Erasmus describe what has occurred in one Sicilian city:
In 1492, Sicily’s once-flourishing Jewish community was expelled by the Spanish monarchs that held sway over the island; some fled to the nearby kingdom of Naples but they were soon driven out of that realm, too, and duly headed eastward to the comparative safety of Ottoman territory.
Small wonder, then, that among the 40,000 or so Jews who now live in Italy, only a handful are to be found anywhere south of Rome. In locations like the Giudecca (Jewish quarter) of Syracuse, an ancient Sicilian port, place-names and Hebrew inscriptions are among the few obvious reminders that the religion of ancient Israel was once practiced here. . . . Before [the expulsion of] 1492, the port had twelve synagogues and 5,000 Jews; that faith and culture have been undergoing a modest but determined local revival, as some long-dormant collective memories come to the surface.
Some people date the rebirth to the discovery in Syracuse in 1987 of a mikveh, a Jewish ritual bath, which may be among the oldest in Europe. That was one of things which inspired Stefano Di Mauro, an Orthodox Sephardi rabbi who had spent most of his life in America, to return to his native Sicily in 2007. Now the synagogue he founded, which is housed in a nondescript building but boasts a canopy, can count on crowds of 50 people or more at festivals and rites of passage. For more routine weekly services, the worshippers often number twelve to fifteen, just about satisfying the minyan or quorum of ten men. . . .
Many of the faithful tell remarkable stories about the way they embraced Judaism because of half-remembered family traditions. In Jewish terms, the community members seem mostly to be Bnei Anusim, the “children of the forced [converts]”: in other words, descendants of those who [in 1492] converted at least superficially to Christianity as a way to avoid expulsion.