By Ruth Ellen Gruber
Jewish Telegraph Agency
SAN NICANDRO GARGANICO, Italy – In the Christian cemetery of this sleepy farming town on the spur of Italy’s boot, Lucia Leone looks up at a row of tombs marked incongruously by Stars of David.
“That’s my mother,” she said. “And that’s my grandmother and great-grandmother. And that’s Donato Manduzio, who started everything.”
Manduzio, who died in 1948, was a self-taught local peasant, a disabled World War I veteran who in 1930 embraced Judaism on his own after having a visionary dream. A charismatic figure with a reputation as a faith healer, Manduzio attracted dozens of followers among his poverty-stricken neighbors.
The San Nicandro Jews observed their own brand of homemade Judaism for years, even during fascist rule and World War II. But eventually they were recognized by Italian Jewish authorities and, in a remarkable episode, they formally converted en masse in the 1940s.
“It would seem to be the only case of collective conversion to Judaism in modern times,” historian John Davis wrote in an acclaimed recent book about the case.
Manduzio died two months before Israel was born. But almost all the others in the group – about 70 people – made aliyah by 1949.
Leone, her family and a handful of other families are descendants of the four or five women who chose to stay behind. Some had never formally converted, some had non-Jewish husbands who didn’t want to leave. Against all odds, they kept Judaism alive in their homes – and in their hearts – for more than half a century, lighting the candles, keeping kosher, and observing Shabbat and the holidays on their own.
Until a decade ago, they maintained a low profile.
“We weren’t afraid, but as much as possible we kept our identity to ourselves,” Leone, who is in her late 40s, told JTA.
Today they form a fervent congregation of about 35 people that has won the embrace of Italy’s Orthodox Jewish mainstream community as part of a concerted new effort by the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, or UCEI, aimed at reaching out to so-called Returning Jews in the south.
“We don’t feel so alone anymore,” Leone said. “Every month a rabbi or teacher comes to us, and we meet up at the holidays and other times with Jews from Calabria, Sicily [see related story], Naples and elsewhere in Apulia. And of course there are a lot of websites and Facebook that help us keep in touch.”
Last year, seven San Nicandro Jews underwent formal, Orthodox conversions. Leone, her husband and their two grown children were among them.
“Finally!” Leone said. “Baruch Hashem! It took five years of study, but it was a beautiful experience.”
The San Nicandro Jews are a special case. But they are among dozens of other Italians in the southern part of the country who are embracing Jewish identity. Spread out around several towns and cities, most are descendants of anusim – Jews forced to convert to Christianity or face expulsion 500 years ago. Many describe mysterious family traditions rooted in Jewish practice: covering mirrors after a death or burning a bit of dough when baking bread.
“These are people who maintained their Jewishness for dozens of generations,” said Rabbi Scialom Bahbout, chief rabbi for Naples and Southern Italy. “They had very strong roots at the beginning, and these left their mark.” Since 2010, Bahbout has been the UCEI’s religious reference point for the region.
“I’ve been trying to converge the people together from the various regions – Apulia, Calabria, Sicily – to create a movement,” he told JTA.
Others are reaching out, too. For the past decade, American Rabbi Barbara Aiello, whose own ancestors were anusim, has led Ner Tamid del Sud, an independent Jewish prayer and study center in Calabria. Aiello’s center operates outside the Orthodox Jewish establishment and is not recognized by the UCEI. But interest is so great, she said, that her group plans to open a new synagogue next summer when the building is completed.