Descendants of forced converts meet for first time

By Nathan Jeffay, September 22, 2011
A speaker at the seminar in Syracuse

A speaker at the seminar in Syracuse

During the Spanish Inquisition, Sicily's Jews faced the choice of expulsion or conversion. Last week for the first time, descendants of those who converted came together for a seminar about Judaism.

Over the past decade, the Union of Italian Jewish Committees (UIJC) has been inundated with information requests from descendants of converts who secretly kept up some Jewish practices, widely known as Marranos.

Tens of thousands of Italians, many of them practising Catholics, are thought to know that they are Marrano descendants.

Last year, the UIJC teamed up with Jerusalem-based non-profit organisation Shavei Israel, which helps "members of the extended Jewish family" search for their roots. Together, the two organisations started running educational events for Marrano descendants. The two-day seminar, held in the Sicilian city of Syracuse, was the first of these events. It drew 50 participants from across Sicily and the southern Italian regions of Puglia and Calabria.

Gadi Piperno, head of the UIJC's outreach efforts to Marrano descendants, said it is "very important to let these people feel that Italian Jewry doesn't ignore their big efforts". The seminar included lectures and classes on Jewish topics including Shabbat and Jewish traditions. It was intended to "satisfy their thirst for knowledge but also to let them feel the warmth of Jewish fraternity", said Mr Piperno.

Shavei Israel's founder and chairman, Michael Freund, stressed that the seminar was not an attempt to drum up converts to Judaism - though a handful of Marrano descendants have taken this route. Its success is "a very moving phenomenon", according to Mr Freund. "It's incredible to see how, after all this time, the Marranos of Italy are looking to reconnect with their Jewish roots."

In a sense, he said, the seminar was a declaration "that the Inquisition did not succeed in its efforts to eradicate Judaism".

Last updated: 2:06pm, September 22 2011