John A Davis
Yale University Press, £20
I was talking recently to Professor Tudor Parfitt of London School’s Oriental and African Studies when he he mentioned a story which I had never heard before: about a band of Catholic villagers from San Nicandro in a remote region of south east Italy who took up Judaism in the 1930s and eventually settled in Israel. By chance, just a couple of days later, a new book on the subject appeared at the office.
It is a quite remarkable tale, possibly the only example of collection conversion to Judaism in modern Europe, according to the author, John Davis, a professor of Italian history.
The patriarch of this singular group was Donato Manduzio, a shoemaker invalided in the First World War and a kind of autodidact prophet who claimed to have visionary dreams. His reading of scripture led him to conclude that the New Testament was false and that the true religion lay in the Old.
Within a few years, a community of 50 souls had begun to adopt what they regarded as Jewish practices. Davis recounts their struggle to gain recognition and guidance from the Chief Rabbi of Rome, and to endure the harassment of non-Catholic religious minorities by the Fascist regime (with the shameful collusion of the Vatican).
But their life took a turn for the better after the Allied victory in southern Italy in late 1943. The occupying forces included a Palestinian Jewish company led by Habonim’s founder Major Wellesley Aron. The Zionist connection proved crucial. In November 1949, the first group of Jews from San Nicandro sailed for Haifa, although Manduzio, who died in 1948 and opposed emigration, never reached the Promised Land.