There is a growing interest in tracing the lineages of Jewish ancestors
in Sicily and much of southern Italy. Genealogy
is becoming more popular generally, particularly in the United States, and
Sicily's Judaic heritage is undeniable. Unfortunately, the entire topic
of Jewish genealogical
research among Sicilian families - as it has been presented to the public
by some amateur historians and by a few professionals who should know better
- brings with it certain complexities and contradictions. This concise introduction
to the subject will address such research areas as lineage, onomastics,
genetics, demographic factors and familial traditions. These generalities
are supported not only by the work of Sicilian scholars over the last five
centuries, but by Jewish scholars (researching here in Sicily) over the
last few decades.
The Jews and 1492
There is space here for little more than a perfunctory outline of Jewish history in Sicily (see the profile article
in our Peoples of Sicily series). The first Jews were present during the
Roman period. Until 1282, with the Sicilian
Vespers and subsequent Aragonese and Spanish influences ever more evident in Sicilian society,
the Sicilian Jews could be identified as Mizrahim. Sephardic influences
were widespread by 1492, when Spain ordered the expulsion or conversion
of all Jews in the places it ruled, including the Kingdom of Sicily, but
to describe Sicily's Jews unequivocally as "Sephardim," even at
that date, is an oversimplification. Sicily's Jewish culture was not imported
from Spain; it came from Palestine in antiquity as part of the Diaspora.
Though Jewish communities dotted the island by 1492, Jews represented
far less than ten percent of the general population. Estimates vary, but
it is probable that in 1493 around half of Sicily's Jews left while the
other half converted to Christianity and remained. Some went to mainland
Italy; in the Kingdom of Naples, a realm still separate from Sicily in 1493,
the Inquisition had not yet squelched freedom of worship as it was then
doing in Sicily.
Most of Sicily's Jews had been fabric dyers or merchants. Many owned
small stores. At times Jews lent money or practiced medicine, but legislation
occasionally restricted their activity in these fields. There are even a
(very) few cases of Jews owning landed estates, but these were typically
fiefs (smaller feudal properties) rather than counties or baronies, and
actual farming was undertaken by Gentiles.
In Sicily the Jews who remained after 1493 and became Catholic (comparable
to the conversos of Spain) were called neofiti (neophytes).
What's in a name?
The general use of surnames in Sicily (and the rest of Italy) occurred
during the fifteenth century, by around 1430. Onomastics is a complex subject
in itself. Several points should be made regarding the surnames of Sicilian
Jews after 1492.
• Very few Sicilian surnames are exclusively Judaic in origin, and it
must be remembered that the spoken language (and hence an influence on many
surnames) of Sicily's Jews was a dialect with strong Arabic elements. Moreover,
Jewish converts usually adopted existing Sicilian surnames rather than directly
"translating" their Jewish surnames into Sicilian.
• Here is a typical case. Presti and Sacerdoti (meaning priest), for
example, are not Jewish but Christian in origin, and as often Byzantine
as Latin. We know this because the lineages of many such families to circa
1500 are well known, and they are not Jewish. This does not mean that no
Sicilian Jewish family (of the priestly class or Cohanim) ever assumed such
names, but it is ridiculous to presume that every family bearing such a
name was Jewish. It is not unusual for a surname to be shared between two
or more unrelated families on opposite sides of Sicily - or by Sicilians
and mainland Italians.
• Some Jews, particularly those whose godfathers were noblemen, took
their sponsors' surnames (Moncada or Aiutamicristo, for example). It is
worth mentioning that the same thing sometimes occurred when a (non-Jewish)
servant of a nobleman assumed such a surname. Also, children born outside
marriage to a titled man, if recognised by their biological father, might
be given his surname. A typical example is the large number of families
in Castelbuono named Ventimiglia but not related to the local counts as
• If a Jewish woman married a Christian man, her children, though Jewish
(until 1493), would bear his surname. This certainly does not mean that
every Sicilian bearing that particular surname was Jewish.
• A few - very few - specific surnames, such as Siino (Zion), appear
to be Judaic in origin but, again, generalisations should be avoided. The
only way of determining this with certainty is to conduct lineal research
to circa 1500. No list implying that "these surnames are Jewish"
should be taken as prima facie "proof" that specific Sicilian
families bearing those surnames were, in fact, ever Jewish. Without knowing
when an ancestor assumed a surname it is impossible to determine much of
anything; what if a "Jewish" surname was actually given to a foundling
• It has become a cliché that surnames based on the names of major
cities (Napoli, Palermo, Messina) usually reflect Jewish ancestry. This
simply is not true. Only in a minority of cases are these surnames indicative
of Jewish ancestry.
• Most converts simply assumed surnames already in common use among Sicily's
Catholics, whether based on a phonetic similarity to their prior (Jewish)
names or an approximate translation. And some assumed given (Christian)
names having no Judaic roots or references and gave such names to their
children: Francesco, Calogero, Cristina or Gaetana rather than Beniamino,
Zaccaria, Sara or Rebecca.
• As regards surnames, there are at least a few which in most cases are
associated with Jewish families: Tintura (literally "dyer"), Bottega
(shop), Ebreo (Jew), Giosuè (Joshua), Giobbe (Job), Siino (Sion),
Ziino (Zion), Isaìa, Isacco and Sacco (Isaac), Giudeo and Iudeo (Jew),
Iudecca and Giudica ("from the Jewish quarter"), Giuda (Judas).
• In conclusion, it is not possible to simply consult a list of supposedly
"Jewish" Sicilian surnames, without knowing anything about a family's
history over several centuries, and instantly ascertain Jewish ancestry
Establishing a lineage
There's nothing more illogical than a statement by a Sicilian who cannot
trace his family history to before 1800 swear that his patrilineal Catholic
ancestors were "Jewish" until 1493.
Yes, it's amazing how readily the most fundamental research dicta and
historical facts are tossed out the window when emotions and desires come
into play. The idea of a living line descended from Jesus Christ (an idea
expounded in Holy Blood Holy Grail and The Da Vinci Code and
such books) is a good example of this.
Nobody who has not traced a patrilineal genealogy (through the father's
father's father, etc.) to at least the middle of the sixteenth century can
draw any reliable conclusion that his or her Sicilian family was ever Jewish
unless somebody else in a closely-related branch of the same family has
already confirmed this with documentary records.
Working backward, such research begins with vital statistic records to
1820, then church records (baptisms, marriages, etc.) and tax census acts
into earlier centuries. That's how it works.
It is important to remember that fundamental research using scientific
methods applies as much to a purportedly Jewish lineage as to any other.
If, arriving at a point around 1550 - which is quite possible in Sicily
- one encounters a series of typically Jewish given names in a locality
known to have had a Jewish population, then the proof is self-evident. On
the contrary, simple speculation about a surname being exclusively "Jewish"
(when Sicily has reliable onomastic references which may refute such a theory)
does not constitute valid research.
(See the genealogy page for basic information on tracing Sicilian lineages.)
The magic of DNA
is a growing field. Companies such as Family Tree DNA (in the US) can confirm
a haplogroup and even identify a haplotype typical of Jews, such as the
Cohen Modal Haplotype. It is presumed that in Sicily most Jewish families
were in Y haplogroup J1 or J2. But so were most non-Jews descended from
Greeks and Arabs, and many of them also have the Cohen Modal Haplotype.
The point to be made regarding genetic genealogy, useful as it is, is
that in the great majority of cases it answers a few general questions but
not too many specific ones. It should be pursued in combination with "traditional"
documentary genealogy, not apart from it.
Without documentary research, even a "coincidence" cannot prove
Jewish ancestry. For example, having an allegedly Jewish surname (that is
non-Judaic onomastically) and testing positive for the Cohanim Modal Haplotype
does not conclusively establish a Jewish link.
The relevance of culinary, folk and oral traditions should not be dismissed
out of hand, but several points should be considered and three questions
should be asked: Where did the tradition come from? How was it most likely
brought into the family and how long has it been in the family? How does
it fit into the context of Sicilian
• In many cases, a certain culinary tradition which coincides with kosher
observance may well be Jewish in origin, particularly if it is followed
in a locality that had a Jewish community before 1493, but this cannot be
taken to imply that a specific family was Jewish. The tradition may well
have been adopted by the entire locality. Also, certain traditions were
followed by more than one religious group; the dearth of pork recipes in
Sicily is as much a Muslim characteristic as it is a Jewish one. Sicily
is the world's most conquered island, so its cuisine is full of "foreign"
influences. Not everybody who prepares arancine (rice balls) is descended in the male
line from Sicily's Muslim Arabs.
• Certain customs are not Judaic per se. The Inquisition
tortured a young woman because she reportedly changed her undergarments
every Saturday, this being the Jewish Sabbath. She swore she was not engaging
in a Jewish custom but something her mother had taught her to do. In those
times most people did not bathe or change their clothes every day. Nevertheless,
it's shocking to think that a Sicilian woman was punished for changing her
underwear - on whatever day of the week!
• The sad truth (the Inquisition aside) is that until the last decades
of the nineteenth century "ordinary" Sicilians knew precious little
about their own social history. The average person had no real knowledge
of the Elymians, the Greeks, the Muslims or the Jews, and into the latter
decades of the nineteenth century illiteracy was over 75 percent. Granted
that they arrived in Sicily quite recently and were allowed to practice
their religion (so we do not have a precise analogy), the Albanians
know their Byzantine history and language. True, the former Jews had to
keep many traditions hidden from Catholic authorities. Still, unless the
"tradition" in question is overwhelmingly evident, such as an
actual practice (sitting shiva) rather than a "family legend,"
it should be taken with a few grains of salt.
• Sicily's Jews were a highly literate population boasting a strong tradition
of learning. While generalities should be avoided (for there are always
exceptions), and though socio-economic vicissitudes take their toll over
time, it makes sense that a christianised family willing to keep certain
Jewish traditions over several centuries would also have maintained a culture
of at least basic literacy. By 1492, most Sicilians were illiterate, but
not the Jews! It could be argued that strong traditions die a very slow
death, so it is rather unlikely (but not impossible) that a family shown
to be illiterate farm workers from 1850 back to circa 1550 were Jews in
• As regards historical research, the statement that "We were Jews"
should be treated with the same caution and objectivity as "We were
of the nobility." The difference, of course, is that connections to
the aristocracy are easier to prove or disprove. Again, we have the example
of the Albanians, who arrived in Sicily just as the Jews were leaving (or
converting); they seem to have maintained certain traditions despite the
Inquisition and other challenges to the practive of their faith (being Greek
Orthodox rather than Roman Catholic). Their traditions were not those of
the Jews, but the point is that historical continuity consists of more than
hearsay or an oral "tradition" invented just a few generations
• It should be noted that specific familial traditions survive from all
of Sicily's historical faiths. The tradition of fasting (from meat) not
only on Fridays but on Wednesdays is not originally Roman Catholic but Greek
Orthodox in origin. Sicily's Christians were all Orthodox before the arrival
of the Normans in 1061.
Statistical models are important in population studies. If Sicily's Jewish
population in 1492 was less than 10% (probably less than 8%) of the general
populace, and if at least half of these families emigrated in 1493, with
very few returning, nothing short of a disproportionately high birth rate
among their descendants in the male line over the last five centuries could
leave us with very many Sicilians descended in the male line from Jews.
Taking into account such factors as genetic drift and "bottlenecks,"
it is clear that Jewish ancestry in Sicily must be far less frequent than,
for example, descents from Greeks and Arabs.
The expulsions and conversions in the Kingdom of Naples (most of peninsular
Italy south of Rome) were essentially complete by 1553. A greater residual
presence of Judaic traditions was preserved in some isolated localities
in Apulia, Calabria and Basilicata.
Sicily has scant archaeological traces of Judaism - no standing synagogues
(except those over which churches were built) but a few inscriptions and
the vestiges of two mikvahs (ritual baths), in Siracusa and Palermo.
About the Author: Luigi Mendola is a historian based in Sicily.