Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

entry June 2010

1.The Early Settlement of the Jews in Southern Italy
2. What is Sephardic? What is Ladino?

This is my summary of the article, "The Early Settlement of the Jews in Southern Italy" by Adolf Neubauer. It appeared in The Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Jul., 1892),  pp. 606-625 and was published by the University of Pennsylvania Press. Neubauer (1831-1907) was born in Hungary and became sublibrarian at the Bodleian Library and reader in Rabbinical Hebrew at Oxford University. The text is well footnoted. Many of the notes and quoted passages in the text, itself, are in Hebrew and the author assumes a knowledge of that language on the part of the reader. Numbered, bracketed notes [like this, in italics] in the summary are mine and not in the original text. They are meant to provide a bit more explanation than that found in the original text. I have placed them at the end of respective paragraphs.

1. We don't know exactly when Jews appeared in Rome. It is unlikely that a Jewish community was founded by the Maccabean [1] embassies sent between 168  and 139 B.C. by the rulers of Israel to conclude a treaty of alliance with the Roman Republic. Possibly, they were brought to Rome around 89 BC during the Mithridatic Wars.[2]

[1. The Maccabees were a Jewish rebel army who took control of parts of the land of Israel, which had been a client state of the Seleucid Empire. They ruled from 164 BC to 63 BC, reasserting the Jewish religion and expanding the boundaries of Israel.]

[2. The Mithridatic Wars were a series of wars between Rome and the Kingdom of Pontus, one of the successor states of the empire of Alexander the Great.]

Pompey certainly transported Jews as slaves to Rome after the conquest of Jerusalem (63 BC). Some were freed, became Roman citizens, and settled on the right side of the Tiber (Trastevere), organising themselves into a community and continuing to adhere to their religion. In Rome, they had synagogues and their own cemeteries, but no documents have survived to tell us how well acquainted they were with ceremonial laws. They probably followed some rules, passed down by oral tradition, for the order of the prayers, for example. We don't know if prayers were recited and the lessons read in Hebrew or in Greek—probably both, depending on the synagogue. We suppose Greek to have been the predominant language with the Jews at Rome from the early epitaphs, the only authentic documents concerning the early Jewish community in Rome and in Southern Italy. They are nearly all in Greek; a few are in Latin. (The article then contains a list of known Jewish cemeteries in Rome.)

Roman Jews used the synagogue as a house of study, and the Rome community also supported the schools in Palestine with money. Jewish influence was evident elsewhere in Europe although no prayer book was officially written down before the close of the Talmud. As examples of influence: "...Alcuin, the learned friend of Charlemagne, mentions a religious controversy at Pavia in 800 between the Jew Julius and Peter of Pisa. It is probable that the Jew Isaac, who was sent on a mission by Charlemagne to the court of Harun Al-Rashid was a native of Lombardy. In 887 a Jew named Zedekias is mentioned, who acted as physician to Charles the Bald in Upper Italy." By the sixth century there was also a large community in Cagliari on the island of Sardinia due to the earlier (19 AD) banishment under Tiberius of 4,000 Jews to the island.

In the south, there was a "respectable congregation" in Naples, who distinguished themselves in the war against Belisarius (536 AD).[3] There are, as yet, no traces of that community's catacombs. [4] There are a number of extant catacomb inscriptions in nearby Venosa.[5] They are mostly in Greek; some are in Latin, and some are in Hebrew written in the Greek alphabet. One is in Greek written in Hebrew characters. Those and others in Brindisi and Lavello are probably from around the year 800. These others are generally in Hebrew and are a sign that Hebrew was preferred in connection with religious ceremonies.

[3. Belisarius: Byzantine general instrumental in Justinian's attempt to reconquer the Western Roman Empire.]
[4. That situation has changed somewhat since the writing of this article (1892). As noted elsewhere in this encyclopedia, catacombs were discovered in 1908 and 1931. They have, however, to my knowledge not been excavated.]
[5. Venosa is east of Naples, just outside of the Campania region near the town of Potenza in the region of Basilicata. The Jewish catacombs there were discovered in 1853. The Jewish community in Venosa is well-known and there is ample documentation.]
Thus, "from the decrees of Gregory the Great, Pope Honorius, and many Councils, we may conclude that Jews were spread over the whole of Italy, including Sicily, as early as the sixth century and later on." Neubauer refers to Rabbi Tam of Ramerupt [6] who cited as an old saying, "Out of Bari shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Otranto." [7] Both Bari and Otranto were important in Jewish leaning as early as the eighth century.
[6. Tam of Ramerupt lived in the 1100s and was one of the greatest commentators on the Talmud.]
[7. A play on a passage in the Book of Isaiah, substituting "Bari" and "Otranto" for "Zion" and "Jerusalem."]
There follows an account of Rabbi Shephatyah's (of Otranto) saving of five congregations from forced conversion under the rule of Byzantine emperor Basil II. The rabbi is said to have healed the emperor's daughter of insanity and thus brought an end to the persecution of Jews in Otranto. The date of Basil's persecutions is given in a chronicle compiled in the eleventh century as 4628 A.M. [anno mundi/year of the world=868 AD). That chronicle, "important for the Jewish settlement in Southern Italy,"  is in the Cathedral Library of Toledo. There follow some pages of tales from the chronicle on the wanderings of various Jews to Italy after the destruction of the Temple.

Thus Bari and Otranto possessed learned rabbis, certainly as early as 870, and most likely before that time. The saying of R. Jacob Tam is thus justified. Many of these rabbis might have been the ancestors of those killed by the Arabs at Oria, in the Province of Otranto, in 925.[8]

[8. Oria is in southern Italy, in the heel of the "boot" of Italy. It was the birthplace of the medieval scholar Shabbethai Donnolo (913-982), one of the first Jewish writers on medicine. The town was a well-known center of Jewish scholarship in medieval Italy. It was sacked and destroyed in 925 by Arab raiders.]
The author mentions some minor Midrashic treatises composed in Southern Italy around the year 900. Mention of the Jewish War under Titus:[9]
Titus placed governors in the towns which made peace with him, and left them in the land of Judah. The number of prisoners which Titus carried away was 90,000; of those who fell in Jerusalem by sword and hunger, together with those who were spared and returned, was 108,000; of those given to his father and settled at Rome was 1,500; those who settled at Taranto, Otranto and other towns in Puglia, was 5,000. Vespasian gave to his son Titus Africa and Spain, where 30,000 Jews settled in Carthage and in his capital Sevilla on the river Baetis.

[9. Titus was the Roman emperor from the years 79-81. Before that, he was the military commander responsible for the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70.]

And, finally, Neubauer says, "Thus we reach the eleventh century, where we find, if not a great school, at least learned men in Sicily, Siponte, probably also at Salerno, Trani, and more especially at Rome, where the Talmudic Lexicon by Nathan,[10] still in use, was finished about 1100."

[10. Nathan: reference to Nathan ben Jehiel of Rome (1035-1106), lexicographer and liturgical poet.] 

 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
What is Sephardic?  What is Ladino?
This is NOT complicated*
I wrote the Afterword afterward, but maybe you should read it now.
It's down at the bottom.


  2. (added April 2021)
What makes a group of people call themselves a group? You might say, well, it's what they feel they have in common language, religion (or lack thereof), political views, history (that is, the time they have spent together
viewing themselves as a group, their hopes, dreams, how they live and die, their tragedies and their miracles.
So if we ask "What is their soul? is 'soul' a fair term? Yes, but it's weighted down with the religious meaning of
a part of the individual that lives on after we die. How about 'spirit'? Is that better? Not really. "The spirit of a
people" is not nearly as strong. Let's stay with "soul". 

*just kidding!

Sephardic refers to a 'brand' of Judaism (as Roman Catholic does to a 'brand' of Christianity). Ladino is the language that Sephardics speak. Let's start with the language first because that is NOT complicated.
[Still kidding!] . In 1999 in Italy they passed Law n. 482 of that year
" safeguard the culture and languages of the Albanian, Catalonian, German, Greek, Slovenian and Croatian populations as well as of those who speak French, Franco-Provencal, Friulian, Ladino, Occitanian and Sardinian."

Other parts of the law provide for instruction in schools, at least partially, in minority languages." That is impressive
and fair. It mentions "those who speak... Ladino...".  That is NOT the Ladino I am going to talk about! That law refers to the fourth official language of Switzerland, varieties of which are also spoken in parts of northern Italy. I know a native speaker of that Ladino. He is from Chur, Switzerland, and he calls it "Romansch" when he is speaking Ladino or German, but when he is speaking in Italian, he calls it "Ladino". The Germans call it Dolomitenladinisch.The official name for it in English is Rheto-Romance, Romansh or Rhaetian, but we don't speak it, so what do we know!? See? That wasn't so bad!
I am talking about the Ladino alluded to in this image (right), the language of Sephardic Jews. Following the account in the Hebrew Bible (or Tanakh, the canonical collection of Hebrew scriptures, including the Torah), Abraham was the first Patriarch, to whom God revealed the tenets of the Jewish faith. It's simple: Adam (the first man)---> Noah---> Abraham. Abraham lived around 2000 B.C. His son Jacob (alive in c.1850 BC) wrestled with an angel and was renamed "Israel". The name "Israel" may mean "God rules." Jakob had 12 sons; "the 12 tribes of Israel" are named for those sons.
The unification of Israel took place around 1000 B.C. Before that you had the migration of Jacob to Egypt, 400 years in Egypt, the Exodus out of Egypt under Moses, and the conquest of Canaan under Joshua. Our "biblical" Israel, the glorious kingdoms of David and Solomon, was short, both in quick succession around 900 B.C.  It came about after the Jews had wandered through the desert for 40 years from Egypt to reach the Promised Land, Canaan, which the Lord had promised to them once they polished off the Canaanites, who were living there. It became Judea. Then it all went downhill. Ten tribes in the north were sent off in the 700s BC to somewhere in Asia by Sargon II, the Assyrian king. These are the so-called "Ten Lost Tribes of Israel (all but Judah and Benjamin). (The others? There is no end of stories about them. Make up your own.) If you want more detail, read Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus (you'll fall asleep somewhere in Leviticus.) Fast forward a bit to Alexander the Great, the prototypal builder of empires. He died in 323 BC. His vast empire fell apart quickly into successor states, one of which was the Seleucid Empire. Within that area were Jewish rebels called the Maccabees, warriors who took control of Judea, the southern part of what once was ruled by David and Solomon and ruled it as an independent kingdom from 110 to 63 BCE.** They even had diplomats posted elsewhere  in Rome, for example. They were defeated by the Romans at the siege of Masada (73 BC) when the Maccabee forces fell on their swords rather than surrender.*** Romans finally conquered all of Palestine (70 BC), making it part of the Roman province of Syria. Jews were then expelled to be refugees and slaves all over Europe and the Mediterranean. That was the beginning of the Diaspora (scattering, dispersal). At that point Jews spoke Aramaic (the modern version is called 'Syriac'). Hebrew was used only in religious services.)
** As the article above this one says, it's possible (but unlikely) that  Maccabee diplomats in Rome spoke Aramaic among themselves. It's also possible that they held religious services in Hebrew. That would be "pre-Diaspora" Jews in Italy. It's all fascinating, but all very speculative. Fun to think about, though.
What happened to the language of the Jews once they left their homeland? The best-known example is the language of eastern and northern European Jewry called Yiddish. It has become a language of literature as well as the backbone of much American comedy. Everyone knows some Yiddish, and not just from Mel Brooks and Woody Allen movies. If you have seen the 1964 musical or the 1971 film adaptation of Fiddler on the Roof, that is from the Yiddish of Sholem Aleichem (pen name of Solomon J. Rabinowitz [1859- 1916], called the Jewish 'Mark Twain.' They say Mark Twain went to meet him once, held out his  hand and said, "They tell me I'm the American Sholem Aleichem. My pleasure, sir!") The pen-name is a common Yiddish greeting meaning "Peace be with you." It is much different from the language of the Sephardics, who went south and west across the Mediterranean to what is now Spain.

The Schocken Book of Modern Sephardic Literature by Ilan Stavans  contains fiction, memoirs,
essays, and poetry from twenty-eight writers spanning more than 150 years.
Included by Emma
Lazarus (a Sephardic Jew) is her poem, The New Colossus (1883) -"Give me your tired, your
poor, your huddled
Pub. : Schocken; (2005) Don't worry. It's all in English.           
ISBN-10 ; 0805242287;
ISBN-13 : 978-0805242287
The name 'Sephardic' most likely comes from a Biblical location, but later, when Jews said 'Sepharad' they meant Hispania, that is, the Iberian Peninsula. Sefarád means "Spain" in modern Hebrew. In English, you may hear "Judeo-Spanish", but it is "Ladino" to Jews around the world. It's a Romance language, much of it from Old Spanish and other old Romance dialects spoken on the Iberian Peninsula when the Muslims ruled most of it as Andalusia (the 700s to 1200s). Ladino has been enriched by Ottoman Turkish and Semitic from Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic in the fields of religion and law. It is influenced by languages of the Balkans, such as Greek, Bulgarian and Serbo-Croatian. (The Sephardics were expelled from Spain in 1492 by Wicked Queen Isabella (!) as the "Reconquest" took hold (i.e. Christians taking the peninsula back from the Muslims). She gave them three choices: (1) convert to Christianity, (2) be burnt alive at the stake, (3) leave. They spread back to the east, many to Italy. Speakers of Ladino, Sephardics, get short-changed as the "other" Jews. Of course, Sephardics may think of speakers of Yiddish, "Ashkenazi" Jews, as the "others". (That term is from Ashkenaz, the first son of Gomer, son of Japhet, son of Noah. I have heard they don't always get along, even though they are all Jews. Maybe it's a kind of "I am more of a Jew than you are," but I'm not qualified to referee "holier-than-thou" arm-wrestling.

     Back to the questions,
What is Sephardic? What is Ladino? A religion, a language, respectively. Do Sephardics speak Ladino with one another? Some do, some don't. (Typically, they also speak the language of the country they live in.) Do Sephardics write in Ladino? Maybe personal letters, diaries, etc. but it was never the vehicle for literature that Yiddish was. Are there "secular" Sephardics? Of course. There was never a Sholem Aleichem in Ladino, or, if so, that person really had some great stories! Back to the original question, soul. The soul of a people that have been through what the Jews have is all around them. This soul-puzzle is a crystal snow globe with water (the soul), and snow flakes are the bits of human lives, always moving. They never settle and that is how it should be.

I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Los Angeles. My Jewish friends were all Ashkenazi. I had never heard the term "Sephardic" (and I'll bet many of my friends hadn't, either). That has changed somewhat. There are many programs in "Sephardic studies." These are some available resources:

SHOFAR Summer 20001 Vol.19, No.4  


Implying that there are two kinds of Judaism -- Ashkenazi and Sephardic -- was an oversimplification. I apologize.  I discussed "Spanish" Jews (Sephardic) with some mention of "northern" Jews (those that have given us Yiddish), both terms referring to what happened after the Diaspora, after they left home. They went in different directions. So, it's location or direction? No. There are as many kinds of Jews as there are directions!  Asking, What is a Jew? is like asking, What is a tree? If it helps to think of pre-Diaspora Judaism as the original roots of the tree, ok, and maybe you can include some of the trunk (if you can find it in this image). Then comes the Diaspora and the rest of the tree. My two were pretty good-sized branches, but what about the rest of the tree? It's still growing with more big branches, the small ones, the leaves. (Certainly a few squirrels, but that's a theological problem I may deal with some other time. Or maybe not.) Thus, there are Mizrahi Jews, roughly applied to descendants of Jews from the Middle East, and also Maghrebi Jews who in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. There are Jewish communities in the Caucasus, Central Asia and India, and even Mountain Jews ("Kavkazim") from Dagestan, not to mention Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. As long ago as Biblical times, there were cultural and linguistic differences between Jewish communities  within Ancient Israel and Judea. Even in that small area you had long-term isolation. Think of what happens in a thousand years of diaspora that covered continents. So it's no longer a matter of religion (though clearly it once was). It may be that many Jews today see being Jewish as more a matter of ancestry and culture, rather than religion. What's more important, the cart or the horse?

And a word about Masada. Herod the Great's fortified complex (image) at Masada was a winter retreat and insurance against a feared rebellion of his Jewish subjects or an attack from Rome. Luxurious palaces, barracks, storerooms, bathhouses, and water cisterns sat on a plateau 400m above the Dead Sea and desert floor.  Roman historian Flavius Josephus' account is that the men killed their wives and children, then each other, until the last survivor killed himself . That symbolism of heroism and "death before slavery" was an icons of the new nation state of Israel in 1948.. "Masada shall not fall again." Modern archaeology has some doubt. A few say the story is a total fabrication, but most criticism says archaeologists needed to raise money for excavations, so they hyped the story to sell books. Others question what the icon symbolizes: "You stand alone on a hill to fight your enemies and then commit suicide? This is  the 'Masada complex'? This is the model for Israel?" (from Yadin Roman, the editor of Eretz magazine, author of a book on the Masada excavation.

LASTWORD -- Can it get more complicated? Yes.

In 1906, Sir Arthur Ernest Cowley (1861 – 1931) the British librarian and head of the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford from 1919 until a couple of months before his death, published The Aramaic Papyri (also known as the Elephantine Papyri) of the Fifth Century B.C. During his time as Bodley's Librarian, he was regarded as one of the leading Semitic scholars of the time. In 1923 he published a revision of his 1906 work, incorporating critical results of other scholars; his original text was largely unaltered. His book on the papyri is still the benchmark for discussion on the topic of the Elephantine Papyri. These are documents from the Egyptian border fortresses of Elephantine island (in Egypt, on the Nile near Aswan), a trove of hundreds of papyri in hieratic and demotic Egyptian, Aramaic, Koine Greek, Latin and Coptic. The documents include letters and legal contracts from family and other archives, and are  invaluable in such disciplines such as epistolography, law, society, religion, language and onomastics. The original manuscripts are from the 5th century BCE. Digs started in the late 1800s. Cowley's 1906 book was the first scholarly product . (Cowley, Arthur, The Aramaic Papyri of the Fifth Century B.C., 1923, Oxford: The Clarendon Press.)

 Salient comments from Cowley include:

"[The papyri] show clear evidence of the existence in c. 400 BCE of a polytheistic sect of Jews, who seem to have had no knowledge of a written Torah or the narratives described therein... So far as we learn from these texts Moses might never have existed, there might have been no bondage in Egypt, no exodus, no monarchy, no prophets. There is no mention of other tribes and no claim to any heritage in the land of Judah. Among the numerous names of colonists, [the names] Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Samuel, David, so common in later times,  never occur, nor any other name derived from their past history as recorded in the Pentateuch and early literature. It is almost incredible, but it is true."
   — Arthur Cowley, Aramaic Papyri of the Fifth Century B.C. p. xxiii.

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