The Jewish faith doesn't
really seek out converts, nor does it trumpet
examples of conversion; yet, one of the most
passionate declarations of conversion is, in fact,
by a woman who became a Jew. She is, of course,
the Moabite widow, Ruth,
who, at the death of her husband, refuses to leave
Naomi, her mother-in-law, saying "...Intreat me not to
leave thee, or to return from following after thee:
for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou
lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my
people, and thy God my God." (KJV-Ruth
1:16-17). What follows is, I
think, just as dramatic.
The earliest reference I have come
across to this unusual case of a large group of
Roman Catholic villagers in southern Italy
converting to Judaism was in the September 15,
1947, issue of Time
The piece was entitled "The Converts
of San Nicandro." The lead was this: "All over the
world next week, the ram's horns of Rosh Hashanah
(beginning of the New Year) will call faithful Jews to
the Ten Days of Penitence that end with Yom Kippur. No
prayers will be more fervent than those from the
80-odd ex-Catholics of San Nicandro, Italy." The item
went on to tell the tale of one Donato Manduzio
[1885-1948], an illiterate villager of San Nicandro in
the Gargano region (the "spur" of the boot of Italy on
the Adriatic) in the province of Apulia. He was
injured in WWI and during his convalescence taught
himself to read by studying the Bible. He had had what
Christians might call a "road-to-Damascus" conversion.
Apparently, a street sermon by a Protestant preacher
convinced him that Roman Catholicism was empty; yet,
he reasoned, Christ, though a prophet, could not be
the Messiah because there was so much misery in the
world. Donato thus decided to return to the God of the
Old Testament and become a Jew. He spent the 1920s and
1930s converting about 80 of his fellow villagers to
the God of Abraham. The Time article ends at the point
where the recent converts have decided to emigrate to
Palestine and help form the state of Israel.
At the beginning, Manduzio had
not even been aware of other, "real" Jews in Italy, a
community that was, until well into the period of
Italian Fascism in the mid- and late 1930s, on a
respected and solid footing in Italy. When Manduzio
learned of such Jewish groups elsewhere, he started
communicating with them. John Davis (sources, below)
writes, "Anyone reading the correspondence would
immediately have been aware of the very humble
background of the writer and would probably have
suspected some sort of prank." Yet,
little by little, the small community of Jewish
converts won respect and acceptance; the Rabbinate
in Rome accepted the converts into their new faith
in September, 1946.
A few years later, the New York Times
reported (March 3, 1953) that "...the Jews of San
Nicandro...have found their portion of the
Promised Land here in the mountains of
Galilee...". As background, the item added how the
new Jews had originally met resistance in Italy
from both the head Rabbi in Rome as well as from
local parish priests and ardent Catholic
villagers. (These same villagers, however, in 1943
had hidden "our Jews" in caves to protect them
from German searches.) In September, 1943, an
interesting highlight was then added to the whole tale
when Phinn Lapide, Canadian-born Lieutenant in the
Jewish Brigade of the British Eighth Army “discovered”
the San Nicandro Jews and became instrumental in
persuading the Rabbinate to accept the villagers. The
"Jewish Brigade" of the British Eighth Army was
technically Company 178, composed of Jews from
Palestine who had enlisted in the British Army to
fight Germany. It was one of the groups that
rolled up from the south and into San Nicandro,
liberating it as part of the general Allied push
to the north in pursuit of the retreating German
Army. The trucks from Company 178 had Stars of
David painted on the sides and the members of the
company must have been surprised to see cheering
residents of San Nicandro standing in the road to
greet them, waving their own Star of David flags!
So, in the spring of 1948, some
members of new Jewish community from San Nicandro
volunteered for service with the Jewish forces in
Israel. They and others settled in the village of Alma
in 1950. The New
York Times reported in April, 1953, from
Israel just how "authentic" the new Jews from Italy
really were. All they had ever read was the Bible and
had not even heard of the Talmud or its enjoinder upon
Jews to give to the poor instead of making burnt
offerings; thus, for a few Passovers, the community in
Alma had been performing the ritual slaughter of a
white lamb without blemish before a specially built
altar of unhewn stone, exactly as prescribed in
Leviticus and Deuteronomy!
(sources, below) in his review of Davis, writes
I did say it
was dramatic. And it is, but even the prosaic is
interesting. After all, not all the San Nicandro
Jews left for Israel. Birnbaum says that "...the
women and families [and descendants] of the
converts continue to live as Jews in every way.
The women keep the Sabbath and holidays, they eat
kosher meat brought in from Rome...light [the
Sabbath] candles, pray in the synagogue every
Sabbath and holiday [and] fast on the Day of
Atonement (Yom Kippur)." Also, I don't know that
anyone has tried to keep track of the Israeli
descendants of the original San Nicandro
immigrants, but I imagine that whenever Israelis
gather and talk about their immigrant ancestors,
there are no doubt tales of fleeing from pogroms
and vicious anti-Semitism in many
parts of the world, but there will be at
least a few who can say, "Hey, we used to be
Catholic farmers in southern Italy!"
* * * * * * * * * *
Other entries having to do with Judaism:
-Birnbaum, Eliyah. Manduzio, Father of Many People. (2007) On-line here. Retr. 2 Sept. 2011.
-Cassin, Elena. San Nicandro: The Story of a Religious Phenomenon. Cohen and West, London. 1959.
-Davis, John. The Jews of San Nicandro. Yale University Press, New Haven and London. 2010.
-Kirsch, Adam. Review of Davis. Retr. 2 Sept. 2011.
-Lapide, Phinn E. The Prophet of San Nicandro. Beechhurst Press, New York. 1953.
-New York Times, "Italian Converts Find Way in Israel," March 3, 1953 and "Converts Abandon Old Passover Rite," April 1, 1953, both by Dana Adams Schmidt.
-Time Magazine, "The Converts of San Nicandro." Sept. 15, 1947.
photo credits: the original photo of the cropped background shot of San Nicandro in the collage at the top is by Wikipedia user "giapet." The overlaid photo of Donato Manduzio's tomb in San Nicandro is by Gianni Lannes.