JEWISH HISTORY / From Mass to Mass Conversion

They appeared in rural, southeastern Italy, a region that hadn’t seen Jews for 500 years, claiming to be the children of Israel. In Rome, the rabbis didn’t want to listen, but San Nicandro’s neo-Jews held their ground.

The Jews of San Nicandro
by John Davis. Yale University Press, 252 pages, $30

In the spring of 1932, the chief rabbi of Rome, Angelo Sacerdoti, sent a letter to Donato Manduzio, of the small town of San Nicandro, in Italy’s poverty-stricken southeastern Apulia region. Rome’s rabbi had heard reports a year earlier about a group of Catholic villagers who wanted to convert to Judaism. And soon afterward, he had received a letter of inquiry from Manduzio, their leader. Apulia was remote from Rome, and from the other centers of Jewish life in Italy, and there had been no Jewish community in the region since the 15th century. Who then, the rabbi wondered, were these aspiring converts to Judaism? He wrote to Manduzio to find out.

At the time, in the early 1930s, there were approximately 50,000 Jews in all of Italy. Over the previous century, many Jews had converted to Catholicism, and many more were to convert before the decade was over. But a group of Catholic converts to Judaism? This was unheard of. Especially striking was the rumor that these aspiring converts in a small village were now keeping the Sabbath as best they could.

Since first hearing of these “Sabbatini” (Sabbath-observers), Sacerdoti had learned that they “discovered” Judaism (or more precisely, the religion of the Hebrew Bible, without any knowledge of the Oral Law) on their own. Protestant missionaries had distributed Italian translations of the Bible in many southern Italian towns, and a considerable number of Catholic villagers had joined Protestant churches, much to the consternation of the local Catholic clergy. The San Nicandro villagers, under Manduzio’s visionary leadership, came to the conclusion that the message of the “Old Testament” was the only true divine message, and that they should completely reject Christian teachings.

Rome’s rabbi was alarmed by this development, concerned that a group conversion would antagonize the Church, and reminded Manduzio, in a subsequent letter, “you and your companions have often expressed your desire to convert to Judaism and I have always made it clear how much this amazes me. I have asked you many times how you came to this conviction, since you have no previous contact with Jews and know very little about what Judaism is. I have also repeatedly told you that to come to this knowledge requires long preparation and deep study.”

If this odd correspondence had only gone this far it would be of but passing interest to historians of Jewish-Christian relations. Sacerdoti was “amazed” by the Sabbatinis’ expression of interest in Judaism; no doubt he would have been astounded to know that Manduzio and his followers (who in 1932 numbered 20 adults and 30 children) would later convert to Judaism and that it would take 15 tumultuous years for that to happen. Even more astonishing, by the standards of the early 1930s, was the fact that most of the 50 Sabbatini would become Israelis a term that was then only a distant dream.

‘Sons of Noah’

The story of Manduzio’s followers and their conversion to Judaism and eventually to fully realized Zionism is the subject of John Davis’ “The Jews of San Nicandro.” Davis, a well-respected historian of modern Italy, does a fine job here of giving the reader the wider Italian historical context of this story.

Sacerdoti, who died in 1935, did not live to see the outcome of the San Nicandro saga. But his successors did. They were each involved, to a greater or lesser extent, in the San Nicandro conversion story. Over the tumultuous period from 1932 to 1946, both Sacerdoti and his successors, and their emissaries, tried to discourage the villagers from converting to Judaism. Though Mussolini’s Italy was not, in 1932, overtly anti-Semitic (this would happen only in 1937-38), some Italian-Jewish leaders feared for the future of their community. Perhaps, suggested one of Manduzio’s Jewish correspondents in the mid-1930s, the group should remain Gentile and embrace the responsibilities of “the Sons of Noah.” “We [as Jews] will say to you: ‘Be not troubled, because even as Sons of Noah you can bring benediction to the world and comfort to your brother Israel,’” he wrote.

Manduzio’s spirited response to this suggestion showed that the group’s self-concept had changed in the five years that had passed since his own first “revelation.” “We were amazed to hear that we are not Sons of Israel,” Manduzio wrote. “We know by Divine Revelation that we are more than Israelites, we are descended from the third branch of Jacob and directly from Levi.”

Manduzio later expanded on this idea and imagined that he and his followers were the descendants of anusim, Spanish Jews who had been forced, in the 15th century, to live as Christians. His first visionary experience of 1930, an experience inspired by his reading of the complete Hebrew Bible, led him to the conviction that he was a new Moses. But at the time he did not seem aware that there were other followers of Moses that is, other Jews in Italy, or elsewhere.

Not content to claim the moral high ground by invoking a Levitical lineage, Manduzio then made a claim that must have astounded all of the rabbis and other Jewish officials to whom he wrote. Actually, said Manduzio, he and his followers are closer to the “real” Jewish tradition than his Jewish interlocutors, particularly the rabbis. “If you say that we are outside Israel, then this is a sign that you do not recognize the Divine Revelation with which we alone have been favoured .... ” Neither he nor his followers, Manduzio acknowledged, had “studied at Rabbinical college or was a Rabbi, because everything we know has been taught to us by the one God who is the only teacher and shepherd.” In another letter, which Davis doesn’t quote, Manduzio chastised officials of the Jewish community of Naples. They had questioned his bona fides as a Jew. He responded by asserting the legitimacy and nobility of his Jewish heritage.

For Israeli readers, one of the most compelling chapters is “A Hero Comes to Visit,” which is Davis’ account of the April 1944 visit of Enzo Sereni to the San Nicandro Sabbatini. Sereni’s work in Italy and elsewhere in Europe, organizing both resistance to the Nazis and aliyah activities, left him no time for touring the small towns of Apulia. But when he heard of these brave villagers and realized that they were near a town in which he had contacts, he paid them a brief but moving (and well-documented) visit. Soon afterwards, Sereni was parachuted into German-occupied Tuscany, captured by the Germans and executed.

Immersion at sea

In August of 1946, the San Nicandro Sabbatini underwent conversion to Judaism. An Italian rabbi supervised the rituals. A Jewish surgeon performed the brit milah of 18 men and boys from five families. Ten days later, the men and women of the group had their ritual immersion in the sea. In November 1949, most of the San Nicandro converts sailed from the southern Italian city of Bari to Haifa and settled in Moshav Alma, near Safed, from where they dispersed to other parts of the country during the following decade, many of them to the Be’er Sheva region.

John Davis does a fine job of telling the story of the San Nicandrans. As a historian of modern Italy, he focuses on the political and social aspects of the story. But students and scholars of religion may want to learn more about the ritual and spiritual lives of these converts; Davis’ account is a bit sparse on these details. In addition, a more analytical account of Manduzo’s opposition to the rabbinic tradition would have enlarged the scope of the book. These aspects will no doubt be covered in subsequent books on the San Nicandran converts. As of now, we have John Davis and Yale University Press to thank for bringing this great story to light.

Shalom Goldman is professor of Hebrew and Middle Eastern studies at Emory University, in Atlanta. His book “Zeal for Zion: Christians, Jews, and the Idea of the Promised Land” was published earlier this year by University of North Carolina Press.