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Jews of Sicily, Italy

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The history of the Jews in Sicily deals with Jews and the Jewish community in Sicily which possibly dates back two millennia. Sicily is a large island off the Southern Italian coast. There has been a Jewish presence in Sicily for at least 1400 years and possibly for more than 2000 years.

There is a legend that Jews were first brought to Sicily as captive slaves in the 1st century after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE. However, it is generally presumed the Jewish population of Sicily was seeded prior to the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem. Rabbi Akiva visited the city of Syracuse during one of his trips abroad.

The Jews lived in many Sicilian cities such as

In the 6th century, communications were sent to Pope Gregory I about the plight of the Jews in the Kingdom of Sicily. In 831, Sicily came under the Arab dominion, who treated the Jews justly.

In 1072, during the First Crusade, Sicily fell to the Normans; and the Jews were again brought under the supremacy and jurisdiction of the Catholic Church. The Norman Kingdom of Sicily lasted until 1194, when it fell to the Hohenstaufens.

In 1210, the Jews of Sicily faced such persecution from the Crusaders that Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II had to intervene on their behalf. Persecution of the Jews continued. But, despite persecution, Sicilian Jews continued to thrive. Some Sicilian rabbis communicated with Maimonides posing religious questions. . . . Continued

It appears that by 1492 the Jews of Palermo constituted the largest Jewish community in Sicily, followed by that of Siracusa, whose mikveh (Europe's oldest Jewish ritual bath) is preserved.

Much of our knowledge of Mediterranean Jews, including those of Sicily, in the twelfth century comes from Benjamin of Tudela, a Spaniard and comtemporary of Abdulla al Idrisi.

In addition to visiting Sicily, Benjamin also described many Gentile groups, and mentioned China. He estimated that there were 200 Jewish families in Messina in the 1170s. That Frederick II employed Jews at court to translate Greek and Arabic works implies a high level of literacy among Jewish Sicilians. Source