Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

 entry Sept 2011

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 magazine. 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!

Adam Kirsch (sources, below) in his review of Davis, writes

...the home-made Judaism of the Jews of San Nicandro grew into a passionate Zionism. From 1944 on, the community’s goal was to emigrate and build the Jewish state. This was by no means easy... the British were intent on keeping Jewish immigrants out of Palestine, and the few available permits were meant for Holocaust survivors, not the comparatively well-off Jews of San Nicandro. Yet in November 1949...after the death of Donato Manduzio, who grew increasingly alienated from his flock, the Jews of San Nicandro did make aliyah [emigrate]. Davis writes only sparingly about their experience in Israel, which was apparently as difficult as that of most immigrants to the new country. But perhaps this very hardship was the best proof that they had achieved their extraordinary goal of becoming ordinary Jews.
In his own book on San Nicandro, Lapide (sources, below) writes in obvious amazement:

It was in 1943, while serving in Italy with a Palestinian unit of the British Eighth Army, that I came upon the new Jews of San Nicandro, a small village near the southern tip of Italy. These people had, under the influence of a peasant named Manduzio, become converts quite on their own several years previously, having moved from Catholicism to Judaism without ever having so much as laid eyes on a Jew, and without ever having exchanged a word with any organized Jewish body. The intensity of their new faith was borne witness to by the way in which they voluntarily shouldered the burden of Fascism’s oppressive, anti-Semitic legislation. In August 1946, a rabbi and a mohel journeyed from Rome to San Nicandro to circumsise the new converts and welcome them formally into the Jewish community. This did not, however, end the saga of San Nicandro’s Jews. There lay ahead a period of internal contention, fighting in a distant country, a long voyage, a new homeland….

Like Moses, Manduzio never made it to the Promised Land. But he did leave a diary in which he told of his dreams, his visions, his new faith. Birnbaum (sources, below) says:

These visions appear in Manduzio’s diary in a crowded hand spread over 400 pages, which I was privileged to hold in my hand. It is stored in the San Nicandro community president’s home...The diaries open with the author’s unique and emotional words:  “In these pages a short and simple story will be related. You will read in them how the light shone over the gloom, light that dispelled the night’s darkness and distanced the shadows of Death. You, my dear man, the reader, do not laugh at my perverse and flawed writing, because in all the days of my existence I did not spend a day on a bench in a house of learning. My master and teacher was the God of Abraham who redeemed our Forefather Abraham from idolatry and showed him the path to the land of Canaan.”

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:

Jewish community    Jewish catacombs    Jewish quarter    Jews (early in Italy)     The Ascarellis of Naples

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 my collage at the top is by Wikipedia user "giapet." The overlaid photo of Donato Manduzio's tomb in San Nicandro is by Gianni Lanne.
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