When we talk about crypto-Jews, we tend to think about the descendants of Spanish Jews in 1492 and Portuguese Jews in 1497 who were forced to convert to Catholicism but who maintained the Torah in secret. But we tend to forget that the Catholic Church and the Inquisition also had influence in Italy, particularly Sicily. In Spanish they were often called conversos or marranos; in Hebrew, “Bnei Anousim,” literally the “Children of the Forced.”
Rabbi Pinhas Pierpaolo Punturello (who thankfully for my limited Italian skills also goes by Rav Pinhas) is a product of that lesser known crypto-Jewish community in Italy. He remembers his family covering up mirrors in their house after his grandmother died when he was a boy (a common Jewish mourning custom); he found links to Judaism on both sides of his family; and after finally choosing to pursue Judaism, he became the spiritual leader of a small community in Naples.
Since then, he has planted his family in Israel. Yet as the first official emissary of Shavei Israel to Bnei Anousim in southern Italy, he finds himself in cities like Palermo two weeks out of the month.
"Palermo in Sicily is one the most active and vibrant communities I work with. You can find many articles about the Hanukkah candles at Steri Palace (the Inquisition Castle in Sicily) but we aren't limited to that. We also have groups in places like Calabria and Apulia."
Sicily was once under the control of the resurgent Spanish Empire, unfortunately for Sicilian Jews during the time of the Inquisition. While the Inquisition's program only went into full force for Sicilians in 1493, a year after the major expulsions in Spain, it still hit the community with the same intensity. The same would happen to other locations in Italy.
"In 1493 we had the very same expulsions and forced conversions (in Sicily) for Jews and Muslims on the island (as in Spain). In Naples, they had several different expulsions due to the economic status of the Jewish population."
Spain conquered Naples from France in 1503. Almost immediately, the Inquisition launched operations against non-Catholics in the area.
"From 1504 through 1549, every year a different group of Jews were forced to leave that city as well. You can easily imagine the phenomenon of the marranos or Bnei Anousim started to become a common problem. Moving was a temporary solution for many, many people."
The good news is coupled with some roadblocks for Italians trying to break back into the Jewish world. The resurgence of Jewish identity on the peninsula has caught the 40,000-strong Jewish community in Italy mostly by surprise, despite Italian Jews being well aware that many of their ancestors might have been forced into hiding like crypto-Jews in Spain.
"The Italian Rabbinate is living now in what I like to define as a moment of discovering the something that was already well known. In other words, we are now facing this new reality where people are coming back to their roots, a historical and well-known subject that only in our generation became a practical matter. Only in our generation has it become a religious issue, or a conversion issue."
"Some of the Italian Rabbis are so moved by this and very compassionate toward these people. Some are Halakhically skeptical."
It is at this point where Rav Pinhas steps in. He is working on building a self-sustaining community from dozens of potential returning converts to Judaism.
"My job is to work on two fronts: bringing these people back home on the one hand and trying to convince Rabbis in Italy to be more open-minded on the other."
He has led seminars for the Jewish community at large and Shabbatons for Bnei Anousim in Sicily and southern Italy.
That work leads Rav Pinhas to guide students both in their trips to Israel and in their native Italy. At the moment, he is working with 100 Italian students between the two countries - at one point having more students in Calabria than Palermo. Some of them see themselves in Israel more permanently, while others have not made such a commitment.
Regardless, interest in a full-fledged return, converting to Judaism, is on the minds of many of his pupils. And many are also planning on going the extra few hundred miles and aiming for Aliyah.
"Some of them are here in Israel at Shavei Israel’s Machon Miriam Conversion and Return Institute in Jerusalem."