There have been fragmentary reports of a group of peasants in a remote comer of Italy who, after examining the various Western religious traditions, elected to embrace Judaism. Here for the first time is the fuller story of this strange and touching episode in present-day Jewish history.
San Nicandro Garganico is a little town on the peninsula which forms the spur of the Italian boot. It is a place where time has come to a standstill. Yet San Nicandro has recently achieved a certain fame in Italy as the home of Donato Manduzio, called “Levi,” the founder, prophet, and leader of the local group of “Jews,” the newest, perhaps strangest addition to the House of Israel.
Overlooking eight miles of Adriatic coastal plain, fertile but malaria infested, the stone houses of San Nicandro crouch on the rocky slopes of the brush-covered Gargano mountain range. For its twenty thousand inhabitants daily life goes on as it did centuries ago; the fields and vineyards from which most of the San Nicandrians make their living are tilled with old, obsolete tools. In the town itself, housing and sanitary conditions are pre-historic. In short, San Nicandro differs in no way from thousands of other hot, dusty, filthy, mountain-perched towns scattered through the southern part of the Italian peninsula, far from the main lines of communications.
Gray, heavy-bodied Manduzio is a man of humble peasant stock, born into a family that never had anything to do with Jews and probably never even saw one. Now sixty-three and confined to his bed for the past twenty-seven years as the result of an injury sustained in World War I, Manduzio supports himself and his wife on an extremely meager government pension, supplemented by the profits of a tiny vineyard which is cultivated for him by a relative.
Growing up with the other youngsters of the town, Manduzio was a perfectly average boy. But the war and his injury changed all that. Condemned to complete immobility, Manduzio plunged headlong into the study of religious problems. Illiterate, he acquired an elementary-school education through tenacious study, and then passed his days and nights reading and discussing religious literature of all kinds with friends and neighbors. According to Manduzio’s own account, his faith had been shaken ever since his return from the front. He began to have strange dreams, to see visions. Just at that time a Protestant preacher happened to come to the little town and distributed Bibles and held lectures. His success was spectacular: today the entire region is dotted with Protestant villages and San Nicandro alone has more than a hundred Protestant citizens.
With Manduzio’s friends, however, the preacher’s success only helped to smash whatever faith in the Catholic Church they might have still possessed. For Manduzio, nothing was to be gained by substituting Protestantism for Catholicism; Manduzio openly rejected the Protestant’s sermons, and publicly polemicized against him, asserting his intention of going back to the original source of both religions. And after a popularized Italian edition of the Talmud somehow or other fell into Manduzio’s hands, he began to preach Judaism to his friends and neighbors. He depicted Judaism as a religion of light, a living faith for the individual soul that enabled the individual believer to have personal relations with the Eternal without the need of a mediator, and contrasted this with the Protestant preacher’s condemnatory definition of Catholicism—“deviation from the Law, intermingled with paganism.”
Gradually, sympathizers gathered around Manduzio, single individuals and entire families—until their number amounted to about eighty. In San Nicandro today there are mixed families where either all males or all females of a single family are professing Jews and the other half are Catholics.
All this happened without the slightest influence or intervention from Italian Jewry, which for many years remained ignorant of Manduzio and his “Jewish community.” When Angelo Sacerdoti, then Chief Rabbi of Rome, received Manduzio’s first application on behalf of his fellow-believers to be recognized as Jews, he thought it a practical joke and did not bother to reply. But later letters aroused the rabbi’s interest.
There are now a number of voluminous files in the archives of the rabbinate and the Union of Italian Jewish Communities which contain the correspondence exchanged through the years between San Nicandro and Rome. All the letters from San Nicandro are dated according to the Jewish calendar. They open with “beloved Brethren” and invariably close with a “Shalom” in distinguishable Hebrew letters and “Peace” added to it in Italian.
To look through these files is almost a spiritual experience in itself. How toilsome must have been the composition of this mass of letters for peasant hands, so unaccustomed to handling a pen! With how much labor had those hands written page after page of quotations from the Old Testament, copied translations of Jewish prayers, and how difficult it must have been for them to write in Hebrew letters!
The status of the little group of San Nicandro “Jews” remained that of “semi-Jews” for many years. The local priest sued Manduzio for propagandizing for a religion without having first constituted a community. A document issued by the local prefettura on February 1, 1936, says that Petrucci Antonio and Donato Manduzio, convicted of having violated article 650 of the Civil Code, are fined 315 lire each, the former for having exercised the functions of a Protestant minister without authority granted by the government, and the latter, Manduzio, “for abusively directing a Jewish prayer house.” The fine of 315 lire, a considerable amount at the time, was paid collectively by the group.
Ironically, it was the advent of racial persecution that gave the Jews of San Nicandro the opportunity to legitimize their claim as Jews. The entire group voluntarily shouldered the burden of oppressive legislation. Their status must have worried the Fascist authorities in Rome: were they to be considered Jews or not? Manduzio wrote a letter to the Union of Italian Jewish Communities inquiring about the attitude to be taken by his group in view of their anomalous position. As perhaps might have been expected, the Union suggested that they resort to a sort of “marranism” in order to escape the collective fate of the rest of Italian Jewry. Manduzio answered that he had never expected to get advice of that kind from the “teachers of Jewry,” and that he and his fellow-believers were resolved to remain Jews.
They did so throughout that dark period. True, they were not much molested—but who could know in advance? At any rate, this action convinced Italian Jewry of their seriousness, and the Jewish community f San Nicandro Garganico was established as a sub-section of the Neapolitan Jewish community.
“On July 27, 1939,” Manduzio writes, “I saw a vision, that the Creator sent me to a place in the open, about five or six miles from my home, and a voice said to me: The Great Empire is coming to conquer Italy.’ And when I looked around I saw a company of soldiers approaching me, headed by their commander. Also in the vision I knew they were my friends and with great joy we shook hands . . . .”
With the liberation, which came for the Southern part of the Italian peninsula during the fall of 1943, a new period began for the Jews of San Nicandro. Palestinian units of the British Eighth Army passed through their town and for the first time Manduzio and his friends were given the opportunity to meet “real” Jews. Unanimously they voiced the desire to proceed to the land of “their fathers.”
Manduzio himself has described the liberation: “During the first days of January 1944, convoys of army vehicles passed in order to gather firewood in the Gargano mountains. When we noticed that the vehicles had the Hebrew sign, we said to ourselves: these people are Jews, and we hoisted a flag with the same sign in front of my door on their return. But the drivers saluted without stopping. Next morning we got ready very early! As soon as the first vehicle came in sight, we put up our sign and the truck stopped in front of my house and so did the whole convoy. They entered our home saluting with ‘Shalom.’ Later lieutenants, captains, and majors of the Foggia and Lucera military camps came to see us . . . . There was also an army chaplain . . . .”
Until 1946 the life of the group of converts, so far as religious observance was concerned, was as incomplete as might be expected. They did observe, however, the fundamental laws of the Torah and the sabbath. As for dietary laws, one of the group writes: “The wife of the burgomaster, seeing my misery, offered to adopt one of my little daughters now four years of age, but I cannot accept, as I do not want to lose my child, abandoning it in that house of the burgomaster to paganism and unclean food.”
Among the various problems that face the group is that of marriage, and this problem is not yet solved. In the long run, it may seriously endanger the very existence of the group. Marrochella, one of Manduzio’s disciples, recently wrote to Rome: “A young man, Nazaro Di Salva, born in 1925, wants to take a wife, but in our community there is none. I therefore apply to you as president of the orphans and refugees that you might find one amongst them a girl willing to marry him and to come to San Nicandro. If you think it possible, write us immediately and we shall wait until you find a suitable person and write us again in order to make an appointment for making the girl’s acquaintance so that our young man does not take a wife from among the other nations, which the Creator has forbidden; but if you do not wish to look after this matter, the young man will take a Gentile wife, which does not please the Creator, and it will not be our fault, since we do not know an orphan or refugee girl. Please write at once replying to this letter, and again when you have found the girl.”
The search for a wife for the young man proved fruitless, and when the converts were so informed, they wrote: “You told us regarding the young man Di Salva that it is impossible to send an orphan or a refugee girl to San Nicandro. But the Creator does not allow mixed marriages, because thus one puts one’s head into a noose, and we therefore ask you not as a brother but as a father to take care of our young man. And if you do not wish to do it and the young man insists on taking a wife of another faith, the Creator is judge that we have supplicated you. You said that the young man should come to Rome, but a young man without any experience could not stay away from home long enough in order to find a suitable girl; he would only go to Rome if you call him for the purpose of meeting an orphan or a refugee girl you might have found for him and if they like each other, they will get married and found a real Jewish family in San Nicandro . . . .”
In August 1946 a Rabbi and a moel from Rome made the long voyage to San Nicandro to carry out the circumcision of the converts. The occasion was a great success, with thirteen circumcisions of males ranging in age from a few months to sixty-four years. “After so much longing,” Manduzio wrote after the ceremony, “we have completed our arduous undertaking as far as the circumcision is concerned. We hope that after what has happened to us you will pay us a visit. I think you are aware of the economic condition of our small community, which is not in a position to pay the doctor at once the whole amount for his services during the circumcision. We ask you, therefore, to see that the Union of Italian Jewish Communities advances the sum to the doctor. We pledge ourselves to pay the debt back in installments.”
A further letter by Manduzio on the subject reveals some of the complications that arose: “It is with pleasure that I am telling you that we are all well. In our midst, dear Cantoni [the President of the Union], the circumcision has taken place, but the Chief Rabbi did not let us know that we would have to pay all the expenses for the doctor. He only let me know about travel expenses. The doctor told me that we have to pay 30,000 lire and I am horrified since in this country of stones one does not earn enough to meet these expenses; but we are at least ready to pay for the journey and the food for Dr. Ravenna for the time he stayed . . . “
Thus the converts of San Nicandro Garganico have become part of the House of Israel. The youth is represented now in Hachsharot (agricultural training camps), preparing themselves for a life of work in their “homeland”; one of the boys is attending the preparatory class of the Italian Rabbinical Seminary in Rome, and is making a good showing. They now have a little prayer hall in San Nicandro, and Manduzio’s most recent wish is “to write my name into the Golden Book of the Keren Kayemeth; but I know neither the words nor what I have to pay and you as teacher will suggest the words and let me know about the payment. The small family of San Nicandro conveys its Shalom to the brethren and sisters in Rome.”