Cesare Colafemmina’s “The Jews of South Italy” (1979)

Presentation by Estelle S. Brettman:

"This evening we have a rare opportunity for Americans to hear a pontifical scholar lecture on material culture which casts new light on the history of the Jews in Southern Italy.
Our guest speaker is a professor of Holy Scripture at the Pontifical Seminary of Apulia and of history at the Institute of Christian Literature at the University of Bari. He is an archaeologist and epigrapher as well as a historian. He was born in the city of Teglio Veneto, near Venice, and received degrees in philosophy, theology, and Biblical Studies. He has published his research in paleo-Christian and Hebrew inscriptions, all of which has contributed to this thorough documentation of the early history of the Jews and Christians in Southern Italy. His latest and very important discoveries in the ancient Jewish catacombs of Venosa were made in 1975.
I am very pleased to introduce to you Fr. Cesare Colafemmina."

Text of Cesare Colafemmina's Lecture, "The Jews of South Italy"

The most consistent and chronologically extensive evidence of the history of the Jews in the Italian peninsula can be found in Puglia, in Southern Italy. One can only guess as to the origin of the Hebrew presence in Puglia. An ancient Chronicle talks of five thousand Jewish prisoners who were sent to "Taranto, Otranto, and other towns of Puglia" by the Emperor Titus after the destruction of the Holy City of Jerusalem. This information, which can't be verified historically, has the purpose of ennobling the origins of the Jewish communities in Puglia by linking them directly to the Holy Land and to that most tragic and glorious event in the whole of Israel's history.

Attilio Milano, an Italian historian, writes that "probably more than prisoners, Jewish merchants were the first to come and live in Lucania, in Calabria, and especially in Puglia, whose ports faced Greece and the Orient. It is also possible that this first Jewish community, although limited in size, had its origin even earlier than supposed by the Sefer Yosippon, i.e. before the destruction of the Hebrew state."

Not long thereafter, Brindisi has the honor of being mentioned in the Mishnah as being the port of embarkation of Akiba and other colleagues who were returning to Erez Israel.

The first official information about the Apulian Jews can be found in a constitution issued by Honorius, Emperor of the West, in 398 CE. It is known that in 383, Valentinianus revoked the law that exempted Jews from the holding of certain public functions. This had been granted to the heads of the Jewish community during the reign of Constantine the Great (312-337). In 397, however, Arcadius restored this immunity in the Orient.

The Jews in the West decided that they, too, wanted again to be exempt from the holdings of public duties (curial charges), but the Emperor Honorius refused and ordered a constitution to be made, a summary of which was published in Milan in 398, whereby all persons who had to attend to public duties had to fulfill them regardless of their faith. Then the Jews of Puglia and Calabria, i.e., Southern Puglia, protested so vigorously that the Emperor had to intervene directly.

Honorius says:"We have heard that many classes of people in Puglia and Calabria have not been performing their duties, and with the excuse of being Jewish, feel they are exempted by a law issued in the eastern part of the Empire. Therefore, with this constitution, we decree that that law, if it exists, is not valid because in my provinces it is harmful, and we wonder also that those who are in any way subject to public duties, whatever their religion, to accomplish their civic duties to which they are bound."

This document reveals that the Jewish presence in Puglia at that time must have been conspicuous and economically strong, because when the Jews deserted their public duties, the subject of this constitution, many towns in Apulia found themselves in financial difficulty.

From the 4th to the 9th century, there is no further information to be found in the literary sources. There exists, however, good archaeological documentation, especially inscriptions. This documentation is going to be the subject of my speech.

Otranto, for example, situated on the extreme south-east edge of the Italian peninsula, was a busy port in the late empire. The oldest known document attesting to the presence of Jews in the town is a tombstone dated to the early 4th century. We have new information about the Otranto community starting from the 10th century, when, during one of the persecutions caused by the Byzantines, some of its members were killed.

Going back along the Appian Way, we come across Lypiae, today known as Lecce, which is the main town of the province of the same name. Nearby, there was Rudiae, homeland of the Latin poet Ennius. The Jews are documented as being at Lypiae at the end of the 5th century CE. The documentation consists of a funeral inscription that I found in the Jewish catacomb of Venosa. The inscription is dedicated to a certain Augusta, grand-daughter of Symonas, pater Lypinesium. It is most probable that the Lypiensians of whom we are talking established a special synagogue in Venosa. This, as we know, was one of the biggest centers of Hebraism in Southern Italy.

Another important center for Jews in Southern Italy was Oria, a very old town situated halfway between Brindisi and Taranto. As with other Jewish communities in Puglia, that of Oria attributed its origins to the settlement of Jewish prisoners brought over to Italy from Jerusalem after Titus' conquest of the Holy City. The Megillat Ahimaaz, written in the 11th century, is very rich in information about the community of Oria. According to this chronicle, the spiritual life of the community was very intense. When Aaron of Baghdad, a learned representative of Babylonian culture, arrived there in the 9th century, the community appeared to his eyes as an assembly of "tents erected near the water courses that looked like trees growing along the rivers"; he also found established there schools of thought "flourishing like cedar trees that grow near water". Some of the most famous personages to remember from Oria are Amittai, Shefatya b. Amittai, and Amittai b. Shefatiah.

Amittai b. Shefatiah is the author of the well-known poem recited in the burial service of the Roman rite: "Even if a man could live a thousand years and could be all-powerful, he will still descend into the grave without riches and appear before God, the impartial judge." I recognized a stanza of this poem incised on a tombstone.

Situated in Byzantine territory, the Oria community became involved in a violent persecution during the time of the emperor Basil (second half of the 9th century). According to tradition, Shefatya b. Amittai saved the town and four other Puglian centers of Jews from the intolerance of the Byzantine ruler. But this is pure legend. Amittai b. Shefathiah's hymns testify that adults and children were forced to immerse themselves in what he calls "the lurid waters" of Christian baptism and proclaim the Trinity instead of the One. The apparent success of Basil's enterprise in Byzantine Italy is re-echoed in a Calabrian chronicle of the 10th century: "The Jews were baptized in the year six thousand, three hundred, and eighty-two (that is, 873 CE).

After the storm, Jewish life began again even in Oria. It was conditioned, however, by all the events that affected the region. So we see the terror of persecution alternating with that of Muslim raids, common to all. It is not surprising, therefore, that Shefathiah b. Amittai in a prayer asks God to "destroy Seir and his father-in-law", that is, Christians and Muslims.

Oria was taken by the Arabs in 925, and the majority of its inhabitants were killed or enslaved. Some Jews managed to escape and make it to Bari, center of a famous community. For Bari, also, the oldest documentation of Jews is archaeological. In 1922, a necropolis was discovered that consisted of tombs dug partly in the rock and covered with large slabs of tuff. In some cases, even the walls of the tombs consisted of large slabs of sandstone.

In the same area of Bari, in 1923, a small catacomb was discovered that was similar in outline and structure to that of Venosa. A short while after its discovery, the hypogeum was blocked with earth so that a house could be built. The necropolis revealed a few tombstones that came from the open air cemetery situated on the same land where the hypogeum had been excavated. The inscriptions seem to date to the 9th and 10th centuries. They are dedicated to Yosep b. Shamuel, David b. Manasse, Moshe b. Taddai, Moshe b. Eliah, and Eliah b. Moshe. The inscription dedicated to Eliah b. Moshe is very simple, being incised, in a very rough way indeed, on a brick, and containing only the name of the deceased and of his father. On the back, however, there is something we have never seen before in a Jewish context, and that is the title of Eliah b. Moshe as "Istratigos" (strategist). From Classical times, it is the first time a Jew appears to be holding this title. I don't think that the title indicates a strictly religious office and certainly not a military office. It probably indicates a high-ranking representative of the community who had civil and administrative authority.

As we have said, a few refugees of the pillage of Oria in 925 escaped to Bari, which had become Byzantine again in 876. A few years later, Hananel b. Paltiel of Oria started to look for a few of the things that the refugees had saved from the raid on his town. The scholars of Bari contested that, according to traditional teaching, an object belonged to whoever saved it. Hananel's answer is very interesting: Our teachers instruct us to follow the law of the country. A compromise was made, and the refugee regained half of his things, amongst which there was an old copy of the Bible.

The Bari community returns to the scene again a few decades later at the time of the Byzantine emperor Romanus Lecapenus (920-944). This Byzantine emperor had aroused an anti-Jewish campaign that was aimed mostly at the destruction of Jewish books. The Jews of Otranto, warned in time, managed to save the holy books in their possession. However, three learned and pious men were killed: R. Yudah, R. Menachem, and R. Eliah. R. Menachem has also been identified as the poet Menachem Corizzi. The persecution was violent, but very brief. A letter reporting the facts was sent by the head of the Bari community, the doctor Avraham b. Sasson, to Hisdai ibn Shaprut, advisor to Abd ar-Rahman III, Caliph of Cordoba, in Spain.

Returning now to the old Appian Way, we find Taranto, where there is good documentation of Jews in the form of inscriptions that range without chronological interruption from the 4th to the 10th century.

Leaving Taranto, the Old Appian Way goes toward Rome passing by Matera, Gravina, and Venosa, all cities with Jewish communities. Venosa, the home town of great Latin poet Horace, is also famous for its Jewish catacombs. The catacombs were discovered in 1853. The burials were untouched, but the hope of finding hidden treasures brought about the near-complete destruction of the inscriptions and bones of the dead. Almost fifty inscriptions were copied in time, many later destroyed. The inscriptions date to the 4th-7th centuries CE. The languages used in the inscriptions are Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. Considering the relationship of the Venosa Jews to the town council, two inscriptions attribute to two different individuals the title of "patron" or "patronos civitatis". It is known that the title of "patron" was given to rich, influential, and well-deserving people of the town or municipality.

The use of the catacombs in Venosa seems to have ended in the first decades of the 7th century. The Hebrew community started to bury their dead in an open air cemetery that presumably was situated about a quarter of a mile from the town. Most of the inscriptions that come from this medieval cemetery are dated in the range of 808 to 848 CE. The era is that of the destruction of the Temple, sometimes accompanied by that of the creation of the world. The names on these inscriptions are predominantly Jewish, but there are also Greek and Latin names that testify that the Jewish population of the era of the catacombs lived on into the 9th century in Venosa, even after the Lombard conquest.

At the end of the 9th century the Venusian Jewish community seemed to disappear. It is only much later, in the 15th century, that we hear again of Jews in Venosa. I believe that the Arab raids in the region greatly contributed to the dispersion of the old community. We must not forget that the disastrous conditions of the city forced the German emperor Ludovic the Second in 867 to plan for its rebuilding.

Jewish life continued in Apulia until 1541, at which time a public notice was issued that Jews were to be expelled within four months. So ended sixteen centuries of documented Jewish life in Southern Italy. Many Jews of Puglia at that time found refuge on the island of Corfu, where, up to the years preceding the Holocaust, the descendants of these exiles continued to pray in the old dialect of this Italian region, as heard in the prayer recited in the Haggadah of Pesach:"As we divide this bread, so the Saint, blessed be He, divided the Red Sea, so that our fathers crossed it in twelve columns, and He made for them miracles and wonders. May He do the same for us this year, next year in the Land of Israel, free men!"The words of the prayer express the anxiety to return to Erez Israel, but the use of the Apulian dialect also clearly expresses their faith in the land that was their homeland for centuries and centuries.

(edited by Jessica Dello Russo, July 2022)