Jews With Better Food?
by Daniela Enriquez
Have you ever wondered if you have Italian Jewish roots? Or, do you think you have an Italian Jewish last name? You may be right. In spite of the fact that 90 percent of Italians are Catholic, much of the remaining 10 percent is Jewish.
In fact, many Italian Catholics have Jewish genetic markers of which they are unaware.
According to some historical studies, 50 percent of the population of Sicily and Calabria (two southern Italian regions) were Jewish before the Inquisition. Those Jews were Sephardi, and connected with the Spanish and North African communities. During the Inquisition, some families left these regions of southern Italy and moved to northern Italy and other countries, including Greece and some Islamic countries. Others were forced to convert to Christianity and thus became anusim, the Hebrew term for forced converts.
Today, many Italians living in Italy and in the U.S. are interested in rediscovering their Jewish heritage, which they can do with the aid of research centers specializing in tracing genes through DNA sequencing.
Rabbi Barbara Aiello, the first Italian woman rabbi, learned about her Italian Jewish heritage as a teenager. At the age of 28, Aiello visited Calabria and started to document her Jewish history and heritage. In 2006, she organized a conference in New York to help families in search of their own multi-ethnic heritage. During the conference, families were provided with information about DNA testing and archeological documentation of the Jewish presence in Italy. According to Aiello, there are about 26 million Italian Americans in the U.S., 80 percent of whom came from Sicily and Calabria. If it is true that, prior to the Inquisition, 50 percent of “Siciliani” and “Calabresi” were Jews, then it is possible that up to 80 percent of Italian-Americans have Jewish markers somewhere in their DNA, says Aiello.
Given Italy’s location at the heart of the Mediterranean, it shouldn’t be surprising that some studies have also linked Italians not only to Jews but also to other neighboring populations, including the Druze, Bedouins and even Palestinians.
So if you’re an Italian and want to find out about the possibility of your own Jewish origins, don’t be surprised if, in the course of your research, you discover a Bedouin great-grandfather you never knew about.
For more on the genetic links between Catholics and Jews, check out the July/August issue of Moment.