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Apulia

Jews lived in Apulia from ancient Roman times until 1541, when they were banished from all of Southern Italy. They arrived after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD, when emperor Tito brought back 5,000 Jewish war prisoners, who subsequently settled in and around Taranto.

The records are sparse over the next two centuries, though we know that the great historian Josephus wrote his major works at the imperial court in Rome during this time. By the third century, Jewish funeral inscriptions indicate definite settlements in the Southern cities of Bari, Oria, Capua, Otranto, Taranto, and above all, Venosa. These were important stops along the main trade route from Rome to the Eastern Mediterranean and Byzantium. The Via Appia (or the Appian Way), which linked Rome to the southern tip in Brindisi, the main port city on the Adriatic, ran through Capua, Venosa, Taranto, and Oria, and was scattered with Jewish settlements. The Jews on this route formed essential links in the chain of international trade, lived on friendly terms with the rest of the population, and suffered equally with their Christian neighbors from the Saracen and Northern invasions.

Archeological findings from the early centuries AD point to Jewish presence in Apulia under the Roman Empire.

By the ninth century, local Jewry had acquired its own unique profile, known to us through poetic and liturgical texts produced in Oria and Taranto, as well as the legacy of the rabbinical schools of Otranto, Bari and Trani, which flourished in the 13th century.

In the 12th century, French Tosafist Jacob ben Meir recognized Apulia as a preeminent center of Jewish learning. Rabbinical scholars of Apulia in the 13th century include Isaiah ben Mali (the Elder) of Trani, his grandson Isaiah ben Elijah of Trani, Solomon ben ha-Yatom, and Abraham de Balmes.

In this sense Apulian Judaism can be considered as one of the oldest testimonies of the Western European Diaspora.

In the Middle Ages, Apulian Jewry lived through alternating periods of tolerance and persecution, especially after part of the region fell under the Kingdom of Naples. In spite of uncertainty, local Jewry established ties with cultural and economic centers along the Mediterranean and in the Balkans. A significant population of Iberian exiles settled in Apulia after the expulsion of 1492.

Apulia surpasses every other area in Europe – except possibly Spain – as a place to see original medieval Jewish buildings and artifacts. The medieval Jewish quarter in Trani is unique in its intact state. Nowhere outside of museums are there Jewish tombstones from before the tenth century like in Trani and Venosa; nowhere other than in Rome are there Jewish catacombs like the ones in Venosa. And in cities like Oria and Taranto there still exist significant traces of the former Jewish medieval Giudecche.

The edicts of 1510 and 1541 abruptly uprooted the community and its institutions. Its traces remained in the cultural fabric of the region through the conversos, who were assimilated into the local population. After their final expulsion, Apulian Jews settled mostly in Corfù, Arta and Salonika.

In the 19th century small groups of Jewish traders settled on the Adriatic coast without creating a formal community.

During the aftermath of World War II, the Allies established several transit and DP camps in Apulia. These became temporary homes to many Jewish refugees from Northern Europe, as well as operation centers for the Aliah Beth.

Episodes of mass conversion spurred a renaissance of Jewish life in Apulia during the 20th century. Most notable is the striking conversion of the San Nicandresi or Sabbatini in the 1930′s and 1940′s. More recently, we are witnessing the re-birth of a new Jewish community in Trani, a phenomenon unique in Europe.

Gallipoli

BARLETTA, BITONTO, RUTIGLIANO, OSTUNI, NARDO’, COPERTINO and GROTTAGLIE are among the many small towns, sometimes barely villages, with a documented Jewish presence as early as Roman times. Larger or smaller groups (sometimes just a few families) alternated between settling down and moving around between these various centers up to the expulsion of 1541.  In many […]

Otranto

Between the 9th and 12th centuries, Otranto was one of the main centers of Jewish learning in Apulia. As the Jewish community prospered, thanks to commerce and entrepreneurial ventures, scholars gave lasting contributions to the study of the Bible, the Mishnah and the Talmud of Babylon. At the time of the forced conversion, under the […]

Santa Maria del Bagno

Santa Maria del Bagno (Santa Maia al Bagno) was the largest DP camp in southern Italy. Established in 1943, the camp housed 2,300 Jewish refugees at its peak in early 1946. The exclusively Jewish camp was dispersed over three sites in requisitioned villas in the fishing village of di Bagni. Like other DP camps in […]

Nardo

GALLIPOLI, BARLETTA, BITONTO, RUTIGLIANO, OSTUNI, NARDO, COPERTINO and GROTTAGLIE are among the many small towns, sometimes barely villages, with a documented Jewish presence as early as Roman times. Larger or smaller groups (sometimes just a few families) alternated between settling down and moving around between these various centers up to the expulsion of 1541. In […]

Oria

The first Jews in Oria, Taranto and Otranto arrived after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. The affluent community they formed was for centuries a center of cultural and economic exchange for the Mediterranean basin. Following an attack by Saracen raiders in the 10th century, the community lost most of its assets and […]

Lecce

Lecce was the capital of what was formerly known as Terra d’Otranto. It had one of the most prominent Jewish settlements in the Neapolitan kingdom before the expulsion of the Jews. Though there is no evidence of a Jewish presence prior to the 15th century, there are traces its existence Lecce at the time of […]

Copertino

GALLIPOLI, BARLETTA, BITONTO, RUTIGLIANO, OSTUNI, NARDO’, COPERTINO and GROTTAGLIE are among the many small towns, sometimes barely villages, with a documented Jewish presence as early as Roman times. Larger or smaller groups (sometimes just a few families) alternated between settling down and moving around between these various centers up to the expulsion of 1541. In […]

Manduria

The Giudecca of Manduria is located in the area of the Chiesa Matrice and developed around the synagogue, which still stands today.  The Jews of Manduria lived prosperously in the city until the 13th century when Charles of Anjou imposed harsh life conditions on the Jews hoping that this would force them to convert. With […]

Grottaglie

GALLIPOLI, BARLETTA, BITONTO, RUTIGLIANO, OSTUNI, NARDO’, COPERTINO and GROTTAGLIE are among the many small towns, sometimes barely villages, with a documented Jewish presence as early as Roman times. Larger or smaller groups (sometimes just a few families) alternated between settling down and moving around between these various centers up to the expulsion of 1541. In […]

Brindisi

  After Pompeo’s conquest of Jerusalem in 63 AD, Jews were brought back to Italy as prisoners. They arrived in Brindisi; some remained there, but most settled in Terra d’Otranto. More arrived after the destruction of the Temple. As chronicled by Ahimaaz in the XI century, Jews from the Middle East continued to arrive in […]

Taranto

Few traces remain of the Jewish Community that flourished in Taranto during the Middle Ages. Much can be inferred from funereal epigraphs found here (as well as in Brindisi, Venosa and Bari). It is worth noting that these tombstones are all in Hebrew, which shows that the Jewish communities of Apulia were using their original […]

Ostuni

GALLIPOLI, BARLETTA, BITONTO, RUTIGLIANO, OSTUNI, NARDO’, COPERTINO and GROTTAGLIE are among the many small towns, sometimes barely villages, with a documented Jewish presence as early as Roman times. Larger or smaller groups (sometimes just a few families) alternated between settling down and moving around between these various centers, up to the expulsion of 1541. In […]

Monopoli

In this small costal town south of Bari, Jews were appreciated for their mercantile acumen, up to their expulsion in the early 1500’s. City view, Monopoli

Bari

One of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in Apulia, dating back to the 8th century, is located in Bari’s San Lorenzo district. Bari was once one of the flourishing Jewish centers of Apulia which, according to tradition, were founded by captives brought to Italy by Titus. However, unlike in neighboring towns, no inscriptions have survived to […]

Bitonto

GALLIPOLI, BARLETTA, BITONTO, RUTIGLIANO, OSTUNI, NARDO’, COPERTINO and GROTTAGLIE are among the many small towns, sometimes barely villages, with a documented Jewish presence as early as Roman times. Larger or smaller groups (sometimes just a few families) alternated between settling down and moving around between these various centers, up until the Expulsion of 1541. In many […]

Trani

The four synagogues of Trani were converted into churches during the wave of anti-Judaism that followed the fall of Apulia to the Kingdom of Naples. Three hundred of the Jews remaining in the city were forced to convert to Christianity. The four synagogues were renamed Santa Maria in Scolanova, San Leonardo Abate, San Pietro Martire, and […]

Molfetta

Jews settled and prospered in Molfetta until the early 16th century, when the area fell into Spanish possession. Before the expulsion of the Jews in 1507, Ferdinand II instructed the local population not to honor the usurious debts contracted with the Jewish moneylenders, in order to prevent them to leave the town after receiving payment. Ferdinand […]

Siponto

One the most famous centers for Jewish culture in Apulia was in Siponto. Many students from this town went to Mespotamia in the early eleventh century, in order to follow the lessons of the Babylonian Talmud. Upon their return they founded an influential Talmudic education center, headed by Rabbi Leon Elhanan.

San Nicandro Garganico

San Nicandro Garganico is a small town in the Gargano National Park dating back to the 10th century. Although there is no evidence of a historic Jewish presence here, in the late 1920’s, San Nicandro became the theater of the only case of contemporary mass conversion to Judaism. A local shoemaker called Aldo Manduzio discovered […]