History of the Jewish Community in Trani

Francesco Lotoro

The presence of a Jewish community in Puglia can be traced all the way back to the Roman Empire. The origins of the community are disputable; some maintain that the first Jews arrived in Trani after the expulsion from the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon around 1144 C.E., others argue that they had settled in the territory before 1000 C.E., during the Saracen invasions. Jewish history scholar Cesare Colafemmina sustains that the first Jews came to Trani in flight from Islamic Spain and from persecution at the hands of the Almohadi. The Jewish population in Trani grew when Bari, having surrendered to the Byzantine emperor Manuel Komnenos, was destroyed by a vengeful William I of Sicily [William “The Bad”] in 1156. As a result, many of that city’s Jews presumably fled to Trani. Further growth in the Jewish population of Trani came around 1182 as a result of the expulsion from France under the reign of Philippe Auguste. The reasons behind the Jewish migrations to Trani and the expansion of the community there can be explained by the vast commercial possibilities of its port, for several centuries, an epicenter of trade with the Maritime republics and the East.

In 1063 the Ordinamenta maris (Maritime Laws) were drawn up in Trani. This charter comprises some of the earliest legislation to deal with maritime traffic, including labor relations between sailors and shipping companies, and it is still valid today around the world. Of the three signing consuls, two were Jewish: Angelo De Bramo and Simon De Brado. The Giudecca , the Jewish quarter in Trani, was located in the most ancient part of the city, within the Lombard-Byzantine walls and directly adjacent to the port. The neighborhood occupied a good part of the medieval city and it is commemorated in the toponymy with incisions bearing the original street names: Via La Giudea, Via Scolanova, Via Sinagoga, Via Della Giudecca, Vico La Giudea, Via Moisè da Trani. Thus, following the contemporary Via La Giudea and the Largo Scolanova (still home to the original synagogue) all the way to the old port, and around the dense network of little streets and alleys thereabouts, it is easy to see that a large part of the old city was occupied by Jewish families.

Further proof lies in the fact that there were 4 synagogues within the medieval perimeter. The transformation was completed in 1380 under the reign of Charles III of Durazzo when many Tranese Jews were forced to convert to Christianity and the synagogues took on the names of San Leonardo Abate, S. Pietro Martire, Saints Quirico and Giovita, and Santa Maria in Scolanova. The first two were destroyed but we know where they stood. Meanwhile SS. Quirico and Giovita (later called Sant’ Anna) and Santa Maria Scolanova have been preserved. The latter, built before or around the turn of the 13th Century by German Jewish immigrants, is very likely the oldest while Sant’Anna was completed in 1247 (a lapidary stone commemorating the date can still be found there).

These two are the only surviving medieval synagogues in Southern Italy. Moreover, the community had a cemetery outside the walls as well as a burial area within the contemporary Villa Comunale (to the right of the maritime road that connected the residential part of the city to the Colonna Peninsula) near the church of Trinità della Cava (now San Francesco). The Norman conquest of Trani brought with it the Norman tradition of subjecting the Jews to ecclesiastical law and the Tranese Giudecca was surrendered to the bishop in 1155 by William I. Before this juridical modification, the Jews of Trani enjoyed considerable affluence and the community had grown to more than 200 families (as noted by Benjamin me Tudela), involved in numerous commercial and artisanal activities such as the dying of cloth, the fabrication of vases and the granting of loans. However, the economic wellbeing of the Jews was, for the most part, derived from financial services – currency exchange, money lending and pawn brokering (sanctioned by the Usurariorum nequitiam act of 1231) – and it suffered considerably under ecclesiastical rule.

The bishops tried in every way to obstruct the Jews from owning property even though a note attributed to the Jurisconsult Andrea Bonello confirmed the niun diritto of the bishops over Jews with Tranese citizenship. It is important to note that the right to own real estate was not a problem or privilege unique to the Tranese Jews but it concerned Jewish communities in various different city-states throughout Italy. To be subjected to ecclesiastical rule in all civil and criminal cases constituted a serious prejudice against the community.

Jews were essentially considered foreigners, but unlike Venetians – who for example were protected by their own consular authority -, they fell under the bishop’s authority. They had to pay an annual tribute to the bishop as well as taxes on their activities and earnings. With the proviso of April 15, 1195, the Emperor Henry VI upheld King William’s 1155 appropriation giving the bishop of Trani jurisdiction over the Jewish community. However he issued a further act of law that greatly limited the earlier ones. Beginning with the supposition that all subjects were entitled to his protection, the emperor declared that people could not be persecuted for religious reasons and that violence against the Jews, especially with regard to forced conversion, was unlawful and punishable by a fine of 50 pounds Aurei purissimi – and this held true for any clergy, bailiffs, judges or citizens who went after Jews or their money. Moreover he established a limit to the tribute Jews were to pay the bishop, fixing the sum at 38 once, less one third, per annum. Finally, crimes of lese-majesty were exempted from ecclesiastical jurisdiction.

With the accession of Frederick II, the conditions of the Jews continued to improve. In the first part of his reign, Frederick proceeded in ratifying all the previous concessions (regarding the Jews) to the church and he upheld the taxes imposed on commerce, slaughterhouses and dye-works. He also re-allocated to the church services previously required by the crown. However, later Frederick chose to remove the Jews from ecclesiastical authority altogether and to put them, once again, under the jurisdiction of the State. More rights and privileges were accorded to Jews when, in 1221, he assumed supreme authority over them and, as a reward for services rendered to the crown by the Jewish community of Trani, he reinforced the tribute protection his father had granted by fixing the sum and adding the clause “iuxta propriam facultatem”.

Frederick’s laws also provided that Christians could not testify against Jews and vice versa. In 1231, many of these regulations and the rights and privileges they accorded to the Jews of Trani were extended throughout the kingdom on the basis that the diversity of faith rendered them “Infestos, omnique alio auxilio destitutos”.

Frederick II, most certainly aware of the industriousness of the Jewish community of Trani and its contributions to the economy of the kingdom, aimed to facilitate commerce and commercial activities. In 1231, he granted the Jews exclusive rights to the raw silk trade. The Jews already had a near monopoly on the dye-works industry, controlling almost every aspect of that trade and were active in the organization of the “Fiera di Trani” [trade fair of Trani]. Subsequently Frederick’s son Manfred exempted all commerce and deals that took place during the trade fair from taxation. Another dispensation of Frederick’s that incentivized the economy and promoted the development of the Jewish community in Trani allowed Jews to practice usury legally at the rate of 10% per year. (Although in spite of these sanctions and protections, from the time of Bonello da Barletta, the Municipality did not honor the debts it had incurred with Jewish lenders.)

In the 12th and 13th centuries, the lifeblood of Tranese Jewish Culture was to be found in the 200 families who resided there – headed by Isaiah mi Trani ben Mali, Isaiah mi Trani ben Eliahu, Aron mi Trani, Iosef mi Trani, Moshè ben Iosef mi Trani, called the Mabit, Avraham ha Gaon (author of the Sephardic Siddur), Abravanel (founder of the Banco Federatizio di Barletta), rav Heliac, rav Nathan l’Esegeta e rav Saqah. The emperor Frederick II was wont to surround himself with Jewish scholars and men of letters. Among these was Iaqob ben Abbamari Anatoli, official doctor at the Court of Naples and a good friend of the philosopher and mathematician Michael Scot, Frederick’s official astrologer. Trani had become an important Jewish cultural center during the decline of the community in Bari.

Two of the greatest Jewish teachers of the 12th and 13th centuries, Isaia ben Mali, called “Il Vecchio” [The Elder], and his nephew Isaia ben Eliah, were from Trani. The first taught in Italy, Greece, Macedonia and Palestine while the second wrote Pirqe Halachot (legal decisions) Both however eventually migrated to Northern Italy since Trani, due to the strong socio-economic orientation of its community, didn’t offer adequate conditions for their teaching. Through his efforts, Frederick succeeded in securing the patronage of the Jews for generations to come. The memory of the great emperor’s benevolence toward them was well conserved in their hearts and they financed his descendents from Manfred (who knew Hebrew) all the way to Conrad IV. The Angevin conquest however put an end to these more or less favorable conditions for Jews in Trani and throughout the kingdom.

The advent of Angevin rule was especially traumatic for the Jews of Trani; taxes and duties of every kind were raised, the obligation to wear a distinctive sign was restored and the Angevins zealously pursued conversion by all possible measures – from threats to the concession of privileges to neophytes. In 1294, 310 Tranese Jews were exempted from all fiscal payments as a reward for having renounced their faith. Giovanni da Trani, having converted to Catholicism, was absolved from competing for forced loans to the Treasury.

It went similarly well for Manoforte, the rabbi of one of the synagogues of Trani. When Manoforte became catholic in 1267, Charles I rewarded his fervent embrace of the new faith and his efforts to convert others by granting him an annual emolument of 6 gold pieces on all the proceeds from his dye-works business. Manoforte was indeed famous for his renunciation of “Judaic infidelity” and for his proselytism; he accused his former coreligionists of “harboring texts blasphemous to Christ and Mary, such as the Talmud, the Carrboct and the Sedur. In 1270, as a result of Manoforte’s denunciations, Charles I ordered his officials and henchmen to confiscate such books and to bring them directly to his court.

Generally these incentivized conversions did not yield lasting results and persecution of the Jews continued to worsen, effecting neophytes in much the same way – prompting many of them to return to their former religion. The situation of the Jews in Trani became so bad that the king himself intervened, directing the Castellano of Trani to cease persecuting them. It wasn’t just religious hatred that determined the situation: the Jewish Tranese possessed extensive wealth in cash and this is also why they were forced to grant loans to the Treasury which were only repaid under exceptional circumstances.

The regime’s attitude toward Jews re-awakened the bishops’ avidity and, no longer content with the fixed annual tribute, they tried to extract money from the Jews in any way possible, even by imprisoning them until the sum was obtained. Outside of any legal or state authority, the archbishop went so far as to impose taxes on trades and industries. Under Charles II, the Jews’ position in Trani continued to deteriorate – despite the fact that he had placed them directly under his protection. Instead he used this to his benefit, normalizing (in 1291) the occasional tribute Jews paid to the crown and requiring that Jews distinguish their identity with a visible sign, as related by the acts of the notary Francesco Strigalicio of Trani. Finally, Charles II allowed for the transformation of all the synagogues into churches and provided for the transfer of the Jewish cemetery to the Dominican brothers. Under the first Angevin rulers the situation of the Jews deteriorated inexorably and this was noticed by King Robert of Anjou who was alarmed by the impoverished state of the Jewish quarter of Trani and by the reduction in the number of families – frightened away by the insistent harassment of the bishops.

This depopulation was bad for the kingdom given the fact that it also meant a reduction in revenue for the state. In order to put a stop to the decline, King Robert authorized 21 Tranese Jews to carry arms for protection while traveling for business and he commanded all citizens of Trani to respect the Jews. Jewish customs and practices were once again honored and tolerated and the Jews resumed the practice of usury with the sovereign’s authorization. (This was actually at the behest of Christian citizens who profited indirectly.) Despite the fact that harassing neophytes who returned to their original faith was outlawed, under the reign of Joan I, the bishops of Trani continued to extract large sums from unwilling converts. In 1385, Charles III of Durazzo gave the rule of Trani (along with the city of Giovinazzo) to the mercenary leader Alberigo da Barbiano.

Almost immediately, Alberigo appropriated for himself the proceeds from the Jewish community’s allocations to the bishops of Trani. In the same year (1385), Charles III was succeeded by his son Ladislaw who upheld his father’s concession of Giovinazzo to Alberigo (and it is assumed that this was valid for Trani as well). Subsequently, with the diploma of February 3, 1413, King Ladislaw decreed that every four months, 16 citizens had to be elected as administrators of the municipality – among them 8 nobleman, 6 commoners and 2 neophytes. This lasted until February 27, 1422 when Joan II, at the insistence of Archbishop Francesco Carosio, re-instated all the rights of the clergy over the Jews in Trani, including the tribute. Moreover, all the Jews and neophytes of Trani had to swear their loyalty as vassals of the Church.

With the Aragonese conquest, a new season of possibility opened up for the Jews of Trani. Alphonse of Aragon arrived in the kingdom with a reputation for being a friend and protector of Jews and, as ruler, he enacted a series of reforms to their benefit. His purported benevolence and the Jews’ expulsion from Spain prompted a new wave of Jewish immigration to Puglia. Among the many Jews who immigrated to Trani during this period were Rabbi Berachia ben Natronai and Abrabanel (who then lived in obscurity in Monopoli). In 1487 the banker Musce also lived in Trani. Under Aragonese rule and throughout the 15th century, the Jews remained in their historic neighborhoods or “Giudecche” throughout Puglia. Thanks to Alphonse’s liberality, they were permitted to build synagogues throughout the kingdom and their Scole flourished. Unfortunately, the ecclesiastical authorities sometimes claimed the right to oversee the schools and even though the practice had, for the most part, fallen into disuse, it allowed for abuses. King Ferdinand addressed the problem when he revoked the exercise of this power and in 1492, he ordered the Captain of Trani to “punish harshly certain young troublemakers who, when the Jews opened their schools to perform their offices, harassed them by throwing rocks and doing many dishonest things to discourage them”.

As a result of greater tolerance toward the Jews on the part of Christians, there were very few forced conversions – at least until 1492. However, Trani was an exception to the general trend and there were enough conversions there to allow for the formation of a community of converts. Very likely these men upheld their faith and customs privately while publicly, they held positions of power (especially in light of the fact that Trani had become the center of Puglia’s trade with Venice). Although conversions had occurred under coercion since the time of the Angevins, a large-scale conversion came only with the reign of Charles II.

In this way, there came to be a sizable class of “new Christians” in Trani that remained active for over two centuries – practicing their rites in secret and marrying clandestinely within the community. Although at times, their number and conduct raised the suspicions of the ecclesiastical authorities provoking renewed persecution and harassment and ultimately prompting many of them to renounce Christianity and to return to the religion of their fathers. It is noteworthy that, while Jews and merchants are qualified in official mercantile documents, it seems that the qualification “neophyte” all but disappears during this period.

Converted families such as the De Bostunis (one of whom would become Minister of the Treasury of the Royal Household in Naples; other descendents include the Bottoni of Naples), Ajello, De Gello, Gentile and Zarulo were considered important mercantile families linked by commercial interests and their relationships with Venice and Florence. The old neophytes were already successful enough that they made up the largest contributions in taxes and tributes in times of need. Envious of the florid economic position enjoyed by this new social class of converts, the Tranese nobility instigated numerous persecutions against them, prompting many of them to immigrate to the cities of Molfetta and Barletta around the end of the 15th Century. The future King Frederick ordered their property confiscated not so much to deprive them of it as to guarantee its safety and to keep it free from damage.

In the meantime, Trani had fallen under Venetian rule.
The relative protection Jews enjoyed under the Aragonese allowed them to develop their dye-works industry as well as to establish tanneries, butcher shops, and bakeries. Since Trani was a port town, commerce naturally prevailed over the smaller trades. And finally, the Jews overwhelmingly preferred money lending (or usury) as their chief economic activity and this industry flourished above all the rest. It should be noted that these agreeable conditions were temporary at best. While the wealthiest and most powerful Jews sought to obtain further privileges through conspicuous subventions to the Crown, the Aragonese – torn between their greed and the wellbeing of the State – often conceded favors and appointed Jews to important offices only to nullify the privileges and honors shortly thereafter.

They allowed usury when it was to their advantage but they often cancelled their debts without paying them. A perfect example can be found in the case of the Jews in Trani and Barletta who, in 1442, lent Alphonse I the sum of 250 ducats for his needs and then had to pay a fine at the end of his reign for the civic upheaval that it caused. Overall however, Alphonse I showed himself to be a friend and protector of the Jews such that in 1456 he spared them from the bishop’s authority and he named Francesco Martorei (himself a Jew) as the bailiff authorized, exclusively, to handle all civil and criminal cases within the community. Moreover he established that Jews were to answer for their actions to Martorei and to him alone, declaring that this office was motivated by a desire to protect Jews throughout the kingdom. Alphonse’s successor, Ferdinand I, upheld the aforementioned privileges and he kept Martorei in office. In bringing the Jews once again under the jurisdiction of the State in 1456, Alphonse ended the centuries old contest between state and ecclesiastical authorities with regard to the Jewish communities, making the Jews answerable only to the civil authorities. But the bishops refused to give up so easily and, in Trani, they impatiently awaited conditions that might be favorable to the re-establishment of their rights over the Jews.

In spite of a general attitude of liberality toward the Jews among the Aragonese rulers, Ferdinand was inclined to be more restrictive and overall, his measures led to an erosion of the legal status of the Jewish community in Trani. With an edict valid for all Jews in the Lands of Bari and Otranto (of which Trani was a part), he declared their accounting books void and prohibited them from seeking justice or reparations and from selling promissory notes – even in the case of a Christian debtor’s insolvency. During the second half of the 15th century relations between Jews and Christians deteriorated considerably.

The king was obliged to punish uprisings in 1491, 1492, and 1493 during Holy Week in Trani even though these were already strictly forbidden by law. Moreover, with the proviso of July 3, 1494, the Sommaria (the governing body established by the Aragonese in the kingdom of Naples) ordered the Captain of Trani to prevent the bishops from inciting the priests and laymen against the Jews. In 1492, following Isabella’s expulsion of the Jews from all her territories, most Jews in the kingdom were forced to immigrate and convert.

The Jewish communities in Southern Italy managed to survive until 1541, when an edict issued by Charles V called for the elimination of their customs, rites and practices within the territory without further delay. At this point, many immigrated to territories within the Ottoman Empire – Patrasso, Corfù, Salonicco, Edirne – where they were well received and were often able to maintain the language, customs and rites of Trani. The Jews who remained implemented the practice of “marranesimo” or outward conversion to Catholicism followed by clandestine observance of Jewish rites. Sources: Cesare Colafemmina and Emanuele Gianolio.

Current Affairs in the Jewish Community of Trani
The efforts necessary to provide for the rebirth of the Jewish community in Trani were set in motion in 2004 when the Rabbinical Council in Rome explored the possibility of re-establishing a community in Trani under the protection of the Jewish Community of Naples. They conducted a census of the Jewish communities in Puglia, investigated the conditions of the Scolanova in Trani and finally, met with local authorities. On July 15, 2004 the Constituent Assembly of the Jews of Trani was convened and it was decided that the various social, familial and cultural realties of Judaism in Puglia would be channeled into one institutional corpus.

The municipality of Trani was ready to restore one of the two remaining synagogues, the Scolanova, for the religious offices for which it had been built. On September 5, 2004, the Jews of Trani organized their first European Jewish Culture Day with an exhibition of ritual objects in the Scolanova Synagogue, a book fair, conferences and a tasting of Israeli Jewish cuisine.

The commemorative day featured a special visit to the synagogue by Archbishop of Trani Monsignor Giovanni Battista Pinchierri. On September25, Kippur was celebrated in the former Colonna Monastery (in Trani): the Liceo Ebraico and the Tempio dei Giovani of Rome collaborated to the services, with the two seraphim. Hanukkah was celebrated in December 2004 with giant menorahs set up in the Castello Svevo and on the Fortino di Trani. The Hanukkah festival was especially miraculous insofar as Jews from around the region came together in Trani that week. Then president of the U.C.E.I., Amos Luzzatto visited Trani, promising to come up with a plan to create an official branch of the Jewish Community of Naples in Trani.

Every year since Passover 2005/5765, Trani has seen to the provisioning of the Jews of Puglia – making sure they have all the necessary supplies (matzoth, wine, cookies, haggadoth, etc.) throughout the 8 days of fasting. During the celebration of European Jewish Culture Day in 2005, an interreligious conference – “The Bread of Abraham” – was held in the Scolanova Synagogue. A few days later, Trani published its Hebrew Lunar Calendar for the year 5766 to great acclaim. It is still considered one of the most beautiful Jewish Calendars. In 2006 both Tu biShvat and Purim were celebrated in Trani and Rabbi Shalom Bahbout, a longtime supporter of Jewish culture in Trani, came for the holidays. In the meantime, the Jewish Community of Naples formalized its intentions, making Trani an official satellite community.

Like other Jewish communities, Trani and its Scolanova Synagogue have benefited from Law no. 175 which provides funds to Italian Jewish communities for the restoration of their holy buildings. 2007 brought a very special donation from the mother community in Naples – the Sefer Torah of the Fiore-Novelli family -, making it a very special year for the little community in Trani. Italian Jews came from Naples, Rome, and Sannicandro, and as far as Bologna and Modena to see it and this occasion created a renewed awareness for the fledgling Tranese community, especially within the region. Since then, other Jews in Puglia have been more willing to assist the Tranese in fulfilling their offices and duties. On December 21, 2008 the president of the U.C.E.I. Renzo Gattegna came to Trani for the lighting of the menorah. During the Council of the Italian Jewish Communities that was held in Trani in 2008, plans for an autonomous Jewish community in Trani were discussed and Gattegna announced that Trani would once again host the European Jewish Culture Day celebration in 2009. The future will be very busy for the Jews of Puglia. There is much to be done in the coming years and the many plans include reinstating the use of the Mikveh, acquiring space for cultural activities and scholarship, nominating a minister of cultural affairs in Trani, courses in the Talmud Torah, and Hebrew language lessons. Other aims, of a broader scope, include promoting kosher products in Puglia, instituting a secretariat within the Scolanova, searching for Jewish families scattered throughout the region, a regional television production on Jewish culture and finally to firmly establish a tradition in the European Jewish Culture Day celebration in Southern Italy for generations to come.