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 the old Testament and became convinced that he was to revive the faith of Israel, unaware that Jews existed in modern times. By 1938, about a dozen families had converted, during one of the most troubled periods for Italy’s Jews. The peasant community came under the watchful eyes of Mussolini’s regime and the Catholic Church, but persisted in their new belief, eventually securing approval of their conversion from the rabbinical authorities, and emigrating in 1949 to the newly founded State of Israel, where a community still exists today.
In his recent book, The Jews of San Nicandro, historian John Davis uncovers the everyday trials and tribulations within this community, and shows how they intersected with many key contemporary issues, including national identity and popular devotional cults, Fascist and Catholic persecution, Zionist networks and postwar Jewish refugees, and the mass exodus that would bring the Mediterranean peasant world to an end. Vivid and poignant, this book draws fresh and intriguing links between the astonishing San Nicandro affair and the wider transformation of twentieth-century Europe.