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EDITOR'S PICK: THE JEWS OF SAN NICANDRO - A book review by Marty Morantz

by Marty Morantz, December 12, 2012

Mark Twain said, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn't.”

If I were to tell you, that just before World War II, in the midst of Nazi Tyranny; the Holocaust; European anti-Semitism; Mussolini’s Italian fascism; Germany’s occupation of Italy; and the abject poverty throughout Europe touched off by the great depression, that a small group of Roman Catholic Italians, living in a tiny town in the south of Italy, decided to convert to Judaism, you might be inclined to say “No way, that can’t be true!”

In addition, you might be surprised to know, that this little town had no formal Jewish Community, no Rabbi, no synagogue, no Torah scroll, in fact no books or materials relating to Judaism at all.

After reading the book “The Jews of San Nicandro”, published in October of 2010 and written by John Davis, I was amazed.

The book is extremely well documented, and I highly recommend it to you.

The unlikely hero of this “true to life” tale was the villager, Donato Manduzio. 
Manduzio was borne in 1885 into a family of poor peasants from the remote village San Nicandro, a small rural town in the south of Italy.

Manduzio never went to school, and in his early years was illiterate. While serving in the Italian Army, his legs became paralyzed as the result of an illness he contracted during World War I.

While convalescing in military hospitals, he learned how to read and write. Due to his paralysis he could not work, but drew a small veteran’s pension which allowed him and his wife to get by.

After the War he became interested in religion, and decided to read an Italian Christian translation of the Old Testament. Despite being raised as a Roman Catholic, although he recognized Christ as a prophet, he rejected the notion of Christ as the “Messiah” and the son of God. He decided to abandon his Catholic faith.
Although Judaism does not actively solicit conversions, in the 1930’s Manduzio, who was Roman Catholic at birth, convinced some eighty of his Roman Catholic neighbors to follow the Old Testament. This small group of poor families, decided to adopt the Jewish Faith in the 1930’s, at the exact moment in history Jews throughout Europe were being persecuted.

Manduzio became their spiritual leader.

The book recounts, through much lobbying of the established Italian Jewish leadership in Rome, by Manduzio, the San Nicandro community eventually formally converted to Judaism.

The males underwent circumcision, and the women, ritual baths.

Many of the San Nicandro converts took Hebrew names. For instance Donato Manduzio took the Hebrew name “Levi”. One of his fellow community leaders, Pasquale Cerrone, became “Pesach”. Another community leader Constantino Tritto became “Chaim”, and so on.

The Community struggled to get proper information from the Rabbi’s in Rome about how to be observant Jews, but did their best to observe Shabbat, kosher laws, and even held regular services including Pesach, Yom Kippur, and Rosh Hashanah.

1948 was a pivotal year for the lone group, as their spiritual leader Manduzio passed away, around the same time that the State of Israel was established.

After the establishment of Israel, most of the community deeply aspired to make Aliyah. This small group of Roman Catholics who had, with limited support from the outside world, converted to Judaism, had become committed Zionists.

And so it was that in November of 1949, most of the Jews of San Nicandro made Aliyah, and moved from their small town in southern Italy, to the newly formed state of Israel. They eventually settled in the village of Migdal Gad near Ashkelon.

The story of the San Nicandro Jews is an amazing, fascinating, and inspiring tale of the triumph of the human spirit over extreme adversity.

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Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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