Ah, but all is not unalloyed joy, not for me with my distinctly sensitive antennae tuned to the history of lands under the control of Spain and later, the Fascists. Wherever I went, I found the hints of those who had been there before and whose presence is commemorated only by a few street signs and archeological finds.
The Jews of Sicily had arrived in waves when the Greeks first colonized the land centuries BCE, when the Romans sacked Jerusalem and sent Jews in slavery or despair out of their homeland, and when the trade routes included Sicily as a major port within the Mediterranean. Under the Greeks, the Carthaginians, the Normans and the Swabians, the Jews of Sicily prospered until they were between 8-10 percent of the population. While they lived in distinct areas of each city, they were not forced into ghettoes and instead mingled freely with their neighbors. The fabrication of coral jewelry and the manufacture of textiles were typical Sicilian Jewish occupations.
Until 1492, that is, when the Order of Expulsion under the Catholic rulers, Ferdinand and Isabella, forced Jews if all Spanish-controlled lands, including Sicily at the time, to convert or to leave. Many did convert while still others fled into northern Italy and lands beyond and to the east.
What remains are the signs in virtually every city in Sicily proclaiming Via Giudecca or Porta Giudecca, the pathways and entrances to a vanished community. And the appearance of the Magen David, the six-pointed star on buildings now used as churches and government offices. When I asked people about the sign, they said it was a "traditional" Sicilian symbol. Ah ha.
Most evocative however is the mikvah, a ritual bath used by a Jewish community for sanctification, not for bathing as we might bathe at home today. It was discovered in the 1980s when a hotel owner in the Ortigia section of the city of Siracusa began renovations. Her contractors had discovered hollow spaces in the sub-basement and unearthed the largest mikvah in Europe with five pools still fed by a fresh water stream as required by religious law. It dates back to the sixth century CE and was continually in use until...1492, when the community filled it in with stones and earth before they fled, hoping one day to return and use it once again. Their synagogue, right behind it, still remains...as a church.
According to one local scholar, it is used occasionally today for religious purposes by Jews who deliberately seek it out in honor of the community that preserved it in hopes that it would be there for future generations.