Manduzio – Father of many people

Manduzio – Father of many people

A peasant from a village in southern Italy had a revelation, which led to the conversion of a band of his followers and their making Aliya to Israel. The women, who did not convert, keep the tradition for over five generations.

San Nicandro, Italy

Southern Italy is a beautiful region. Beautiful landscapes, simple agriculture and kindly villagers all create a pleasant and pastoral atmosphere for any guest coming for a stay. This week, I wish to describe the more interesting and powerful experiences I had during my travels among the far-flung Jewish communities around the world.

This description is about what happened around the town of San Nicandro, which today has some 15 thousand inhabitants. It is located on the spur of Italy’s famous “boot,” not far from the city of Fuja.

The story of the San Nicandro converts is a unique one. It constitutes a symbol and example of not only observing Judaism but also mainly its transmission from one generation to the next under uncertain conditions and even in “mixed” families.

I am going back two weeks to a Shabbat I spent in San Nicandro. Candle lighting was a little before eight o’clock in the evening. From seven thirty, the congregants began to flow towards the community’s small, neat synagogue. The synagogue is located on the town’s main street. On its East wall is a large painting of the Ten Commandments.

My hosts informed me that about 30 people come to Shabbat eve prayers and about 40 come for the morning prayers. Only, they forgot to tell me that of those who come, 37 were women and only three were men…

So actually, there was a “Women’s quorum” with a female cantor in the person of Constantina, a widow of about 50 years of age. She knew how to sweep the whole congregation after her; with captivating tunes along with prayer passages and song that were added to the classical prayer by the community’s spiritual leader and founder, Mr. Donato Manduzio, later known as Levi Manduzio.

The Shabbat morning prayers lasted about four hours. The women began the prayer with the portion of the sacrificial offerings, Verses of Praise, the reading of the Shema and the Silent Prayer. This was the Shabbat of the New Moon but they were to read the entire Hallel prayer without skipping and with all the tunes. Some of the prayers were read in Hebrew and some in Italian.

When it came to take out the Torah scroll, they began to sing Vayehi binsoa – “When the Ark moved…” and seven women, each read her section of the week’s portion and gave a short sermon with an appropriate interpretation and commentary. At the time for the Afternoon Service, the women returned to the synagogue until the Shabbat Concluding Service and Havdalah. Thus, all the community’s women gather three times in the synagogue for the Shabbat prayers.

The San Nicandro community of 5767 is a continuation of the one from 5706 (1946), which after many struggles, converted and became part of the Jewish people. What caused 74 men and women who did not know Judaism was or even what Jews were like, to halachically convert and come on Aliya to Israel?

A disciple of Abraham

Every change requires a spark. In our case, it appeared in the person of Donato Manduzio (1885-1948). Donato was a peasant and a World War I invalid. Until he was 33 years old, he did not know how to read and write. When he was 45, he discovered the Bible.

Manduzio first left his village when he was recruited into the army in 1915. When he was injured and hospitalized in 1918, he began to learn the Italian alphabet. As soon as he learned how to read, the thirst to read and learn began by him without a letup. The day that Manduzio began to read the Bible is called “The Birthday” by his followers because a new spiritual birth began on that day.

Manduzio’s spiritual life was filled with constant sights and visions. These visions appear in Manduzio’s diary in a crowded hand spread over 400 pages, which I was privileged to hold in my hand. It is stored in the San Nicandro community president’s home (these diaries, mainly the visions, were interestingly researched by Noa Hartum of Kvutzat Yavneh for a term paper).

The diaries describe Manduzio’s spiritual biography in which his first vision appears, the one that led him to discover Judaism and disseminate it to his followers in the town of San Nicandro.

The diaries open with the author’s unique and emotional words:  “In these pages a short and simple story will be related. You will read in them how the light shown over the gloom, light that dispelled the night’s darkness and distanced the shadows of Death. You, my dear man, the reader, do not laugh at my perverse and flawed writing, because in all the days of my existence I did not spend a day on a bench in a house of learning. My master and teacher was the God of Abraham who redeemed our Forefather Abraham from idolatry and showed him the path to the land of Canaan.”

In his dream, Manduzio sees himself standing in a plowed up field with darkness all about. While he was yet standing there confused and frightened, a man approached him holding an unlit lantern, “Come Manduzio and turn on the lantern,” said the man. “How can I light it? I don’t have any matches,” answered Manduzio. The man stretched out his hand and here what a wonder:  A lit match was between the fingers of Manduzio’s hand. The man lifted the lantern, Manduzio lit the wick, and there was light… From this Manduzio learned that it behooved him “to disseminate the Lord’s word to the public.”

And so Manduzio, who without a doubt, was a charismatic personality, began to teach the Bible to his friends and neighbors along with the Jewish religion’s commandments and became magnet for the town’s people who wished to give content to their lives. Many people saw in Manduzio a wise man and advisor on many subjects and turned to him to receive his advice and blessing.

Manduzio saw himself as God’s messenger and began to shine the light of Bible and Judaism. However, he did not even know that there were any Jews in the world. Once a police officer visiting the town in 1936, revealed to him that there were Jews living in Rome. The excited Manduzio wrote a letter to the Chief Rabbi of Rome in flowery language saying, “I found my lost brethren.”

To this very day, the San Nicandro community lives in his shadow. I met an old woman of 80 who could relate how in her youth Manduzio would scold her if she wasn’t careful to dress modestly and with long sleeves. When I asked her if she remembers what Manduzio taught her, she began to quote “the daily verse,” the Psalm of the day for each day of the week, which Manduzio wrote for her. She continues to mumble them to this very day.

Manduzio passed away just a short time before his flock made Aliya to the Land of Israel. He was buried in the [local] cemetery at some distance from the Christian graves. There is a Star of David on his grave. Engraved upon his tombstone:  “Donato Manduzio, born in 1885, lived as an idolater until 1930. But in that year, in a heavenly revelation, was called Levi by the Lord, that is to say, a priest, and he began to spread upon this dark rock, the unity of God and the Shabbat of rest.”

Autodidactic Conversion

One of the first people to discover the group, and who made contact with them was Pinhas Lapid, a sergeant from the Jewish Brigade in Italy. Later on, he wrote a book about the community and about Manduzio (Reuven Mas Publishers, 1952).

During 1943, the Jewish Brigade from Palestine, which fought in the service of the British army to liberate Italy from German occupation, arrived in southern Italy. Every time the brigade passed through the town, the members of the community waved Israeli flags in their honor. Until one day, the soldiers stopped near them and attempted to learn who and what they were. That was how Pinhas Lapid began getting to know the group.

Even though there were many cases in Jewish history of group conversions,
two factors made the San Nicandro so special and in actuality, unique.

Firstly, this was a group conversion of people who were not prepared beforehand for their conversion. Rather of those who taught themselves. Autodidactic conversion is an innovation in the realm of Jewish conversions. Conversion is not just a personal and intimate process. It requires a religious court who will accept the convert into the embrace of the Jewish people.

A person who converts by himself without the presence of a rabbinical court, is not a convert. And so, in San Nicandro there was a rabbinical court that took care of all the various required stages of conversion (acceptance of the commandments, circumcision, immersion).

Manduzio was aware that that he had made his way to Judaism on his own and even compared his path as like the one that our Forefather Abraham had taken. In one of his letters to the Chief Rabbi of Rome, he wrote, “I answered that I had not heard from anybody but accepted the heavenly revelation as did our Forefather Abraham…”

Therefore, since they did not have a teacher from Jewry itself, they adopted somewhat strange customs. Manduzio and his flock’s first steps in observing the commandments were based upon the literal biblical text. They read the Torah and derived from that what was permitted and was forbidden without any explanation from the Oral Law, which was not available to them.

They fulfilled the verses; You shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the Sabbath day, or …let no man go out of his place on the seventh day, in its simplest literal meaning. They were even careful to sacrifice the Pascal lamb on the fourteenth of Nisan in the afternoon.

Another marvel is the time and place. During the Second World War and during Mussolini’s reign, it was not easy to be a Jew – not in Europe and not in Italy. In this period when Jews tried to survive and save themselves and their families by hiding their identities, a group of people arises in San Nicandro that not only sought to join the Jewish people but also publicly declared that they were Jews.

Even in the Christian school where the community’s children studied, the children insisted that they be called by their Hebrew names.

One Seder night

After Manduzio sent a few letters to the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Rabbi Angelo Saccardetti wrote to him, “Due to the laws that were passed by His Majesty’s government (That is, Mussolini’s government) and the authority’s hostile relation towards the Jews, I see it as my duty to advise you to postpone the conversion to a more appropriate time…”

The Chief Rabbi finally wrote to the group. Despite the several letters he received from them, he abstained from responding to their request until he received a fourth letter. He was sure “someone was playing a joke on him because, he never heard of so many Christians requesting to convert, especially from a God forsaken town in southern Italy. The rabbi warned both Manduzio and the group members that conversion was no an easy thing, that the Jews are a persecuted people and discriminated against in many countries.

However, Manduzio’s words and the group’s earnestness did not fall on deaf ears. Rome’s Rabbi heard their request and began the group’s conversion process. However, the conversion did not take place immediately, but only after the Second World War came to an end and peace restored in all matters concerning the Jews. In August 1946, 74 people were converted by a rabbinical court sent by the Chief Rabbi of Rome.

In 1949, the group came on Aliya to Israel and settled in Moshav Alma. From there they dispersed to several other places in the Galilee, Safad and its environs. Manduzio did not get to go to Israel having passed away two weeks before the Aliya date. However, it is also not clear whether he had converted since he was ill and could not be circumcised.

Even to this day, a Jewish torch burns in San Nicandro, however quite unique and without precedence or similar instance any place else in the world. The community members living in San Nicandro today are based upon those women who did not convert in 1946 and did not immigrate to Israel in 1949. Today’s community still has family relations and is related amongst themselves, whether paternally or maternally. The women meet yet today on the Seder night, holding the Passover Seder together as one family.

Even though there aren’t any Jewish families left in San Nicandro (not even one) according to Halachah, the women and families of the converts continue to live as Jews in every way. The women keep the Sabbath and holidays, they eat kosher meat brought in from Rome after much effort, separate milk from meat, prepare the Sabbath Hallah, light [the Sabbath and holiday] candles, pray in the synagogue every Sabbath and holiday, fast on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) and married to non-Jewish men…

Already five generations are holding true to this phenomenon of belief in one God, observing the commandments and passing on the Jewish tradition from generation to generation. The Italian Committee of [Jewish] Congregations continues to accompany the group, sending them a rabbi every few weeks who remains there for the Sabbath and continues to teach them Torah to both the women and the few men who wish to continue keeping to their Jewish path.

The power of women

What is the secret of the existence and observance of the group of converts that remained in San Nicandro? How can one explain that individuals continue personally to keep their Judaism? How does the community continue to observe a religious life, keeping the commandments, prayers, holidays and an active synagogue without any spiritual leadership? In my opinion, there is only one answer:  The power of women One has to travel all the way to southern Italy in order to understand what women’ power is.

From what is known today, already at the very beginning, most of Manduzio’s followers were women. They are the ones who began to learn, to pray and to observe the commandments and were true disciples of his Jewish path. Today’s daughters of the community feel Jewish. Only a few years ago a rabbi came and revealed to them that they were not Jewish since they had never converted.

In the long discussions I held with the community’s women and the few men, who belong to it, the women repeatedly said and stressed their Jewish faith and their being Jewish in every way. “You can say whatever you wish… We are Jewesses. We grew up and we were brought up as Jews. We were born into Judaism from our mothers’ womb… We received Judaism as a treasure from our mothers and grandmothers… We shall be happy to convert but we are Jewesses…”

Their fervor and their belief convinced me that we have here a true and profound phenomenon.

Today’s women members of the community are married to non-Jewish men, as they say, “Italians” and not “Hebrews.” Even though the men are not of the Mosaic faith, they respect the women’s belief and are willing to give them the choice of living their Jewish life, to observe the Sabbath, not to cook for the family and husbands on the Sabbath, to spend half a day in the synagogue on the Sabbath, keep the [Jewish] holidays, not to baptize their children and, of course, not to be married in the church.

Sometimes, the Jewish women of San Nicandro hid their Jewish customs from their husbands for the sake of “keeping peace in the family” and never related to their husbands that they were going to the synagogue to pray or that they observed other commandments; a type of crypto-Judaism within the family…

One of the commandments the women decided not to observe because of “keeping peace in the family” was circumcision for the sons born to them, as they understood that there was a need to respect the non-Jewish side in the family and keep their lives “neutral” within the family.

Generally, the daughters in the family continued to identify with the “Yiddeshe Mamma”, while the sons chose to identify with their non-Jewish father and did not accept upon themselves the continuance of the Jewish tradition within the their family. Indeed, we have here a phenomenon of a “feminine Jewish faith,” a tradition that is passed on from generation to generation, from mother to daughter, from a grandmother to her granddaughter, a type of feminine cult that guards a treasure from one generation to the next.

The place of the woman and their strength in this area of Italy is not such an obvious matter. Italian society at that time, especially the rural one, had a patriarchal mentality and not a matriarchal one. Nevertheless, despite everything, these women found the way to set their influence within the family, a sort of – The wisdom of women builds her house.