Jan 19, 2022

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Blessed are you our God, King of the world, who performed miracles for our ancestors in their days, and in our days as well. (Blessing Over the Hanukkah Candles)

Hanukkah in Palermo

Candle lighting in Palermo, Sicily. (Photo: Courtesy)

This past Hanukah, joyous light filled a setting infamously associated for nearly 200 years with torture and murder. For the first time in Italian history, Israel Return’s emissary to the Bnei Anousim in southern Italy, Rabbi Pinchas Punturello, will light the Hanukkah candles in Sicily’s dreaded Steri Palace.

Bnei Anousim are the descendants of Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity during the Inquisition. Many did their utmost to remain loyal to their Jewish roots, passing down the faith and practices of their ancestors across the generations in secret.

The Steri Palace was the headquarters of the Inquisition from 1601-1782. On the ground floor of the building stood the Inquisition’s prison, where Jews were packed into tiny cells to await their fate in the terrible auto-da-fé – execution by burning. The dungeon cells are notable for the graffiti that still stains their walls; two inscriptions are written in Hebrew letters.


Rabbi Punturello visited the Steri during a 3-day seminar for Bnei Anousim organized by Israel Return’s at the end of last month. The seminar drew 80 people from southern Italy, including both Anousim and grandchildren of Jews who moved to Palermo between 1900-1960 from Germany, France, Russia, Tunisia and Algeria. Rabbi Punturello put together a roster of world-class speakers for the event, including Professor Luciana Pepi, who teaches Hebrew language and philosophy at the University of Palermo, and Rita Calabrese, who is researching the history of Jewish women during the Weimar Republic. The theme of the seminar was “community and personal identity.

After Rabbi Punturello visited the Steri Palace, he contacted the mayor of Palermo who readily agreed with the rabbi’s proposal that the time had come to replace darkness with light. The candle lighting took place on the last night of Hanukah, December 4, 2013.

Rabbi Punturello has been working with the Bnei Anousim in southern Italy since May of this year. A Jerusalem resident, he spends 10 days out of every month in Italy, organizing traveling seminars, such as the one that just took place, and visiting Bnei Anousim in small Italian communities throughout the southern part of the country and in Sicily. Rabbi Punturello will light candles in a different town in Sicily for each night of Hanukah this year, including Mesina, Catanya and Syracusa, in addition to Palermo.