A Conversion that Defied the Times

<p>John Davis is the Emiliana Pasca Noether Chair in Modern Italian History. Photo provided by Liberal Arts and Sciences</p>
John Davis, Emiliana Pasca Noether Chair in Modern Italian History. Photo provided by CLAS

When John Davis was a graduate student at Oxford in the 1970s, he became intrigued with the fantastic case of a group of peasants in southern Italy who had spontaneously converted to Judaism in the 1930s and immigrated to Israel in 1949. How did this remote community of poor agricultural workers come to learn of Judaism? What made it feel truer to them than the Catholicism in which they were raised? Why did they even want to convert during one of the most dangerous decades to be a Jew in European history, and how did they make it to the Promised Land?

Thirty-odd years and a half-dozen books later, Davis, who now holds the Emiliana Pasca Noether Chair in Modern Italian History in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, pursues answers to these questions in his new book, The Jews of San Nicandro (Yale University Press, 2010).

The tale begins with a crippled San Nicandran shoemaker named Donato Manduzio, who in the late 1920s acquired an evangelical Bible, read it cover to cover, and became convinced that all the Christian religions had it wrong. Judaism was the one true faith, Manduzio decided, and he quickly renounced Catholicism, proclaimed himself a Jew, and persuaded his neighbors to join up. Initially, they believed they were the only Jews on the planet, the original tribes all having died out in the great biblical flood, but soon Manduzio and his disciples learned that there were millions scattered across the globe and they decided to make contact with “the wider community of the Children of Israel.” They wrote letters to prominent rabbis and Zionist leaders pleading for religious guidance and official recognition.

The campaign won over key figures in European Jewry, who by the late 1930s concluded that the San Nicandrans’ faith was honest and sincere. It was hardly an auspicious time to be a Jew of any sort, whether by birth or by choice, yet Manduzio held his flock together through the decades of Mussolini’s Fascist regime, with its racial laws, and World War II.

<p>A photo of a book named The Jews of San Nicandro by John A. Davis. Photo by Sean Flynn</p>By a perhaps providential combination of luck, personality, and location, the San Nicandrans managed to stay connected to their newfound brethren and escape Italian fascism unscathed.

In a review in the Nov. 10, 2010 issue of The New Republic, Adam Kirsch says, “The story that John Davis tells in this book falls under the category of “truth is stranger than fiction.” Who would believe, outside of a fable or maybe a joke, that in Fascist Italy a group of several dozen Catholic peasants would spontaneously decide to convert to Judaism; that they would persist in calling themselves Jews even as Italy introduced Nazi-style anti-Semitic laws; that they would make contact with Jewish soldiers from Palestine, serving in the British Army that invaded southern Italy during World War II; and that finally, after two decades of dedication and hardship, they would undergo ritual circumcision and emigrate en masse to the newly created state of Israel? Yet it all really happened in the town of San Nicandro in the impoverished, isolated Gargano region of southern Italy.

“According to Davis, the Jews of San Nicandro represent ‘the only case of collective conversion to Judaism in Europe in modern times.’”

All along the way Manduzio and his townsmen were aided by individuals who cared deeply about the welfare of the Jewish community and who were prompted by the San Nicandrans’ determination to reflect on what being Jewish meant to them. In the final analysis, the Jews of San Nicandro survived because religion mattered to people, even to unsophisticated Italian peasants.

This is an important message for historians and non-historians alike, and in composing this book Davis tried to convey it in a way that would be enjoyable and enlightening to a popular audience.

“I wanted this to be accessible to someone who knew nothing about history,” says Davis. For professional academics, writing for non-experts can be the biggest challenge of all, and indeed Davis found that it was a struggle to condense so much information into a rich, readable narrative. But thanks to suggestions from his editor at Yale University Press and from UConn colleagues, Davis found the process of writing for a broad audience to be one of his most rewarding scholarly accomplishments.

“You spend a long time living with these topics on your own,” he observes, rather like Manduzio struggling on his own with issues of faith. Now, for the second time, the Jews of San Nicandro will find their place in the world.

Daniel Platt is a master’s degree student in history and the webmaster/writer of the department’s website.