Can a people’s history be lost over time or can it live on in the soil of the land and the blood of the people?
This is the question that the documentary film The Mystery of San Nicandro, airing Nov. 18 at 8 p.m. on CBC’s documentary channel, attempts to answer.
The “mystery” in question is the fairly well documented story of a group of Italian Catholic peasants in a small, isolated community in southern Italy who converted to Judaism in the 1920s without ever having laid eyes on a Jew.
These converts were under the spell of a Rasputin-like charismatic healer, Donato Manduzio. Returning home to San Nicandro crippled after World War 1, Manduzio claimed to have visions from God and that he had been called like Moses to revive a faith that had long since disappeared.
Manduzio introduced dietary laws and worship of the Sabbath to his community. At the time, because of its isolation, they weren’t even aware that other Jews existed anywhere else in the world. And other Jews weren’t aware of them.
When Manduzio did eventually make contact with the rabbis in Rome, they considered him a crank and his community essentially rogue Catholics.
But Manduzio persisted, and in 1946, 80 people were formally converted to Judaism. A couple of years later, most of them immigrated to the new State of Israel, but not Manduzio, who had just died.
Several hundred Jews in Israel today are there because of Manduzio’s visions.
The San Nicandro story is an interesting enough one for a documentary, but this film takes it a step further by connecting this to the history of southern Italy’s Jewish conversos.
The film implies that the reason San Nicandro’s Jews were so quick to convert is that, perhaps without knowing it, they were Spanish Jews whose ancestors had converted to Catholicism during the Inquisition. Judaism was in their blood.
One person who makes this claim is Hamilton, Ont.’s Laura Cattari. A Canadian of Italian descent, Laura was educated in a Catholic school but never made a spiritual connection to those roots.
She also believes that Judaism was in her blood. One day when she entered a synagogue, she felt as though she had returned home and started to search out her family’s origins.
The documentary follows her journey to her ancestral hometown in Sicily, where a historian admits that her family surnames are of Jewish origin.
In a somewhat humorous scene, she takes this knowledge to distant relatives in the town whom she’d never seen before. These old Catholics don’t take too kindly to her wild assertions. There never were any Jews there, they claim.
The Mystery of San Nicandro is not just about the San Nicandro Jews, but also about the renaissance of Judaism in southern Italy. Directed by Roger Pyke, it is a documentary well worth watching.