The Neofiti were an ethnic group living in southern Italy. They are referred to as
Crypto Jews; a practice by which they profess Catholicism but practice or maintain
some Jewish traditions privately. It is thought that most of the Neofiti were forced
to convert to Christianity at some time around the thirteenth century. They most
likely spoke Italian or Sicilian.
The conversion of many of the Neofiti people was merely one of convenience as many
only outwardly practiced Christianity. In essence these people remained a society
of Jews, though now forced to practice in secret. With the changing political and
religious climate in Europe during this time this was the only choice they could
make. For the next nearly three hundred years this practice served the Neofiti well
and allowed them to maintain their place in Italian society. This peace with the
local Christians was one that could not last indefinitely.
During the sixteenth century the Spanish Inquisition made its way to Italy. This
was a disastrous time for the Neofiti as many were killed, especially in Sicily.
The Inquisition targeted not only Jews but Muslims and any other faith that was not
Christian. Those that were caught but not killed were exiled from Italy.
Intermarriage with Christians was not unusual in Sicily. Jewish temples were founded
in Sicily's port cities (Palermo, Messina, Syracuse) around the same time that the
first Christian churches were openly established. Sicily's jews lived more or less
undisturbed until the 15th century. The year 1492 signaled the unification of Spain,
the European discovery of America and the Inquisition's final banishment of Jews
from Spanish territories, including Sicily. In Sicily, most Jews, being Sicilian
in almost every cultural sense, chose conversion (like the conversos of Spain), and
a number of Sicilian surnames reflect Jewish origins, or at least acknowledge a Jewish
presence (Siino from Sion, Rabino from Rabbi). Contemporary estimates of the number
of Jewish Sicilians indicate that the Jewish populations of Palermo, Messina and
several other cities were considerable in 1492. Jewish Sicilians probably constituted
from five to eight percent of the island's population.
The exact number of Jews in Sicily at the time of expulsion is not certain, However,
some have put the number of Jewish refugees at 36,000. Also, in 1492, it is known
the Jewish populations of Palermo, Messina and several other cities were considerable,
and that there were Giudeccas, or Jewish settlements, in over 50 places in Sicily,
ranging in a population from 350 to 5000. At their height, Jewish Sicilians probably
constituted from five to eight percent of the island's population.