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The Jews of San Nicandro, by John A. Davis.  New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2010.  238 pp.  $30.00.

John Davis has an extraordinary story to tell and he tells it extraordinarily well. In a remote and impoverished region of south-east Italy in the town of San Nicandro perched high on the Gargano promontory, Donato Manduzio (1885–1948), a faith healer and self-proclaimed prophet, had a visionary dream in August 1930 that led him to abandon the Catholic faith and espouse Judaism. Through his charismatic leadership, he formed a small community of Jewish believers who survived numerous vicissitudes to convert formally in 1946 and emigrate to the newly founded State of Israel in 1949; arguably “the only case of collective conversion to Judaism in Europe in modern times” (p. 2).

According to his journal, Manduzio took this singular step after discussions with  proselytizing Pentecostalists from whom he received a Bible in Italian and by studying the books of the Pentateuch; he concluded that both Catholicism and Protestantism were “empty and vain” (p. 22). Those who followed him on this path were poor like Manduzio, agricultural workers and artisans, but like him they were all literate, including the women, and without their ability to read and write, as Davis states, “their story could never have happened” (p. 6).

Their continued observance of the Jewish faith, albeit in an improvised fashion without the guidance of a rabbi, could also not have been realized without the intervention of key figures within the Italian Jewish community. Initially and not surprisingly, when Manduzio first contacted them, they thought he was some sort of practical joker, but after two visits, in January and October 1932, by colleagues of the chief rabbi of Rome, Angelo Sacerdoti, they were persuaded of the group’s sincerity and deep desire to convert. Subsequent visitors, such as the well-known Polish scholar Jacques Faitlovich who championed the cause of the Ethiopian Jews, and the prominent Zionist Enzo Sereni, were impressed, indeed moved by their simplicity, tenacity, and genuine belief. Another influential figure, Raffaele Cantoni, arranged for appropriate texts, religious objects, prayer shawls, and the like to be sent to San Nicandro and for several of the young boys to attend Jewish summer camps; the Italian Zionist Federation and the Jewish Agency in Rome were instrumental in effecting their emigration to Israel. In short this community of some fifty people was assisted in every way.

John Davis documents their activities through Manduzio’s own journal, the testimony of others within the group, and the correspondence with those who supported them. He reveals the internal disputes that nearly destroyed them, the consequences of Manduzio’s death, the pride in their new Jewish identity, and their lives in Israel. In addition, he provides the relevant historical context and, through meticulous research of archival material, its impact on them. Thus we learn that from 1935 they were subjected to close surveillance by the Fascist secret police; their mail was intercepted; reports on them were dispatched to the Duce’s Chief of Police and the Pope’s Secretary of State. Their Jewishness went undetected by German officers who entered San Nicandro just weeks before the arrival of the Allied forces in September 1943. We read of the positive encounter with a unit of Jewish soldiers commanded by Major Wellesley Aron, the first Palestinian Jew to be commissioned in the British army.

This handsome volume, which includes five photographs and two maps, is the first scholarly and definitive account of “a remarkable piece of micro-history.” In his introduction, Davis alludes to previous flawed attempts to record the events. A mild criticism on this reader’s part is that there is very little evidence of the reactions of San Nicandro’s other inhabitants to this strange group in their midst, and a flavor of Manduzio’s Italian from his journal and letters would have been of interest.

Elizabeth Schächter

University of Kent