Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Jewish Side of Palermo

Palestinian Jews lived in Sicily simultaneously to the Romans. The city of Palermo was a home to them and later to Berber Jews from the Maghreb for over sixteen centuries. There is no doubt that having lived side by side with a people of such an ancient history and culture, the Sicilians have made some Jewish traditions their own. This can mostly be seen in Sicilian cooking and food, which has been influenced not only by the Jews but by the Arabs. Try to keep Sicilians away from artichokes, arancini or their love of cooking much of their food in olive oil flavored with garlic, and you are in trouble.

For centuries, the Jewish people prospered in the silk industry, as coral, gold and silver artisans, and in all kinds of commerce to the undeniable benefit of the city of Palermo and of all of Sicily, but in 1493 they were forced to leave as the Spanish King Ferdinand's edict from the previous year was enforced in all his territories in Southern Italy.

It was a terrible loss for the Sicilian people, as testified by a number of letters from the local government pleaing with the king to change his mind.

Today there are no longer any practicing Sicilian Jews on the island although quite a number of Sicilian families can trace their roots to Jewish ancestors.

Editor's Note: Jackie's tours, including Judaic Palermo, are described at

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Sicily's 1st Department Store Opens

Today Palermo witnessed a historic event of sorts as Sicily's first "real" department store opened. Now I know this may seem a little silly to most of you. Yes, Sicily already had a few bona fide shopping malls. And a few "foreign" brands have shops in Sicily; in Palermo's Via Libertà shopping district there's Louis Vuiton, Hermes, Tommy Hilfiger, Timberland, Sephora and a few others. But the new Rinascente at the corner of Via Roma and Piazza San Domenico in central Palermo is the first actual department store of the type you'll find in New York or London.

Not that department stores, in themselves, represent the epitome of civilised living. I'm not suggesting anything of the kind. But it's nice to have choices. Convenience is not a bad thing, even if it's fast food: Sicily's first McDonald's opened about ten years ago, and a Burger King opened this week at Palermo's new shopping mall - the Forum in the infamous Brancaccio district. On a different level, the last few years have seen a number of sushi bars open in Palermo and Catania. The point is that until the late 1990s, when satellite television and the internet began to take off, Sicily was in many ways less than a friendly environment for most expatriates. Isolation would be a good description, and backward (though perhaps an unkind characterization) would not be entirely inappropriate. That has changed over the last decade.

The new store is a modern structure built onto part of a 19th century Baroque palazzo - bringing together Old and New Palermo.

Rinascente offers a number of "international" brands, including Burberry, Calvin Klein, Gant, Brooks Brothers and Ralph Lauren, which until now were not widely sold in Sicily. Of course, it's good to sell local products too, and Rinascente has those as well as a terrace restaurant specializing in Sicilian cuisine - and the store itself is right next to the historic Vucciria street market. One of the benefits of such a store is that a visitor in need of a particular item can find it easily without having to search an entire unfamiliar city. Oh yes, Rinascente, in stark contrast to most shops in Sicily, will be open continuously throughout the entire business day, from 9 in the morning until 9 in the evening - without the annoying afternoon closing from 1 until 4. Evolution.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Snow in Palermo!

A few weeks ago, I posted about snow in Sicily and how I don't consider it a "real" winter here until (and unless) there's snow on the mountains around Palermo for at least a day or two. Well, today it arrived! It may not last long, but I captured it for posterity with the camera on my cell phone - okay, I agree that the quality is hardly exceptional but at least you can make out the snow on the slopes of the mountain toward the right. It's cool and rainy down here by the shore, so it may get chillier still up there on the summit, providing us with more visions of what life is like for so much of Europe and North America right now. As I write this, even parts of the southeastern United States - places like Mississippi and Florida - have had a rare snowfall.

As for me, I can finally say that, yes, it is winter in Sicily.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Sicilian Royalty Remembered

Here in Palermo I encounter local women of all ages who seem to consider themselves somewhat "worldly" because they've spent money on what look like overpriced clothes and have taken a group tour to someplace like Egypt or Thailand. Let's not dwell on the fact that few can manage a complete sentence, let alone a conversation, in English. Right now, the number of women wearing fur coats in a city where it hardly ever snows is astounding.

Back in December 1994, when I first met Princess Urraca de Bourbon of the Two Sicilies, who in childhood had actually known Queen Maria Sophia (the queen, a sister of Empress Elizabeth 'Sissi' of Austria, died when Urraca was 12), I was struck by her simplicity. During the day, instead of fur she wore a simple goose down coat. There was no need to "impress" anybody with false attempts at sophistication. She was the real thing.

We spoke at Count Tasca d'Almerita's grand dinner party for the Bourbons - the likes of such an assemblage of the Palermitan nobility and fantastic cuisine hasn't been seen since then. (My date that evening was descended from one of Sicily's aristocratic families.) I honestly don't recall Urraca wearing much jewelry. A widow for many decades, Her Highness lived and died in her native Bavaria and, as would be expected, spoke several languages fluently (French, German, Italian, some English, even a little Neapolitan). She died five years after I met her.

Cynical cynosure on my part, but even if the vulgar "ladies" I encounter daily were to dress in the most expensive furs and wear the Hope diamond, they'd still look (and be) tascia by comparison, boasting little knowledge of Sicilian culture and history, and even less of their own families' histories. They don't understand that it's a woman's entire oeuvre, not just the superficial elements, that establish a style and, more importantly, an identity.

One of the things so sorely - and so obviously - lacking among Sicily's women today is the kind of grey eminence epitomized by Britain's late Queen Mother or America's Rose Kennedy. In some ways Stefania Mantegna of Gangi, the noblewoman who as a young mother defied Fascism and who later counted England's Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip among her house guests at Palazzo Gangi, was such a figure. She, and an era, died in 1999, the same year as Urraca de Bourbon. Back in 1963, Palazzo Gangi was used for the ballroom scene of The Leopard, the story of the fall of the House of the Two Sicilies and the vicissitudes of Sicily's aristocracy.

Few of today's Sicilians - male or female - know much at all about the dynasty that ruled our island until 1860, and in any event the typical young giuseppina (as we Sicilians refer to particularly provincial women) can never hope to be addressed Your Highness unless she marries a prince worthy of that style - and there are precious few "princes" of any kind in Palermo! But it's nice to reminisce about a grande dame or two who wore it so well.