Hamilton woman discovers she is part of 'Jewish mystery'

Hamiltonian Laura Cattari felt oddly comfortable with the Jewish faith, even though she was raised Catholic. As it turns out, there's a good reason for that.

Laura Cattari's story is part of 'The Mystery of San Nicandro'

Hamiltonian Laura Cattari felt oddly comfortable with the Jewish faith, even though she was raised Catholic. As it turns out, there's a good reason for that. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Hamiltonian Laura Cattari didn't grow up like most other Italian-Canadian kids.

Strangely, her family didn't really celebrate Christmas or Easter, even though she was raised in a Catholic Sicilian household.

Nevermind no meat on Fridays — in her house, they ate Kosher. It wasn't uncommon for her great aunts to yell, "Not those plates, those are the meat plates!" at family dinners.

In general, there was a stark lack of Christian symbolism in her Christian home.

"Growing up in an Italian neighbourhood and not having a cross hanging off my neck made me very different," Cattari said.

She questioned it as a kid — wondering why she wasn't like everybody else. "This is just how we do things," her family would say — so that was that.

"I thought it was a Sicilian thing," Cattari said.

Turns out, it was a Jewish thing. Her ancestors are connected to a phenomenon some historians call one of the "great Jewish mysteries" of Italy.

Her story is part of a new documentary called The Mystery of San Nicandro, which airs Sunday night on CBC's Documentary Channel.

It outlines a fascinating turn of events — because of tyrannical suppression, hordes of supposedly Catholic families stretching back to Italy actually have Jewish roots.

A history of violence

When the Spanish Inquisition swept through Spain and southern Italy in the late 1400s, thousands were tortured or burned at the stake.

Jews were forced to convert to Christianity or to flee to isolated communities. In most areas, they fled.

As if that first siege wasn't enough, Italian Jews were again forced to convert or leave Italy in the 1930s because of Mussolini's fascist and anti-Semitic rhetoric.

But in certain parts of Italy, high percentages stayed and converted to Catholicism, Cattari says.

Those families might have abandoned outright depictions of their faith, but many practices stayed and bubbled under the surface.

That was the case with Cattari's ancestors. "Really, how could you not have people practicing in secret?" she said.

Searching for faith

In her early 30s, Cattari decided she wanted more spiritualism in her life, so she started researching different religions.

"And Judaism really appealed to me," she said. "The more I started looking into the practices of living Jewish — it just seemed easy for me."

After some research and study, she had made up her mind to fully convert. But there was resistance from her family.

When she told her Grandmother, there was a pause — and then, "What are you going to do if there's a war?"

The answer was jarring — but now makes sense in a historical context.

"I've seen it," her Grandmother said. "First they come for the men, then they come for the women and children."

It was a longstanding fear, instilled in her family for decades. "I was told we didn't even have family back there," she said.

The truth comes out

But she did. A genealogy buff, Cattari connected with people in Sicily and started tracing her roots.

Eventually, she was asked to appear in The Mystery of San Nicandro.

Just before leaving for Italy, she confronted her Grandmother about her ancestors. "This time, I just said 'we're Jewish.' I didn't ask," Cattari said.

"My Grandmother looked at me and said 'yeah, probably.' And that was as close as I ever got to a yes after years of pushing."

A Jewish resurgence

Cattari says more and more people are researching the history of Jewish life in Italy because of a resurgence of interest coming from North America.

"There are more seekers all the time," she said. "People need to know where they came from."

"There is a persistence of cultural memory, no matter how much someone might try to shut it down."

Cattari will probably never be 100 per cent sure that her family was Jewish. "But it's enough to for me to know that it existed."

Now happily a part of the Jewish faith, Cattari is a member of the board at Temple Anshe Sholom in Westdale.

The Mystery of San Nicandro airs Sunday, Nov. 18, 8 p.m. EST on CBC's channel documentary (Rogers 325, Bell 336).

For more information, visit Themysteryofsannicandro.com.