The Jews of Corfu: Between the Adriatic and the Ionian

Corfu Community

Corfu's Jews formed two communities. The older and smaller community called themselves Romaniot, and dated themselves back to the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem.  The larger community was of Italian/Apulian origin. The origins of this community were in Naples and Sicily, but they were joined by Sephardic refugees following the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and Portugal in 1492 and 1497, and by Jews from Northern Italy after the occupation of Corfu by the Venetians in the 14th century. Each community had its own customs and practices, which sometimes led to conflict.

A major dispute arose in the Italian community in the mid-18th century over the singing of the Shema prayer. Ḥayyim Shabtai Ha-Cohen and Eliyahu ben Menaḥem Ha-Cohen, opposed the musical rendition of the prayer used by Eliyahu de Mordo and Eliezer de Mordo. In a debate that involved Rabbis from Safed, Salonika, and Padua, along with Jerusalem, Venice, and Safed, lengthy responsa discussing the debate were sent to Corfu. Two pamphlets were published, one in Venice and one in Salonika, discussing the debate.  Finally, the de Mordos conceeded to the Cohens, signing before a notary that they would no longer sing Shema in this way.

As a coda to the debate, it is interesting to note that although the dispute became rather heated at times, it is clear that mutual respect remained between the rabbis - we also show here two eulogies written for Eliyahu ben Menaḥem Ha-Cohen by Eliezer de Mordo and Jacob Emanuel Cracovia, both involved in the controversy, upon the former's death.

CUL MS X893 Sh354 has been digitized in its entirety and is available here.

Community record books shed important light on the workings of a community, as well as its interaction with others. The record book of the Italian community in Corfu lists typical activities, such as charity lists, interaction with other communities, such as funds sent to redeem Jewish captives in other cities, and unexpected scandals, like an unmarried woman impregnated by one of the elites in the community (fully digitized here).

Within a community, Jews would establish confraternities, people that gathered together for a common purpose that cared for one another. Members of the confraternity were often linked by profession or activity and would pay dues to a fund that would support indigent members or the children of a member who passed away. Here we have record books for the "visiting the sick" (fully digitized here) as well as the "men of action" (fully digitized here) confraternities.

There were times of great friction between the two Jewish communities in Corfu. The more senior Greek community was more insular, whereas the Italian community was more open and admitted members from other communities. The older Greek community, threatened by the rapidly growing Italian community, feared that their privileges on the Island would be revoked. As such, they complained to the Doge of Venice emphasizing their seniority, as opposed to the “foreign” Italian community. The decree of the Doge of Venice, resolved the dispute by ruling in favor of the Italian Jewish community, and granting them the same rights and privileges as the Greek community (digitized in its entirety here). In celebration of the ruling, the Italian community created a lavish illuminated copy of the decree on parchment. 

Rare Book & Manuscript Library / Butler Library, 6th Fl. East / 535 West 114th St. / New York, NY 10027 / (212) 854-5153 /