It was because of my late grandmother and her 40-year obsession with a book called “The Prophet of San Nicandro” that I was sitting at Columbia University’s Café 212, in the middle of a bone-chilling December afternoon, having coffee with professor John Davis.
Davis, who holds the chair in Modern Italian History at the University of Connecticut, had agreed to meet with me several hours before his seminar on “The Jews of San Nicandro: A Curious Tale of Collective Conversion in a 20th Century Mediterranean Community.”
As I sat listening to Davis talk about how he first came across the existence of the San Nicandro converts, I thought how thrilled Bubby would be that a bona-fide scholar was resurrecting the improbable tale that had had such a hold on her for decades — of how a group of Catholic peasants in a remote southern Italian village came to practice their own form of Judaism during the rise of Fascism, and converted en masse after World War II.
As depicted in “The Prophet of San Nicandro,” the back-story of the mass conversion has a dream-like quality — featuring not only the dreams and visions of the group’s charismatic leader, Levi (né Donato) Manduzio, but also signs and wonders.
Although no one in my family recalls exactly when or how Bubby became enamored with the “Prophet,” everyone remembers how she talked about the story for decades — including in numerous presentations to Jewish women’s organizations. It became a kind of a running family joke, especially after Bubby wrote a letter to my mother in which, as she described her neuropathy from diabetes, she added, “But between my bad legs, I’m giving a book review to Hadassah on ‘The Prophet of San Nicandro.’”
As I listened to Davis describe his “bits and pieces” path to learning about the San Nicandro group, I was wondering what might have drawn Bubby to the tale. Perhaps her devotion came from “Prophet” author Phinn Lapide’s fantastical rendering of the story arc: village bad boy turned wounded war hero Manduzio experiences some prophetic visions both before and after he meets and falls for the Old Testament. Recording his epiphanies in a diary, Manduzio spreads the word to fellow villagers… and they all become Jews and live happily ever after.
At our table in Café 212, I showed Davis my copy of “Prophet” and told him about my grandmother. Davis told me that Lapide’s surname had originally been Spitzer. “He was a Canadian Jew who had settled in Palestine and joined the Haganah,” Davis said and told me that Lapide was engaged in more than just a retooling of his persona. He said that Lapide was not merely documenting the story of the San Nicandro converts but also orchestrating it.
Davis said that although Lapide presents himself and his fellow soldiers as unintentionally encountering Manduzio’s group when they liberated San Nicandro, it was probably not accidental. “Out of all the places for the Jewish Brigade to go to — why would they have been in San Nicandro without knowing that this group was there?” Davis said.
I wasn’t surprised, but I doubted that Bubby would have been pleased to hear this. She was tolerant of facts, but only if they didn’t interfere with her worldview or personal narrative.
Like Lapide, Bubby was a Canadian Jew, although by way of Russia. She grew up in Winnipeg and often told me idyllic stories about her childhood. She had wanted to go to college, but ended up getting married instead, at 18, to a much older second cousin.
Although she suffered through bouts of depression as a young wife and mother, by the time she became my grandmother, at age 40, Bubby had, like both Lapide and Manduzio, engaged in some personal reinvention. She took on the role of a serious Jewish educator as well as a serious patron of art, literature and culture. Along with tutoring me in Hebrew and all Five Books of Moses, she introduced me to playwright Oliver Goldsmith, poet William Wordsworth, and restaurants with cloth napkins.
Davis, too, was animated when talking about the Jews of San Nicandro. Among the clatter of dishes and chatter of students, he and I agreed that even if Lapide’s version of the events lies somewhere between extremely creative nonfiction and outright fairy tale, the underlying story is itself incredible— with its mishmash of faith-based mysticism, cult leadership and reinvention against the backdrop of rising Fascism.
Davis has uncovered varied and substantial documentation while excavating the real story of the converts: Fascist police records, letters from Jewish leaders in Rome, and Manduzio’s diary of his spiritual metamorphosis. But as much as I admire Davis’s scholarship, for me, the greater truths are these: that Manduzio and his group, like Bubby, embraced Judaism fervently. And despite being hobbled by narcissism of biblical proportions, Bubby was somehow able, throughout my childhood, to provide me with a strong lap and two outstretched arms.
Much later, as I listened to Davis give a lecture on his findings — this time at the CUNY Graduate Center — my thoughts naturally turned to Bubby and how she wouldn’t have been at all surprised to learn that it was the women, in particular, who were pivotal in keeping Manduzio’s group together or by Davis’s obsession with what he calls this “fascinating story with so many layers.” In fact, I had the preternatural feeling that Bubby was probably hovering somewhere over my shoulder in this History Program Lounge, murmuring triumphantly, “You see!”