Diaspora Affairs: An Italian journey

A holiday tale including Italy’s only female rabbi, ‘anusim’ and a Jewish awakening.

RABBI BARBARA Aiello: Many of us became b’nei anusim... descendents of those who were forced into Christian conversion (photo credit: Courtesy)
RABBI BARBARA Aiello: Many of us became b’nei anusim... descendents of those who were forced into Christian conversion
(photo credit: Courtesy)
CALABRIA, Italy – No, you will not get a matzah ball recipe from Rabbi Barbara Aiello, but she will share her grandmother’s recipe for Italian wedding soup right next to an extra-large serving of a history lesson about the earliest Diaspora of Jews to southern Italy (in 267 BCE), specifically to the region of Calabria in the “toe of the boot.”
And, yes, she keeps a kosher house and doesn’t eat pork or shellfish even outside her home. This is not so challenging in Italy, where the cuisine is so diverse.
What has been challenging is being who she is – Italy’s only female rabbi as well as Italy’s only non-Orthodox rabbi.
And, yes again, she blew the shofar this week to celebrate Rosh Hashanah in the synagogue she founded – Sinagoga Ner Tamid del Sud (Eternal Light of the South), the first active synagogue to be established in Calabria during the past 500 years.
The Reconstructionist movement formally approved the affiliation of her independent congregation in Serrastretta, Calabria, in 2017, making it the third congregation outside North America to gain that distinction.
At the same time, it is not recognized by the organized mainstream Italian Jewish community, which is Orthodox. While Italian law stipulates the government fund all houses of worship, for Jewish communities, this applies only to Orthodox synagogues.
Support for Sinagoga Ner Tamid del Sud comes largely from donations, the translation of documents, genealogical research for those seeking information on their Sephardi Jewish heritage, historic tours of Sephardi sites in southern Italy and bar/bat mitzvah and wedding celebrations.
Aiello’s synagogue is set in the small village of Serrastretta, where she established the Italian Jewish Cultural Center of Calabria. Here, she also lives in a house that’s been in her family for 430 years.
As an Italian Jew, Aiello always knew her traditions were different than those of her Ashkenazi friends whose families came from Central and Eastern Europe. She still blushes when she recalls “when I included couscous at my Passover Seder, much to the horror of my best friend’s Polish grandmother.”
Years later, when she accepted a rabbinate in Italy, she was surprised to learn that one important Italian Jewish tradition never made it from Italy to America.
“I was stunned to learn that for Italian Jews, erev Rosh Hashanah did not include a synagogue service.... Instead, the night before the New Year was dedicated to the Rosh Hashanah seder!”
From north to south, from the “thigh” of the Italian “boot” all the way down to the “toe,” Italian Jews gather around the family table, and just as Jews do at Passover, they share symbolic foods, blessings, stories, poems and songs to welcome the New Year and to tell the story of the creation of the world.
“Ricorda, rabbina” (Remember, rabbi), her school director, Eva, says. “It’s the birthday of the world, so the Rosh Hashanah seder is our way to have a birthday party.”
BORN IN Pittsburgh to Orthodox Jewish parents, Aiello is the daughter of a liberator of the Buchenwald concentration camp.
“My father, Antonio Abramo Aiello, was in the Jewish resistance, a partigiano [partisan], and was behind enemy lines on D-Day and when the Allied forces landed at Normandy’s Utah and Omaha beaches, where he worked as an interpreter, as he spoke Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French and Hebrew, and was with the American army as interpreter and liberator of Buchenwald camp.”
Her father was a secular or cultural Jew, but post World War II, he reclaimed his Jewish traditions and became more devout.
He brought his mother to America in 1954, and Aiello says her father recalled that on the first Friday night in Pittsburgh, her grandmother took her three candles, her kiddush cup and challa and went into the basement.
There, she lit the candles in the cellar. “My father told her: ‘Mama, this is the land of the brave and free,’ but she responded, ‘Non sono sicuro’ (I can’t be sure).” Years later, Aiello would start her synagogue in the cellar of her grandparents’ home in Calabria.
Spending summers with him in Calabria, Aiello felt the pull and tug of her motherland. Her journey really began back then.
She received rabbinical ordination from the Rabbinical Seminary International and the Rabbinical Academy in New York City.
Today, she is a spokeswoman for Pluralistic Judaism – a movement that deliberately blurs denominational lines and extends the hand of Jewish welcome to Jews of all backgrounds. It is an approach that has been both embraced and criticized.
She dons a kippah, as more and more women seem to be doing on both sides of the Atlantic, and that could distinguish her in a conservative atmosphere. You might say she has had a double diaspora: as an Italian American, and the Jewish Diaspora seems to make her testimony more significant.
After a two-year stay at a Milanese synagogue, Aiello did not lose sight of her goal: to get to her roots in the southernmost region of Italy.
Today, she helps “anusim” (Italians whose ancestors were forced into conversion from Judaism) discover and connect with their Jewish roots throughout southern Italy.
BEREFT OVER the recent loss of my own husband, I, too, was on a journey to revisit where most of my family emigrated from, and to travel to Italy for the first time without my husband, who was of Sicilian and Abruzzese background.
I registered for Italian diaspora studies under the auspices of the University of Calabria, under the guidance of Prof. Margherita Ganeri.
Aiello was among the most compelling speakers during my two-week stay, divided between Morano Calabro, one of the most beautiful borghi or villages in Italy, and in an agriturismo (farmhouse accommodation) in Albidona overlooking the Ionian Sea.
I wasn’t planning to look for it, but there it was, hidden in plain sight in the “toe of Italy” – my own Jewish heritage. My mother’s family has possibly been Jewish for centuries, according to Aiello, as the surname appears multiple times in Inquisition documents.
Prior to the Inquisition, 40% of Calabria’s population was Jewish. The fascinating story of how Jews came to the seven southern regions of Italy begins with their Diaspora from the period of the Maccabees (267 BCE) through their expulsion from Spain during the Inquisition.
As Aiello tells the story, “After the expulsion from Spain, Jews ran to Portugal, Sicily and Sardinia, the Aoleian Islands and Calabria... running from persecution and into forced conversion much of the time.”
Jewish traditions passed down from generation to generation, so well disguised that no one realized we were Jewish and have been for centuries. Traditions and names were taken underground or changed during the Spanish Inquisition.
Because Jews were forbidden to own land, they gravitated toward professions that did not require land, such as medicine and law; or they lived on the coasts and excelled in crafts like building wrought iron decorative balconies, which are preserved in many towns. Ferro, Ferrara, Ferraro and other derivatives of the word “ferro,” which means iron in Italian, are names often associated with Jews.
“Lo Spirito, Spirito Santo are names Jews gave themselves so they could prove to the Inquisition authorities they were more Catholic than the pope,” quips Aiello.
Since 81% of the immigration to North America originated from Calabria and Sicily, she says, the chances of a Canadian or Italian American with Jewish descent is quite high.
“Many of us became bnei anusim... descendants of those who were forced into Christian conversion,” she adds.
Aiello’s cultural center staff includes author and historian Vincenzo Villella, along with archivist and demographer Dr. Enrico Mascaro. They help lost Jews determine the Jewish roots of their surnames, while Aiello extends the hand of Jewish welcome to Italians and Italian Americans who want to know more about their Jewish heritage.
Families from around the world participate in bar and bat mitzvah preparations in Serrastretta that provide them with a glimpse back to a time when Jews practiced in secret and in the face of persecution, yet held on to their Jewish roots.
The Ner Tamid del Sud congregation includes about 80 families. Many, if not most, are Italians who trace their ancestry to Jews forced to convert to Catholicism centuries ago.
Should you find yourself in Serrastretta for Hanukkah, don’t be surprised if you hear a lively version of the traditional Ladino melody “Bendigamos” right before Italian pignolate and sufganiot are served.
“Chag Sameach” is exchanged with hugs and kisses all around. Kisses on both cheeks because, after all, it’s Italy.
There, Passover Seder honors the Italian Jews who, during the time of the Inquisition, were forced to relinquish or hide their Jewish traditions. Many continued their Jewish observance in secret – and one of those secret services was the Passover Seder Hamishi.
Especially touching is “Kuando el rey Nimrod,” a Judeo-Spanish tune that tells the story of the birth of Abraham, along with “Adio querida,” a melody that is suspiciously like Verdi’s aria “Addio del passata” from La traviata. Did Verdi learn the song from the Jews?
The traditional Passover Seder plate features symbolic food in the Sephardi tradition. Romaine lettuce is the bitter herb, and the “zeroa” is a cucumber spear, because “zeroa” means “outstretched arm.”
As for me, having been brought up Roman Catholic in an American and Calabrese household with a father who blew a conch shell at midnight on New Year’s Day instead of a shofar at Rosh Hashanah, I will explore my Jewish roots with more trips to Calabria.
Being a dark, curly-headed native New Yorker, I have often been mistaken for Jewish, but now I can say it is no mistake.