Becoming Jewish in Catholic Italy

“Being Israeli and Italian is a double identity, which goes side by side."

ANNA PADOA says that being Israeli and Italian constitutes a double identity. (photo credit: MICHAL KRIEGER MOTOLLA)
ANNA PADOA says that being Israeli and Italian constitutes a double identity.
There is more to Dr. Anna Padoa, 48, of Tel Aviv, than meets the eye. Her last name is similar to the name of the northern Italian city where she spent much of her childhood, Padua, but in fact her family hails from a different Padua, located in Portugal or Spain, and she herself was born in Verona.
Though she attended national religious B’nei Akiva camps, her spiritual and political beliefs are more closely aligned with those of the secular Hashomer Hatzair movement. And while she is critical of efforts that seek to introduce religious elements into the public- school system, she is grateful to the late chief rabbi of Padua, who ensured that she underwent an Orthodox conversion to Judaism.
To understand Padoa, one must trace her family’s history to the events of the 1930s and 1940s. Speaking of her parents, she laughs and says, “I think their story is more interesting than mine.”
During the 1930s, Padoa explains, “Jewish people were very integrated into the local population and felt very Italian.” Her father was born in 1936 into a prosperous Jewish family from Bologna. Despite the menacing Nazi presence in Italy, her grandfather wanted to remain, but her grandmother insisted on leaving, and at the last minute the family fled to Switzerland, using their wealth to obtain new identity papers.
They went to Milan and from there crossed the border into Switzerland, where they remained until the end of the war. Padoa’s mother, who is Catholic, was born into a peasant family near Verona. Her parents dated for eight years until they were married in 1968, and Padoa candidly acknowledges that neither family wanted them to wed, because they practiced different religions.
Padoa says that her mother “saw no point in converting, because she would never be a religious Jew.”
Despite that, it was important to her parents to raise Padoa and her younger sister, Olga Dalia, as Jews with a strong Jewish identity. “They wanted to keep a tradition alive that had been in great danger just a decade before,” she says.
Padoa was born in Verona, whose Jewish community dates to the Middle Ages. By the 1960s, the Jewish community numbered just over 100. When she was nine, her family moved to Padua, which was once famous as a center of Talmudic studies. By the time that she and her family came to Padua, there were only 200 Jewish families there.
The town’s chief rabbi, Achille Viterbo, approached her parents and suggested that she and her sister undergo an Orthodox conversion to Judaism. Viterbo was concerned that an earlier conversion, performed in Verona, had not been done properly. Rabbi Viterbo, she says, was “a very special person, who was respectful of my mother and accepted her.” When Padoa eventually moved to Israel, her conversion was accepted by the Chief Rabbinate.
Explaining what it was like growing up Jewish in Italy, Padoa relates, “Italy is a very Catholic country. There is no diversity.” Her parents wanted their children to observe the Jewish holidays, particularly those that coincided with Christian ones. Says Padoa, “We grew up knowing that we were Jewish and we never had Christian festivities at home – only Jewish. We had Passover and Hanukka instead of Easter and Christmas.”
Smiling, Padoa says that one benefit of growing up Jewish in Italy was her being excused from catechism classes in elementary school. Sometimes, though, she preferred to remain to make sure that the priest wouldn’t say negative things about Jews. “I made a lot of effort to explain what it means to be Jewish,” she says, “even if I was never very religious.”
Growing up, Padoa’s strongest Jewish connection was her family’s association with Israel, which she and her parents visited frequently. Her father’s cousins had left Italy in the late 1930s and were among the founders of Kibbutz Givat Brenner near Rehovot, and later Kibbutz Netzer Sereni. This was named after Enzo Sereni, an Italian Zionist and Jewish Brigade officer who was captured by the Germans and murdered after parachuting into Nazi-occupied Italy during World War II.
When she reached high school age, her interest in Israel remained high. The Bnei Akiva movement sent a representative to Padua who taught stories, songs, and the history of Israel to her and her Jewish friends. She attended Bnei Akiva camps, and though she did not become observant, the camp experience was important in her development and she still has many friends from that period.
In the summer of 1987, when she was 17, she spent the summer volunteering at Kibbutz Netzer Sereni. By the time she turned 19, she had decided to make aliya and she wanted to study medicine. Her parents were supportive of her decision, because they themselves had wanted to move to Israel, and had even lived there for a few months when she was a toddler.
Padoa returned to Israel in October 1988 as a temporary resident and spent the year at Hebrew University, enjoying the college experience. Wistfully, she recalls, “It was a very special time.” When her one-year program ended, she was accepted into medical school at Tel Aviv University and became a full-fledged citizen. Padoa preferred to stay in Tel Aviv, because, as she puts it, “Jerusalem was too ‘heavy’ for me.”
Padoa lived in Ramat Aviv with an Israeli roommate, and spoke Hebrew fluently. While on her one-year program, she had spent weekends at Netzer Sereni, and the residents would not allow her to speak Italian – only Hebrew. After completing medical school, Anna spent her residency in obstetrics and gynecology at Assaf Harofeh Medical Center and today she is the head of the hospital’s uro-gynecology service. In her spare time, she sings madrigals with a Renaissance choir. Padoa has a facility for languages, and in addition to being fluent in Hebrew, Italian, and English, speaks Spanish and French, and knows enough Russian, Amharic, and Arabic to take a medical history from her different patients. “Working with people in Assaf Harofeh,” she says, “requires you to learn a little bit of many languages.”
Today Padoa, who is divorced, lives in Tel Aviv with her partner and three children. She visits Italy annually and her parents, now in their 80s, visit Israel as well. After 29 years in Israel, does she consider herself Israeli or Italian? She pauses for a moment.
“Being Israeli and Italian is a double identity, which goes side by side. I think it’s easier to keep things in proportion when you have two perspectives.”