06 April 2008

Italy: Out of the woodwork

Rabbi Barbara Aiello is the descendant of Calabrian conversos (anousim, the forced ones).

With roots in Toledo, Spain, her ancestors escaped to Sicily, to Reggio Calabria, north to Nicastro and then fled to the mountains of Calabria - to Serrastretta - where the hills provided protection. They were among the “anousim,” or “forced ones” for centuries.

She organized the February 2008 Italian Jewish Roots Conference in Sarasota, Florida for Italians who suspect they have Jewish roots. Along with 40 participants, were DNA specialist Elise Friedman, Jewish genealogist Kim Sheintal and Rabbis Frank Tamburello and Aiello. Most of the participants are actively searching for their Italian Jewish roots.

A conference CD ($54) is available with presentations, articles, Italian Jewish traditions from Calabria and Sicily, and ways to begin an Italian Jewish roots search. Order it at her website.

Aiello was also interviewed by The American Magazine, which carries stories on Italian life.

Every Monday and Thursday in the 1920s Antonio Aiello dutifully traveled 25 kilometers from his Calabrian hometown of Serrastretta to study the Torah, the Jewish holy book, at the home of a man known as the “Rav,” or rabbi. He often hitched a ride on an artichoke cart, or so he told his daughter Barbara Aiello, who is now a rabbi.

The darker side of the story is that no Jews were officially said to reside in Calabria at the time. The Spanish Inquisition and subsequent Roman Catholic persecution had decimated a once-flourishing Jewish community. Jews had been expelled or forced to convert. For a time, so-called “new Christians” held onto their Jewish ways closed doors. Jewish holidays were celebrated secretly. Gradually, the “marranos” — or crypto-Jews — were assimilated into Catholic society, eradicating most traces of Jewish life from southern Italy.

Aiello’s presence in Calabria fulfills a promise she made to her father Antonio. She is now the rabbi in tiny Serrastretta’s “Ner Tamid del Sud” (Eternal Light of the South) synagogue. It’s the first active synagogue in Calabria in five centuries. Although forced underground, “In nearly every small town and village there are remnants of Jewish cultural and tradition that thrived here as early as 2,000 years ago,” she says.

Both of her immigrant parents descended from crypto-Jewish families. In Pittsburgh, her grandmother lit Shabbat candles in the basement. “We’re in America now! There’s religious freedom here!” Antonio told his mother, Aiello’s grandmother. “You never know,” was her solemn rebuttal. A GI in Europe, he was at the liberation of Buchenwald. “Do something for the Jewish people,” he implored his daughter.

After serving in the Virgin Islands, New York City and Florida, she accepted - five years ago - a job at Milan’s Lev Chadash (New Heart) synagogue, making her the country's first non-Orthodox rabbi, and arrived in Serrastretta two years ago. She bought a house that had been in her family for generations and also purchased adjoining units to make space for the synagogue. In the process she discovered that the town is full of Jews. Many are finally ready to start talking about their faith.

It is her responsibility, she feels, to help her neighbors understand why she is in the town and speaks frequently with the local parish priest. In December, Aiello invited him to the first Chanukah celebration in a Jewish synagogue in Calabria in 500 years. He announced the event to his parishioners; 45 attended the holiday event — and all spoke about their Jewish roots.

Asked about anecdotes, she described the funeral of a woman she had befriended and whose son invited Aiello to their home.

I was astounded. A number of low chairs for the mourners were placed in a circle. The mirrors were covered in black. A small candle burned on the table where a plate of boiled eggs was arranged in bite-size pieces. I recognized these as Jewish mourning traditions. I asked the son about them. He said these were family, not church traditions. He told me that by those traditions the chairs would remain arranged that way for one week (shiva) and that there would be a special meal in his mother’s honor on the 30th day after her death (sheloshim). When I suggested that the family, called Paletta, might be Jews, the son said he assumed so but that they never talked about it openly “I think my parents were afraid,” he told me. I was touched and thrilled by the experience.

Every Calabrian historian has ignored the Jewish presence she says because historical studies were funded by the Catholic Church which didn't want to acknowledge its role in persecuting Jews. "Or it could be that with the 'success' of the Inquisition — that is, when Jewish communities were wiped out completely and Jews either fled or converted — historians believed that Judaism itself had also been eliminated."

To read the complete article in the March 2008 issue, click here.

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