Here in southern Italy, in the “toe” of the Italian “boot,” our Passover table features symbolic foods and ancient ritual practices that, to our Ashkenazi brothers and sisters, seem different from what so many Jews are used to. A cucumber slice serves as the “zeroah” or the “arm of God,” while pieces of celery dipped in vinegar replace the usual parsley and salt water. And what can be said for the long-stemmed green onions used to whack each other on the wrist as we simulate the whips of the slave masters during the singing of “Dayenu?”
Here at Sinagoga Ner Tamid del Sud (“The Eternal Light of the South”) in the tiny village of Serrastretta in the Calabrian hills, our members and friends are “B’nei Anusim,” descendants of Italian Jews forced into Christian conversion during Inquisition times. All that we offer, including our Passover seder, is a monument to Jewish diversity–which this year included a new tradition straight from America– Ruth’s Cup.
Developed by Rabbi Heidi Hoover, a Jew by choice, Ruth’s Cup includes a ritual to honor Jewish diversity that was more than appropriate for our southern Italian seder gathering.
Our synagogue, now in its eleventh year, is devoted to extending the hand of Jewish welcome to southern Italians whose traditions were ripped from their families when the long arm of Grand Inquisitor Torquemada reached from Spain and Portugal into Sicily and Calabria. As our members first discover and then embrace their Jewish roots, they find a Jewish community that applauds and appreciates their unique Jewish journey. Services and festival events are modern and inclusive with interfaith families and gay and lesbian families and their children fully partic-ipating–as they did during this year’s “seder di Pesach,” complete with Ruth’s Cup and ritual.
Placed in the middle of the table, our Ruth’s Cup was handcrafted from the wood of local chestnut trees and adorned with etchings of sheaves of grain to honor Ruth’s labor in the fields.
Translated into Italian, Rabbi Hoover’s words touched our hearts:
“Many Jews assume that ‘real Jews’ look a certain way and have one path to Judaism– being born Jewish. When confronted with Jews who don’t fit these stereotypes, even well-meaning Jews may treat them as less Jewish. Jews of color, and/or those who have converted to Judaism (and B’nei Anusim who are now cautiously returning) find that other Jews can be insensitive to our differences.”
At our seder table, just before Elijah’s Cup, we designated Lidia to lift Ruth’s Cup as we recited Rabbi Hoover’s blessing: “We lift this cup of wine for Ruth, the first Jew by choice, and we open the door to signify our welcome of Ruth and… all those who become part of our people, part of our diversity.”
As we sipped our homemade wine, Lidia said, “It has been a difficult journey, especially when some feel that because I am ‘Bat Anusim,’ I am not an authentic Jew. Sometimes it hurts my heart because the more I learn about Judaism the more I realize how much I have lost. But tonight I am happy. Ruth’s cup tells me I belong!”
For us in Italy’s most isolated region, we work at uncovering hidden Jewish traditions–practices, foods, Ladino words and phrases, ritual items and music–so that the joy of Judaism is available to everyone and anyone in our B’nei Anusim community. Thanks to Ruth’s Cup, we now have another beautiful tradition which celebrates Jewish diversity that enhances us all.
*Rabbi Barbara Aiello is Italy’s first and only woman rabbi. She is a Kulanu board member and founder of the B’nei Anusim movement in Southern Italy. A complete description of Rabbi Heidi Hoover’s “Ruth’s Cup” is available from www.globaljews.org.