A Story of Persistence and Faith
What does it mean to dig into historic records of the dead looking for Jewish names? What is it like to hear references to unknown family histories, secret customs, isolated incidents that parents and even grandparents tried to hide from their children, neighbors? How would we feel discovering hundreds of villages, which for centuries were heavily populated with Jews, but are now judenrein, or empty of Jews. I have used the German word judenrein on purpose here because one might think the previous questions were referring to the Holocaust. In fact, I am referring to the Spanish Inquisition of 1492 and its aftermath.
But oh, the similarities: villages or former shteltes without Jews -Jews burned at the stake or in the crematoria-families who survived by hiding, by passing as Christians, and/or by keeping their Jewish faith and ancestry secret to protect the lives of their children. And oftentimes, these similarities had the same result – the diluting or loss of identity and historic memory of their Jewish descendants.
It is startling to compare these two tragedies-the murder of 6 million Jews during the Holocaust of the 20th century and the forced conversions, exile and auto de fés experienced by Spanish and Portuguese Jews who faced the Inquisition beginning in 1492. A span of five hundred years separates these two world shattering events in our history and yet, and yet and yet
On page one of this issue of KulanuNews Rabbi Haim Beliak talks of the miracle of Jewish rebirth in Poland individuals discovering their Jewish identities or hidden history more than 80 years after the Holocaust. And here on page 6, we focus on the work of Rabbi Barbara Aiello who is ministering to Bnei Anousim (forced ones, descendants of Crypto Jews) who are discovering their Jewish identities or hidden histories more than 500 years after the Inquisition. Both Poland, where Jews lived for 1,000 years, and Southern Italy, where Jews first settled during the time of the Maccabees, were decimated by anti-Jewish legislation, exile and murder. Here in Calabria and Sicily, as in Poland, there were once vibrant and heavily populated regions at one time home to thousands of Jews’ Palermo, Siracusa, Naples, Nocera, Serrastretta, Messina, Lamezia, Puglio…one could go on and on.
Rabbi Barbara, like Rabbi Haim, believes she has found her life’s work, and that God has placed her in Southern Italy at this time in our history. Her task is not to reverse what happened to our people, which, of course, is impossible, but to modify or temper the harsh realities of history, to stem our losses. The Jewish history in Southern Italy, as in Poland, not only resulted in the murder and forced conversions of millions of Jews, but deprived the Jewish people of millions of their descendants.
Rabbi Barbara Aiello, or Rabbi Barbara as she prefers to be called, has been deeply engaged with Jewish outreach in Southern Italy for ten years. What began as a personal journey to share her family story of Crypto Jewish observance and survival with the people of Calabria, and to inform them about large scale Jewish settlement in the region in former centuries (a fact largely forgotten by present day residents), became her life’s work. It also signaled the beginning of the anousim* movement in Italy. KulanuNews interviewed Rabbi Barbara in ignaled the beginning of the anousim movement in Italy. KulanuNews interviewed Rabbi Barbara in 2008. It is time for us to check in on her to see where her journey began and where it has taken her.
In a recent interview, Rabbi Barbara talked about her own family heritage and anous background, which is what brought her initially to the village of Serrastretta in the Calabria mountains. The village, which is surrounded on two sides by high mountains, is difficult to reach, making it a perfect “hiding” place for the five Jewish families that founded the town some 500 years ago. There they were able to live as Crypto-Jews far from the prying eyes of the Inquisition. One of those original families was named Aiello.
Rabbi Barbara’s father Antonio Abramo Aiello was born in Serrastretta in 1911 and immigrated to the United States with his parents in 1923 when he was 13 years old. The family settled in Pittsburgh near the relatives that had sponsored their immigration. The family, which had observed Jewish rituals in secret even as late as the 20th century for fear of unleashing anti-Semitic responses from their neighbors, had some difficulty adjusting to the freedom of the United States.
Rabbi Barbara’s grandmother, Felicia Scalise, for example, insisted on lighting her Sabbath candles in the basement of her Pittsburgh home. Crypto Judaism was the only way she knew how to live her Jewish faith.
For Rabbi Barbara, her father’s stories of his secret life in the village of Serrastretta, his weekly trips to Timpone, the Jewish quarter of the neighboring village of Nicastro to study Hebrew, probably in preparation for his Bar Mitzvah, and his deep and abiding interest in his rich ancestral roots, became an important shared experience between father and daughter. That relationship was the motivating force so many years later for the work that followed. “I am very grateful to my father. His interest in our Jewish past and anous history has carried me through all these ten years.”
Antonio Aiello always believed there were still many hidden Jews living throughout the Calabria mountains. And whenever he traveled back to Italy with his family, up to his death in 1980, he would share stories of his anous family history. Those moments were always full of emotion. On one of those occasions, Rabbi Aiello accompanied him on a trip to Timpone. When he walked through the town gate and across the narrow bridge which led to the Old Jewish Quarter, and recognized the roof of the house where he studied Torah so many years before, he was overcome.
It was important for Antonio Aiello to share his message of Jewish continuity in Calabria with his daughter. He wanted her to know and to transmit the message that throughout the centuries, Crypto Jews had somehow found each other, stayed together and hung on to their Jewish traditions. And they did it all secretly and underground.
For those of us in the United States without any impediments to public worship or Jewish expression, it is difficult to fathom how so many isolated families, unable to express their Jewishness in public worship for 500 years, clung stubbornly to an ancient tradition integral to their identity. Of course, in time, many families maintained the rituals but lost the connecting threads that identified them as Jews and bound them together. Nevertheless, just before he died, Antonio Aiello begged his daughter “not to forget (her) people. You have an obligation to reach out to them,” he told her. And thus, began Rabbi Aiello’s journey and mission.
When Rabbi Aiello gave her first public speech on her roots and Jewish anous history in Lamezia Terme, a medium size city some 23 km from Serrastretta, more than 100 people crowded into the local church to hear her presentation. “The response was just amazing,” said Rabbi Aiello. So many people came to hear me speak that I was literally mobbed. People wanted not just to talk to me, but to touch me.” It was obviously a very personal issue for many of them. It was clear that some suspected they had Jewish origins but were not sure. One woman came up to Rabbi Aiello after her talk and said, “I always felt we were Jews. People told me that was not possible, that I was crazy, but I just knew.” This scene has been repeated in some form or other over and over again in the last ten years. As time passed, it became obvious to Rabbi Aiello that her father had been right. There were hidden Jews or Jewish descendants all over Calabria.
Rabbi Aiello credits local parish priest Monsignor Natale Colafanti of the Lamezia Terme diocese for his warm welcome and his heart felt opening remarks when he introduced her to the audience that evening. He said to those in attendance that he believed everyone should know where they come from, (even if that meant local parishioners had Jewish origins).
“I was not there to proselytize,”Rabbi Aiello noted, “and he was not threatened by my presence.”
Even today, Rabbi Aiello’s goal is not to convert practicing Catholics to Judaism. It is to bring the residents of Calabria and Sicily knowledge of who they are and to educate the general population of the history of their region. “If some people, and a few have, decide to embrace their Jewish heritage, that is wonderful,” she commented, “but that is not my goal.”
In the last ten years, Rabbi Aiello’s interactions and outreach with local residents has changed considerably. “Initially, my approach was all wrong,” she said. “I was setting up road blocks for myself. I would ask direct questions such as, “do you think your family was Jewish?” In some cases individuals didn’t know their families had been Jewish or that they had been conversos (secret Jews). They would simply say no and the conversation would be over.
Then, I began to realize that many of them were doing things that they didn’t realize were Jewish in origin. At that point, I began asking questions like: What do you do when someone dies, what are your mourning rituals? What do you do when a child is born? What do you do when a boy turns 13? No one had asked such questions before”. It was clear to me at that point that my role was to ask questions and to listen and listen and listen.” The answers were astounding.
Mourning rituals, for example, included sitting on low stools and covering mirrors. Aiello admitted it was a slow process. “I had to establish credibility and familiarity,” she noted. “But eventually, people warmed up to me. I was one of them after all. I was Italian, spoke the language. My father was born in Calabria as were my ancestors. And in the case of anousim, my family practiced Judaism in secret too.”
What makes her mission particularly sweet is that Rabbi Barbara, now a fulltime resident of Serrastretta, lives in a house that has been in her family for 450 years. The synagogue she founded Ner Tamid du Sud (the eternal light of the South) is on the first floor and was used as prayer room in ancient times. It was where her great grandfather prayed.
Last summer, at the annual cultural heritage festival held in Serastratte, Rabbi Aiello was asked to participate for the first time. A visit to the synagogue was just one of the many opportunities the town gave visitors for “show and tell.” During the two days of the festival, Rabbi Aiello gave 26 presentations with 15 people each. When you do the math, you find 390 people visited the synagogue during those two days. “People were so excited to hear about the Jewish history of the community and to see what was going on in the synagogue,” she commented.
During our conversation, Rabbi Aiello shared with me two very poignant events that took place during the festival. “One woman came to the synagogue bringing with her an ornate piece of jewelry, a cameo with a star of David on it instead of a face and several gold chains. The cameo had been in her family for many generations, she said. Although she didn’t know what the star represented, she was told to never, ever let it go. When the woman entered the synagogue and saw the Star of David on the wall, she began to cry. A second visitor, a young man brought with him a gift from his grandfather. He didn’t know what it was. But I did. It was a yad (pointer used to read the Torah)”.
Among those who asked Rabbi Aiello for help researching family history was Lorenzo de` Medici, descendant of the famous Renaissance de` Medici family. There have been rumors over the years of the family’s Jewish origin and Lorenzo always felt the family was Jewish. He asked Rabbi Aiello to research the de` Medici maternal line as well.
Using Inquisition records, researchers discovered that a de` Medici matriarch carried the surname “Gatto.” The Gattos were a prominent Jewish family in Spain during the Inquisition period. Ancient documents recounted that an entire branch of the Gatto family was arrested for Judaizing. They were jailed, convicted and later burned at the stake for refusing to renounce Judaism. Researchers also discovered that the de` Medicis of Spain, along with survivors from the Gatto family, escaped first to Sicily and then to the Italian mainland. It has been well documented that the original Lorenzo de’ Medici saved 230 Jews in Livorno, Italy during the Inquisition.
Today, Lorenzo, along with his father, an award-winning engineer, have built a resort in the beach community of Nocera. They are now working on the construction of a synagogue to serve the coastal villages of Calabria, just as the Ner Tamid du Sud in Serrastretta serves the mountain communities. The synagogue is expected to be completed this summer.
In small Italian towns, the post office is a central meeting place for village residents. A bulletin board is where residents post all town news and happenings. It is there that Rabbi Aiello posts information on all services, holiday observances and special events. After ten years, Torah study weekends often attract 60 people from all over Calabria. Regular Sabbath services can attract as many as 40 individuals. In addition to her activities based in Serrastretta, Rabbi Aiello has established chavurot** in Naples and in Palermo in Sicily. The two chavurot are run primarily by lay leaders when she is not visiting. While conversion is not a personal goal, Rabbi Aiello has facilitated the conversion/return of 78 individuals to Judaism.
As a descendant of anousim herself, Rabbi Aiello’s is particularly sensitive to the needs of anousim. “Judaism cannot be imposed on people who have an anous background,” she said adamantly, “it has to be revealed. My job is to be open and to extend the world of Judaism to those who express interest” to make Judaism attractive and alive. ..and then to let them be as Jewish as they want to be. I do not criticize people’s kitchens. I will teach anyone who expresses interest and then it is up to him/her to apply what he/she has learned to family life. I believe God put me in this place. It is not always easy. We are 3,000 feet up in an isolated village. You can understand why Jews chose this location. For me it is difficult. There is no heat. I have a wood-burning stove. I remain far away from major cities. But it is my father’s legacy. It was revealed to me and now it is my responsibility to reveal it to others.”
Questions and Answers:
Who supports the work of Rabbi Aiello in Southern Italy? Support comes largely from donations, the translation of documents, genealogical research for those seeking information on their Sephardic Jewish heritage, historic tours of Sephardic sites in Southern Italy and Bar/Bat Mitzvah and wedding celebrations. While Italian law stipulates that the government fund all houses of worship,
What would Rabbi Aiello do with more funds? She would translate Reform Jewish prayer books into Italian. She has permission to do so, but lacks the funds. She would translate study guides and teaching materials into Italian for the teaching and learning of Hebrew. She would rent buses to bring individuals interested in attending her weekend Shabbatons from other villages up the mountain to Serrastretta.
Where does Rabbi Aiello’s greatest support come from? According to Rabbi Aiello, support comes from local Crypto-Jewish individuals and from families who often tiptoe into the synagogue and want to know who they are and where they come from. In addition, it comes from Italian-Americans whose families immigrated to the United States from Calabria and Sicily. These areas were (and still are) the poorest regions of Italy. As a result, the majority of Italian-Americans in the US trace their heritage to Southern Italy. Since both Sicily and Calabria once had a high percentage of Jews, there is a great possibility that many Italian-Americans have Jewish roots.
*Crypto-Jews, conversos, anousim, marranos are all terms used to describe the Spanish and Portuguese Jews who were forced to convert at the time of the Spanish Inquistion.
** a small group of like-minded individuals who worship together and celebrate Jewish holidays together.
For more information on the work of Rabbi Barbara, please go to: www.rabbibarbara.com