“Io sono in paradiso!”(I am in heaven!) That’s what Salvo Asher Parucca had to say as he traveled from Palermo, Sicily, to Washington, DC, and then on to New York City. Thanks to the efforts of many, Parucca came to the United States to study in an intensive English language program, to speak about the challenges facing the Anousim in Italy, and to visit the Academy of Jewish Religion in Riverdale, NY, where he hopes to study for the rabbinate.
Parucca’s adventure began with hospitality’s open arms in the home of Kulanu supporter Barbara Gervis Lubran, who donated his transportation and English study after meeting him in Sicily. During his three weeks in the Washington area, Parucca had the opportunity not only to study English, but also to speak at a special Kulanu gathering hosted by Karen and Aron Primack. He shared the joys of Shabbat at several Washington area synagogues, experiencing both Reconstructionist and Conservative approaches to worship services. Because he hopes to become a rabbi, he was especially interested in learning more about streams of Judaism not found here in Italy.
“We are not numerosi,” says Parucca when he speaks about our small Progressive (Reform) congregation in the deep south of Italy (Sicily and Calabria—the “foot of the boot”). Indeed, our tiny synagogue, Ner Tamid del Sud (The Eternal Light of the South), boasts a membership of only 40, many of whom travel six to seven hours by train to gather for Shabbat and festival services. During his presentation for Kulanu, Parucca spoke passionately about the difficulties faced by Italian Anousim. His story dates back to Inquisition times, when the long arm of Torquemada reached into Sicily and Calabria and systematically destroyed Jewish life there — a monumental accomplishment given that in the 1500s historians say that more than 50 percent of the Calabrian and Sicilian population was Jewish!
Parucca began a search for his Jewish roots several years ago. As a teenager he was drawn to Judaism, and only later did he discover that both his father’s and mother’s ancestors were Jewish. “My mother’s surname is Taibi,“ he says, “which originates in North Africa and which derives from the Hebrew name Tobias.” The surname, “Parrucca,” means “wig” in Italian and also has Jewish roots. Historians have established that when Sicilian and Calabrian Jews wanted to identify themselves secretly to one another, especially when to do so openly would mean punishment for “Judaising,” they often adopted surnames that were names of things (such as a wig, trumpet, or chair) or of flowers, towns, or villages.
Following two years of study at synagogue Lev Chadash in Milan, Parucca joined a group of students for whom I recommended the Beit Din experience. Since that time, he has served as my rabbinic assistant, leading Shabbat services and two wonderful Passover seders. In fact, the seder that he and I led in 2004 was the first rabbi-led Passover seder in Sicily in 500 years!
Challah, candles, wine, Kiddush — all of these are part of Parucca’s Shabbat, which he makes regularly, even when he is completely alone. Visitors to Palermo who have met him and experienced Shabbat with him are impressed with his devotion, his facility with the Hebrew language (completely self taught), and his warmth as he shares the joys of Judaism that come straight from the heart.
“New York is meravigliosa…wonderful!” says Parucca. And he should know. After his stay in DC, Salvo traveled to the Big Apple to meet with Rabbi Francesco Tamburello (an Italian-American rabbi who hosted him), and joined me as we visited the Academy of Jewish Religion in Riverdale. Rabbi Aryeh Meir welcomed him, treating him to a tour of the campus and an opportunity not only to observe classes but to interview as well. Later that day, thanks to the efforts of Harriet Bograd and other Kulanu friends, Parucca and I led a discussion about Italian Anousim at the Manhattan Jewish Community Center, where a group of nearly 50 learned about one of Judaism’s best kept secrets.
The history of the Italian Jews is a complicated mix. For those who have seen Italy through Jewish eyes, that glimpse usually went no further south than Naples. Yet, the Jews of Sicily and Calabria are the oldest Jews in the Diaspora, as evidenced by the excavation of a synagogue at Bova Marina that some say predates a similar antiquity found near Rome.
As rabbi of the emerging IjCCC, the Italian Jewish Cultural Center of Calabria, (an effort funded by the Vuolo-Bernstein Family Foundation in the US) and synagogue Ner Tamid del Sud, I can say with certainty that it is Jews like Salvo Asher Parrucca who make our work so satisfying and remind us how necessary it really is. In these days and times, when population surveys indicate that our numbers are diminishing, it is important to remember that the more we reach out to lost and isolated Jewish communities like ours in the south of Italy, the more Jews we will have — today and tomorrow.
(To learn more and/or to help Salv Parucca realize his dream to become a rabbi, contact the author at www.rabbibarbara.com.)