A Time of “Firsts” for South Italy

It’s a time of firsts for the Jews of Calabria, the region of Italy in the deep south or the “foot of the boot.”   Rabbi Barbara Aiello, whose Jewish ancestors were once crypto or secret Italian Jews, became the first woman rabbi and first Progressive rabbi in Italy just three years ago.  She was spiritual leader of Synagogue Lev Chadash in Milan and served havurot in Florence, Rome, Padua, and Turin.

This year, with the help of the Vuolo-Bernstein Family Foundation, she established the Italian Jewish Cultural Center of Calabria (IJCCC) along with Synagogue Ner Tamid del Sud, the first functioning synagogue since Inquisition times.  In May, as Aiello relates, this synagogue “hosted the first Jewish wedding to take place in Calabria since the long arm of Torquemada reached into Sicily and Calabria, forcing Jews to convert or be killed.”  The wedding was held at Nicastro the old fortification from the first century that overlooks the ‘Timpone,’ the Jewish Quarter that dates from the 9th century and is still intact.  The castle looked down upon what was once the original synagogue (it is now a Catholic Church).     As Aiello describes, “In this beautiful setting Andrew Ewart and Lupe Torres were married under the chuppah.  They exchanged wedding vows using the ancient Italian Jewish practice of wrapping the couple in the tallit, symbolizing God’s loving embrace.”

In June, Ner Tamid del Sud hosted its first bar mitzvah, when Tyler Waldman was so honored.  According to Aiello, “The family chose Calabria because the parents wanted their son to fully experience what it is like to be Jewish in an isolated and lost community.  It is their hope that the experience in Calabria will make him more appreciative of his Jewish heritage.”

Local Calabrian historian Professor Vincenzo Villella has been instrumental in documenting the Jewish presence in Calabria since ancient times.  Prior to the Jews’ expulsion from Spain and subsequent forced conversions during the Inquisition, the Jewish population of Calabria was nearly 50 percent of the total.

Now, with the advent of the IJCCC, synagoga Ner Tamid and a rabbi living and working in Calabria, the Jews of Calabria have the opportunity to reconnect with their roots and traditions that characterize them as the oldest Jews in the Diaspora.  During this process, Aiello has heard many fascinating family histories, and is planning to write a book about them. She cites two examples:

“In Sicily one of my students, Saro, was present as his father was dying.  Over and over his father repeated ‘Elohim, Elohim.’  This was many years ago and Saro had no idea what the word meant or even what language it was from.  Fifteen years later, when the Internet came to Sicily, Saro began researching his father’s dying word, and reconnected with his lost Jewish heritage!

“Then, just three weeks ago, an elderly woman on my street (in Calabria) passed away.  I was friendly with her so her son invited me to the house.  He told me that there would be no funeral in the local church because ‘non siamo una parte della chiesa’  (we are not a part of the church).  I went to the house and found everyone sitting on low chairs with all the mirrors covered in black.  We were served hard-boiled eggs and told to return for Tredicesimo, the 30-day anniversary that ends the mourning period!  Sheloshim?  Seems like it.  When I spoke to the son about these customs and mentioned that they are Jewish traditions, he said, ‘I always thought we were Jewish but my parents would never be specific.  They were afraid.’”

These stories remind Aiello of her own family history, and of her responsibility.  She has told Kulanu:

As a Jew with “Marrano” roots, I am especially blessed to have the opportunity to serve Jews in Italy who long for a connection to traditions and a heritage that were so cruelly taken from them centuries ago.  I collect oral histories of my people… from Sicily to Sardinia to Calabria … where families have heard something somewhere about “gl’ebre,i” about being Jewish, and are hungry to recapture their heritage.  My own father often said to me, “Cara mia, once we had a rich and colorful tapestry to pass on. Now I give you only a few threads…”  But for me these threads are precious.  They represent the revival of Calabrian Jewish heritage, a step forward from isolation into the Calabrian sun, and for this reason they are pure gold.

For more information, contact rabbi @ rabbibarbara.com or visit www.rabbibarbara.com.