Rabbi on a mission to uncover hints of southern Italy’s Jewish past

Rabbi on a mission to uncover hints of southern Italy’s Jewish past

Rabbi Barbara Aiello says that historians assume Jewish presence in southern Italy was wiped out. (Photo by Suzanne Pollak)
Rabbi Barbara Aiello says that historians assume Jewish presence in southern Italy was wiped out. (Photo by Suzanne Pollak)

As the only female rabbi in Italy, Barbara Aiello is on a mission to reach out to the anusim, descendants of Jews who were forced hundreds of years ago to convert to Catholicism, and tell them of their Jewish roots.

Aiello, who grew up on Mount Washington in Pittsburgh, alongside many Sephardic neighbors, spoke about many southern Italian customs that appear rooted in Judaism during an Aug. 13 speech at the National Press Club in Washington.

Her synagogue in Calabria in the south of Italy — the country’s “boot” — is the only synagogue serving “an area the size of Connecticut.”

In this region, people blow an Ibex horn on the last day of every year, which the rabbi said is probably how Jews kept alive the idea of blowing the shofar on the Jewish New Year without letting the authorities know they were still Jewish.

In southern Italy, people eat unleavened bread during Easter and do not mix meat and milk because, as they believe, the combination “is not good for digestion.” The people of this region will throw away an egg if it has a blood spot, not because they keep kosher, but because they consider it unhealthy, she said.

Italian Catholic families light candles on Friday night, cover their mirrors when in mourning and tie a red string around a baby’s wrist, a kabbalistic ritual, according to Aiello.

During her 90-minute talk, she displayed three Italian scarves that looked like tallitot, fringes and all. The English translation for what they are called is “embrace of God,” she said.

To Aiello, who holds a master’s degree in education and psychology from George Washington University, these are all signs that although Jews converted rather than be killed, they continued to practice Judaism “in secret for hundreds of years.”

Eventually, Jewish customs “became family traditions and nothing more,” she said.

With the last name of Aiello, the rabbi said she has been told all her life that “you can’t be Jewish. You are Italian.” She is the first member of her family to be born in America. Her grandparents grew up in southern Italy, and her parents lived there too, before moving to Pittsburgh, thanks to “a sponsor they never met.”

Aiello returned to her family’s roots and began serving in Italy in 2004 at “the first and only modern, liberal, non-Orthodox synagogue in Italy,” she said. “It’s a role that I fulfill to this day.”

Some of the people with whom she has become acquainted have last names such as Sacerdotu, which is the Italian word for priest or kohen, and Vita, which means l’chaim, she said. Yet, they are not Jewish.

Other people have very Christian names which, Aiello said, their ancestors chose “to get the authorities off their back.”

Stretching the Jewish-Italian connections even farther, Aiello said that both peoples have “that sense of family, that sense of gathering around the table, that sense of food. I believe that is not a coincidence.”

Aiello said that historians “don’t speak about a Jewish presence” in southern Italy. “They assume it was wiped out.”

Her synagogue, Sinagoga Ner Tamid del Sud (which means “the eternal light of the South”) is the first active synagogue in Calabria and Sicily in 500 years. It has 82 members.

During her 11 years at her synagogue, she has experienced only one anti-Semitic incident, and since then, the local police pass by her synagogue regularly.

But her interactions with the area Catholics generally are positive, she said. Relations with Italy’s Orthodox Jewish community are not nearly as good, she said. She was asked to leave an Orthodox synagogue, because she was wearing a kippah, which women were not permitted to do there, she explained.

Aiello officiates at interfaith weddings, usually together with a religious leader of a different faith, which also has kept her from fitting in with other rabbis throughout Italy.

She doesn’t see this changing, as many of the older Orthodox rabbis, upon their retirement, are being replaced by chasidic rabbis from Israel, she said.

In Italy, the government provides money for churches and synagogues, but only Orthodox synagogues. Therefore, she uses money she earns from performing destination weddings and b’nai mitzvah to cover her synagogue’s costs.

In addition to those duties, Aiello continues searching, seeking out any and all signs of Judaism. They are everywhere, she said, adding, “Sometimes it takes a little detective work.”

Suzanne Pollak is a senior writer for Washington Jewish Week. She can be reached at spollak@midatlanticmedia.com.