No Longer Hidden in Plain Sight
If you had to hide your Jewish identity starting today, what hints might your descendants have 450 years from now - in 2471 - that you were Jewish? To begin to think about this question, you might look to the experience of someone that regularly meets people whose ancestors hid their Jewishness beginning during the time of the Inquisition.
Rabbi Barbara Aiello is that person. Her mission is to help people today reconnect with their Jewish background, roughly 450 years after their ancestors’ Judaism was forced underground.
I had a fascinating cross-continental conversation with Rabbi Aiello recently, during which she talked about her work in the Calabria region of Italy.She is the only female Rabbi in Italy, and her Reconstructionist synagogue is one of only two such congregations in Europe. Ner Tamid del Sud, located in the village of Serrastretta, is the first active synagogue of Calabria in 500 years - since the Inquisition times. It is largely made up of B’Nai Anusim– people of Sephardic background who, as a result of her work, are rediscovering, reclaiming, and reconnecting with their long-hidden Jewish roots. "I believe Anusim are bringing back a love of Judaism and a dedication to Judaism that
is becoming a tangible example for Jews around the world,” she says. “It’s a labour of love.” Contrast this, she says, with the complacency of those of us who have a long-established connection, and take “our precious traditions” for granted. Among the Anusim, “there’s such an excitement and joy about being Jewish and formally connecting with our people.”
Rabbi Aiello feels strongly that, but for a twist of fate, she might have been one of those unaware of her Jewish roots. Her family was from the very area where she now lives and practices (and in fact, her office and home are in a house that has been in her family for generations, in a town that was founded by Jews fleeing persecution from elsewhere in the region.) Her mother was in a Displaced Persons camp in Rome after World War II, and landed in the United States. Rabbi Aiello grew up in an Orthodox community, mainly because it was a refugee synagogue and a “real refuge.” She got a Jewish education, where there was a vibrant Jewish life, becoming a Rabbi as her second career. “If by the hand of fate, I had grown up here (in Italy), I would be in the same boat as my congregants – wondering why we put a red string on a baby’s crib or why we sweep the crumbs to the centre of the room rather than to the door, and no-one to explain,” she says.
Prior to becoming a rabbi, she was the school director at a Reform synagogue in the American Virgin Islands. This led her to a para-Rabbinics program, and ultimately to her decision to become a rabbi. After Ordination, she was a rabbi in the U.S. for a number of years before moving to Milan to be the rabbi of Lev Chadash, the first Progressive non-Orthodox synagogue in Italy. It was a natural fit, given her Italian background and facility with the language. In so doing, she became the first woman rabbi in Italy. A couple of years after that, she was contacted by a small interfaith organization in Seattle, Washington that was looking to revive an Anusim community in southern Italy, where there had been no Jewish community for centuries.
So, how does Rabbi Aiello find these B’Nai Anusim? In this era of the Internet, she says that more often than not, they find her, either directly or through Kulanu, an organization dedicated to “supporting isolated, emerging, and returning Jewish communities around the globe”. (I intend to write another blog soon about the work of Kulanu; stay tuned!)
Before that, she kept her eyes and ears open. Initially, she would ask those she met, “Do you think your family might have been Jewish?” But she says that now she’s learned to “ask the right questions.” She asks people about family traditions that are different from those of their neighbours. Some clues she has noted: lighting a single candle at dinner on a Friday night. Tying a red string around a crib. Sitting on low chairs following someone’s death. Sweeping to the middle of the room, rather than toward the door. (This one puzzled me, so I asked: it’s out of respect for the Mezuzah that was once there.) Washing vegetables in a large pan and shaking vigorously to root out insects. Covering mirrors, windows, and glass bookcase doors with white cloth. Wrapping a deceased body in sheets rather than dressing it, and burying people by sundown the next day.
Rabbi Aiello founded the Italian Jewish Cultural Center of Calabria (IjCCC), an organization dedicated to helping those with Italian heritage determine if their family surnames indicate Jewish roots. You can read more about this work, and see the list of names at https://www.rabbibarbara.com/italian-jewish-roots-research/ . She is very proud of this work, which has served about 250 clients to date. “Never once has someone submitted 6, 8, or 12 surnames to the team, that we found nothing – because you’re not attracted to searching for your surname unless there’s a feeling inside.”
Since 2015 (during non-COVID times), her synagogue has been offering English classes for adults and children, so that anyone might feel comfortable in the building, and in getting to know her and the community. She and the local priest teach some courses together; when people see the friendly relationship between them, they become less fearful of approaching her.
Because the village of Serrastretta was established by her forebears as a refuge from persecution in nearby towns, there are hints as to its Jewish origins in local customs.. Rabbi Aiello refers to this as “hiding in plain sight”, where Jews would take traditions and attach them to Catholic or other Christian practices, so as not to arouse suspicion.
On December 31, for example, two traditions are practiced that are reminiscent of Jewish practices associated with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Horns from ibex are blown from the surrounding hills, much as Jews blow the Shofar, and on New Year’s Day, Pinolata - dough balls covered in honey - are left by the door for visitors, just as we might eat honey cake or dip our challah
in honey for a sweet new year. In the local church, on the 30th day after a death there’s a special service, Treize Iman mass, or, for secular people (who were usually Jewish at some point ), a meal is eaten at the house both customs reflecting our 30-day (shloshim) mourning period. On Fridays, families gather for dinner, the table is set with a white tablecloth, and one candle is lit – a definite echo of Shabbat. It’s also a regional tradition to prepare Caponata, Carciofi (artichoke), and fennel dishes on Friday, to be left out at room temperature so there’s no need for cooking on Saturday.
And so, I return to my original question: If Judaism had to go underground today, what would survive, half a millennium from now? If Rabbi Aiello’s experience teaches us anything, it is that there will be hints pointing to Jewish practices, but it will take some digging to realize what they are.
You can see pictures of the synagogue here:
Read more about the Jews of Calabria in this article by Rabbi Aiello: https://www.rabbibarbara.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/The_Jews_of_Sicily_and_Calabria.pdf