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Italy’s Only Female Rabbi Digs Up the Country’s Hidden Jewish Roots

Barbara Aiello has uncovered many Italians’ secret histories. But her methods and theories have won her many detractors.

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Rabbi Barbara Aiello with Alessandro Yosef Amato and his mother Angela Yael Amato at Alessandro’s bar mitzvah at the synagogue Ner Tamid del Sud. (Courtesy of the author)
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When Rabbi Barbara Aiello founded the synagogue Ner Tamid del Sud six years ago in Serrastretta, a mountain town of 3,600 in Italy’s Calabria region, there weren’t many self-identified Jews around. The closest congregation was in Naples, a four-hour drive away.

But Aiello—an Italian-American whose father was born in Serrastretta, and who moved from Florida back to her ancestral village in 2006—suspected many locals had Jewish roots, even if they didn’t know it.

“When I first got here, I would ask people, ‘Do you think you’re Jewish?’ and they would say ‘No,’ ” Aiello said recently, recalling her conversations with locals in Serrastretta and neighboring Calabrian towns. “Then I realized I was asking the wrong question. What I needed to ask was, ‘What did your family do when a baby was born? What did they do when a boy or a girl reached 13 years old? What did you do for mourning?’ Then people started to open up.”

As Aiello traveled throughout the region, she was astounded to discover that many local Catholic families kept Jewish traditions: candles lit on Friday night, mirrors covered for mourning, a red string tied around a baby’s wrist to ward off evil—a Kabbalistic ritual. To her, it was evidence that despite centuries of persecution, mass conversion, and forced exile, Judaism had managed to survive in Italy. They are the so-called anusim, descendants of Jews who were forced hundreds of years ago to convert to Catholicism in order to survive, similar to the marranos in Spain and Portugal.

Today Aiello leads a congregation of some 80 members. Some already identified as Jewish but found it difficult to gain acceptance in the Orthodox community, the only movement officially recognized in Italy. But many others are people who didn’t previously identify as Jews and have flocked to her after hearing her speak about southern Italy’s lost Jewish past; some have sent their children to study with Aiello and several are interested in undergoing formal conversion.

“There are people who want to know their history, but that’s where it stops,” said Aiello. “Their families are entrenched in the Catholic Church, including some of my relatives, and are not interested in going beyond that. Others, mostly secular Italians and maybe people who never felt comfortable with the church, are interested in knowing.”

A central component of Aiello’s work is the Italian Jewish Cultural Center of Calabria, which she founded and where she works alongside historian Vincenzo Villella and archivist and demographer Enrico Mascaro. The group combs through archival records and family stories and researches Jewish neighborhoods for evidence of Calabria’s Jewish past. “Sometimes people have what I call deathbed confessions, where they’re in their last moments, their family is at their side and they say, ‘You know, we are Jewish,’ ” said Aiello. “It creates enormous emotional conflict for people because they think that if they’re Jewish they can’t be anything else.”

But Aiello doesn’t believe that accepting your Jewish roots necessitates rejecting other religious identities: “I’m not telling people, ‘Leave the church, you’re really Jewish.’ What I say is, ‘You must know your history, but what you do with it is up to you.’ ”

***

Jews have lived in Italy since 200 B.C.E., and many more settled there after being expelled from Spain and Portugal in 1492. After the Kingdom of Naples issued a decree against practicing Judaism in 1533, Jews pushed further south, settling in small towns like Serrastretta, away from the reach of the crown. Many converted to save their lives, some going as far to take on overtly Catholic names such as Santospirito (Holy Spirit) or Diolaiuti (May God help him) to prove their devotion to the church. Despite the forced conversions, some Jews kept worshipping in secret. Over the years, their Jewish traditions became diluted: candles lit, low chairs put out when someone died, food separated, but with families often not understanding why—only that they’ve always done it “that way.”

Aiello estimates that as many as 50 percent of southern Italians have some Jewish roots, evidenced by names taken from towns (uncommon in Italy), overtly Catholic sounding names, and the presence of neighborhoods in many Calabrian and Sicilian towns where the Star of David and other Jewish symbols have been found on buildings.

In 2005, Aiello conducted the first Passover Seder in Sicily since the expulsion of the Jews in 1492. This year, she will mark the Jews’ departure from slavery yet again, with a Seder and Shabbaton in a nearby town. More than 30 people are expected. By American standards it may appear small, but in a place where Judaism was underground for centuries, it marks a new beginning and a chance to feel part of a community.

One of the attendees this year will be Angela Amato, a violinist from Naples who has long suspected that she was Jewish and is now enjoying learning songs and prayers and marking Jewish holidays, like Passover and Yom Kippur. In 2012, her son became bar mitzvah after studying with Aiello. “Discovering my Jewish heritage was a backwards journey for me,” said Amato. “I had all these traditions that, despite all the odds, were passed on from my grandparents and my mother.”

Another one of Aiello’s students is 55-year-old Mauro Mazza, a surgeon from Sardinia who has long identified as Jewish but could not gain entrance to the Orthodox community in Rome because he lacked proof of his Jewish lineage. “They told me that I couldn’t officially be a part of the community until I presented a document verifying that my mother was Jewish,” he recalled. His longing for a Jewish life did not go away, and through Internet research, he discovered Aiello. She became his adviser and guided him as he sought answers about a past he says was taken from him. “I’ve had a lot of doors slammed in my face, but Aiello was the one who opened them for me.”

***

Many locals have embraced Aiello as a daughter returning home after a long absence. Even the local priest is a friend; the two hold Christmas dinner for local families each year. But she has been rebuked by both Orthodox and Reform congregations in Italy.

After Aiello served a Reform congregation in Brandenton, Fla., her first rabbinical job in Italy was leading Lev Chadash, a Reform congregation in Milan. But she was let go just 18 months later after performing an interfaith wedding that included some church elements, according to Rabbi Andrea Zanardo, the founder of Lev Chadash who hired Aiello. “Reform Judaism in Europe is not like Reform Judaism in America, and she promised us that she would not do interfaith weddings,” Zanardo said. “It was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

David Ross, the former president of Beth Shalom, a Reform congregation in Milan, echoed that sentiment: “Her interfaith weddings include priests, which is just something we won’t approve.” Aiello’s Reform colleagues also questioned her smicha, or rabbinical ordination, from Rabbinical Seminary International in New York, which is not recognized by the World Union for Progressive Judaism.

Aiello says it’s shameful for the Reform community to be so divided over wedding rituals at a time when record number of Italians are intermarried. She views intermarriage as not something that will doom the Jews, but as a reality, and says it’s important to welcome non-Jewish spouses into the fold as a way of keeping the family connected to the community.

For now, Aiello is one of few rabbis in Italy, if not the only one, who officiates at interfaith weddings, performing more than a dozen such ceremonies each year. One recent event was for Joe Lasky, a 35-year-old British Jew, and Cristina Miscimarra, a 31-year-old Italian Catholic, at a 14th-century villa in Calabria last September. “The fact that Rabbi Aiello could celebrate the wedding in Italian, English, and Hebrew made everyone in the room feel like they were actively participating in the ceremony,” said Miscimarra. “We had such great feedback on her service that some of my Catholic guests even mentioned they wanted a Jewish wedding for themselves.” The couple now lives in Barcelona, where they are affiliated with a Reform congregation; Miscimarra is also considering converting to Judaism.

While Aiello’s Reform contemporaries grouse about her willingness to officiate weddings between Catholics and Jews, the Orthodox community in Italy doesn’t acknowledge her as a rabbi at all. Calls and emails to the Rome and Milan Orthodox communities were not answered, but in a 2012 article in Il Sole 24 Ore magazine, Rabbi Elia Richetti, president of the Italian Rabbinical Assembly, explained the community’s perspective: “In Italy, there is no other way to be Jewish than to follow the Orthodox tradition. The only southern Jewish community is the one in Naples.”

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Italy’s Only Female Rabbi Digs Up the Country’s Hidden Jewish Roots

Barbara Aiello has uncovered many Italians’ secret histories. But her methods and theories have won her many detractors.