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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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As Italy’s only female rabbi, Aiello believes much of the criticism she faces is “deeply misogynist” and made by people who are either angry or jealous about her success. In addition to weddings, Aiello celebrates destination bar and bat mitzvahs for American and Canadian Jews, preparing her students over Skype. For several months a year, Aiello returns to the congregation she once led in Florida, where she shares the story of Italy’s “hidden Jews.” At the end of February, she will serve as a scholar in residence at Temple Beth David in Boston before returning to Serrastretta in April.

Aside from questions of religious practice, Italy’s Jewish establishment has also found fault with Aiello’s claims about Italy’s anusim. Zanardo, a former researcher in the University of Milan history department, disputes Aiello’s statements that as many as 50 percent of southern Italians have Jewish roots. “It’s true there are anusim in southern Italy,” he said, “but her stories lack validity from a historical perspective.”

Ross, an American who has lived in Italy since 1982 and conducts Jewish heritage tours there, agrees: “I have been to Taormina [in Sicily] four times, and there is a Jewish star on one of the main buildings there, but I don’t see a Jew around except people who are traveling and are staying at the fancy hotels.”

Richetti, the president of Italy’s Rabbinical Assembly, told Il Sole 24 Ore that “Aiello’s story has its roots in the renewed interest in the Jewish origins in the south of Italy. There is a lot of curiosity, but in many cases it’s just folklore,” he said. Nonetheless, in 2012 Italy’s Orthodox community dispatched Rabbi Pinhas Pierpaolo Punturello, who was born in Naples and raised a Catholic but later converted, to work with crypto-Jews in southern Italy. Punturello lives in Jerusalem but spends a portion of each month in Sicily, where he organizes events meant to bring more Italian Jews back to the community.

The two don’t work together and have never met. Yet Aiello views Punturello’s appointment as the biggest validation of her work. “A journalist once asked me how I’ll know that I have been successful, and I replied that it would be when the Orthodox came calling,” said Aiello. “And now that’s what happened. The Orthodox have ‘discovered’ Italy’s anusim, which is great, and are pumping all sorts of money into it. But they’re also piggybacking on my work.”

The only female rabbi in Italy occupies a lonely perch, geographically and spiritually. Yet she is very proud of what she’s accomplished in Calabria. “They call us terroni, or rednecks, and think the South—that is, anything south of Rome—can’t produce anything good,” Aiello said. “But we are building something here.”

Damiano Beltrami contributed reporting.

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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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