I remember it well. I was a young girl, about eleven or twelve years old. It was a transitional time that some social scientists now call “the tweens,” when kids like me were starting to explore larger society. As new faces crossed my path and as I made new friends, people would do the usual thing and ask me my name. “Barbara Aiello,” I’d say and give them a short lesson in pronouncing my last name — I’d point to my eye and say, “like ‘eye and the color yellow’”.
So far so good. Then, if religion came up, I had the chance to tell about my Jewish background: the little Sephardic synagogue my father sometimes took me to and the holidays and festivals we celebrated at home. Some people would look at me in disbelief and say something that I’ve heard all my life. “But you’re Italian. You can’t be Jewish!”
Looking back it was this experience and many others like it that led me back home to Italy to connect with my Italian Jewish roots, and, as a rabbi, to establish a synagogue in my ancestral village of Serrastretta, in the mountains of Calabria, near the “toe” of Italy’s “boot.” Eight years ago, Sinagoga Ner Tamid del Sud — The Eternal Light of the South Synagogue — was born.
Half a millennium ago forced conversions caused Jewish belief and practice to go into hiding, so Ner Tamid del Sud is the first active synagogue in Calabria in 500 years. In the intervening centuries, secret Jews of Southern Italy — “crypto-Jews” or bnei anousim as they are called — took their traditions into their homes and into their hearts, waiting for the opportunity to be Jewish once again. That opportunity became a reality in a very real way in 2007 when regular synagogue services began.
This development wasn’t only relevant to locals. Quickly, Jews from abroad started requesting barmitzvahs and batmitzvahs in our congregation, and shortly after our establishment our first family traveled from the United States to celebrate their son Tyler’s barmitzvah ceremony. It became clear that the synagogue would extend a Jewish welcome both to southern Italians eager to make their own Jewish discoveries and to open the door on this remarkable piece of history to Jewish families around the world.
Looking back I recall when Tyler, his parents and younger brother and I met face to face. We had already studied together via Skype on a weekly basis for about three months, and we finally gathered in a small family-operated hotel in Lamezia Terme, the town closest to our village. I had driven down the mountain (the synagogue is 3,000 feet or 900 meters above sea level) with our antique Torah wrapped securely beside me, I was prepared to share our scroll with Tyler and offer him an opportunity to practice his verses before the big day.
After our study time, Tyler and I, along with the entire family — grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins — toured Timpone, the old Jewish Quarter where a thriving Jewish community once lived and worked nearly 500 years ago.
As we climbed the hill toward the center of the quarter, I was able to point out the local Catholic church, complete with a camouflaged Star of David indicating that the church once had been a synagogue. As our walking tour continued and as we met some of the residents of Timpone, all of who have ancestral Jewish heritage, our American families were astounded to learn that despite concerted efforts to eradicate established Judaism, an entire neighborhood held fast to their Jewish traditions for centuries.
Over the years the barmitzvah and batmitzvah experience in Calabria has been a lesson in Jewish tenacity for the modern teens whose families opt out of the big party to give their sons and daughters a chance to see that in some parts of the world it’s not easy to be Jewish.
In fact, on the day of the ceremony, our barmitzvah and batmitzvah students, some of whom have travelled from Chicago, New York, Canada and Australia, not only assist me with the service but also meet and greet Italian congregants who have journeyed great distances just to participate in the ceremony. One family came six hours by train so that their two daughters could see a young girl read directly from the Torah scroll. Their dedication amazed Charis who had come from Rhode Island to become Calabria’s first ever batmitzvah. “I carried the scroll to each of them,” Charis said, “and I could see in their eyes how happy they were.”
Thanks in part to the international interest in our barmitzvah and batmitzvah program, I was able to renovate the synagogue space and enlarge it to accommodate our destination families along with our growing bnei anousim congregation. In its new space, the synagogue is configured in the Sephardic style, with the ark on the “Jerusalem” wall and the reading table opposite. Visitors often remark that the sanctuary is reminiscent of the ancient Sephardic synagogues in Spain to which, interestingly, most Calabrian Jews trace their Jewish roots.
When I’m asked about our Jewish affiliation, I explain that we are “pluralistic,” in that the service is fully egalitarian with equal participation for men and women as well as non-Jewish family members. And as one of just two non-Orthodox synagogues in Italy, our focus is on prayer and song in Hebrew, English and Italian so that everyone feels comfortable and understands.
Here in the south of Italy, Jewish families date back thousands of years to the time of the Maccabees when Jews left Judea and voluntarily came to Italy. We hold the distinction as the world’s first Diaspora Jews. Centuries later at the time of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, a new group of Jews made their way from Spain and Portugal
to the islands of Sicily and Sardinia and eventually to “lo stivale,” “the boot,” as we call the Italian mainland. The rich Jewish history of our area combined with my own family background that includes a glimpse into secret and hidden Jewish tradition is truly a rabbi’s dream. I am so grateful for the opportunity to immerse our barmitzvah
and batmitzvah students into the Italian Jewish experience — one that is unique in all of the world.
Barbara Aiello is Italy’s first woman rabbi and only non-Orthodox rabbi. For more information on the barmitzvah and batmitzvah program in Italy see her website: www.rabbibarbara.com or contact her
via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.