By Marc Alan Di Martino
very Monday and Thursday in the 1920s Antonio Aiello dutifully traveled 25 kilometers from his Calabrian hometown of Serrastretta to study the Torah, the Jewish holy book, at the home of a man known as the “Rav,” or rabbi. He often hitched a ride on an artichoke cart, or so he told his daughter Barbara Aiello, who is now a rabbi.
The darker side of the story is that no Jews were officially said to reside in Calabria at the time. The Spanish Inquisition and subsequent Roman Catholic persecution had decimated a once-flourishing Jewish community. Jews had been expelled or forced to convert. For a time, so-called “new Christians” held onto their Jewish ways closed doors. Jewish holidays were celebrated secretly. Gradually, the “marranos” — or crypto-Jews — were assimilated into Catholic society, eradicating most traces of Jewish life from southern Italy.
Now, signs of a hidden past are emerging. In 1986, archeologists discovered the ruins of a synagogue they speculated was built under the Roman Empire. First signs pointed to a Roman settlement until archeologists found floor mosaic depicting a seven-branched candelabrum, the Jewish menorah. “No one had any idea a Jewish community existed there,” Elio Toaff, the then-chief rabbi of Rome told the New York Times.
Barbara Aiello’s presence in the region reflects some of this complicated personal and spiritual history. Fulfilling a promise she made to father Antonio, she is now the rabbi in tiny Serrastretta’s “Ner Tamid del Sud” (Eternal Light of the South) synagogue. It’s the first active synagogue in Calabria in five centuries. Its historical context is anything but new. Judaism, though forced underground, really left, says Aiello. “In nearly every small town and village there are remnants of Jewish cultural and tradition that thrived here as early as 2,000 years ago.”
Both Aiello’s immigrant parents descended from crypto-Jewish families. In Pittsburgh, her grandmother went to the basement to light Shabbat candles. “We’re in America now! There’s religious freedom here!” Antonio told his mother, Aiello’s grandmother. “You never know,” was her solemn rebuttal.
Antonio Aiello was a GI in Europe during World War II. He was present at the liberation of the Buchenwald death camp. “Do something for the Jewish people,” he implored his daughter. She became a rabbi.
Her career has included an apprenticeship in the Virgin Islands, a seminary in New York City, and a rabbinate in Florida. Five years ago she accepted a job at Milan’s Lev Chadash (New Heart) synagogue, making her Italy’s first non-Orthodox rabbi. After the Lev Chadash experience, she decided it was time to make good on her promise to her father.
She arrived in Serrastretta two years ago and is known by the locals as “the woman who bought the house” — a house that in fact has been in her family for generations. She bought adjoining units to make space for the synagogue. Gradually, Aiello discovered that Serrastretta is full of Jews. Many are finally ready to start talking about their faith. She spoke to Marc di Martino.
You’ve brought what some refer to as “Americanisms” to the Italian Jewish scene. Do you look at yourself as an outsider or as an Italian Jew with a different tradition?
The latter: an Italian-American Jew, who, as a rabbi, is above all else a Jew. I work to revive Jewish tradition that is uniquely Italian in a place, Calabria, where many believe Italian Jewish tradition was born. Because I’m an American some can view this as an insurmountable cultural obstacle. But I don’t think so. I was raised with Italian Jewish traditions as well as a “marrano” background, in that my family’s heritage dates back to the time of the Inquisition and forced conversions. This [common] heritage … seems to overcome the other more obvious cultural differences.
After two years at in Milan, which has the second largest Jewish population in Italy, you opened a synagogue in Calabria. Not exactly an ideal stomping grounds for a rabbi — let alone an American woman.
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