By Marc Alan Di Martino
It was a decision of the heart. My family’s roots are in here. The family escaped from Toledo, Spain to Sicily, and then to the toe of the boot, near Reggio Calabria. From there they traveled north to Nicastro. When things deteriorated they fled to the mountains of Calabria, here in Serrastretta, because the hills offered protection. They were among the “anousim,” or “forced ones” for centuries.
You also honor your father’s memory.
My father was a liberator of Buchenwald. What he saw there changed his life, and subsequently changed mine. He told me Calabrian Jews were among the most wanting in terms of learning about and embracing Jewish heritage. The synagogue honors my father’s memory and allows me to live the Jewish principle of “l’dor v’dor” or “from generation to generation.”
Do you worry your neighbors might see you as an iconoclast, or think that you’re here to chip away at their accepted values?
It’s my responsibility as rabbi to help my neighbors understand why I am here and what I hope to accomplish. If I don’t stand tall and explain myself all sorts of misconceptions can arise. I take the time to speak to as many people as I can, on an individual basis. I tell them about my family and why I am here. I’m helped in this regard by the late Pope John Paul II, who shortly before his death did a wonderful thing for me and for all Jews. He said that the Jews are the older brothers (and sisters) of Christians and that we are linked together by shared traditions. This has been an enormous help. I talk often with the local parish priest, Don Gigi Iuliano. In December, I invited him to the first Chanukah celebration in a Jewish synagogue in Calabria in 500 years. He in turn announced the event to his parishioners, 45 of whom joined us — and all of who spoke about their Jewish roots.
This day-to-day, step-by-step footwork makes the difference. I tell people that we Jews do not seek converts, that we’re open to anyone who wants to learn about the religion and connect with us on any level: religious, ethical, cultural, and even gastronomical. I also go to local schools and talk to students in religion classes. I teach songs, discuss traditions, wear my kipah and tallit (yarmulke and prayer shawl) and demonstrate through word and action that I’m part of their community. So far, so good.
On your website there’s a list of Italian-Jewish surnames, many of which seem indistinguishable from non-Jewish Italian surnames. How does someone go about determining Jewish-Italian roots?
Regarding Italian surnames, forced conversions is a key factor. We’re looking at families that were Jewish first and forced to change religion. We know that the Kingdom of Naples was part of the Spanish empire, and that after Torquemada finished off Jews in Spain and Portugal, the Inquisition reached into Sicily and Calabria. This explains how a family that’s been Catholic or secular for centuries can have Jewish roots.
Surnames that indicate names of Italian towns, village or regions are often indications of Jewish roots — for example, Calabrese, Catanzaro, Cosenza, and my mother’s surname Siciliano. Centuries ago, Jews without surnames took the name of their area as a way of subtly identifying themselves one to another. The names of things, fiore, tromba, parucca (flower, trumpet, wig) also were adopted by Jews as surnames, once again to help with identification. You can also look to surnames that are Italian translations of Hebrew words: “Sacerdoti,” “Sermoneta,” “Beniamino,” “Buonomo,” “Bonamo” are the Hebrew “Kohane” or “Kohanim,” “Dvar,” “Benjamin,” and “Tzadik.” Names begin with a suffix Di, D’, La, Lo indicates Son of, or in Hebrew, “Ben.” These are the obvious indications historians have been aware of for sometime.
It has been observed that the name “Italia” might have a Hebrew origin.
There are many legends about how Italy got its name, but I do think that “Island of God’s Dew” — or “Aiee” (Hebrew for coastline), “Tal” (dew), and “Ya” (a contracted form of God’s holy name)… Italia … makes sense for many reasons. As the story goes, the Macabbes were losing their war with the Assyrians. The Assyrians were fighting to separate Jews from their culture, tradition and religion. Had they won, Jewish life would have been destroyed there and then. Faced with heavy losses, the Jews formed a scouting party that sailed from Judea in the search of mercenary soldiers to help their cause. As they drifted into Mediterranean, the Jews saw a beautiful mist rising above miles of pristine coastline. In Hebrew they exclaimed, “Aiee-tal-ya!”
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