November 24, 2017 | Rome, Italy | °C

Barbara Aiello

By Marc Alan Di Martino
Published: 2008-03-01

Has Serrastretta surprised you? Have anecdotes emerged?

I befriended a lovely older woman, Maria, whose dementia was progressing. When she passed away her son invited me to their home. I was astounded. A number of low chairs for the mourners were placed in a circle. The mirrors were covered in black. A small candle burned on the table where a plate of boiled eggs was arranged in bite-size pieces. I recognized these as Jewish mourning traditions. I asked the son about them. He said these were family, not church traditions. He told me that by those traditions the chairs would remain arranged that way for one week (shiva) and that there would be a special meal in his mother’s honor on the 30th day after her death (sheloshim). When I suggested that the family, called Paletta, might be Jews, the son said he assumed so but that they never talked about it openly “I think my parents were afraid,” he told me. I was touched and thrilled by the experience.

Why do Italian Jews seem uninterested in probing “marrano” life?

I don’t think it’s lack of interest. It has more to do with family and community pressures. Every major Calabrian historian has ignored the Jewish presence.

Why?

Possibly because historical studies were funded by the Catholic Church, which didn’t want to acknowledge the role that it played in the persecuting Jews. Or it could be that with the “success” of the Inquisition — that is, when Jewish communities were wiped out completely and Jews either fled or converted — historians believed that Judaism itself had also been eliminated.

How does a sibling who’s discovered the possibility of a Jewish past deal with the family issues that might provoke?

My second cousin doesn’t want to hear about our Jewish past or want it discussed in her presence. It threatens her long-held veneration of Padre Pio. Others have told me that parents and grandparents don’t want to discuss Jewish heritage because Catholic belief and practice might be shaken to its foundations if a family’s history were made public. I know a priest who has strong identifiable Jewish roots. He’s told me that if he had known years ago, he would have studied Judaism and maybe become a rabbi. Now he says he doesn’t even want to think about it. Then there’s my colleague Rabbi Francesco Tamburello, an ordained priest who discovered his Jewish roots, converted, and is now an ordained and practicing rabbi ... much to the chagrin of many in his extended family.

When will you consider your work to have been a success?

My work is a success because I am in Calabria, making Shabbat each week in a real synagogue. We’ve had the first Jewish wedding and the first Bar Mitzvah in 500 years. At those events my eyes have welled up knowing Calabrian Jews have come home. That's success. Success for me is defined by the journey itself.

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