I remember it well. I was a young girl, about 11 or 12 years old. It was a transitional time that some social scientists now call “the tweens,” when kids start to explore larger society. As new faces crossed my path, people would do the usual thing, asking my name. “Barbara Aiello,” I’d say, and give a short lesson in pronunciation — I’d point to my eye and say, “like eye and the color yellow.”
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 it eventually led me, 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 practice to go into hiding. Ner Tamid del Sud is the first active synagogue in Calabria in 500 years, since the Kingdom of Naples issued a decree forbidding the practice of Judaism in 1533. In the intervening centuries, secret Jews of Southern Italy — “crypto-Jews”— took their traditions into their homes and into their hearts, waiting for the opportunity to be Jewish again. That opportunity became a reality in 2007, when regular synagogue services began.
This development wasn’t relevant only to locals. Quickly, Jews from abroad started requesting bar and bat mitzvahs in our congregation. Shortly after our establishment we had our first instance of a family traveling here from the United States to celebrate the bar mitzvah of their son, Tyler. It became clear that the synagogue would both extend a Jewish welcome to southern Italians eager to make their own Jewish discoveries and open the door to this remarkable piece of history to Jewish families around the world.
I recall meeting face-to-face with Tyler, his parents, and his younger brother. 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 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 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 had once been a synagogue. As our walking tour continued and we met some of the residents of Timpone, all of whom 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 b’nai mitzvah 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 b’nai mitzvah students — some of whom have traveled from Chicago, New York, Canada and Australia — not only have assisted me with the service, but have met and greeted Italian congregants who journeyed great distances just to participate in the ceremony. One family came six hours by train so 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 bat mitzvah. “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 b’nai mitzvah program, I was able to renovate the synagogue space and enlarge it to accommodate our “destination” families, along with our growing 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 most Calabrian Jews trace their Jewish roots.
When I’m asked about our Jewish affiliation, I explain that we are “pluralistic;” 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.
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 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.
Barbara Aiello is Italy’s first female rabbi and first non-Orthodox rabbi. This story from jns.org was first published by www.jewish.travel, the new online Jewish travel magazine.