Italy’s First Woman Rabbi Searches Out Calabria’s Hidden Jews

Italy as a country is nothing if not traditional. Many of its cobblestone streets existed long before the U.S. gave so much as a birth cry and the Italian Jewish community boasts roots that go back to the second century B.C.E. The Renaissance is almost a modern phenomenon in comparison.

But Rabbi Barbara Aiello, an Italian American born in Pittsburgh, PA, is breaking with the traditional by bringing liberal Judaism to the boot.

Ordained by the non-denominational Rabbinical Seminary International, Aiello is the first female rabbi — not to mention the first non-Orthodox rabbi — to set up shop in Italy. She spoke about the experience at Washington DC’s National Press Club on Thursday, August 13.

Aiello’s first Italian pulpit job began 11 years ago at Lev Chadash, a Reform synagogue in Milan. But now she’s focused her efforts on Southern Italy, founding the Italian Jewish Cultural Center of Calabria and Sinagoga Ner Tamid del Sud, the first active synagogue in 500 years in Calabria, the region where her father grew up. Her congregation now has 82 members.

“I went to my Calabrian roots, my ancestral home,” she said.

Acting as the poster-woman for Italian liberal Judaism hasn’t been without challenges. Only Orthodox institutions can legally receive state funding, and Aiello’s relationship with her current Orthodox counterparts is limited.

She has been asked to leave two Orthodox synagogues and a kosher market in Italy for wearing a kippa, she said. In contrast, a local priest has been very supportive, and even visited the synagogue to light the chanukiah with Aiello and her congregants.

“I have a better relationship with the Catholic Church than I do with my Orthodox colleagues,” she said.

“But my daughter puts it best when she says, ‘Mama, you signed up to be a pioneer. Challenges come with the territory.’”

If being the first Italian woman rabbi wasn’t enough, Aiello has given herself another unique mission—to find hidden Jews in Southern Italy.

Both of the institutions Aiello founded, the cultural center and the synagogue, are especially geared toward the descendants of Italy’s “anousim,” Jews forced to convert to Christianity during the Spanish Inquisition.

Though Italy isn’t the first country that comes to mind when talking about forced conversions, Spanish rule reached “up to the ankle of the Italian boot,” Aiello said, so many Southern Italian Jews converted for fear of persecution, hiding their Jewish practices.

According to Aiello, several Italian last names hint at Jewish roots, and she discovered what she believes to be crypto-Jewish traditions all over Calabria: men who blow horns on the secular New Year, weavers who make fringed scarves that must include a strand of blue (much like the techelet, the blue color traditionally included in talit), families who have a tradition that eating milk and meat together is unhealthy. Her own grandmother lit candles in the basement on Friday nights.

“Over the decades and centuries we took our Jewish traditions into our homes and, at first for safety reasons, the religious meanings of those rituals were lost and our Jewish customs became family traditions and nothing more,” Aiello said. “It has been my mission and my personal journey to uncover these traditions and return them to their rightful place in Italian Jewish history.”

As church and synagogue pews grow emptier in the face of an increasingly secularized Italy, Aiello hopes hidden Jews’ return to congregational life in Calabria will infuse the Italian Jewish community with a new vibrancy.

“It’s important to reach out and open the door,” she said. “There are so many Jews of all cultures and backgrounds who are just waiting to hear, ‘Welcome home.’”

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