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Italy’s only female Rabbi reports on hidden Jews, intolerance

Written By | Aug 30, 2015

WASHINGTON, August 29, 2015 — Italy has the oldest Jewish community in Europe, one with its own unique customs and history.

Italy’s only female — and only Reform — rabbi spoke at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. on August 13. Her report about the hidden Jews of southern Italy and about  the growing intolerance within the Jewish community is instructive.

Rabbi Barbara Aiello is a native of Pittsburgh. Her family, Italian Jews, emigrated from Calabria, in southern Italy. She has returned to Calabria, started a synagogue, and is on a mission to reach out to the Anusim — descendants of Jews who were forced hundreds of years ago to convert to Catholicism at the time of the Inquisition. Earlier, Rabbi Aiello helped to start the first Reform synagogue in Milan.

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Five-hundred years ago, the population of Calabria was almost half Jewish, she reports. While families were forced to convert, many Jewish customs have endured through the years. On New Year’s Eve, many people in this region blow an ibex horn, keeping alive the idea of blowing the shofar on the Jewish New Year without letting authorities know they were still carrying out such Jewish customs.

In southern Italy, many people eat unleavened bread during Easter and do not mix meat and milk because they believe the combination “is not good for digestion.” Many in this region will throw away an egg if it has a blood spot, not because they keep kosher, but because they consider it unhealthy.

According to Rabbi Aiello, many Catholic families light candles on Friday night, cover their mirrors when in mourning and tie a red string around a baby’s wrist, a Kabbalistic ritual. She displayed three Italian scarves that looked like tallitot, a Jewish prayer shawl.  The English translation for what they are called is “embrace of God.”

In Aiello’s view, these are signs that, although Jews converted, rather than being executed or forced to flee, they continued to practice Judaism “in secret for hundreds of years.” Eventually, Jewish customs “became family traditions and nothing more.”

Aiello returned to her family’s roots and started serving in Italy in 2004. Some of the people with whom she has become acquainted have last names like “Sacerdotu,” which is the Italian word for priest or kohen, and “Vita,” which means l’chaim, “to life.” Other people have very Christian names such as “blood of Christ,” which their ancestors chose to avoid any suspicion.  While historians do not speak of a Jewish presence in southern Italy, thinking it was eliminated, Aiello shows that this is not the case.

Her synagogue, Sinagoga Ner Tamid del Sud (which means “the eternal light of the south”) is the first active synagogue in Calabria and Sicily in 500 years. It now has 82 members. In addition to the synagogue, she has established the Italian Jewish Cultural Center of Calabria. She is the only rabbi in Italy who officiates at interfaith weddings, usually with a religious leader of another faith.

Rabbj Aiello’s relations with the local Catholics have been very good. The local priest brings schoolchildren to the synagogue to learn about Judaism and Jewish customs. He tells them that if is important for them to learn about these things because “many of your ancestors were Jewish.”

On the other hand, Italy’s Orthodox rabbis have ostracized and isolated Rabbi Aiello. She was asked to leave synagogues in Rome and Florence because she was wearing a kippah, or scull-cap, which Orthodox Jews believe should be worn only by men. She was even asked to leave a kosher food market in Milan.  The Italian Jewish establishment, she reports, is becoming increasingly intolerant.

As more moderate Italian-born rabbis die or retire, she notes, they are being replaced by right-wing Israeli rabbis.

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Within Israel itself, contempt for non-Orthodox branches of Judaism, with which the majority of American Jews are affiliated, is growing. In July, Israel’s minister of religious aervices, David Azoulay, declared that he did not consider Reform Jews to be Jewish. In Israel, Orthodox Judaism is, in effect, the state religion. Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist rabbis have no right to conduct weddings, funerals or conversions.

Religious intolerance against Christians is also growing in Israel. Churches are being vandalized and desecrated. Benzi Gopstein, the leader of Lehava, a group known for its virulent campaigns against relationships between Arab men and Jewish women, has called upon the Israeli government to remove Christian churches from the country. He declares: “If we want to have a Jewish state, we don’t have a place for churches here…It’s Jewish law. That’s what God told us.”

Recently. Mordechai Meyer was ordered detained for six months for suspected involvement in a fire that badly damaged the Church of Loaves and Fishes on the banks of the Sea of Galilee, marking the site where Jesus is believed to have miraculously fed 5,000 people. Meir Ettinger, the grandson of the late Meir Kahane, whose Kach Party was banned because of its racist beliefs, was also arrested days after the attack on the church. He said that Israel was being “desecrated” by the presence of churches and condemned “the state of Israel’s great sin of allowing idolatry—churches and monasteries abounding in the Land of Israel with the sound of their ringing bells mixing with the pleasant sound of the Torah and prayer.”

Such expressions of intolerance, sadly, are to be found not only on Israel’s extreme right wing, but also in the highest reaches of the establishment. President Reuven Rivlin, when he was a member of Parliament, attended a service at a Reform synagogue in New Jersey. Later, he  told an Israeli newspaper, “This is idol worship and not Judaism.” In June, Rivlin reneged at the last minute on a plan to host a disabled children’s bar mitzvah ceremony under the auspices of Conservative and Orthodox rabbis—-unless the Conservative rabbis were removed.

The level of intolerance in Israel is difficult for those outside the country to understand. Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburgh, of Gush Emunim, the militant West Bank settler group, for example, argues that non-Jews have “satanic souls.” He speaks freely of Jews’ genetic based spiritual superiority over non-Jews. “If you saw two people drowning, a Jew and a non-Jew, the Torah says you save the Jewish life first,” Ginsburgh states. “If every simple cell in a Jewish body entails divinity, is a part of God, then every strand of DNA is a part of God. Therefore, something is special about Jewish DNA…If a Jew needs a liver, can you take the liver of an innocent non-Jew passing by to save him? The Torah would probably permit that. Jewish life has an infinite value.”

Italy, where Jews have lived for thousands of years, has not seen this intolerance on the part of Jews until the present time, when it is being imported from Israel. Although Italy was an ally of Germany in World War II, more than 80 percent of its Jews survived. In one case, an Italian official, Giovanni Palatucci, had access to the records of Italy’s foreign residents, including their religion. He was ordered to turn these names over to authorities. Instead, he arranged to send them to internment camps all over southern Italy, where they would be safe. One of these camps was tucked into the town of Campagna, where Palatucci’s uncle was bishop. These Jews survived the war and were protected by the residents of southern Italy.

Rabbi Aiello tells the story of the Ferramonti Concentration Camp, where nearly 4,000 Jews were saved by Italian soldiers and local villagers in the hills of Calabria—the same place where Italian families have clung to their ancient Jewish roots. How sad that it is by Italy’s Orthodox rabbis that she has been rebuffed and rejected. Such intolerance will hinder rather than advance Jewish life in Italy and elsewhere in Europe.

The National Press Club Newsmakers program, one of whose board members is Tony Gallo, performed a notable service in having Rabbi Aiello as a speaker. Among the common Italian Jewish names the rabbi cited were “Romano” and “Gallo.”  Now, Tony, whose family emigrated to the U.S. from Calabria, is convinced he has Jewish ancestors. Perhaps Rabbi Aiello has uncovered another “hidden Jew” in Washington, D.C..

Allan C. Brownfeld

Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.