From a small, rustic synagogue she fashioned from her family’s ancestral home in this mountain village, an American rabbi is keeping a promise made to her Italian-born father: to reconnect the people of this southern region of Calabria to their Jewish roots, ties nearly severed five centuries ago when the Inquisition forced Jews to convert to Christianity.
In the process, Rabbi Barbara Aiello is also helping revive Serrastretta, one of many small southern towns struggling with a declining population as young people leave in droves to find work and where deaths are every year. many more than births.
Along with the chatter of visitors who come to his synagogue curious about Judaism in a predominantly Catholic Italy, the laughter of newly arrived children echoes through the city. This spring, the rabbi helped bring Ukrainian refugees, some of them of Jewish origin, to live here for the time being, and – the mayor of Serrastretta hopes – perhaps permanently.
On a small wooden table near the entrance to the synagogue is a yellowed family portrait. Pictured is the rabbi’s father, Antonio Abramo Aiello, as a child. Born in Serrastretta, he was studying for his bar mitzvah, the rabbi said, but before this religious coming-of-age ritual could take place, young Aiello left with his family for the United States in 1923.
His daughter, Barbara, is said to have been born in Pittsburgh and ordained a rabbi at age 51, in a small branch of American Jewry known as the Reconstructionist movement.
Before studying to become a rabbi, Aiello taught children with special needs for many years, creating a puppet show to help teach children about tolerance. Ordained at Rabbinical Seminary International in New York, she served in a synagogue in Florida for a few years before moving to Italy, where she first worked as a rabbi in Milan from 2004 to 2005. Then she realized her passion by serving as a rabbi in his late father’s hometown.
When visitors arrive from abroad for ceremonies at his synagogue, Rabbi Aiello, 74, shows them the house in what used to be the Jewish quarter of nearby Lamezia Terme, where his father learned his faith Jewish.
She points to a plaque on which one can read: “In this district there was an active community” of Jews from the 13th to the 16th century.
On a recent summer evening, as Aiello, who wears a yarmulke and a necklace with a small Star of David, passed en route to the old neighborhood, local resident Emilio Fulvo, 73, jumped from a bench to greet her. When he was 15, Fulvo said, genealogical research discovered that his family had Jewish roots.
Knowing more about his background “made me feel free,” Fulvo said. “I knew there was something missing” as he was raised as a Catholic in southern Italy.
Families like his are known as B’nai Anusim, descendants of “those who were forced to accept Christian baptism and publicly renounce their Judaism,” the rabbi said.
In his family, “legends were passed down that we were Jews, and we were expelled from Spain in 1492,” as the Inquisition gained momentum, Aiello said. Eventually the Aiellos made their way to the southern end of the Apennine Mountains, where Serrastretta sits, perched atop a road winding through densely forested slopes of beech, pine, and chestnut.
The remoteness of many Calabrian villages, coupled with the tendency of Italians to live in the same places for generations and the strength of oral traditions, have helped keep alive what Roque Pugliese, a Jew from Calabria, calls “the ‘spark of Judaism’ even among those who do not realize that they have a Jewish heritage.
An emigrant doctor from Argentina, Pugliese remembers once hearing the residents of a retirement home in Calabria sing an ancient Passover song, softly, as if afraid to be heard.
On a stone wall along a walkway that leads to Aiello’s house and synagogue is a Star of David
On a recent Friday afternoon, she prepared a bowl of cherries and a platter of miniature pastries for those coming for a bat mitzvah wanted by the Blum family of Parkland, Florida. They chose Aiello despite the great distance because, before becoming a rabbi, she had worked as a special education teacher and their daughter, Mia, has autism.
Vira, one of five Ukrainian mothers who, with nine children among them, was brought to Serrastretta thanks to the efforts of Aiello and the logistical help of a native of Serrastretta was pushing a child’s stroller down the street steep that leads to the synagogue. Travel and accommodation costs were paid for by mostly Jewish donors in Britain, the United States, Australia and Canada, the rabbi said.
Two of the women have since returned to Ukraine, including the wife of an Orthodox Christian priest. But Vira, who asked that her surname not be published because her husband, still in Ukraine, works for a government ministry, said she was considering moving to Serrastretta.
“The first thing is my son, my only son, his life, his future, his safety,” Vira said of Plato, 2 and a half. “Barbara invited us to a safe place. It really felt like a miracle.
Vira is also grateful to have had the opportunity to learn more about Judaism. His grandmother, born in Crimea, is Jewish. But her father, a Russian, took her to church, so she had never been to a Jewish place of worship, she said. Aiello “invited me to a bar mitzvah. It was a very nice experience that she opened her house to me.”
The rabbi said she tells those curious about their past to “embrace those (traditions) that mean something to you – embrace everything, embrace some, but understand that you were once Jewish (in your family) and we can connect you, reconnect you, if you wish.
Mayor Antonio Muracca hopes at least some Ukrainians will stay. “These guests have in a way created more vitality in our city,” he said. Serrastretta has experienced “shocking depopulation,” the mayor said. “There are so many old people, few children.”
The city’s population has grown from 4,000 in 2001 to 2,900 in 2020.
Serrastretta has long been called “the city of chairs” because generations of craftsmen have handcrafted beech wood furniture with woven reed seats. But the demand for cheaper, mass-produced furniture decimated the trade.
The parish priest of Serrastretta, the Reverend Luigi Iuliano, invited Aiello to read a psalm during the Easter Vigils in April. With the rabbi, there is no “competition, jealousy”.
“We brought the First Communion children to show them the Torah, the synagogue, to make them realize that our faith comes in a way from the Hebrew faith,” said Iuliano, a native of Serrastretta.
Aiello, who describes herself as the only female rabbi in Italy and who heads the only synagogue in Calabria, relies on destination weddings and bat and bar mitzvahs to boost her synagogue’s finances.
It is cut off from funding that comes from donations from taxpayers in Italy. The Italian government only recognizes the Orthodox Jewish communities of Italy, whose official members number around 23,000, with almost half of those living in Rome and just 200 living in southern Italy.
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