‘Daughters of Calabria’ to describe her Jewish journey

Rabbi Barbara Aiello

TORONTO — It’s one of the great oddities in the Jewish name game that those who bear the name “Porco” are likely Jews, as are other Italian families with surnames such as Sacerdoti, Mascaro, Pugliesi, Taverna, Grande, Russo and Aiello.

Sacerdoti, Italian for priest, was the name given long ago to Jews with the family name Cohen, which in Hebrew translates as priest.

Porco, which refers to an unkosher animal, was given to Jews by Inquisitors as an insult. Many who bore than name subsequently changed it to the less offensive “Porto,” said Rabbi Barbara Aiello.

The name Aiello itself is an ancient Jewish one that translates as up to God, she said. Rabbi Aiello, whose family immigrated to the United States from Calabria, counts herself among those descended from Italian crypto-Jews, or hidden Jews.

Rabbi Aiello will be in Toronto on Oct. 28 as a guest of Congregation Darchei Noam. She will discuss the lost Jews of Calabria and her journey to reclaim her Jewish heritage.

Rabbi Aiello was born in Pittsburgh and currently serves as rabbi for a Jewish seniors home in Sarasota, Fla. She spends much of the summer in Italy, where as “a daughter of Calabria,” she assists people in southern Italy reclaim their Jewish roots.

It’s a little-known fact that prior to the Inquisition 500 years ago, as much as 40 per cent of the population of Sicily and Calabria – the toe of the Italian boot – were Jews, Rabbi Aiello said in a telephone interview. They were involved in commerce, particularly the silk trade, as well as in selling leather goods, bamboo and paper.

At the time, Sicily as well as southern Italy up to Naples was part of the kingdom of Spain. When the order came for Jews to convert or leave Spain, many escaped to southern Italy, which already may have been as much as 40 per cent Jewish. When the Inquisition reached that region, some moved to isolated villages in the mountains, where they could live in safety as hidden Jews, or anusim, literally the lost ones.

Her own family, she pointed out, lived in a town established in the mountains by five Jewish families generations ago.

Jews remained hidden for generations. Her family never became Catholic and did not abandon Judaism. Her great-grandfather travelled to Montreal a few times. She speculates he did so to study Judaism and bring back the knowledge to his community.

When they finally moved to the United States, her father was stunned to see Jews openly practise their faith, she said.

As she explored her Calabrian roots, Rabbi Aiello, Italy’s first female rabbi, found examples of Jewish traditions everywhere. She found low chairs used when sitting in mourning for the departed. She found people, without knowing why, discarding an egg if it had a red spot, according to the rules of kashrut. She found people lighting candles on Friday night (her own grandmother, even in the United States, would only light them secretly in the cellar). She found mothers tying red strings to babies’ cribs.

Rabbi Aiello said that during her sojourns in Italy, people constantly approach her with stories indicating their Jewish roots. One woman told her of her grandmother who on her deathbed said she did not wish a rosary or a priest because she was Jewish.

That revelation surprised her family, Rabbi Aiello said.

“A young man brought me a yad [a pointing device shaped like a hand that’s used when reading the Torah] and said his grandfather gave it to him. ‘What is it? I thought it might be Jewish,’” she recounted him saying.

Rabbi Aiello said she helps Italians who wish to reconnect with their Jewish past. Sinagoga Ner Tamid del Sud (Synagogue of the Eternal Light of the South), the first active synagogue in Calabria and Sicily in 500 years, was opened in 2007 in Serrastretta, her family’s home in Calabria.

At a bar mitzvah service this past July, “people came from mountain towns and I was mobbed. I spoke, the mayor spoke saying he was so grateful for the Jews to return.”

So far, 53 people have converted back to Judaism.

One instance of a mass conversion to Judaism took place during World War II and is highlighted in a film that will air on the CBC Documentary Channel on Nov. 18.

Titled The Mystery of San Nicandro, the documentary tells the story of a group of Roman Catholics who converted to Judaism in fascist Italy. In 1949, 80 of them moved to Israel.

Their descendants who remained in San Nicandro underwent formal conversion in 2011.

Vanessa Dylyn, producer of the documentary, said during her visit to Italy, “I found quite a revival of Judaism in Calabria and Sicily, where there had not been a synagogue in 500 years.”

North Americans of Italian origin are “looking at their Jewish roots,” she said. Some of them are Canadians and one, a woman from Hamilton, is featured prominently in the film.

Rabbi Aiello said hundreds of Calabrians and Sicilians have approached her in recent years, suspecting they are descended from Jews and eager to learn more about their heritage.

“I help them reclaim their Jewish roots taken by the Inquisition,” she said.