Asked for places on earth where exciting Jewish things are happening, few people might mention Italy, but Rabbi Barbara Aiello — Italy’s first and only female rabbi — is stirring things up there. Aiello, born and raised in the United States, works with both the established Jewish communities she’s found as well as with communities of anousim, people with Jewish ancestry who were driven underground by the Inquisition. Although many do not identify as Jewish, a great number of these families still carry on family customs that originated in their hidden Jewish practices.
“Many modern Italian historians now believe that prior to the Expulsion and Inquisition [in Italy], nearly 50 percent of the total population of Sicily and Calabria, the deep south of the Italian ‘Boot’ was Jewish!” Aiello told Lilith. “Where earlier historians made their mistake was to assume that because synagogues no longer existed, Jews no longer existed. What these historians did not understand is that there is a vast difference between burning synagogues and closing Jewish schools — in other words, eliminating institutional Judaism — and what we Spanish and Italian Jews actually did, which was to take our traditions into the closets, cellars and secret rooms of our own homes.”
In addition to Jewish names that have survived — surnames like Bandiera, Bagnato, and Aprile, as well as many names that begin with “Di,” which functioned like the Hebrew “ben” — many practices have indeed survived these past 500 years, even though the roots of many are unknown. Rabbi Aiello explains: “We can’t have Rosh Hashanah for our new year? OK, we’ll blow a horn on Dec. 31st (a Sicilian custom traced to the Jews). We can’t call it Pesach? We have to say ‘Pasqua?’ OK, we’ll eat ‘pane azimo’ (unleavened bread) and when you ask us why we’ll say. ‘Per la Pasqua dei ebrei‘ — for the Easter of the Jews! We’ll put red strings over our baby’s cribs but we won’t say that’s a Jewish tradition from the Kaballah. No, that’s just too dangerous. Instead we use the red string to keep away the ‘evil eye’. And we will never eat dairy and meat in the same meal because ‘fa male’, it’s not good for the digestion.”
Rabbi Aiello currently serves as official rabbi for Turin’s Congregation Or Chadash, but she works all over the country, including Calabria, Nicastro and much of Sicily. Responsible for 54 official conversions during her four years in Italy, Rabbi Aiello reported to the organization Kulanu ( “dedicated to finding and assisting lost and dispersed remnants of the Jewish people”) that she is particularly proud of the “Status Recognition” she has garnered for those who use her as their rabbi when they convert. This is special recognition, in addition to their formal conversion to Judaism, that these anousim’s ancestors had their Jewish roots forcibly destroyed.
You can follow Rabbi Aiello’s new projects on her website, RabbiBarbara.com.