The 500-Year-Old Rabbi

Barbara Aiello Rescues Lost Worlds

So it’s not like every rabbi has olive orchards in Calabria, Italy.

My family and four other Jewish families founded Serrastretta, this isolated mountain village in Italy’s instep, in the 16th century. My house is 430 years old, but our olive trees are babies — the oldest is only 800. The Inquisition chased my family from Toledo [Spain] to Portugal, to Gibraltar, to Morocco, to Sicily, and finally way up here. People don’t realize that Ferdinand and Isabella controlled a third of the way up Italy’s boot. A relative of mine, a blacksmith, Federico Ajello, was jailed for 12 years for “judaizing” in Palermo in the 1520s and his “document of release” explains that he “can be harassed as a Jew in the marketplace and near his home, but not on the job” — the town really needed a blacksmith!

I have bound copies of Inquisition records which were organized village by village, and since Italians, unlike Americans, stay in their hometowns, I know all the surnames of the anusim, all the Jews forced to convert around here. I also have our family Bible; it’s in tatters, you can imagine, but it lists all our relatives from 1400 on.

But you were brought up mostly in Pittsburgh.

Yes. We were a community of refugees from Greece, Turkey, Spain, Portugal, Italy. About 30 families, all traumatized. One of my eight aunts could never walk farther than three blocks from her house. My mother left Sicily 10 days before the Jews were deported to Dachau. My father became a partisan in the Resistance, then, with the U.S. Army, liberated Buchenwald. Pittsburgh felt like Serrastretta to us — ethnic neighborhoods nestled deep in valleys, the same topography. I didn’t know there were Ashkenazim in Pittsburgh until I was in my teens.

I take it you speak Ladino.

My first language is Italian, but my parents spoke Ladino to each other. So, yes, if you’re talking about sex or money, I’m fluent in Ladino.

Can we go back to the olives?

My father and I returned to our house in Serrastretta every August and September to harvest them with our relatives, putting out bright orange nets. Our family’s olive press is renowned, very intricate. For 500 years it has pressed the finest clear green oil, a prized commodity. The synagogue I founded in 2006 is called Sinagoga Ner Tamid del Sud — ”Eternal Light” — and we make “first press” oil for the ner tamid exactly as it says in Leviticus 24:2 and the end of Exodus 27. “Clear oil of beaten olives to burn from evening to morning…for all time, throughout the ages.” Olive trees at this high altitude are like gnarled bushes, very close together, their trunks twisted and intertwined. When I look at them I see ancient braided challahs.

Do you have extended family in Italy?

Seventy cousins, including two priests and a nun. And my husband Enrico’s family; he’s from Calabria, too, and can trace his lineage to Spinoza — can you imagine? I split my time between the U.S. and Italy, but I am always here in Serrastretta for May, June and July. And we’ll retire here.

There’s such poetry in your life.

Because of the beshertness of it, perhaps. That I’m fulfilling a promise I made to my father when I had no idea how I would do it. Before the war, he didn’t care about Judaism. But after he saw 900 young Jews dead and dying at Buchenwald, he said to me, “You must do something for Jewish children. You didn’t have a chance to grow up with any of these people’s children, your generation.” I became a rabbi at 51; our synagogue is truly beautiful, with gates and a Magen David and grape arbor. We have Shabbat services Friday evenings. And I’m the Director of the Italian Jewish Cultural Center of Calabria. I welcome all Jews, gays and lesbians, interfaith families — all of these will lead to the next generation, to children. And I do live in another time, another century. I come from the kabbalists writing in the caves of Spain, talking about the reincarnation of souls.

You’ve uncovered many Jews who didn’t know they were Jewish.

People will tell me they “feel” they are Jews. So I ask, “Do you take the blood spot out of eggs, sweep to the center of the floor, eat hard-boiled eggs arranged in the shape of a Star of David after a burial?” “Yes! Yes!” I know the Jewish surnames in this region — Vitale, Vita, Aiello, Taverna. I teach “conversion” classes, but they are really a return to a Judaism that was stolen from them 500 years ago. The Hebrew word “ohnes” (as in anusim) means “rape.”

And you’ve performed the first bat mitzvahs in all of Italy.

I’ve done five. I call these girls my Five Books of Miriam. I work with anusim in Europe, in America. Then these kids come up the mountains in these little vans to read from the Torah. “Where are we going?” they say. “It’s so isolated. Does anyone live here?” “How do you think we survived?” I tell them. “We looked for the most isolated place.”