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Descendants of forced converts face struggle for recognition in Italy

Descendants of forced converts are showing a new interest in Judaism - but are rabbis ready to welcome them?

    This building is due to open as the first synagogue in Palermo, Sicily, for 500 years
    This building is due to open as the first synagogue in Palermo, Sicily, for 500 years

    When in December 2013, 500 years after the Jews were expelled from Sicily, the Chanukah candles were lit again in the capital, Palermo, it seemed as if centuries of obliteration were over. And when last year a building, located in the heart of what used to be the city’s Jewish quarter, was given the go- ahead to be turned into Palermo’s first synagogue in 500 years, it felt as if Judaism had been reborn, Phoenix-like, on the island. 

    Sicily’s Jewish population, which before the expulsion was estimated to be between 25,000 to 50,000 people, had almost completely disappeared. Given the stark ultimatum to leave Sicily for good or convert to Catholicism, some had left but most had converted. 
    Many families — the so-called Anusim — had secretively clung to Jewish rituals and traditions for generations but any religious meaning had disappeared with the passing of time. 

    The Jewish presence in Sicily and Southern Italy in general had consistently been so sparse that the Union of Italian Jewish Communities had declared “there is no Jewish community south of Naples”. And Evelyne Aouate, president of the Sicilian Institute of Jewish Studies, whose indefatigable work had kick-started the Palermo revival, for years had felt “the only Jew in town”. 

    The problem was — and still is — that in Italy the only Jews recognised as such are the Orthodox variety and the only conversions officially accepted are those done according to Italy’s strict Orthodox rules. 

    Which puts anyone who takes a different approach on a collision course with Italy’s Jewish officialdom, even if that person is an Orthodox Sephardic rabbi as in the case of Siracusa’s Rabbi Stefano Di Mauro. After returning to his native Sicily in 2007, having spent many years in the US, Rabbi Di Mauro opened a synagogue there and worked hard to resurrect Southern Italy’s Jewish past.

    With time he established a small but growing congregation, helping those who thought they came from Anusim families rediscover the religion of their ancestors. A number decided to convert and soon Siracusa and Di Mauro became a magnet for Jews and would-be Jews.

    For a while it looked as if Rabbi Di Mauro and the UIJC could work together but eventually the relationship broke down irretrievably. The Siracusa community is no more and Di Mauro, currently living in Israel, accuses Italy’s Jewish establishment of not being welcoming enough to the Anusim. UIJC reject the accusation and retort that the conversions he performed were not done by the rules and therefore cannot be officially recognised.

    “In the past 20 years the conversion process has, if anything, become longer and more demanding, at least in Italy,” explains Rabbi Ariel Finzi, head of Naples Jewish Community. “A conversion is certified by the rabbinate and is restricted to those who have faith and religious feelings. It’s not for people who ‘just feel Jewish’. You can be born Jewish and be a secular Jew but you cannot convert to become a secular Jew.”

    Rabbi Finzi acknowledges that there has been a “significant” increase of interest in Judaism in the past few years. Often it comes from the descendants of Anusim who feel a desire to return to Judaism. However, he stresses, there is a big difference between that desire and what he calls “a strong faith that leads one to make huge sacrifices to complete a process of conversion, which is extremely demanding”.

    Being a descendant of Anusim, points out Rabbi Finzi, may be a factor that compels a person to embark on a conversion but what really matters is the candidate’s attitude. The regulations that govern conversions are the same for everybody, whether Anusim or non-Anusim. This somewhat hard-line attitude means that the number of conversions have not matched the growing interest in Judaism in Southern Italy.

    However, on the mountains of Calabria, Italy’s toe, another rebel refuses to give up. US-born Rabbi Barbara Aiello has been at odds with Italy’s Jewish establishment since she arrived at her ancestral village, Serrastretta, in 2006, where two years later she established a Liberal synagogue (now affiliated to the Reconstructionist movement). 

    Adopting an extremely open-handed and inclusive approach, Rabbi Barbara from the beginning welcomed Jews but also non-Jews who are interested in learning about Judaism. From a family of Anusim herself, she is particularly geared towards them. Together with some local scholars, she has established the Italian Jewish Cultural Centre of Calabria and has made it her mission to research the region’s forgotten Jewish past.

    She emphasises the importance of “reaching out and opening the door”, while at the same time stressing that she is not telling people “you should leave the church because you are actually Jewish”. She firmly believes that people need to know their history; what they do with that knowledge is up to them.

    Southern Italy’s enthusiasm for its Jewish past shows no signs of abating. Only time will tell whether it is a real renaissance or a false dawn.

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