As in Spain 500 years ago, southern Italy’s thriving Jewish community was almost completely destroyed by forced mass conversions and emigration.
Although many people lost track of their Jewish past over time, Jewish traditions and customs were passed on to new generations who were often not aware where they had come from.
Now these traditions are helping with the identification of scores of ‘Anusim’ — Italian Marranos — and allowing some to be brought back to Judaism.
Many Anusim learning about their roots under the guidance of US-born Reform Rabbi Barbara Aiello at Ner Tamid del Sud, the shul she founded in Serrastretta, Calabria — her ancestral home — a few years ago.
Rabbi Aiello said that when she first started asking local people if they had Jewish roots, she was met with denial.
“Several people approached me and said they had Stars of David in their homes — Reform Rabbi Barbara Aiello”
“I was asking the wrong question,” she explained. “When I moved from ‘do you think your family was Jewish?’ to ‘tell me your family traditions’, then the treasure trove opened before my eyes.
“When I began using the Star of David on the gates of the synagogue, several people approached me and told me they had a similar sign in their homes — often carved into the tiles on the floor. Other families had low chairs for mourning, while others covered mirrors and paintings in white during the time of mourning.”
At her Centre for the Study of Jewry in Calabria and Sicily, Rabbi Aiello is working with local historians to unravel Calabria’s rich Jewish past.
However, she is not alone in her quest to bring southern Italy’s Anusim back into the fold. Italy’s Orthodox Jewish establishment is following a similar path, said Gadi Piperno, head of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities’ (UICJ) outreach efforts to Anusim descendants.
Last year, the UICJ helped organise a seminar aimed at Anusim in Syracuse, Sicily, together with the town’s Orthodox Rabbi, Stefano Di Mauro.
However, a UICJ spokesman last month told an Italian newspaper: “The only Jewish community in southern Italy is that of Naples.”
“Historically, that is true,” said Mr Piperno, sidestepping the issue of the Syracuse community. There are, he explains, many practising Jews south of Naples, although not in established communities. He also stressed that UICJ welcomes conversions, if done according to Italy’s Orthodox rules.
Rabbi Aiello claims that 40 per cent of Calabria’s population are of Jewish descent but, even if the figure is 15 per cent as many scholars believe, it would still be a large number. The battle for the Anusim has barely begun.