The Jewish question in Southern Italy

Haaretz ran a long article back in April on the Jewish revival in Southern Italy. Long story short: once upon a time Italy’s south was brimming with Jewish life, from Roman antiquity straight through the Arab conquest of Sicily, which came to an end with the Christian Inquisition. But the Jews didn’t just disappear. They weren’t murdered off, though there was violence. They were converted to Christianity, their culture was appropriated by the Church (synagogues made into churches, Jewish books used to bind Christian ones, mikves [ritual baths] turned into pigstys, etc…) and all memory of them repressed for centuries.

So in places like Calabria or Sicily, places which almost everyone thinks of as cradles of traditional Catholicism, there are essentially huge numbers of marranos, or secret Jews, similar to what happened in Spain and Portugal during and after the Inquisition. This has led to a number of modern-day conversions back to Judaism, sometimes even of whole communities like that of Trani, in Puglia. Often informal groups sprout up, doing things like getting together on Friday evening  or sitting shiva after a death in the family. Many of them are surprised – but not all – to learn that they in fact are enacting traditional Jewish customs.

I interviewed Rabbi Barbara Aiello, an Italian-American of Calabrian-Sicilian descent, about her activism in the South two years ago. She runs Calabria’s first (legal) synagogue in 500 or so years, celebrating bar- and bat-mitzvahs and Jewish weddings in the Calabrian hills, and offering anyone interested an encounter – perhaps their first – with Judaism. The story is a very interesting one, of course, as is marrano history in general. History is a very amorphous thing at times, and notoriously difficult to pin down, especially when records have been deliberately erased and modified, and physical signs eradicated. The Church officials couldn’t get everything, clearly, and there still exist churches with Hebrew writing in them and Jewish quarters and ritual baths fallen into disrepair all over the south of Italy. In fact, an incredible number of small towns all over in Italy have “ghettos” where Jews once thrived, but haven’t lived for centuries, attesting to their once widespread presence on the peninsula.

We shouldn’t be surprised that the officially Orthodox Italian rabbinate isn’t really interested in Aiello and the other “new” Jews of the South. But I imagine if these small communities continue to grow and proliferate – regardless of whether all these people are or are not Jews in the rabbinic sense – at some point they won’t be able to ignore them any longer. They’ll have to admit that they alone cannot be the arbiters of Jewishness from Venice to Marsala, and will in fact have to open up to the possibility of non-Orthodox forms of Judaism. It will be in their best interests. Otherwise they might be thought of as acting in imitation of the Vatican. And I know they wouldn’t want that.

The Plight of Venezuela’s Jews

My friend Rabbi Barbara Aiello sent me an article from the Wall Street Journal entitled The Politics of Intimidation.

In a report to be released today, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom puts Venezuela on a watch list of countries where religious freedom is threatened. “Anti-Semitic statements by government officials and state media,” it says, “have created a hostile environment whereby some Venezuelan citizens have harassed and threatened rabbis, vandalized Jewish businesses with anti-Semitic slogans, and called for a boycott of all Jewish businesses in Venezuela.” In a report on global anti-Semitism last year, the State Department listed Venezuela as a state sponsor of anti-Semitism.

Clearly, trouble is brewing. The crux of the matter is Obama’s recent overtures to what were once considered America’s enemies–or, at least, not best friends. Now, it’s fine and good to reach out and offer the hand of friendship, even to your enemy. It’s mighty Christian, as they say. But the problem for Obama is that on one hand he expresses concern for Israel and the Jews (White House seder et al.), and on the other he extends an olive branch to precisely those regimes who not only preach anti-Americanism, but specialize in anti-Jewish measures and hatred of Israel.

I voted for Barack Obama, though I never bought into the messianic rhetoric of his most ardent supporters. I believed him to be the better candidate and a true friend of the Jews and Israel. I still believe he is. Perhaps he is an amateur at foreign policy after all. Now that he’s been in office for more than 100 days, the beautifully wrought rhetoric of his campaign is beginning to fade somewhat, leaving us with the reality of pitiless facts and tough choices.

No one said it was going to be easy.

And then there’s Caroline Glick’s shrewd analysis of the upcoming elections in Lebanon. It’s anything but uplifting.

It is too early to know how Obama will react when he like Bush is no longer able to deny that his strategy for winning over the hearts and minds of the Islamic world has failed. We don’t know if like Bush before him, he will simply ignore reality and pretend that nothing has happened; if he will blame his political opponents or Israel for not joining him in his contrition; or if he will cast about for another central organizing principle that will explain hostile Islamic behavior.