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.