A sur­pris­ing Ital­ian re­nais­sance

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - DI­AS­PORA JULIE CAR­BONARA

THROUGH THE cen­turies, in spite of their mea­gre num­bers, Ital­ian Jews have had a huge im­pact on Ital­ian life and on Ju­daism as a whole. Cur­rently, Ital­ian Ju­daism is un­der­go­ing a trans­for­ma­tion, fu­elled partly by the in­flux of Jews from Arab coun­tries over the past decades and a re­vival in the South where it had been vir­tu­ally ab­sent for hun­dreds of years.

Stand­ing at about 28,500, Italy’s Jewish pop­u­la­tion may be among the small­est in Europe but that has al­ways been the case. “How­ever, al­though there are few of us, Ital­ian Jews have char­ac­terised and of­ten de­ter­mined many piv­otal events in Jewish history,” points out his­to­rian Gadi Luz­zatto Voghera. “It was here that He­brew ty­pog­ra­phy was born at the end of 1400; the stan­dard form of Tal­mud (still in use to­day) was founded in Venice; and the first rabbinical col- lege was opened in Padua in 1829. Th­ese are just a few ex­am­ples. You don’t need big num­bers to make an im­pact.”

Which is just as well, as num­bers are in­deed dwin­dling — but then the whole Ital­ian pop­u­la­tion is re­duc­ing. The fab­ric of Ital­ian Jewry has un­der­gone dras­tic changes in the past decades, with a pro­gres­sive weak­en­ing of provin­cial com­mu­ni­ties and a con­sol­i­da­tion in such ma­jor cen­tres as Milan and Rome.

There the in­flux of Jews from Libya and other Is­lamic coun­tries has pro­vided a wel­come in­jec­tion of fresh blood and revitalised the life of the com­mu­ni­ties. In Rome, for in­stance, the ar­rival of the Libyans, more re­li­giously ob­ser­vant and tra­di­tional, boosted the num­ber of kosher shops, swelled con­gre­ga­tions and led to the open­ing of more sy­n­a­gogues. All the new ar­rivals threw them­selves with gusto into lo­cal Jewish life leav­ing their mark on Ital­ian Ju­daism.

Pos­si­bly the most ex­cit­ing devel­op­ments have been tak­ing place in the south of the penin­sula. Southern Italy had been home to the old­est Jewish com­mu­nity in Europe — the Italkim, who have lived in Italy Ex­cit­ing: Even a tiny Jewish com­mu­nity in the Ital­ian city of Padua, be­low, has be­gun to thrive since Ro­man times — and Ju­daism had flour­ished in the 15th cen­tury when Jews expelled from Spain had es­tab­lished thriv­ing com­mu­ni­ties in Naples, Cal­abria, Puglia and Si­cily. Si­cily alone at one point boasted 52 Jewish com­mu­ni­ties with a to­tal of 37,000 mem­bers but, by the end of the cen­tury, the heavy hand of the In­qui­si­tion had forced most to leave or con­vert.

Un­til fairly re­cently, ac­cord­ing to UCEI (Union of Ital­ian Jewish Com­mu­ni­ties), the Ortho­dox body that, ac­cord­ing to the Ital­ian State, is the only of­fi­cial rep­re­sen­ta­tive of Ital­ian Jewry, Naples was the south­ern­most fron­tier of Ital­ian Ju­daism.

But that was be­fore Rabbi Bar­bara Aiello de­cided to leave her na­tive Pitts­burg for her fam­ily’s an­ces­tral home in Ser­ras­tretta, Cal­abria. There, she made it her mis­sion to un­earth Southern Italy’s Jewish past and help lo­cal B’nai anusim — the de­scen­dants of peo­ple who had un­der­gone forced con­ver­sion (mar­ra­nos) to get back in touch with their Jewish roots.

Aiello’s cre­den­tials — she is a Re­form, fe­male rabbi — set her on a col­li­sion course with Italy’s Ortho­dox rab­binate from the be­gin­ning but the work done by her Ital­ian Jewish Cul­tural Cen­tre of Cal­abria to iden­tify ‘‘hid­den’’ Jews has boosted the pro­file of Ju­daism in Southern Italy and is fol­lowed with in­ter­est by schol­ars.

In a more re­cent de­vel­op­ment that may or may not be to­tally un­re­lated, UCEI, in con­junc­tion with Shavei Is­rael, has of­fi­cially ac­knowl­edged the im­por­tance of the B’nai anusim of the South by ap­point­ing Rabbi Pin­chas Pun­turello as the area’s chief rabbi “to reach out to the grow­ing num­ber of B’nai anusim who have be­gun dis­cov­er­ing their Jewish roots.”

Caught be­tween Rabbi Bar­bara’s all-in­clu­sive but for some too-mod­ern ap­proach and the iron grip of the Ortho­dox Rab­binate is a pro­lif­er­a­tion of in­de­pen­dent ini­tia­tives.

Many strug­gle to get off the ground but are nonethe­less ev­i­dence of a re­newed blooming of Ju­daism in Southern Italy.

Like its Jewish past, the South’s huge cul­tural her­itage of cat­a­combs, old sy­n­a­gogues, ceme­ter­ies and price­less arte­facts is also just wait­ing to be re­dis­cov­ered and could be put to good use to at­tract Jews and non-Jews alike.

The in­ter­est is there: ev­ery year, the Euro­pean Day of Jewish Cul­ture sees tens of thou­sands of visi­tors flock to towns and vil­lages through­out the coun­try to learn about the history of Jewish Italy.

But even where com­mu­ni­ties are get­ting smaller, their vi­tal­ity re­mains. The univer­sity town of Padua, in Italy’s north-east, is an ex­am­ple.

Cur­rently, there are just 170 Jews in Padua but it was thanks to this mi­nus­cule com­mu­nity’s com­mit­ment and ‘‘can do’’ at­ti­tude that — in a coun­try famed for its red tape — the re­cently opened state-of-the-art Mu­seum of Jewish Padua was built in the space of six months.

The mu­seum show­cases the town’s rich Jewish her­itage and is a state­ment of in­tent, a vis­i­ble demonstration of the dy­namism and sur­vival spirit of the lo­cal com­mu­nity and of Ital­ian Jews in gen­eral.

It says, in the words of Gadi Luz­zatto Voghera, who was in­stru­men­tal in its cre­ation, that “we are part of this town’s history and of the history of Ju­daism. Cre­at­ing a dy­namic mu­seum helps per­pe­trate this history and re­vi­talise our small com­mu­nity.”

Num­bers don’t al­ways tell the whole story.

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