The bell at the synagogue gate had enough insistence in its tone to indicate a sense of urgency — a sentiment that most of us southern Italians have experienced regularly, ever since the entire country has been on lockdown, thanks to the coronavirus. And this day was no different. As rabbi of Sinagoga Ner Tamid del Sud, the first active synagogue in Calabria in 500 years — since Inquisition times — I knew that whoever was outside was not someone looking for a Jewish service, especially since all public gatherings had been suspended for at least eight weeks.
As I approached the gate and peered through the wrought iron cut-out of the Magen David that graced it, I noticed two men in uniform and recognized them both. They were carabinieri, Italy’s version of state police, who had come to speak with me. “Signora Rabbina,” they began. “We ask that you affix a sign to the synagogue gate, to say that services and tours have been suspended. We have asked the parish church to do the very same.”
Of course I complied, but while I taped the sign to the gate it became starkly apparent that Jewish life in our little village had changed profoundly.
It began in early March when an ill-timed announcement from the Italian government created chaos here in the South. The epidemic had already taken hold in the northern Italian regions, with Lombardia (where Milan is located) hit hardest. The government gave advance warning that northern Italy was about to be locked down which unleashed a mass exodus from north to south. Realizing their error, the government corrected its mistake by quickly locking down the entire country — to the great relief of those of us who live in the relative natural isolation of the mountains, the Reventino of southern Italy.
For us Italian Jews, a tiny minority within the minority that is worldwide Jewry, the lockdown has been a physical, economic and spiritual challenge. For our Calabrian synagogue that serves a vast b’nei anusim community — one that welcomes and guides Calabrians and Sicilians who are in the process of discovering and embracing their Jewish roots — the personal warmth that our synagogue provides came to an abrupt halt.
Closed until further notice is the unique experience of our Friday night “Shabbat at the Table” program where those who are tiptoeing back to Judaism learn how to prepare and lead a family Shabbat. And dozens of U.S., Canadian and British families, who prepared for a year or more, bring their children to become bar and bat mitzvah at our Torah teaching services have had to cancel. As one Italian colleague lamented, “All the rabbis and all the priests are quarantined in their synagogues and churches!” — a reality brought front and center by the video of Pope Francis praying in St. Peter’s Square, all alone.
But if we Jews are anything, we are resilient, and it took just one empty Shabbat for rabbis and congregants to spring into action. Online services, discussions and lectures abound, and although we Calabrians are still using DSL, an antique internet connection, we are embracing technology to keep the spirit alive.
Our synagogue hosts an ambitious conversion program, designed specifically for those whose Jewish roots trace back to the Inquisition when Jews were expelled from Spain and/or forced to accept Christian conversion. The majority of my teaching now occurs online, and for Pesach we have expanded the program to include a specific lesson on Italian Pesach customs and a Facebook Live Sephardi seder.
Absent the personal touch, the challenges are great. In our village of Serrastretta, the edicola, the newsstand where I get my morning paper, is open, but the coffee bars, the social life blood of the village, are closed. For me the social cost is a greater loss than not having my morning espresso. Not for nothing does the world call us Italians the warmest, most friendly people on the planet. We hug, we kiss on both cheeks, and we take 20 minutes to say goodbye. We pat each other on the shoulder and take each other’s hands.
Standing six feet apart as we are required to do is entirely uncharacteristic for us, and I suspect that in the long run there will be an emotional toll for keeping our distance. But for now we’re coping.
Although ours is the poorest region in all of Italy, with our synagogue designated as an isolated and emerging Jewish community by the international Jewish support organization, Kulanu, we Calabresi are the most self-sufficient of all of our Italian paesini. Last year we canned dozens of jars of tomato sauce and prepared mountains of marmalade. We preserved olives and made olive oil and as coronavirus cases and unemployment soar, we open our pantries and share with our congregants and residents who are in need.
We Calabresi Jews may have lost our freedom to gather but we haven’t lost our determination or our pride. And even with the changes brought on by the coronavirus, there’s a lot to be proud of.
If you are Italian American, you have an 80% chance that your relatives came from Calabria — a region that was 50% Jewish prior to the forced conversions of Inquisition times. You share our Calabresi soul every night at 6 p.m. That’s when we open our balcony doors and lean out of our windows and with hearts filled with pride we sing the Italian national anthem, internalizing its words: “Because we were divided … one hope gathers us all. The hour has come for us to join together.”
And join together we do, for after the singing of the Italian anthem, Christian and Jewish residents raise their voices to sing “Volare,” and then “Heivenu Shalom Aleichem.” After all it was the Kabbalists, the Jewish mystics, many of whom lived and worked right here in the Mediterranean area, who taught that music gives movement to the soul. Music is the soul’s way to literally lift our spirits. So, in the face of the coronavirus crisis, I’m sure of one thing: No matter how long, how difficult or how challenging, we Italians will keep singing. PJC
Rabbi Barbara Aiello is a native Pittsburgher and Italy’s first female rabbi and first non-Orthodox rabbi. She serves a “b’nei anusim” congregation in Serrastretta, Italy, in the “toe” of the Italian “boot.”