For thousands of Italians who live in the southern Italian region of Calabria, the island of Sicily and the Aeolian Islands, connecting family traditions with an ancient Jewish heritage can be little more than a lucky guess. But as B’nei Anousim (those who were forced into Christian conversion during Inquisition times) continue to search for their lost and hidden Jewish roots, one ritual item, the Shabbat candelabra offers an important clue.
For years I believed that the triple candelabra that was one of our family heirlooms was little more than a lovely artifact. Later on as I began a search of our family’s anousim roots, I discovered that this three-branched candelabra was a special part of the family Shabbat table.
As the founder of the B’nei Anousim movement in Calabria and Sicily, It has been ten years since I began asking questions about our lost traditions. Over the years the answers I gleaned from families living in ancient mountain villages astounded me. One elderly woman told me, “The middle candle served as “nu sustiagnu rande,” Italian dialect for “the helping candle.” And then, as she demonstrated this with her own three-branched candelabra, I noticed that just as Jews use the shamash to light the eight candles on the Chanukah menorah, an Italian shamash candle was used to light the two candles for Shabbat.
The peacock motif found on my Aiello family candelabra offers another Jewish clue. For the crypto-Jews of Calabria, the peacock was an important element in Jewish design. Originating with the Kabbalists, the Jewish mystics of medieval times, it is the male peacock’s special feather configuration that is reminiscent of the Kabbalistic “third eye. ” This symbol connects with the message of Shabbat by reminding us that with the “third eye” we can see into a person’s soul and thus bring peace to the world.
Families in Serrastretta, the tiny village where we have organized “Ner Tamid del Sud,” the first active synagogue in Calabria since Inquisition times 500 years ago, recall the three branched candelabra at their own Friday evening dinner table. Some recall a beautiful ritual where the matron of the house first lit the middle “shamus” candle, removed it and then passed it to the youngest family member. Each person around the table had her/his own personal candle that was kindled by passing the shamus candle from person to person. Finally the shamus candle returned to “Mama” who then kindled the last two candles, the lights of Shabbat.
Today many families in the tiny villages scattered in the remote hills and valleys of Calabria’s rugged “Reventino” kindle Shabbat lights at the family table. Some place their hands on the head of each child as each personal candle is lit while bits and pieces of blessings escape from the lips of grandparents. And when asked, these families often attribute their Friday night custom to “family traditions.” Others admit to having heard that “back in the day” the family may have been Jewish.
Finding and using my family’s three branch candelabra has opened my eyes and opened the door to the rich Jewish heritage that once was an integral part of Calabrian and Sicilian life. My mission, as I traverse the hills surrounding my Calabrian village, is twofold – to discover these lost traditions and to rekindle the joys of Judaism for Italian B’nei Anousim – one candle at a time.