It is New Year’s Eve in Calabria, the deep south of the Italian peninsula. At the stroke of midnight the bells in the church tower in the tiny village of Serrastretta ring twelve times. But if you are very quiet and the night is very still, you will hear something more. From deep in the forest of the Reventino, a local Calabrian mountain range located in the “instep” of the “boot,” you will hear first one, then another, then another long low moan of the ancient ram’s horn. The same ram’s horn that in Hebrew is the “shofar.” The same ram’s horn that inaugurates Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year. Yet, for centuries on the night that marks the beginning of the secular New Year, families in southern Italy blow a shofar-like instrument that is the hallmark of the Jewish celebration that occurs, not in December, but in the autumn of the year.
It is a custom that on the surface seems strange, but a deeper look into the life and traditions of the B’nei Anousim (a Hebrew term that means “force ones”) who inhabit this area makes sense of it all. Centuries ago, during Inquisition times, the Jews of Spain and Portugal had one of two choices; convert to Christianity or leave their homes. Those Jews who were forced from Spain and Portugal found refuge on the island of Sicily and on the tiny islands that make up the Aeolian chain. There they lived in relative peace until the long arm of the Inquisition reached them there as well. Forced to flee yet again, Jewish families made their way onto the Italian mainland, first to the “toe” and then north through the “foot” of the Italian “boot” and into the Calabrian mountains.
For centuries these Jewish families lived in relative safety but fear is a “minsestra,” a soup that cooks slowly. Stories of persecution, arrests and public burnings percolate through these mountains – so much so that if one were to ask about a family’s Jewish heritage, the downcast eyes and blank expressions say it all. That’s why it is such a great challenge to connect these B’nei Anousim with their Jewish history. But for me, the first rabbi of the first synagogue in Calabria since Inquisition times, it is a “sfida e gioia” a challenge and a joy.
During my ten years in the Calabrian hills I’ve finally learned to ask the right questions. No longer do I ask, “Do you think your family was once Jewish?” No. Calabrians have learned that admitting to a Jewish heritage can be dangerous. Instead I ask, “What does your family do when a baby is born? When a couple marries? For a funeral and mourning? Do you have special family customs to celebrate the holidays?” That is how I learned about the shofar at midnight.
Francesco, a local baker, explained it all to me when he said, “Tanti anni fa… Many years ago our families celebrated a different new year. It was the at the harvest time when we found a ram and made his horn into a musical instrument. But it was dangerous to be different so we learned to wait. To wait for the last day of the year when everyone else was celebrating. Now there are fireworks and trumpet blasts. When the ram’s horn is sounded, it is not so strange anymore.”
Cautiously I asked Francesco, “Do you know that the ram’s horn is a Jewish tradition?” Francesco replies that he once heard something like that but he prefers to say that the practice is an ancient family tradition.
And so it goes. For centuries we Calabrians took our Jewish traditions into our homes and our hearts and slowly, at first for safety reasons, and then for cultural reasons, the religious meanings of these rituals were lost. Our precious Jewish customs became family traditions and sadly, nothing more.
It has become my mission and my passion to uncover more of these family traditions that were once a part of a thriving Jewish past. It is my hope that I can continue to give my Calabrian relatives, my meshpucha, the B’nei Anousim who have so carefully and cautiously preserved the vestiges of their Jewish heritage, an opportunity to discover and embrace their Jewish roots.