Tales from Jewish Italy – The cat that ate the cannoli

During the warm summer months our little synagogue in Bella Italia springs to life.   Both my home and the synagogue I started in 2006 are located in the tiny village of Serrastretta in Calabria mountains, near the “toe” of the Italian “boot,” and throughout the late spring and early summer we welcome Bar and Bat Mitzvah families from around the world who want to give their children an understanding that there are places on the planet where it’s not easy to be Jewish.

 A visit to our synagogue, Ner Tamid del Sud, (The Eternal Light of the South) makes the point.  As the first and only active synagogue in the south of Italy since Inquisition times, we offer a pluralistic approach to Judaism in that we are open and welcoming to Jews of all backgrounds.  We extend the hand of Jewish welcome to interfaith families, gay and lesbian couples and their children and B’nei Anousim, Italians whose Jewish roots go back centuries to the time when they were forced into Christian conversion.

This past summer we had the honor and delight to welcome eight Bar and Bat Mitzvah families from Italy and the United States. All of us, including many of our local members, kvelled as children from California, Chicago, Washington, DC, Rome, Naples and Jamaica read from our antique Torah scroll that dates back to 1783.

In Italy we have a saying, “i quattro gatti” – “The Four Cats,” which is used to describe a very under-attended event.  For example someone might ask, “So how was the turn out for the lecture?”  If there were fewer participants than expected, the response might be, “Ci sono stati quattro gatti.” – “There were four cats!” Meaning that attendance was not so good.

In 2006 when we dedicated our Calabrian synagogue, we were the synagogue “di quattro gatti,” the synagogue of “the four cats,” in more ways then one. In the early days we worked hard to help local Italians discover and embrace their Jewish roots and slowly, very slowly, residents of our village and surrounding towns began to want to learn more about their ancient Jewish heritage.  Some Shabbat mornings we hosted five or six congregants and there were services where it was difficult to make a minyan. Synagogue Ner Tamid del Sud began as the synagogue of “the four cats!”

And then there is the fact that, yes. indeed, we really do have four cats! There’s Toppi, Tilllie, Tommasina and Tigrino, all of whom welcome our local and international guests to the shul.  Our Bar and Bat Mitzvah boys and girls are delighted with our friendly critters and when Domenico, the local photographer arrives to shoot the family photos, most of them want at least one picture with the cats.

So that’s how it was when Maddy and her family from California came to Serrastretta for her Bat Mitzvah ceremony.  All was going well until just before the Torah service. That’s when  Maddy got the giggles. We all looked in Maddy’s direction to see what tickled her so and then we saw him. There was black cat, Toppi, perched on the oneg table, holding one of our cannoli in his mouth, wiggling it, Grouch Marx style,  like he was smoking a cigar!

Later on as we made kiddush under the grape arbor, Maddy mused that becoming Bat Mitzvah in Italy was truly a unique experience. She was touched that she stood on a mountain top in a tiny synagogue with Italians who want so much to be Jewish that some of themhad  traveled hundred of kilometers just to share the service with her. “And not only that,” Maddy said. “I’ll bet I’m the only Bat Mitzvah girl who shared her day with the cat that ate the cannoli!”

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