The surnames of Vincenzo’s ancestors appear on ancient Inquisition documents that describe the arrest, torture and murder of Sicilian Jews. Many of these were families that were forced to accept Christian baptism but refused to abandon their Jewish practices. When these secret Jews were found to be “Judaizing,” they were thrown into jail, tortured and often burned alive in public spectacles called “autodafe`.”
Reclaiming their Judaism has been difficult for many secret Jews, called “bnai anusim,” or “children of the forced ones,” so it was with great joy and pride that Vincenzo Uziel Li Calzi, a Sicilian “ben anusim” made Jewish history by becoming the third Jew to have a public Bar Mitzvah ceremony on the island of Sicily in 500 years since Inquisition times.
“Sono molto commosso,” (That’s Italian for “I’m so verklempt!”), said Vincenzo as he made his way to the reading table where an antique Torah scroll (inscribed in 1783) was open and ready for his historic reading. As tears streamed down his cheeks, Vincenzo’s overwhelming emotion at being called to the Torah touched us all, in large part because for decades Vincenzo, who is now nearly 70 years old, tried his best to convince Italy’s Jewish bureaucracy that his family’s ancient Jewish practices qualified him as a Jew. But the Christian conversions that were forced upon Sicilian Jews often meant that Jewish traditions were hidden. Jewish rituals were practiced in secret, so for Jews like Vincenzo no formal documentation exists that confirms a family’s Jewish heritage. The result was that many b’nai anusim aroused suspicion among Italy’s established Jewish organizations and like Vincenzo, most were never welcomed into traditional Jewish communities.
It wasn’t until 2004, the year that modern liberal Judaism came to Sicily, that Vincenzo and other b’nai anusim were given the recognition they deserved. And when Vincenzo learned that pluralistic Judaism was an option for anusim , he did all he could to make this vital Jewish connection. . “I wanted to be recognized as a Jew, Vincenzo says, “so I phoned up “Rabbina Barbara.” It was that phone call that led me to my relationship with this very special man.
The first step was a meeting between me and my potential student, which meant a trip from Milan to Palermo to find out more about Vincenzo’s Jewish heritage and how, as a rabbi and a bat anusim myself, I could help him connect with the faith of his ancestors. What I found amazed me. Although his physical strength had been compromised to the extent that he needed crutches to walk and help to steady his shaking hands, Vincenzo’s spiritual energy was remarkable. Self -taught in the basic Shabbat blessings, this slight elderly gentleman, challenged by disabilities that would overwhelm most of us, was a tower of strength when it came to the study and practice of Judaism.
Immediately I suggested that Vincenzo join our distance learning program designed especially for b’nai anusim who live in remote towns and tiny villages throughout Sicily, Calabria and the Aeolian Islands. Following a year’s study, Vincenzo was ready for his Bet Din and yet another challenge. Because his health concerns prohibited travel, how could Vincenzo meet with the three rabbis who had come to Milan to examine our students? When I suggested a telephone meeting, the rabbis enthusiastically agreed and that’s how it happened that Vincenzo Li Calzi, ben anusim, sat before his telephone in Palermo and, formally dressed in a suit and tie, answered the questions posed to him by the London rabbis. Shortly afterward, at a Sicilian beach on a radiant sunny morning, I organized Vincenzo’s mikveh immersion and presented him with his certificate as a proud MOT, or Member of the Tribe!
Vincenzo’s Jewish journey was just beginning as he and others in Palermo formed the first active congregation in Sicily since the evils of the Inquisition’s forced conversions nearly wiped out Sicily’s Jewish population. Our new congregation, Ner Tamid Palermo (the Eternal Light of Palermo) represented the flame that could not be extinguished, thanks to the efforts of “new Jews” like Vincenzo.
In the intervening years, Vincenzo and others organized Chanukah celebrations and Passover seders, and Vincenzo and his wife Amalia continue to open their home to men and women throughout Sicily who come to tell the stories of their hidden Jewish heritage and how they hope to reclaim their Jewish identity.
“You can’t miss your Bar Mitzvah,” Vincenzo said one day during our weekly telephone meetings. As leader of Palermo’s chavurah ,Vincenzo added, “I know that when he reaches thirteen years , the boy is a Bar Mitzvah, but one can have the ceremony at any age, so, Rabbina, now it is time for my Bar Mitzvah ceremony.”
After six months of study, again via the telephone, during which time Vincenzo learned not only how to read his Torah verses but to chant them in ancient Italian trope, he was ready. Thanks to the generosity of the Palermo Valdesian Church (a Christian denomination whose history also includes suffering and persecution), Congregation Ner Tamid Palermo was able to create sacred Jewish space in the church’s meeting room in order to celebrate this historic Jewish event.
On Shabbat morning, May 17, 2014, Vincenzo realized his dream. Family and friends gathered for the Shacharit service and enjoyed Vincenzo’s beautiful chanting of the prayers and blessings including the Shabbat Kedusha. For the Hakafah, or Torah procession, I carried the Torah in Vincenzo’s honor as his wife took his arm and guided him through the congregation. When it was time to read from the scroll, the entire room burst into the chant that calls a Jew to the Torah; “Ya’amod a Sefer Torah, Uziel ben Avraham v’ Sarah, Ha Bar Mitzvah!” Leaning on his crutches, Vincenzo stood, yad in hand, and read from the ancient Hebrew scroll. Then, amid HaZaaks and Mazel Tovs, the enthusiastic crowd tossed wrapped candies in Vincenzo’s direction, symbolically showering him with blessing upon blessing.
At the oneg that followed, a number of guests wanted to know more about the modern pluralistic movement that extends the hand of Jewish welcome to Jews of all backgrounds, including b’nai anusim, “Is it true,” a young woman asked, “that Ner Tamid Palermo is open to everyone including interfaith families, traditional Jews, and gay and lesbian couples and their children?” Another asked, “Can women read from the Torah and participate equally with men? “ A smiling Vincenzo was happy to affirm that as part of the Jewish Pluralistic movement, “We do not separate men and women and we are open to all.”
“Creating a pluralistic Jewish congregation has been a challenge,” Vincenzo said, referring to a large Israeli based organization, orthodox in practice, that recently arrived in the city, purporting to have “discovered” the secret Jews of Palermo – a situation that has created divisiveness and confusion. “Goliaths may come,” said Vincenzo, “but we pluralistic Jews are the little Davids and our faith makes us strong.”
For Vincenzo, his Bar Mitzvah celebration was a personal victory, not only for him but for all of Sicily’s b’nai anusim who, after 500 years, want so much to be recognized as the Jews they once were. Vincenzo’s Bar Mitzvah ceremony represents so much, for not only was a life-long dream realized but Sicilian Jews were able to celebrate their ten year anniversary of pluralism, perseverance and faith Vincenzo’s victory is a victory for all of us.