It was nearly ten years ago when Walter Aiello began his own Jewish journey. Back then he was interested in determining if his Aiello surname had ancient Jewish origins and if any of his family’s traditions, which were often termed strange and unusual, had any definite Jewish connection.
“I’m a Brooklyn boy,” Walter says with noticeable pride in his voice and he goes on to explain how his artisan father made it in America by crafting life-like and artistic mannequin hands. But it was Santos Aiello, Walter’s grandfather, who posthumously offered the first clue. Walter heard his father, Luigi, say that grandfather was proud of his name and that the pronunciation of the Aiello surname was “A-ee-yo.” Grandpa’s assertion that the family surname should always be given the correct Spanish pronunciation was an audible reminder of what Walter would discover to be his family’s Jewish roots dating back to the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain.
Based on what he had heard as a child, Walter initiated a search with the Italian Jewish Cultural Center of Calabria (IjCCC), a research and archival group dedicated to the discovery of the Jewish heritage behind surnames found today in Calabria and Sicily. Using documents which describe the persecution, arrest and murder of Jewish families and combing through ancient lists of Jewish family surnames, historian Vincenzo Villella and anousim rabbi, Barbara Aiello determined that Walter’s case was one of many that connected a deeply felt attraction with a lost Jewish identity.
But Walter didn’t stop there. Over the years he became involved with the Jewish community, taking part in the organization of a program to help persons with disabilities participate more fully in synagogue life. Later on when Walter’s beloved wife became seriously ill, Walter took his first tentative steps to becoming fully Jewish. Jewish friends offered to stay with Walter’s wife so that he could go to Shabbat synagogue services- which offered him spiritual solace and a consistent Jewish experience. With the support of a loving and caring rabbi, (Rabbi Leah Berkowitz, Walter became a Jew- By- Choice in 2012 at the Judea Reform Synagogue in Raleigh, North Carolina.
One year later Walter’s Jewish Journey came full circle when he traveled to Italy to the tiny Calabrian village of Serrastsretta to become a Bar Mitzvah at Sinagoga Ner Tamid del Sud, the first active synagogue in Calabria since Inquisition times.
Tall and lean and with an American accent, at first sight one might assume that although his “cognome” Aiello, is one of Italy’s oldest Jewish surnames, Walter might not feel comfortable in this isolated mountain town. But that was not the case. “I feel like I’ve come home,” Walter said as he entered the tiny sanctuary, accompanied by his two adult sons. And indeed he had as Walter’s eyes filled with tears as he began to read from the ancient Torah scroll.
Local “Serrastrettese,” many of whom also have lost and hidden Jewish roots, applauded Walter’s accomplishment, especially the fact that at 69 years of age, he had completed his Jewish journey and returned to claim his heritage.
Walter is back in North Carolina now but recently he took the time to share his thoughts about his experience with us here in Calabria. Walter writes, “(I am) recalling how my arrival at Serrastretta was like returning to a forgotten childhood home after a long absence,”
On May 16, Walter Aiello became our synagogue’s first adult Bar Mitzvah as he read from the Torah scroll in our newly expanded sanctuary. As Walter’s Italian rabbi, and most likely a part of his extended “mispachah” (Yes, I believe we are related!) I couldn’t be more pleased, proud and honored not only to officiate at Walter’s Bar Mitzvah celebration, but even more to continue our mission to welcome yet another of the B’nei Anousim “a casa ancora.” Home again.
NOTE: For more information on discovering Italian Jewish roots or becoming Bar or Bat Mitzvah in Calabria see www.rabbibarbara.com