Barbara Aiello
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A lesson from Italy

When a rabbi says the real Jews are the dead ones

Emma D. (not her real name) is a Bat Anousim – a Hebrew term which translates as “the daughter of the forced ones.” Her Italian Jewish roots, tangled as they are, also run deep. Emma traces her ancestry back 500 years to Inquisition times when Jews were forced to either convert to Christianity or face jail, expulsion or death.

Unlike Emma’s ancestors, there were Jews of means in Spain and later in Sicily and in Calabria (the “toe” of the Italian “boot”) who were able to sell their possessions or hand over their gold in order to book passage that would take them to safety. Other Jews were not so fortunate. Unable to escape, they submitted to Christian conversion while hiding their Jewish traditions within their immediate families.

In fact, Inquisition records document Jewish families, with surnames the same as Emma’s, who were denounced to Church authorities for ”Judaizing” by their very own cooks, housemaids and gardeners. Many of these families were arrested and burned alive in the public square. Those who survived often became practicing Catholics and only on rare occasions would they trust the precious secret of their Jewish ancestry to other members of their families.

Deathbed confessions were not unusual. One Bat Anousim from a Calabrian mountain village known historically as having been an ancient Jewish settlement recounts her grandmother’s final hours. As Nonna hovered near death she asked for her children and as they gathered she said, “When I die, do not call the priest. Do not place a rosary in my hands. Wrap my body in a white sheet and bury me the next day.” As the curious family looked on, Nonna concluded, “I never told you. We are Jews.”

Although Emma’s family has no deathbed drama, they do have a rich store of traditions that indicate a Jewish heritage. From cooking traditions that conform to kosher dietary laws (“An egg with a blood spot was always thrown away.”) to markings on the right side of the door that look eerily like the Hebrew letter “shin” which appears even today on the traditional mezuzah case, to special marriage blessings that take place “sotto la coperta,” under a special crocheted covering reminiscent of the chuppah, the Jewish wedding canopy, Emma’s family traditions place her squarely among the “B’nei Anousim.” Emma is proud to count herself among those Italians whose families have only remnants of Jewish belief and practice but who have passed these traditions from family to family for generations.

“I know I am a Jew,” says Emma who expressed her joy at learning that a rabbi in a synagogue near to her home had recently dedicated himself to welcoming B’nei Anousim into traditional congregations. But as she began her return to her Jewish heritage, Emma was faced with what she felt were disheartening prejudices. Although she and her son studied for years, were awarded a Status Recognition Certificate attesting to their lost Jewish ancestry and later made formal conversion, the rabbi seemed dissatisfied. He complained that she lacked formal documentation of a matrilineal Jewish line, something that few Anousim can produce. Then there were discussions that indicated that synagogue officials were skeptical of her family’s Jewish traditions, a situation that made Emma feel unwelcome in the community.

In fact the international organization Kulanu (Hebrew for “all of us”) that represents lost and isolated Jewish communities worldwide is so concerned that they encourage Tisha B’Av observances to recognize and reverse what Anousim often face. They write, “We at Kulanu encourage you to remember the rippling effects of the Inquisition … Sadly not all synagogues give a warm welcome to returning Anousim.”

Emma’s synagogue experience offers a real-life example of what Kulanu warns against. When she confronted the rabbi, he explained the reasoning behind his reluctance. He began by recounting Inquisition history, pointing out that in 1492 many Jews refused to convert to Christianity. The result was that entire families were burned alive (auto da fe`) throughout Spain and Portugal and later in Sicily and in southern Italy. The rabbi went on to say that these dead Jews were the real Jews and that the anousim, their descendants (who converted) chose an easier path. He added that while these forced converts maintained some Jewish traditions within their families, the rabbi intimated that their Judaism was suspect in that they did not live publicly as Jews.

Technically, the rabbi is correct. The Jews who refused conversion remained Jewish even as their bodies went up in flames. The Jews who chose to convert to Christianity rather than submit to murderers were in no position to profess their Judaism in public. Instead they took their traditions underground. At great personal sacrifice and with great courage, these Anousim practiced in secret. Emma’s ancestors deserve appreciation and respect. They found a way to live as Jews.

On December 8, 2009, Rabbi Stephen Leon, rabbi for 24 years to B’nei Anousim in the Southwest USA, introduced a resolution to the United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) at their Biennial Convention. This resolution, passed by acclamation, included the following acknowledgement and tribute to B’nei Anousim:

Whereas the fast day of Tisha B’Av recalls the very Hebrew date upon which the Jews of Spain were expelled from their country in 1492 and Whereas many Jews were forcibly converted to Christianity publicly but then continued to practice Judaism in secret… Be It Resolved … to welcome the B’nai Anousim to Judaism and to welcome them into their congregations.

Today in Italy mainstream traditional Jewish communities profess the same welcome. In recent months several conferences have been organized to acknowledge and celebrate these lost and hidden Jews. The orthodox professionals in attendance speak passionately about how conference themes should include openness to Anousim.

In fact, Renzo Gattegna, the newly elected president of UCEI, the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, recently led a professional meeting on the topic in Reggio Calabria and later wrote that the lost Jewish communities of southern Italy should be acknowledged without prejudice.

In Italian we have a saying, “sega la segatura.” Translated literally it means, “to saw the sawdust,” and figuratively it implies that we Italians prefer talk to action. Resolutions, articles and pronouncements aside, B’nei Anousim like Emma and like so many others throughout the south ofItaly are eager to discover and embrace their Jewish roots. And like Emma they are genuinely confused when the so-called welcome is dampened by suspicion, skepticism and ridiculous demands for genealogical documentation that synagogue and community officials already know could not possibly exist.

It was Frederich Nietzsche who put it best when he wrote, “What doesn’t kill you makes you strong.” With experiences like Emma’s, many Italian B’nei Anousim understand what Nietzsche was talking about. And strength is exactly what Emma and so many others like her will need as they attempt to break the barriers that continue to rob them of their Judaism and victimize them yet again.

Rabbi Aiello is a Bat Anousim and founder, in 2006, of Sinagoga Ner Tamid del Sud (The Eternal Light of the South) the first active synagogue in the south of Italy since Inquisition times. The pluralistic synagogue is open to Jews of all backgrounds. Rabbi Barbara recently welcomed Emma into her community and officiated at the Bar Mitzvah of Emma’s son. Contact her at  


About the Author
Rabbi Barbara Aiello is the first woman and first non-orthodox rabbi in Italy. She opened the first active synagogue in Calabria since Inquisition times and is the founder of the B'nei Anousim movement in Calabria and Sicily that helps Italians discover and embrace their Jewish roots