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Cuzzupa: Jewish traditions hide in South Italy’s easter bread

The post-Passover Mimouna was celebrated throughout the Mediterranean, while non-Jewish neighbors looked on and adopted the art of braiding dough
Cuzzupa, traditional Easter cake from Calabria (iStock)
Cuzzupa, traditional Easter cake from Calabria (iStock)

“Look what I have for you!” It was the voice of my neighbor, Silvana who enthusiastically handed me a colorful cardboard tray on which sat a most unusual treat.

“It is a ‘cuzzupa’, an Easter treat,” said Silvana. “Because you are Jewish I made one just for you.”

Cuzzupa (also spelled “cuzuppa,”  or  “cuzupe”) is a type of sweet bread, braided like challah, with a hard cooked egg nestled within the braids. Cuzzupa was invented here in Calabria, in the “toe” of the Italian “boot,” and legend has it that Catanzaro, our provincial capital claims to be the birthplace of the cuzzupa tradition.

But how could this be? Indeed the cuzzupa that Silvana brought to my door strongly resembled the braided challah bread that graces our Friday evening Shabbat table, but it is Passover week – the only time in the Jewish year when bread, even a beautiful cuzzupa, is prohibited and only unleavened “matzah” is allowed.

The quizzical look on my face may have begged the obvious question. Why cuzzupa? Why now during the Chol HaMoed (festival days of Pesach)? Silvana came to my rescue. She recalled her grandparents’ stories of how the entire Calabria region was once more than half Jewish.

A type of cuzzupa with 2 eggs. (Marcuscalabresus via Wikimedia under
GNU Free Documentation License)

“Your people came from Spain,” Silvana said. “You brought your customs and your foods from all over the Mediterranean. You made ‘pane azimo,’ (unleavened bread) in your outdoor ovens, bread that you ate for a week. We Calabresi, we watched you. We saw how you observed ‘la Pasqua dei Ebrei,’ (‘the Easter of the Jews’) and when it ended, you ate your braided bread again.”

Blogger Francesco Placco knows what Silvana is talking about. He writes about cuzzupa and its relationship to the variety of foods served at the Mimouna seder – the meal that concludes the Passover holiday and features the ceremonial eating of the first piece of leavening.

Historians tell us that the Mimouna celebration originated in Morocco as a way to honor the memory of Rabbi Maimon, the father of Moses Maimonides, the beloved leader of the Moroccan Jews. Related to the Hebrew word, “emuna” (faith or belief) as well as an Arabic word for wealth or good fortune, Mimouna recalls the combination of faith and good fortune that brought about our exodus from slavery to freedom.

There are many ways to celebrate Mimouna, many of which either originated in North Africa or were adapted by Sephardic Jewish communities throughout the Mediterranean, including our own village of Serrastretta high in the mountains of Calabria where, with cuzzupa in hand, Silvana offered me braided bread to add to our Mimouna table.

Blogger Francesco Placco concurs and provides food for thought when he writes about the cuzzupa Jewish connection. “This simple Easter cake is much more than you think. It is part of a complex and evolved system of ‘global traditions’… (yet) so simple that today we bite into a piece of history and we don’t even know it.”

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
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