When she was told by a local rabbi that “the only real Jews are the dead ones,” bat anusim “Emma D.” was devastated. Having spent years carefully explaining her crypto-Jewish ancestry and begging synagogues to accept her, Emma was bitterly disappointed to learn that after having been forced, under pain of death, into Christian conversion, her ancestors’ preserving of Jewish traditions qualified them as apostates and nothing more.
Not long afterward Emma made her way to Sinagoga Ner Tamid del Sud, southern Italy’s first and only synagogue in five hundred years since Inquisition times. There she was warmly welcomed, accepted as a legitimate Jew and now serves the synagogue as a member of the board.
As the synagogue approaches its 16th birthday, the Calabrian congregation has moved from the basement cantina where my great grandfather secretly led Hebrew prayers, to a stand-alone building that boasts a separate sanctuary, Judaica museum and library, as well as three Torah scrolls – one dating back to 1783.
“As rabbi of Sinagoga Ner Tamid del Sud, I am constantly amazed at how our b’nei anusim congregation is truly the eternal light of southern Italy. Hundreds of emails, phone calls and requests to visit from Calabrians, Sicilians and descendants of Italian immigrants worldwide, inspire us to continue our mission which is to extend the hand of Jewish welcome to all those who want to discover and embrace their Jewish roots.”
“During the war I was secretly baptized,” says Ernesto, one of our first congregants. “Because Mussolini had aligned with Hitler, my mother had the children baptized to save the family from deportation. When I tried to explain this to a rabbi, he scoffed at my story and accused me of trying to spy on his synagogue. I was humiliated and it was forty years before I ever mentioned my Jewish heritage again.”
Sadly Ernesto’s story is not unique. For centuries b’nei anusim Jews have been snubbed, slighted and when attempting to make conversion, often asked to do the unthinkable.
Samuele recalls how, after years of conversion studies, he was asked by his supervising rabbi to do one last thing. Samuele was aghast when the rabbi demanded that he divorce his Christian wife of nearly thirty years! The rabbi explained that interfaith marriages are not accepted by traditional Judaism and since Samuele’s wife chose not to convert, he was obliged to divorce her. Situations like these propel Jews like Samuele into our congregation.
Nearly five hundred years ago when my ancestors were expelled from Spain, they fled with nothing – holy books and Jewish documents had been burned or confiscated by Inquisition authorities. As a result, only word-of-mouth kept Jewish heritage alive. So it is not surprising that members of our congregation approach me with stories of lost traditions, such as the kosher practice of removing the blood spot from an egg, or the traditional Sephardic Jewish practice of sweeping the floor to the center of the room, never to the door, where the mezuzah had once been placed. And how is it that to this day my Calabrian family describes bread crumbs as “chametz”? Could it be that because they never had the opportunity to learn that the word is Hebrew, they assumed it was just one more example of Calabrian dialect?
When these stories come to me, lovingly explained by b’nei anusim who tentatively but courageously share them, I feel honored to receive their testimony and literally feel as though I am in the presence of an eternal light that, although a tiny flame, was never extinguished.
“Bentornata,” I say. “Welcome home.” And welcome they are. With each Kabbalat Shabbat service around the dining table where we help b’nei anusim learn the prayers and songs to welcome Shabbat, to the Shacharit Saturday morning service where eighty year olds halting read Torah, to the mystical Havdalah candle whose flame is doused in dark red homemade wine, we acknowledge the blessings that are brought to our community by each and every secret Jew.
Many of our b’nei anusim choose our one year study program that culminates in formal conversion. Our students appear before a rabbi-led Bet Din that is followed by their mikveh in the Mediterranean Sea.
Others who have been secular all their lives request our Status Recognition Certificate that acknowledges their return to their Jewish roots.
Men, women and children whose Jewish heritage derives from their patrilineal line are accepted as “real” Jews, along with interfaith and gay and lesbian families, and diverse Jews who represent a variety of ethnic backgrounds.
Joyfully Jewish? When we rabbis open our doors and open our hearts to b’nei anusim and to all manner of Jewish diversity, joy abounds. Pluralistic in nature and recognized by Reconstructing Judaism, our synagogue embraces rituals and observance that are accessible, inclusive and sensible.
As Uncle Mario says when asked why, at 83 years of age, he goes to the synagogue, he responds, “I like to sing with the rabbi!” When asked how he came to know the melodies, Uncle Mario smiles, opens his hand and gently pats his chest. “In here,” he says. “The Jewish songs, they are in my heart.”