Sunday, February 16, 2014

Come One, Come All!

The Hamishe Passover Seder - Seder di Pesach
Friday (Venerdì) April 18, 2014, in Lamezia Terme, Italy

(In English e sotto in italiano)

In many parts of the world, winter is still going strong, but Sinagoga Ner Tamid is already thinking of April and setting a place for you at the table. Read more about our Passover Seder below (in English and Italian), and consider sharing this most special meal with us.

Join me and Sinagoga Ner Tamid del Sud, Calabria's First Active Synagogue in 500 years invites you and your family to join us for the story of the Exodus from Egypt.  Traditional foods, prayers, blessings and stories. 

The "Hamishe` Seder" continues the tradition of the b'nei anousim - Jews who were forced into Christian conversion 500 years ago.  At that time Christian families opened their homes to crypto-Jewish families, and at great personal peril, allowed their Jewish neighbors to hold a secret Passover seder on a day that would not arouse the suspicion of the Inquisition authorities.  We honor our crypto-Jewish and Christian families at the Hamishe' Seder.

Savant Hotel Restaurant, Lamezia Terme, (CZ)
Friday April 18, 2014 - 7:30 - 9:30 pm
For information and reservations:

Seder di Pesach - L'Hamishe seder pasquale La Sinagoga Ner Tamid del Sud, prima sinagoga attiva della Calabria da 500 anni invita voi e la vostra famiglia a unirsi a noi per conoscere la storia dell'Esodo dall'Egitto. Vi saranno cibi tradizionali, preghiere, benedizioni e storie. A cura di da Rabbi Barbara Aiello.

I' "Hamishe` Seder ", continua la tradizione dei  b'nei-anousim - ebrei che furono costretti alla conversione cristiana 500 anni fa. In quel tempo le famiglie cristiane avevano aperto le loro case alle famiglie cripto-ebraiche con grande rischio personale, hanno permesso ai loro vicini ebrei di tenere un seder pasquale segreto in un giorno che non destasse sospetti delle autorità dell' Inquisizione. Onoriamo le nostre famiglie cripto-ebree ei  cristiani durante l' Hamishe 'Seder.

Savant Hotel Restaurant, Lamezia Terme (CZ)
Venerdì 18 Aprile, 2014 - 19:30-21:30 Per informazioni e prenotazioni:

Seder (cena)  di Pesach  costo del menu concordato è di euro 28,00 a persona;

Per dormire ad Albergo di Savant 
  • bb  camera singola euro 60,00
  • bb  camera doppia euro 86,00
  • bb camera tripla 117,00

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Rabbi's Notebook

A midrash tells a story of a rabbi who carried a small book with him every day. If he went to the market, the rabbi carried his book. If he went to another village, his notebook went with him.  If he took a walk in the country… where ever he went, the rabbi carried his book. 

Some people in the rabbi’s village believed that the rabbi was carrying a Siddur, a book of prayers.  Others said, “No, it is book with verses of Torah.” 

But other people disagreed.  “The rabbi is carrying a part of the Talmud with him.”

The rabbi’s book was none of those things. The rabbi was carrying a notebook that had only blank pages, but every day he filled it with his writing.

“Ah, now we understand,” said the people of the village.  “The rabbi is writing notes for his sermons or important ideas to share with his students!” 

But again they were wrong.  Yes, the rabbi wrote in his notebook but not for students or sermons. 

Instead inside the rabbi’s notebook were long lists of names and beside the names were directions or drawings. For example, the rabbi wrote: “Shlomo -  big blue door…”  or “Miriam -  behind the marketplace near the banyan tree.”

For years the rabbi wrote in his notebook and carried it with him wherever he went. And for years the people of the village speculated about the great wisdom or wonderful teachings that surely filled the little book.

One day, near the town square, shortly after the rabbi had passed by, several people began to whisper. As usual, they were talking about the rabbi’s notebook.  It was always the same discussion. What does he write? What are the drawings? Why all the names? Why?

“I know why!”  The voice was an old woman selling vegetables from a small cart. “I know what the rabbi writes and I know why he writes it.”

One man from the synagogue looked up. “You? How could you know? Your family is not religious and your husband never comes to shul.”

“He’s right,” another man chimed in. “And your farm is far away. It is not possible that you know our rabbi. You are lying!”

The old woman smiled at the angry men. “I know your rabbi and I know what he writes,” she said. And then she told this story.

“One day, many years ago, I had an accident.  My vegetable cart was stuck in the mud.
 I tried to push it, then I tried to pull it.  But it would not move.

Finally I pushed with all my strength.  And the cart moved all right. It fell right on top of me, breaking both of my legs.”

“For days I lay in bed, in terrible pain.  Then one day there was a knock at my door.  It was your rabbi.  He had come to visit me.  He stayed with me for hours, talking, singing and praying.

“Finally I asked him, “Rabbi, you have spent so much time with me. I do not remember meeting you or talking to you. How do you know me?”

“Your rabbi smiled and took my hand. He said, “I know you well. We once stood side by side.”

“Where?  Now I am so embarrassed because I can’t remember ever meeting the rabbi. Oy vey, I must be losing my memory!”

The rabbi said, “My dear friend, we stood together, side by side at Mount Sinai.”

“Then your rabbi told me about his notebook. He said that when he learns about a person who is sick, he writes down the name. Beside the name he writes directions to the house.

And he visits everyone, even if the person is like me and does not come to the synagogue. The rabbi told me that it makes no difference because we were together one time long ago when we stood with Moses to receive the Ten Commandments.”

This midrash is important because our traditions tell us that the experience at Mount Sinai is common to every Jew. Our sages tell us that every Jew, those that were living at that moment, those who had died, and those, like us, who were yet to be born—every Jewish soul was present at Sinai for the giving of the Ten Commandments. 

This means that every Jew is connected to every other Jew. It does not matter how we look, or where we were born or what our names are. It does not matter if we are traditional or modern, or if we are religious or secular. Every Jew is connected to every other Jew.

Over the years I have had the opportunity to participate in memorial services to remember the Shoah and the liberation of the Concentration Camp at Auschwitz. In Italy, in Milan in 2005 my congregants and I stood in front of the prison where Jews from Milan waited to be taken to the train station for deportation to Auschwitz. With snow falling all around us we lit candles in their honor and memory.

Also in Italy, in Bergamo we remembered the courage of those who helped Jewish families. We placed a wreath against a monument and we cried for those who were lost. 

And again this year, on January 26, I have the honor to bring nine  Holocaust survivors to Tampa to participate in a beautiful memorial service hosted by the Italian consulate. Our survivors, all of them elderly, and all of the survivors of Nazi persecution, will light candles in memory of the six million who were murdered.

Why? Because January 27 is a day of Holocaust remembrance that is observed throughout Europe. January 27 marks the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp by the Russian Army in 1945. When I think of that day, I am reminded that during the Holocaust, all throughout Europe all Jews stood together.

The Nazis did not ask which Jews were religious and which were secular or which were Orthodox and which were Progressive.  In that horrible moment in history, we were united. To our persecutors we were all Jews.

The lesson of the Shoah and the lesson of Mount Sinai should never be lost. The old rabbi with the notebook understood this. He realized that all Jews are connected to one another.

This year during this day of remembrance we will stand together once again. We will stand in solidarity with those who were lost, those who suffered and those who were saved. We will not ask which Jew was religious, which one was cultural or which one was secular. We honor the memory of every Jew who died.

And then we do one thing more. We remember that Mt. Sinai connects us one to another and like the old rabbi in our midrash, we continue to learn from Sinai. Regardless of persuasion or background, it is our duty to honor and respect every Jew who lives.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Christmastime in Italy – a Jewish Perspective

Here in Italy, from late December through early January, it’s been headline news that public Christmas celebrations in the US have been under siege. But the cream in the cannoli (Italy’s version of “the icing on the cake”), was the report that a US military base has been forced to dismantle the entire nativity scene and unceremoniously boot it off government property.

“Che fa?” “What’s up with that?” ask my Italian friends who want to know how I, as an American Jew, and a rabbi no less, feel about a Christmas tradition that is ubiquitous in Italy but almost banned completely from the public square at home.   

I have been living and working in Italy for ten years, mostly in Serrastretta, a tiny village in Calabria near the “toe” of the Italian “boot.”  As the rabbi of a small liberal synagogue and the first and only woman rabbi in Italy, I’m a double whammy minority in a country where Christian traditions abound.

The main event in our village and in hundreds of others throughout Italy is the nativity scene. These dioramas are called “presepe” (pronounced “pray-seh-pay”) and during the month of December through January 6 they proliferate from north to south. There are competitions to see who can make the most creative manger scene. In fact, a first place contender stands in front of a local public high school where art students have created life-size mannequins of Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and the three kings and dressed them in historically accurate costumes.

Beginning Christmas week these scenes become even more elaborate when the “presepe vivente” are all the rage. They are nativity scenes with live actors and real animals and, if there’s been a birth in town, there’s a real “baby Jesus” in the manger.

As one of the few Jews in the area, I am often asked (mostly by American ex-pats) how I feel about this Christmas practice that has caused such a stir at home. “Does the Nativity offend you?” they ask. I respond, “No, not at all.” 

As a Jew I hold Jesus in esteem and I am grateful to him for sharing and living the Torah principles that he learned as child.

Most Jews I know do like Christmas. Even though Jews don’t observe the holiday, we are glad that Christians do. Throughout my growing up years in the US, and now as a Jew in Italy, I can say to my Christian friends that I truly enjoy being a guest at your party.

It’s a lesson I learned as a child when my parents taught me the difference between my own birthday party and someone else’s. It’s a simple lesson that I apply today to the deluge of Italian Christmas celebrations all around me. It’s someone else’s party, not mine.

The lights, the carols, the tree and the nativities indicate that I am a guest who is included in the celebration. I am a polite guest who does not whine, complain or demand that the celebrants take down the decorations, stop the singing and curtail the festivities because it’s not my day. Instead, like most children have learned to do, I share in the joy of someone else’s special celebration.

Here in southern Italy, “Christ” is still the Christmas headline and that’s fine with me. In fact, for many of my Calabrian neighbors, the baby Jesus’ message of peace, love and harmony is the focus of December 25. Not the presents.

Gifts arrive on January 6, brought by “The Befana,” a dear old lady who flies through the air on a broomstick and leaves surprises in the shoes that the children have placed outside the door the night before. Interestingly, “The Befana” represents an important physical separation between the spiritual message of Christmas and the material aspects of the season – a concept that, as a rabbi, I fully support.   

So each Christmas season I can wish all of my Christian friends the joys of their holiday, especially since Jesus’ message was one of peace, understanding and love – the very same things we Jews pray for in our synagogues and work toward in our communities. The songs, decorations, and especially the Italian nativity scenes emphasize this to a troubled world. As a Jew, I applaud the Christmas celebration and appreciate having had the opportunity to be a guest at the party.

Friday, December 13, 2013

“Happy Sylvester!”, Israel's Secular New Year

Throughout Israel, especially in Tel Aviv, the last day of the year is “party night.” On December 31st Israelis will celebrate along with the rest of the world but instead of shouting “Happy New Year,” Israelis do something different. As the year turns from 2013 to 2014, Israel’s Jews will wish each other a  “Happy Sylvester,” a New Year’s greeting that invokes, of all things, the name of a Catholic saint!

Israel is the Jewish state and the Jewish New Year of Rosh HaShanah is marked on the Hebrew calendar on the eve of the first day in the Hebrew month of Tisrei – a Jewish Holy Day that occurs in the fall of the year. Rosh HaShanah is the day to greet friends and family with “Shanah Tovah,” a Hebrew phrase that means “a good year,” or “Happy New Year.” Hence the dilemma – What to say to differentiate the secular new year from the religious one? 

That was the problem that immigrants from Western Europe faced when they first came to Israel. These newcomers still wanted to celebrate the secular New Year as they had done in their home countries and to avoid confusion they needed a new greeting. 

Sylvester the Cat, Looney Tunes
But why Sylvester?

Israeli writer and columnist Daniel Rogov did some digging and found that for years no one was certain who Sylvester really was. Until recently many scholars believed that the original Sylvester was a Catholic saint, however there was always some confusion about his life. Speculations included one popular story that Sylvester was an obscure Catholic priest who became famous for walking from Bordeaux to Jerusalem – barefoot!

Others believed that the saint was really a Roman Catholic pope whose claim to fame was that he had brought an animal back to life. Pope Sylvester, legend has it, raised a bull from the dead. Others opined that Sylvester was an Italian monk known for his “friendly relationships” with the local young ladies.

Recently new information about the illusive Sylvester has come to light. Historian Georges Duby in his recently published book,  “France in the Middle Ages,” speculates that Sylvester may have been Peter Sylvester, who was the bishop of Beauvais in 1431 when Joan of Arc was arrested in his city.

Joan of Arc, by Rossetti 
Sylvester earned the respect of his fellow Frenchmen because his was the voice of calm among the hype and hysterics surrounding Joan of Arc’s rise to fame. Apparently Sylvester was the only cleric who did not believe that young Joan was acting under the influence of the devil. Sylvester defended Joan of Arc as “a good Christian, a woman of purity who lived according to the rules of the church and who had no evil in her.” Although Sylvester’s colleagues were determined to bring Joan to trial and subsequently execute her, Sylvester spoke out against such harsh treatment.  

On the morning of December 31st, Sylvester himself was arrested, thrown into jail and tortured there. Several minutes before midnight the 82 year old Sylvester died, but not before saying his final words, “The year ends and so do I.”

Bishop Sylvester, as one who stood up to the Church authority and who died for his beliefs on the last night of the secular year, became the “Sylvester” of the Israeli greeting offered at the beginning of each secular year. So in his honor and memory, Happy Sylvester 2014! 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Synagogue Suicide: What the Pew Report Didn't Tell You

[This article first appeared on October 20, 2013 on The Times of Israel Ops&Blogs page.]

In late 2006 a young man named Jason telephoned me.  He had met the girl of his dreams, an Italian girl named Chiara.  His family were pillars of their synagogue in the suburb of a large Midwestern US city.  His grandparents were the synagogue’s founders who had bought and donated the land on which the synagogue was eventually built. Jason’s father had been Board president.  Later on his mother held the same position. Jason had become Bar Mitzvah in the sanctuary and confirmed with his synagogue class.

When Jason approached the rabbi – the same rabbi who, when Jason was born, had officiated at his Brit Milah ceremony and who called him to the Torah as a Bar Mitzvah – Jason was eager to discuss his marriage plans.  He wanted to have his wedding in the synagogue, with his rabbi as officiant, because, as Jason put it, “the rabbi was also my mentor and my friend.”

What happened next is something that has occurred thousands of times before.  The rabbi smiled and, when he heard that Chiara was not Jewish, politely declined.  “We don’t believe in assimilation,” the rabbi said, and then he heaped on one final insult, “You mean to tell me, Jason, that you couldn’t find a nice Jewish girl.”

Jason’s synagogue is part of the Reform Jewish movement, which means that although interfaith marriage is not banned outright, individual rabbis can make the decision to officiate or not.  Jason’s rabbi subscribed to the “or not” crowd.  His Board of Directors did not approve of interfaith marriages and to keep his job the rabbi had no choice but to go along. 

What he did have a choice about was his attitude toward Jason.  He could have chosen to congratulate him for finding a wonderful woman to marry.  He could have chosen not to use the tired old “code word”  - assimilation – which really means that marrying a non-Jew is marrying someone who is just not good enough or that a home with a non-Jewish parent is the death knell for creating a Jewish family, both of which are patently not true.

It was from this “tsuris” that Jason and I found each other.  Out of his dismay at being rejected by his birth religion – a religion where he and his family had been dedicated participants for decades, Jason asked me to officiate at his interfaith marriage.  I was delighted and Jason and Chiara were married under the chuppah in the garden of a beautiful villa in the Tuscan hills near Florence, Italy.

You might think that this is the end of the story.  It’s not. Shortly after Jason and Chiara returned home to the USA, Jason’s rabbi phoned him. Yes, it was the same rabbi who rejected their wedding request. This time the rabbi was friendly and enthusiastic. Jason described their conversation this way.

“The rabbi congratulated me,” Jason said and asked all about the ceremony. He seemed really interested and that made me curious.  Why all of a sudden was he so friendly?  I found out in a minute. Rabbi told me that the synagogue Board had made a decision – one that I would be real happy about.  Then he went on to explain that now interfaith families could be full family members, too.”

Jason was stunned.  He listened for a while as the rabbi described the levels and types of memberships that the synagogue offered and what the costs would be. “That’s when I stopped him,” Jason said.  “You mean to tell me that when I needed you, when I wanted you to marry me in my home synagogue with all my family around me, you refused.  But now you call to invite me to bring my interfaith family, my Catholic wife, whom you disdained, into the synagogue as a member?”

Jason went on. “So let me get this straight.  You won’t officiate at my wedding, but you’ll take my money.  No thank you.”

Where is Jason now?  He and Chiara have two children with whom they regularly celebrate Shabbat and make the Jewish festivals around the family table.  They live in Jason’s home town but are not interested in connecting formally with a synagogue.  “It was such a bad experience,” Jason says.

Jason’s story is the story of a phenomenon I call “Synagogue Suicide,” something the Pew report (October, 2013) did not take into consideration when they concluded that Jews who self-describe as “cultural” or “secular,” don’t really want to be a part of established Judaism. Had the researchers dug a little deeper, they might have found that many couples like Jason and Chiara would be actively Jewish today if their synagogues and their rabbis hadn’t pushed them away.

Recently I was invited to speak at a local Unitarian Universalist church, something I do almost every year. I find the Unitarians to be friendly, warm, and open-minded. I’ve made friends in the congregation so it wasn’t unusual that after the service two women approached me.

They told me about their late husbands and how much they loved their Jewish traditions. One woman said, “When my husband married me he was never again accepted in his synagogue. People whispered at how he had “married out.”  And when it came time for our son to become a Bar Mitzvah, the rabbi told us that I couldn’t participate in the ceremony. I was not permitted to stand at the Torah, because I wasn’t Jewish.”

She went on. “No matter that I was the one who schlepped him to Sunday school and Hebrew lessons. Well, this really bothered my husband and he left the synagogue. That’s when my friend introduced us to the Unitarian Church. There’s no talk about Jesus, so that fit my husband pretty well.  He wore his Star of David to Church and people were accepting.  He missed the synagogue and always felt bad about not going, but we just couldn’t get over the hurt.”

The second woman chimed in. “My husband loved the synagogue,” she said.  “We’re both Jewish and really wanted to find a synagogue home.  But my husband never studied.  His parents were secular so he never went to Sunday school, and he never had a Bar Mitzvah.  One time we were sitting at services and he held the book upside down.  The lady behind us whispered to her friends and they all started laughing. Later on we tried out the Unitarian Church. We never went back to the synagogue again.”

Over the years I have learned how important it is that I accept every invitation extended to me by a Unitarian or Unity Church. The Pew Study confirmed that two-thirds of Jews do not belong to a synagogue and that Unitarian and Unity churches hold a particular attraction for disaffected Jews. They find a home there, far away from the synagogue snobs who embarrassed and humiliated them. When a church is more accepting than a Jewish man’s own synagogue was, it’s time to look beneath the statistics and examine what’s really going on. Could it be synagogue suicide?

In my 15 years as a pulpit rabbi I have gathered hundreds of examples of the self-defeating behavior that has led to a Jewish exodus from synagogue life. And I am not alone. Many of my colleagues, the majority of whom are pluralistic, serve in synagogues that are open and welcoming to Jews of all backgrounds and run small congregations that actively encourage Jews who describe themselves as “cultural” or “secular,” to give institutional Judaism another try. If recent statistics paint a dreary picture, there are reasons why Jewish life in America is so bleak. But it’s much too easy to blame assimilation or secularization and leave it at that. If Jews aren’t Jewish anymore, it’s time to find out why.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Sukkot is Jewish Camping Under the Stars

We are doing it here in Calabria and many of you are doing the same thing all over the world.  When my daughter was a little girl she always called this holiday Jewish camping.  For Jewish families, many of us will be “camping out” this coming week as we eat our meals under the little temporary huts called (and this is where the holiday gets its name) “Sukkot.”

So here’s the question. What is the only building that is authentically Jewish?  The only real, true Jewishly Jewish structure?  If our answer is “synagogue,” or even “temple,” then we’ve run into a problem.

Think about synagogues you’ve seen.  Some are built in the round, others are square. In the Museum of the Diaspora in Tel Aviv there is a synagogue display – tiny miniatures of synagogues from all over the world. There you can see Spanish synagogues designed in the Moorish style, western models that come from Germany and bold and experimental types from Australia and America.

Why all the different architectural forms? Because nowhere in the Torah or in any other of our holy books is there any explanation of just exactly what a synagogue should look like. 

So, if the answer to our question about the most Jewishly Jewish building is NOT the synagogue, then what is it.  What’s the most Jewishly Jewish building you could ever have? It’s the Sukkah.

In all of the Torah, the Sukkah is the only building we are told we absolutely must build.  And as far as buildings go, the sukkah is kind of strange.  For one thing we are told to build it so that you can see through the roof and look straight up to the stars.  That’s not all. The sukkah has to be made so that its sides aren’t very sturdy. Open space is gently corralled within its wispy walls.

The sukkah is a building, if you can even call it that – a building that, more than it separates us from the outside, a building that links us with the outside.  For eight days a year our sukkah makes us one with the great outdoors. 

Our sukkah calls us back to the time when we lived in the wilderness.  It is a building that reminds us how fragile and temporary all buildings really are -even those made out of bricks or cement. 

That’s why, once every year, we go out of our “permanent” buildings into our temporary shelters so that we get a hands-on experience with how fragile all life really is.  If you don’t believe that just talk to anyone who lost a home to the ravages of “Sandy” or the tsunami in Japan. 

As Jewish families build their sukkahs and spend time eating, maybe even sleeping in them, these little temporary huts seem to be saying to each of us …  don’t shut yourself off from the world outside.  Because the walls are wide open, our sukkah demands that we connect with each other. Our sukkah asks us to remember the words of our sages; “The closest that anyone on this earth ever gets to God is our relationships with other people.” 

So as we Calabresi enjoy our mountain top  sukkah, built beneath the “pergola,” the grape arbor where we regularly make our Shabbat Kiddush blessings, even we Italian B’nei Anousim, who are only now reclaiming our Jewish roots, understand that regardless of where we live, our homes and our hearts need wide open spaces. We need to remember that regardless of the structure, we live under roofs that are gentle and fragile, just like the roof of our sukkah.

The Jewish holiday of Sukkot says to us that we need to stop for a moment and take time to look up.  It’s curious how, in shaky temporary lean-tos, we can feel God’s presence even more keenly.  And how important it is for us to know that when we sit in our ancient flimsy sukkah, it is here where we can truly see the stars.