Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Dalida`: The Extraordinary Singer’s Calabrian Jewish Roots

Dalida` - As a “Bat Anousim” she was “I nostri”  - “one of us.”

Although she was born Iolanda Cristina Gigliotti, when it came time to select a stage name, she chose “Dalida`,” from the Hebrew for “delight.” And, as Dalida` she became one of the world’s most beloved performers, singing and recording in more than ten languages, including Hebrew.

What is Dalida’s Calabrian Jewish connection?  Her parents, Pietro and Giuseppina were born right here in Serrastretta with the surname “Gigliotti,” a local name  recognized as Jewish  from Inquisition times. In addition it was  “nonno Enrico,” Dalida’s grandfather, who professed Algerian Jewish roots – all of which lead to Dalida’s place of honor in the hearts of Calabrian Jews and of B’nei Anousim everywhere.

Dalida’ was born in Egypt after her parents settled there, a move they made so that her father could pursue his career as a concert violinist. Dalida’ spent her early years in Egypt’s bustling Italian Egyptian community, but she lived most of her adult life in France.

Dalida’ career spanned 30 years with a debut in 1956 and a final recording in 1986, just months before her untimely death. Known throughout Europe and Asia for her sultry voice and thoughtful lyrics, Dalida` is credited for bringing the first ethnic fusion hit to the contemporary music scene. “Salma ya Salama,” based on a traditional Egyptian folk song, was translated into French, Italian and German and sung around the world.

American appreciation of Dalida’ soared after her critically acclaimed Broadway-themed show at Carnegie Hall in New York City, but we Serrastrettesi remember her for the concert she brought to her home town in the 1970’s.

Dalida’s performance of Hava Nagila earned her acclaim early in her career. When asked about why she chose a Hebrew melody, Dalida’ told the audience that the melody was in her blood.  

This year the Serrastretta community remembered Dalida’ on the 25th anniversary of her death. Our local cultural society, “Associazione Dalidà,” offered a concert in an outdoor theatre that bears her name and special museum exhibit at Casa Museo Dalida`.

As the Italian Jewish Cultural Center in Calabria continues to discover and establish our ancient Jewish presence here in the south of Italy, we are honored to claim the beloved Dalida’ as one of our own.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Keeping up with Kippot

Today, let’s start at the top of our heads with that little circle that is a staple of Jewish fashion. I know that many of you are like me and have drawers full of these—a huge collection. You can find them anywhere. Men find them in the inside pocket of their High Holy Day suit, or in the car in the glove compartment.  Or maybe you have yours scrunched in a little zipper bag that also contains the tallit.

We’re talking about the kippah.

The Kippah Shop In Jerusalem
In a typical Reform or Conservative synagogue, it is common to see a mixture of many different styles of kippot, sometimes based on heritage but often based simply on taste. Almost all synagogues provide simple kippot, mostly the economical light-weight black ones so that anyone who wants to can wear a yarmulke during the service.

This brings me to a frequently asked question: Kippah or Yarmulke? Which word is correct? Actually both are. Kippah is a Hebrew word, and Yarmulke is a Yiddish word that comes from the Hebrew. 

Kippah, the Hebrew word, means, “dome.”  It comes from the evolution of the Jewish head covering that morphed into a little circular “dome” that we place on the top of heads. 

The word Yarmulke is more complex.  It comes from two Hebrew words, “Yareh Malka,” that translate to “the fear of the throne,” or “awe of the throne.”  The Yareh Malka originated from the concept that a person should wear a headcover to remind him of the awe he should have in the presence of G-d. From there the word evolved from “Yareh Malka” into the Yiddush, Yarmulke!

But whether your kippah/yarmulke is black leather and generations old, or satin from the last wedding you attended, or rainbow designed from your granddaughter’s Bat Mitzvah, They have one thing in common: Minhag! Kippot are minhag or “custom.” No Jewish laws exist regarding what kind of head covering should be worn, and furthermore, there is no halakah or Jewish law that requires the wearing of a kippah. So how did they get so popular? Where does this idea come from and why is the wearing of a yarmulke one of the oldest and most obvious signs that the wearer is Jewish? 

Our sages have a variety of opinions. They refer to the Talmud, which justifies the wearing of a kippah because we read in the morning blessing the part where we thank God for "crowning Israel with splendor" (Talmud - Brachot 60b).  

Rabbi Solomon Luria’s wrote about kippah fashion in words that date back to the 1600’s. He told the story of a man who suffered from severe headaches. This man asked Rabbi Luria if he could be permitted to eat bareheaded. Rabbi Luria responded that, while there is no official requirement to wear head coverings even during prayer, the custom had become so widely accepted that anyone going about without a kippah was considered impious; therefore, he suggested that the man wear a soft kippah made of fine linen or silk.

The practice of wearing kippot did, however, make its way into the Shulhan Arukh (Jewish Code of Law, mid-16th century). In the Shulchan Aruk we read that “one should not walk more than four cubits (about six feet) with an uncovered head.” 

In the Middle Ages, French and Spanish rabbis introduced the practice of covering one's head during prayer and Torah study, and Maimonides (1135-1204) similarly ruled that a Jewish man should cover his head during prayer (Mishne Torah, Ahavah, Hilkhot Tefilah 5:5).

In the Torah, Exodus 28:4, we find that although only “The Kohanim serving in the Temple were required to cover their heads,” modern sages saw each Jew as equal to every other Jew and as such, wearing a head covering became an equal opportunity experience for Jewish men and women—Kohane, Levi or Yisraeli—anyone from any of the three Biblical classes could cover their heads if they chose.  

One rabbi puts it well when he says, “Indeed, wearing a kippah is a big statement, and obligates the wearer to live up to a certain standard of behavior. A person has to think twice before cutting in line at the bank, yelling at a waiter or making any kind of a public scene.  Wearing a kippah makes one a Torah ambassador and reflects on all Jews. The actions of someone wearing a kippah can create a Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God's name).”
Over the years I've been asked many times why I always wear my kippah. For me, the answer isn't as simple as my professional calling. For me, wearing my kippah reminds me of the words of Torah.  It gives me the opportunity to be a “Light unto the nations.”  With God’s blessing on my head, my kippah will help me to set a good example, to make the right impression in the world…as a Jew. 

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Mezuzah on Your Mezuzah

The Word Mezuzah

In Biblical times, mezuzah was simply the word for the doorpost of a house. The original mezuzah was the doorpost of your tent and the original Passover directive was to smear hyssop and smear blood on those very mezuzot. 

Today the meaning of the mezuzah has been transferred from the doorpost to the small box attached to the doorpost. Sometimes the word mezuzah refers even more specifically to the scroll of parchment inside the box, on which two Scripture passages from Deuteronomy are written.  

The verses inscribed on the parchment scroll inside the mezuzah illuminate its origin and purpose.

Deuteronomy 6:4-9 instructs:
"Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart; you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates."  

Right from these words we have the modern day mezuzah that came to be in this form more than 2,000 years ago.


Long ago, there were Talmudic arguments about how to place it on the doorpost. Some believed that the mezuzah should be placed straight up and down to connect to God, while others argued for a horizontal placement, connecting to all the people of the world. The general, accepted compromise is to affix the mezuzah on a 45-degree angle, and while there are certainly exceptions, the mezuzah is often found affixed to the top third of the doorpost on the right (as one enters) with the upper portion slanted inward.

Look at your mezuzah or check out one the next time you visit a synagogue or Jewish home. Look for the Hebrew letter, Shin. Why is this Hebrew letter, Shin, on every mezuzah? What does it mean? Frequently, it is believed that shin stands for “Shema,” the Jewish blessing; in fact, it stands for “Shaddai,” the Hebrew word meaning, “God as our protector.” When passing through the door, one must touch and kiss the word, Shaddai, and recite the following prayer: "May God protect my going out and my coming in from now on and ever more." 

Mezuzot Design and Art

An interesting fact: In the Middle Ages under the influence of the Kabbalah, or mystical Judaism, names of angels and other symbols were added to the parchments. The medieval rabbi, Maimonides, spoke out against such additions, but his discussion led maranos—secret Jews—to put an angel such as Gabriel or Raphael on the right side of the door, in the place where the mezuzah would have been found had they been free to do so. 

The making of ceramic or other decorative cases for mezuzot has become an art form all its own. If you’re selecting a mezuzah for your home, you have countless options from which to choose—perhaps you want a traditional case, or maybe you’re looking for something more modern like the sushi mezuzah pictured here! 

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Torah Comes to Sicily

I've carried Torahs--my quiet traveling companions--all across Italy by train and plane. This particular one, however, accompanied me to Palermo, where I presented it to the congregants of Ner Tamid Palermo. Thanks to a generous gift by attorney Domenick Porto, this small Torah scroll and I made our way across the Straight of Messina to Palermo. With the guidance of lay leader, Salvo Parrucca, the Torah will be used for Shabbat and festival services and serves as a benchmark for the rebirth of Jewish study and worship that has been absent publicly for 500 years since Inquisition times. 

Along with my assistant, Salvo, congregants include Vincenzo Li Calzi, who, with his wife, Amalia, opened their home to the dedication ceremony. Canadian guest, Laura Cattari, who traveled to Sicily to discover her Jewish roots joined the Palermo congregants, all of whom send their thanks to Attorney Porto, who, along with me, Professors Enrico Mascaro and Vincenzo Villella serves on the board of "Associazione per la ricerca e lo studio sul gl'ebrei in Calabria e Sicilia," (The Association for the Research and Study of the Jews of Calabria and Sicily). 

Attorney Porto, who also discovered and embraced his Calabria Jewish roots, is president of the Association which has operated since 2005 and supports the work of sinagoga Ner Tamid del Sud, my home base and the first active synagogue in Calabria in 500 years since Inquisition times.

The arrival of this Torah scroll is particularly special because it marks a milestone for Sicilian Anousim. In 2004 when we held the first Passover seder in Piano Battaglia to 2011 when New Tamid Palermo hosted two B'nei Mitzvah ceremonies on the island, we've been fortunate to offer services and festivals every year to so many in Sicily who want to discover and embrace their Jewish roots.

I look forward to more Torah dedications in Italy and elsewhere, to more travels with a beautiful Torah seated next to me as we head to our next destination.