Saturday, January 26, 2013

Zachor! Memories From Italy

My First Holocaust Memorial Day

January 27, 1945 marks the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp where one million Jews were murdered by the Nazis. Sixty years later, in November 2005 the United Nations General Assembly resolved that January 27 should be observed as a day to honor the memory of Holocaust victims and encourage the development of education programs about Holocaust history to help prevent further acts of genocide.

The calendar pages have turned and January 2013 marks my tenth year as rabbi in Italy. I began my work in the north, in Milan, where I served Italy’s first modern liberal synagogue as Italy’s first woman and first non-orthodox rabbi.

My father, Antonio Aiello (z’l) was a liberator of the Buchenwald death camp and his experiences, coupled with my living and working as I do  as an Italian Jew on the “doorstep” of the Shoah, gave special significance to each January 27 – known throughout Europe as Holocaust Memorial Day.

One in particular touched my heart.

It was the morning of January 27, 2006 when Milan was hit with the biggest snowstorm in a quarter century. But that did not deter us – we were eight hearty souls from Synagogue Lev Chadash who, in the driving snowstorm, accompanied me, their rabbi, to the prison at San Vittore to remember the incarceration of Italian Jews and the murder of the Jews of Europe.

As the snow fell we recalled the horrors of death camp life. One of our group, a young teen, noted that although the snow was deep and the temperature in Milan was below freezing, we Jews were dressed in coats and hats, scarves, gloves, boots and heavy shoes – things the Jews of Auschwitz never had.

Streets of Milan
In front of the prison, we cleared snow from a park bench to make a place for our candles. Our ceremony included the lighting of six candles to represent the Six Million and to recall the significance of “Zachor,” the Hebrew word which means “remember.” 

“Zachor,” we said, in voices loud enough for passersby to hear and for some of them to pause and listen. The first candle, recalled “Shabbat Zachor” when we hear the story of Amalek and we remember as well that Haman was a direct descendant of one of the first men who set out to kill the Jews.  The first candle served as a reminder that evil still exits in our world. 

“Zachor,” we said to candles two and three. Additional definitions of Zachor include “to mention,” and “to articulate.” We remember to speak about those we lost and to tell their stories, like our own Becky Behar Ottolenghi, now of blessed memory, a survivor of the Jewish massacre at Meina (near Lake Como) whose tireless efforts at sharing her experiences with school children earned her Honorary Citizenship from cities all over Italy.

Zachor also signifies remembering those who are different. Our fourth candle recalled all of those who, along with the Jews, were also killed, including homosexuals, gypsies, disabled persons and political prisoners. 

As the candles struggled and hissed in the falling snow, the Zachor of candle five recalled the murdered children.  We honored the Holocaust survivors who frequented our synagogue and we paused to honor our own child survivor, Fernanda Diaz, who was saved from certain death by a righteous gentile, an Italian pescatore who shoved her into a trap door in the floor of his fish market. We pondered a horrific statistic; that for every Jewish child that lived through the Holocaust, thirteen Jewish children were murdered by the Nazis.

The sixth candle is the Zachor of Shabbat.  We are reminded that the first strand in the braided challah, the bread of the Sabbath, is called Zachor. “Remember Shabbat and keep it holy,” Torah tells us.  And no matter what our trials have been or will be, Shabbat brings us peace, hope and joy.

Later on as we sipped cappuccino in a nearby bar, we learned that in the early morning, just hours before our ceremony, former German President Johannes Rau had passed away. He was the first person to speak the German language in the halls of the Israeli Knesset. The mission of Rau’s presidency was to improve German–Israeli relations by first seeking forgiveness for the Holocaust.  He told the Israel Parliament, “…I bow in humility before those murdered and … I am asking forgiveness for what Germans have done…”

Sadly international news services hardly mentioned President Rau’s death that day, in part because the news was dominated by events in the Middle East. On that January 27, Europe was reeling. Hamas was officially designated the winner of the Palestinian elections. This prompted journalists all over Europe to ask how we Jews felt about the upset victory by an organization that vowed to destroy the Sate of Israel. 

Image of Auschwitz.
As we readied ourselves to brave the cold, the bar’s television set blared overhead.  Mittens and scarves in hand, we stopped to watch as a sprightly BBC journalist asked an Auschwitz survivor, “Just what lesson did you learn from your experiences?” Without missing a beat, the elderly gentleman pulled the microphone close and said, “Dahling, this I learned.  If someone says he wants to kill you, believe him.”

Our ceremony of remembrance on January 27, 2006 in Milan was a day filled with contrasts. Leaving the warmth of the bar behind us, we visited our candles once more.  As they flickered in the snow we offered the Kaddish Memorial prayer and ended with the words of Psalm 133.  Hinei MaTov, How good and pleasant it is when we dwell together as brothers and sisters.” We joined hands, sang and promised to remember.  Zachor. 

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Havdalah: Seniors Say Good-bye to Shabbat

On Friday night, either at synagogue or around the family table, we light two candles to welcome the day of rest and renewal. As we kindle the lights of Shabbat we invite the light of creation to enter our spirits and, after our hectic work or school week, we allow the Shabbbat lights to “nudgie” us toward a well-deserved breath of peace.

With light we inaugurate Shabbat and with light we conclude it. That’s what Havdalah is all about. It is beautiful ceremony that allows us to say “Shalom” to Shabbat and prepare ourselves for the week ahead. 

The origin of the Havdalah ceremony has been attributed to the men of the Great Assembly in the fourth or fifth century B.C.E., and for the last 1500 years we Jews have honored Shabbat, not only by saying hello, but also by taking time to say good-bye.  Havdalah comes from the Hebrew word, “l’havdil” which means “to separate.”  And that’s just what Havdalah does.  It is a time divider, creating an important division between the serenity of Shabbat and what has become the workaholism of our busy weekdays.

Here at the Kobernick House, a senior independent living campus where I live and work as the resident rabbi, we have begun a weekly celebration of Havdalah.  Thanks to local Sunday school students whose creative hands crafted individual spice boxes for our residents, each one of us can interact with the Havdalah symbols and give personal meaning to our ancient traditions. 

The Kiddush cup and wine, the spice boxes and the large braided candle are the ritual items that make Havdalah come alive.  As we begin it is customary to overfill the kiddush cup so that some of the wine spills over.  We are reminded of the words from psalm 23: “My cup overflows,” which signifies that we have all we need for a good week ahead.

We gather around the card table in the center of our Activity Room and begin by making the familiar kiddush blessing. Then each of us takes in hand an individual spice box and, giving it a shake, we take a deep sniff of the fragrant spices inside.  We make the blessings to remind us that these beautiful mixed scents symbolize the calming of our souls that are saddened at the departure of that “extra soul” that comes to us during Shabbat. We celebrate our Shabbat soul as we share special Shabbat memories.

“My grandchildren came for dinner!”  says Freda. 

“I had my 105th birthday party,” says a beaming Philip.

“I heard from my best friends from grade school,” says Dorit.

The spices literally unlock our memories as their mingled fragrance fills the room.

Finally we dim the house lights and light the braided Havdalah candle.  The candle is made of two twisted pieces with multiple wicks at the top.  Different colors, usually blue and white, demonstrate how our lives are entwined and that the material and the spiritual aspects of our lives are always linked.  Our challenge, our candle tells us, is to create a place for God’s light in all that we do. We recite a blessing over the flame which recalls the midrash that explains that light was first created on Saturday night when Adam hit two stones together. A divine light illuminated the world during the first week of creation.

As the candle glows, our residents follow many different traditions while they enjoy the Havdalah flame. Some of us hold our fingers near the flame so that we can see the light reflected on our fingernails.  Why?  Some say this reflection reminds us of the work our hands will do in the coming week.  The reflection asks us to conduct our daily lives with the love and peace that Shabbat has given us. Then, holding the candle high, we lean it into the kiddush cup and extinguish the flame in the wine. The light makes its way to the wine, as we make the “zzz-ing” sound in unison. The wine douses the flame and Shabbat has ended.

As an Italian Jew, I’ve added a piece from my own heritage to the familiar Havdalah ceremony. After we extinguish the flame, it is an Italian Jewish tradition to pass the kiddush cup to each person, allowing each one to dip a “pinky” finger into the wine. Then we place two drops of wine, one drop each on the cheek of  the person next to us. It’s the Italian way of embracing the sweetness of Shabbat for one last moment.

We sing Eliahu HaNavi, as we share our hope for the messiah to come speedily and in our time. Then our seniors, who range in age from their seventies to our oldest, Fay at 107, join hands and sway back and forth. “dancing” to our “sitting Hora,” as we sing Shavuah Tov (A Good Week) together.

Wine and spices, light and song. Each combines to signify our hope for a week filled with sweetness, brightness and joy. 

Friday, January 4, 2013

The Midnight Shofar

Tales from Jewish Italy
Reventino mountain range in Southern Italy.
It is New Year’s Eve in Calabria, the deep south of the Italian peninsula. At the stroke of midnight the bells in the church tower in the tiny village of Serrastretta ring twelve times. But if you are very quiet and the night is very still, you will hear something more. From deep in the forest of the Reventino, a local Calabrian mountain range located in the “instep” of the “boot,” you will hear first one, then another, then another long low moan of the ancient ram’s horn. The same ram’s horn that in Hebrew is the “shofar.” The same ram’s horn that inaugurates Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year. Yet, for centuries on the night that marks the beginning of the secular New Year, families in southern Italy blow a shofar-like instrument that is the hallmark of the Jewish celebration that occurs, not in December, but in the autumn of the year.

It is a custom that on the surface seems strange, but a deeper look into the life and traditions of the B’nei Anousim (a Hebrew term that means “force ones”) who inhabit this area makes sense of it all. Centuries ago, during Inquisition times, the Jews of Spain and Portugal had one of two choices: convert to Christianity or leave their homes. Those Jews who were forced from Spain and Portugal found refuge on the island of Sicily and on the tiny islands that make up the Aeolian chain. There they lived in relative peace until the long arm of the Inquisition reached them there as well. Forced to flee yet again, Jewish families made their way onto the Italian mainland, first to the “toe” and then north through the “foot” of the Italian “boot” and into the Calabrian mountains.

For centuries these Jewish families lived in relative safety but fear is a “minestra,” a soup that cooks slowly. Stories of persecution, arrests and public burnings percolate through these mountains – so much so that if one were to ask about a family’s Jewish heritage, the downcast eyes and blank expressions say it all. That’s why it is such a great challenge to connect these B’nei Anousim with their Jewish history. But for me, the first rabbi of the first synagogue in Calabria since Inquisition times, it is a “sfida e gioia” a challenge and a joy. 

During my ten years in the Calabrian hills I’ve finally learned to ask the right questions.  No longer do I ask, “Do you think your family was once Jewish?” No. Calabrians have learned that admitting to a Jewish heritage can be dangerous.  Instead I ask, “What does your family do when a baby is born? When a couple marries? For a funeral and mourning? Do you have special family customs to celebrate the holidays?”  That is how I learned about the shofar at midnight.  

Francesco, a local baker, explained it all to me when he said, “Tanti anni fa… Many years ago our families celebrated a different new year. It was the at the harvest time when we found a ram and made his horn into a musical instrument. But it was dangerous to be different so we learned to wait. To wait for the last day of the year when everyone else was celebrating. Now there are fireworks and trumpet blasts. When the ram’s horn is sounded, it is not so strange anymore.”

Cautiously I asked Francesco, “Do you know that the ram’s horn is a Jewish tradition?” Francesco replies that he once heard something like that but he prefers to say that the practice is an ancient family tradition.

And so it goes. For centuries we Calabrians took our Jewish traditions into our homes and our hearts and slowly, at first for safety reasons, and then for cultural reasons, the religious meanings of these rituals were lost.  Our precious Jewish customs became family traditions and sadly, nothing more.  

Serrestretta, Calabria: View from Sinagoga Ner Tamid del Sud
It has become my mission and my passion to uncover more of these family traditions that were once a part of a thriving Jewish past. It is my hope that I can continue to give my Calabrian relatives, my meshpucha, the B’nei Anousim who have so carefully and cautiously preserved the vestiges of their Jewish heritage, an opportunity to discover and embrace their Jewish roots.