Who am I and where do I come from? The simple response would be “a writer” (my profession) and “Montreal” (my place of birth and residence). Inquire a little deeper and you might get my ethnic background: “Italian,” or more specifically, “Calabrese and Sicilian.”
At this, some people will jokingly reference mob connections. The one connection they’d never make is “Jewish” — and neither would I, to be honest.
Although my stepfather and youngest half-siblings are of the Hebrew faith, even I would be more inclined to believe that there’s a Mafioso in my family tree (don’t ask, if you know what’s good for you) than Abraham, Isaac or Jacob.
It turns out, forgotten Jewish ancestry among Southern Italian isn’t so far-fetched. Officially, the Inquisition expelled the tens of thousands of Jews — up to 50 percent of the population in some areas — from Sicily, Calabria and the rest of Spanish-controlled southern Italy back in the 1500s. This according to Rabbi Barbara Aiello, the Florida-based, Italian-American founder of the Ner Tamid del Sud Jewish cultural centre in Serrastretta, Calabria, where she spends her summers welcoming Jewish visitors and educating the local population about their own Jewish history.
“Serrastretta was founded by Jews escaping persecution, because of its remote, mountain location,” she said, intimating that there are still many Jews in the area and elsewhere in the Italian south, either hidden in plain sight or forgotten all together.
“They are the anousim — Hebrew for ‘the forced ones’ — because their ancestors had to denounce their faith to remain in Italy,” said Aiello, who noted that many of these families had been living in Italy for over a thousand years. “The oldest Jewish temple in Europe, after the (Ostia Antica) synagogue of ancient Rome, was discovered in Calabria in the 1980s. It dates back to the fourth century, so we aren’t just talking about newcomers,” she said, referring to the influx of Sephardic Jews, who began fleeing persecution in Spain in the late-1400s. Another, peculiar proof of a very old Jewish presence in Calabria is that it is one of only a handful of places in the world that grows a certain variety of citron, a large variety of citrus fruit, that is acceptable for use in the ancient Jewish celebration of Sukkot.
Most southern Italian Jewish converts to Christianity eventually lost their faith, but many have passed down traditions, the meaning of which has been lost over time. “I’ve met many southern Italians, both in Italy and abroad, who have what they consider quirky family traditions that are actually Jewish traditions,” says Aiello.
She recites a long list of activities: lighting candles on Fridays (marking the Sabbath); throwing out an egg if there’s a spot of blood in it, avoiding pork and shellfish, or meat mixed with dairy products (to keep kosher); and hanging a red string over a baby’s crib, or tying it to their wrist (a kabbalah ritual).
Interestingly, she says that the death of an anousim relative usually incorporates the most Jewish rituals — in more than a few cases, because they’ve been preceded by a deathbed profession of hidden faith. These traditions include having a closed-casket burial within a day of dying, often without a priest and with the deceased wearing only a simple linen garment. Bereavement would require mourners to sit on low chairs for seven days (known among Jews as sitting “shiva,” which is Hebrew for seven), usually eating round foods, such as hard boiled eggs or lentils, and covering household mirrors.
Some of these crypto-Jewish roots of the Italian south reach into the present day, possibly as far as Canada. According to Rabbi Aiello, possibly in my own family.
What’s in a Name?
“Your mother’s last name — Iachino — means ‘little Jacob.’ That’s a classic Jewish Italian name,” says Rabbi Aiello. Ditto, presumably, for “Iacobucci,” the family name of Canada’s honourable former Supreme Court Justice, and similar variants of “Iacobbo” (“Giacobbo” in standard Italian). The explanation sounds plausible, but the same name isn’t exactly unheard of among Christian Italians. Indeed, an Internet search of the surname netted both a famous World War II admiral, born in Liguria, as well as the historical records of the Jewish community of Istanbul.
My own last name, La Giorgia, is very likely derived from the Greek yorgos, which means “farmer” — not exactly a rare occupation in Sicily back when people started using surnames. Of course, this says nothing about the religion or ethnic background of the patrilineal ancestor who first carried the name – just that the Sicilian dialect of the time still included Greek words.
Aiello says that her own last name originated in Judea. “It was El Al, like the airline (it means ‘skywards’). Then in Spain it became Ayala, Ajello in Sicily, and Aiello in Calabria,” she says of her father’s family, which practiced Judaism in secret.
Although this may well be true, there seems to be a separate, Latin source for the surname: the word agellum, which means “garden,” and could have similarly referred to a worker of the land. All of which to say, names alone usually aren’t proof of Jewish ancestry.
Lacking a time machine, I decided to explore the one thing I would have inherited from hidden Jewish forefathers: my DNA. There are several companies that offer what they call “ethno-graphic” genetic testing, a process that compares a person’s genes to samples from around the world to locate one’s closest genetic relatives.
There are three main types of tests: one that examines the Y chromosome, which determines male gender and is passed down, virtually unchanged, in a direct line from father to son; another that looks into mitochondrial DNA, which is inherited from the mother’s mother’s mother, etc., but changes more frequently; and autosomal (or non-sex) chromosomes, which take into account the full genetic contributions of both mother and father, providing the most diverse information. I chose to test my Y DNA with a company called Family Tree DNA (www.familytreedna.com) and my autosomal genes with an outfit called DNA Tribes (www.dnatribes.com).
I mailed in my cheek swabs to both companies and waited excitedly for the results. A few suspicions were confirmed, but the tests raised a lot more questions than they provided answers. Apparently, my direct male ancestry (my father’s father’s father, etc.) is “Alpine Celtic,” which is most common among Germans, Belgians, people from the British Isles and Norway, as well as some northern Italians. Not long after I received my Y DNA results, I was contacted by a certain Steve Frank, of Ohio, one of my many new “cousins” — and an exact genetic match — whose family roots are all in Germany.
My autosomal DNA revealed a wide variety of origins, including Iberian, Germanic, North African, Arabian, Central Asian, and of all things, Melanesian. It explains why some of my family members look Middle Eastern, while others could pass for northern European, and others have the almond-shaped eyes usually only found in Asia. Although there were no strong indicators of Jewish ancestry here either, the hodgepodge that is my genetic profile actually had more in common with Ashkenazi Jews than Italians!
Of course, the only truly reliable way to determine if any Jewish ancestors are in one’s family tree is to conduct genealogical research, whether through sites like Ancestry.com, or better yet, by hiring a professional genealogist based in Italy. Before they were forced to convert to Catholicism (and in many cases, even afterward) Jews had to pay special taxes, and most were only allowed to live in the local town’s Giudecca, or Jewish quarter, which would usually appear in official church or government documents.
A bit of research allowed Aiello to find several lost cousins when she first visited Serrastretta in the 1970s. None knew about their Jewish ancestry, and it turns out that one had become a nun and another a priest. This lack of awareness didn’t surprise her, considering how secretly her father’s family had practiced their religion.
“Even after they moved to the US in the 1930s, my grandmother used to close all the shutters before she lit the Shabbat candles, so no one would see. My father told her that, here, we could be Jews in the open, but she still said ‘You never know,’” said Aiello with a laugh.
One of her cousins, Enrico Mascaro, a retired school superintendant who now helps run the Ner Tamid del Sud, was intrigued to discover that he and Aiello shared a great-grandmother, but found a deeper Jewish connection when he examined his past more closely. “I was born in the fascist era, so it finally made sense why parents insisted that my birth certificate had ‘pure Aryan race’ stamped on it, why I was only baptized at the age of seven, or why my family was oddly secular,” he said, mentioning that it also explained how another Italian-American cousin of his could have a genetic illness that usually only afflicts Jews.
“It’s safe to say that no less than 15 percent of Calabrians and Sicilians have Jewish ancestry — many thousands of people — so where are all of them?” he asked. Although there isn’t the fear of persecution there once was, Catholic church and local government officials tend to downplay or ignore the region’s Jewish history. “There are several churches that were originally synagogues, and almost every large town and city has a street named “La Giudecca,” “Degli Ebrei,” or “Del Ghetto,” where the Jews used to live, but you’ll never see that mentioned in the official history,” he said.
Giancarlo La Giorgia is the author of the bestselling book Canadian War Heroes: Ten Profiles in Courage (2005) on Canadian military history.
First published in Accenti Magazine, Issue 20.