The Jews In Sicily


The Passover Trilogy
Italian Jewish Interfaith Families Find Their Way Home
-by Rabbi Barbara Aiello
Syagogue Ner Tamid del Sud, Serrastretta, Italy

As rabbi of the first active synagogue in the deep south of Italy – since Inquisition times, my mission as an Italian American and a Jew has been to extend the hand of Jewish welcome to the most common of all interfaith combinations – the Italian Jewish family.

For Italians in Italy and for Italian-Ameicans who have “always felt Jewish,” Congregation Ner Tamid has offered them the opportunity to celebrate Passover and to learn more about the rich Jewish presence that has survived underground in Italy for over 500 years.

From Calabria to Turin to Sicily, three unique seder experiences gave Italian-Jewish “anousim” the chance to learn about and embrace their long lost Jewish roots. Centuries ago, the Inquisition forced thousands of Italian Jews to either convert to Christianity or to take their Jewish practices underground. As a result the rich tapestry of Calabrian and Sicilian Jewish life unraveled and became little more than a few threads. In order to protect themselves from being denounced as Jews, religious traditions morphed into general family practice (“We never ate pork. My parents said it wasn’t healthy!”) to superstition (“It is bad luck to put a cross on a grave) and eventually for many families, Jewish heritage gave way to obscurity (“We light a candle on Friday night because my grandmother always did.”).

Now that modern Italian historians recognize that prior to the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, at least 50 percent of the entire population of these regions was Jewish, Italians in Sicily and Calabria are beginning to rediscover and embrace their Jewish roots. Families that baked and ate “pane azzimo,” or unleavened bread during “La Pasqua degli Ebrei” or the “Easter of the Jews,” are coming to realize that despite persecution, forced conversion, expulsion and other horrors, the flame of their Jewish heritage never really died. Our Passover Trilogy, three seders in three different Italian regions demonstrates the extent of that strength.

The Italian Seder

Calabrian Jewish tradition dictates that the seder plate itself makes a grand entrance to the seder table. And that’s just what we did here in Serrastretta in the deep south of the Calabrian Italy. Twenty-two guests, from America, Australia and the Ukraine made their way up the mountain to Synagogue Ner Tamid del Sud (“The Eternal Light of the South”), to share Pesach with locals who are just now learning about their Jewish heritage. As we read from “il libretto di Pesach,” the Passover Haggadah, in English, Hebrew and Italian, I carried the Seder plate to the table and held it high over the head of one of our Australian guests. Following local tradition, he passed the plate to the woman on his left and as I chanted “Ha lachma anya…” (“This is the bread of our affliction …”) the plate was passed from head to head, as a way of remembering the heavy burdens we carried when Jews were slaves in Egypt.

Charoset, the special combination of fruit and nuts that symbolizes the mortar used for the bricks our ancestors were forced to make, was an Italian concoction of dates, figs and oranges and decorated with pine nuts around each bowl.

The second night seder was set in Turin, where I serve as rabbi for the small liberal congregation, Or Chadash. We continued our southern traditions because so many Torinesi Jews are part of families who fled northward to escape the persecutions of Inquisition times. Here we told the Pesach story as a drama in three acts, with children and adults all taking part. Dramatizing the “magid” (the telling of the Exodus) is a special Italian tradition and our Or Chadash Family Theater created an experience, complete with a choral singing of “Go Down Moses” that would rival any Italian opera.

But it was in Sicily on the fifth night of Passover that brought the “anousim” feeling home. “Anousim” is the Hebrew word that means “the forced ones,” and for Sicilians with Jewish roots, nothing comes closer to the anousim experience than the Hamishi, or Fifth Night Seder.

Jewish tradition requires us to make a seder, complete with symbolic foods and story-telling on the first night of the eight nights of Passover. For Jews outside of Israel, in the Diaspora, a second night seder is added. But nowhere does Jewish “halakah” (law) command us to hold a seder on the fifth night. Yet in Sicily the Fifth night seder became traditional for important reasons, not the least of which was family safety.

Back in the Inquisition times, when a Jew could be denounced by a family maid or local shop keeper for such things as making a special family meal on a Friday night, for taking the blood spot out of the cracked egg, or for creating a meal that resembled the Passover seder, Sicilian Jews found a way to outsmart their enemies. Along with courageous Christian friends who protected them, Jews held a seder on the fifth night. This attempt to confound the authorities became known as the Hamishi Seder for two reasons. First, the number five in Hebrew is “h’amish” and the same word, taken from the five fingers on the extended hand, is also reminiscent of the Hebrew/Yiddish word for “friendly.” The Hamishi Seder honors those selfless Christian friends who helped us celebrate Passover in relative safety.

Marinella di Selinunte, in the south of Sicily was the setting for the Hamishi Seder. An interfaith family with Sicilian Jewish roots brought their two young children and together we shared the seder table with a family from Washington, DC. Continuing a tradition that is particular to Sicilian anousim, we symbolized our lives under the lash of slavery by “whipping” each other with the long stems of green onions as we sang “Dayenu.”

Dramatizing the Exodus story, little Fabiana, who played the part of baby Moses, wailed and bawled as, Miriam, played by Michelle, placed the baby’s basket in the river. Four year old Luigi took his role as a sheep very seriously. He bleated with all his might as his dad, Giuseppe-as-Moses left Midian for Pharaoh’s palace.

Why was this night different from all the other nights? More than seder plates passed head to head, more than the Exodus drama or the onion “whips,” these nights were different because after 500 years of near extinction, for Italians and Italian Americans from Turin to Calabria to Sicily, Passover finally and beautifully came home.

Rabbi Barbara Aiello is an Italian-American who discovered her Jewish roots from her Calabrian and Sicilian ancestors. She is the first and only woman rabbi in Italy and serves Sinagoga Ner Tamid del Sud, the first active synagogue in Calabria in 500 years. In addtion she makes Jewish tradition available to Calabrians and Sicilians through the IjCCC, The Italian Jewish Cultural Center of Calabria. For more information and email:

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Last updated 5/1/10