Discovering Hidden Jewish Identity – Becca’s Wooden Box

by | Oct 7, 2020 | Blog, jewish and secular, Rabbi Barbara Aiello

She arrived on Sunday morning, having received an announcement of our meeting several days before. At first she was not certain that the gathering would be appropriate for her, but curiosity overcame her fear. That’s when she found herself at the door of an apartment in Palermo, Sicily ready to begin what she hoped would be a positive Jewish journey.

Becca (not her real name) brought her enthusiasm and questions to a small group of pluralistic Jews who had organized as Chavurah NerTamid Palermo.  “Chavurah” is a Hebrew word that means “group of friends,” and Ner Tamid is the Hebrew phrase for “eternal light.”

Founded in 2005, the Chavurah represented a small but determined liberal Jewish congregation, dedicated to helping Sicilians like Becca establish and embrace their Jewish heritage – a heritage that the persecutions during Inquisition times tried to extinguish.

“We are b’nei anusim and we welcome you,” said lay leader Vincenzo Li Calzi (z”l) who explained to Becca that the group was made up of Sicilians whose ancestors  had been forced into Christian conversion nearly 500 years ago. During Inquisition times established Judaism, including synagogues, schools and Jewish libraries were destroyed which led historians to believe that Sicilian Judaism had been eradicated. But that was not the case. Many families took their Jewish traditions into their homes, hiding them in basement cantinas, secret rooms and attic spaces and secretly teaching prayers, blessings and rituals to their children.

Now the descendants of these crypto-Jews were meeting together to revive ancient customs, share the remnants of their uniquely Jewish family traditions and most important of all, support one another in their quest to gain recognition as authentic Jews.

As rabbinic advisor to the group, I traveled from Calabria to Sicily to meet with lay leader Vincenzo so that together we could lead a Torah study. We were just beginning when Becca appeared at the door with a wooden box in hand and a remarkable story to share.

“I always knew we were Jewish,” she began, but then added, “I should say I always knew we were different. Later I came to believe that our difference was that we were not Christian but Jewish.”

Becca’s expression, animated now, told the story of First Communion.  “My father, who has since passed away, would not permit me to go to the Church classes or to make the First Communion.  I was a little girl and I was very confused. And then there was the wooden box.”

As Becca’s story unfolded, our little group fell silent. Some of us were on the edge of our chairs as we listened to Becca describe the locked wooden box that her father said held their family’s treasures.  Over the years Becca asked her father to open the box and share the wonderful items that she was certain were locked inside. But father never would.  After he died, Becca found the box and assumed that the treasures were personal mementos.  Love letters, perhaps and nothing more.

The day came, however when Becca’s sadness subsided and her curiosity about the box returned.  With screwdriver in hand, she broke the lock on the wooden box. Slowly she opened it to find “This!” she exclaimed, extending her hand for us to see. It was a bracelet and etched on it in silver was a delicate “Magen David,” Star of David.

Becca continued to share more treasures as she showed the group a silver pointer that she later learned was called by the Hebrew word, “yad.” A yad is used by the Torah reader to touch each word of the Torah scroll as it is read.

Lastly Becca produced a Hebrew text, an antique siddur – a prayer book whose worn pages contained Sabbath prayers and blessings.

While we sat in silence, absorbed in Becca’s family story, Vincenzo, our “colla,” the “glue” of our Chavurah noted, “This is the reason we are here today. We are here to give voice to our hidden Jewish experiences, to unlock them as Becca has unlocked her father’s box.”

The pluralistic Jewish movement, of which Ner Tamid Palermo is a part, is a modern, liberal approach to Judaism, that observes “halakah” (Jewish law) as it was intended by our rabbinic sages.  Because the word “halakah” derives from the Hebrew word, “holech” which means “to walk,” pluralistic Judaism moves forward, advances and adapts, just as the ancient concept implies.

Ner Tamid Palermo, along with its parent congregation in Calabria, Ner Tamid del Sud, extends the hand of Jewish welcome to Jews of all backgrounds, most especially to the “b’nei anusim” of southern Italy who so desperately want to claim their Jewish traditions that were stolen from them centuries ago. ‘

“Who knows,” said Vincenzo. “All throughout Sicily there may be hundreds of stories locked in wooden boxes.”  Ner Tamid Palermo continues its commitment to symbolically find those boxes, unlock the family stories,  and extend the hand of friendship and love to our anusim brothers and sisters as we say to them, “Welcome Home.”

NOTE; Sadly following the passing of Lay Leader Vincenzo Li Calzi, Ner Tamid Palermo disbanded. Today the chavurah enjoys a revival as I and several members of our original group continue our efforts to offer Sicilians with Jewish roots their rightful spiritual home.

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