Italian-Americans Seek to Discover Jewish Roots

By Robert Wiener

March 12, 2009


Originally published in the New Jersey Jewish News. Reprinted by permission.

Tara Malone is half-Irish, half-Italian and totally Jewish. The Long Branch, N.J., resident became a convert a year and a half ago when she was a senior at Bryn Mawr College in Philadelphia.

Her mother’s family came from Calabria, the “toe” of the boot-shaped Italian peninsula, which, she discovered, had a very large Jewish population, sparking her burning interest in Italian-Jewish history.

She plans to attend the second annual Italian Jewish Roots Conference on Sunday, March 22, at the Brotherhood Synagogue in New York, and, she said, she intends to bring her devout Catholic parents along.

Sponsored by the Italian Jewish Cultural Center of Calabria, the conference–“I’m Italian. Could I Be Jewish?”–will offer assistance to participants seeking to discover and embrace their Jewish ancestry. Information will be provided about DNA testing and archaeological documentation and other evidence of a strong Jewish presence in Italy that goes back 500 years.

Malone said the conference theme will speak to her sense of belonging, which comes in part from studying “the different Jewish communities and different backgrounds that Jewish people come from. I am interested in exploring the connection between my Italian side and my Jewish side and finding a way to bring the two together.”

Although she was born a Catholic and attended parochial school, Malone said, she was “attracted to Judaism at a pretty young age. In college I started studying Judaism in depth and came to realize for me it was the only path that brought me to Adonai and living a life of Torah and mitzvot.” And although she has as yet found no evidence of Jewish ancestry in the Cotrone family on her mother’s side, Malone said, “the richness of Jewish tradition allowed me to connect with other Jewish women both of today and past generations. I had the sense I had arrived where I belong.”

Steven Wiatrowski is on a similar mission.

Ever since he discovered Sephardi roots on his mother’s side, the high school senior from Union, N.J., has been fascinated with his family tree.

That curiosity is drawing him to the Italian-Jewish gathering in New York, and three weeks beforehand, he enjoyed reeling off his family’s multiethnic heritage.

“My mother’s father was Ashkenazi and Irish. He was raised Catholic. My mother’s mother was a Sicilian Catholic. My father’s family was from Poland and Russia. My great-grandmother on my father’s side had the surname of Romanowsky. Her father was born Jewish but converted to Catholicism prior to marrying,” he said.

On his mother’s side are such surnames as Provenzano, Zagarri and Mazzachio. They lived in Sicily, and Wiatrowski is certain there are Jewish connections in their past.

“I’ve read that the name ‘Zagarri’ was adopted by Jews who converted because it means ‘Zachariah’ in Italian. The name Mazzachio has something to do with matza,” he said.

Wiatrowski attends a Protestant parochial school in Piscataway, N.J. “I am not a practicing Jew,” he said. “I find Judaism as a religion more appealing than other religions. But I don’t really practice anything.”

Such an outlook hasn’t dimmed his interest in his Jewish roots.

“I was always interested in Jewish history. I’ve been interested in genealogy since I was 11. I’ve been doing research on the villages my family came from, what languages they spoke, what their dates of emigration were,” he said.

When he learned of his Sicilian-Jewish heritage, Wiatrowski said, he became excited. “I said, ‘Like wow; this is very interesting. Perhaps they were Sephardic.’ So ever since then–four or five years ago–I’ve been doing more research.”

Hear our stories

That kind of enthusiasm pleases Rabbi Barbara Aiello, conference organizer and religious leader of a synagogue in her father’s Italian hometown, Serratretta.

“Part of the conference is genealogy; part is Jewish interest,” she told the New Jersey Jewish News in a telephone interview from Sarasota, Fla., where she is serving a four-month stint as the resident rabbi of Kobernick/Anchin Jewish Senior Community.

Aiello said she approaches the conference from two perspectives.

“One is the anusim–the forced ones–who were made to give up their Judaism or go underground during the Inquisition. We try to share our story with the world. The other prong is those Italian-Americans who say, ‘I always felt Jewish.'” She said she wants such people “to come and hear our stories.”

One person who will tell his story at the conference is Rabbi Frank Tamburello, a former Catholic priest from New York who became a rabbi after discovering his Sicilian-Jewish roots.

Another is Enrico Tromba, an archaeologist from Calabria who has been involved in the excavation of a Roman-era synagogue that dates back to the third century.

Among the other speakers will be Bennett Greenspan, director and founder of Family Tree DNA, and Kathleen Kirkpatrick, a specialist in Italian genealogy.

Aiello estimates there are 26 million Italian-Americans.

“That’s one half of the population of Italy and the majority of them come from Sicily and Calabria. If indeed 50 percent of Sicily and Calabria was once Jewish, and 80 percent of Italian-Americans are from the exact same region, it stands to reason that the majority of Italian-Americans probably have some Jewish ancestry,” she said.

“Isn’t that amazing?”

“There are lots of people out there who have Jewish ties and roots who want to become Jewish,” said the rabbi. “They would be thrilled to embrace their ancestry if we made it available to them.


Plumbing the depths of her heritage

She was born in Pittsburgh, but Barbara Aiello can trace her roots back nearly five centuries to the village of Serratretta in the southern Italian province of Calabria.

“The Aiellos were one of five Jewish families who founded the town 460 years ago as they were running from persecution,” she said.

Aiello discovered her Italian-Jewish ancestry when she was a teenager and began documenting it when she visited Calabria for the first time in 1975 at the age of 28.

Nearly three decades later she became the first non-Orthodox and first woman rabbi to live and work in Italy when she was appointed religious leader of Italy’s first Progressive synagogue, in Milan.

In 2006 she established the Italian Jewish Cultural Center of Calabria in Lamezia Terme; a year later came dedication of Ner Tamid del Sud (Eternal Light of the South), the first active synagogue in Calabria in 500 years.

The rabbi’s surname comes from two familiar words in Hebrew, “el” and “al,” but, she said jokingly, “2,000 years ago we weren’t in the airline business.”

The name evolved into Ayala when the family moved to Spain. “Then some went to Morocco, others to Gibraltar and Portugal during the Inquisition. They had either enough means or enough mazel–luck–to escape,” she said. Others ended up in Sicily.

Her oldest documented relative was a Sicilian named Francesco De Ayello, who, she said, “was a forced convert to Catholicism who…in 1538 was arrested for what they called ‘Judaizing.’ People who converted were always under suspicion, and some of them practiced Judaism underground.”

Some 400 years later, the rabbi’s grandmother, Felicia Scalise, practiced a form of “closet Judaism” by secretly lighting Shabbat candles in the basement of her home in Calabria; she continued the underground tradition when the family moved to America. “My father told her, ‘This is the land of the free and the home of the brave,’ and she said, ‘I’m not so sure.'”

Aiello grew up in Pittsburgh. “As a child I saw myself as Italian and Jewish, but not Ashkenazi. Where I grew up there were about 30 families who were from Portugal, Greece, Turkey, Italy and Spain–all World War II refugees or Shoah survivors. I grew up with people who did not want to leave a three-block radius. They were traumatized by the war.

“My father did not publicize the fact that our family was Jewish, but we always knew we were. We went to synagogue occasionally, and when we did, I was up in the balcony. It was European traditional Orthodox.”

From the women’s section, Aiello watched what she called “the ballet of our religion. I saw the gentle choreography of the Torah service and the reading and carrying of the Torah. It looked beautiful to me, and I wanted to be the lead dancer in that ballet.”

She was ordained 11 years ago at the Rabbinical Seminary International in New York at the age of 51.

There are 82 congregants at Ner Tamid del Sud, which she describes as “essentially Reform. I call it ‘pluralistic’ because we welcome Jews of all backgrounds. Some people,” she added proudly, “travel seven hours to get to us.”

And yet, she said, “I heard people say, ‘She can’t be Jewish; she’s Italian.’ I get that all the time.”

She is quick to point out that hers is one of the most recognizable Italian-Jewish surnames. And although the most famous bearer of that name, actor Danny Aiello, was raised in the Bronx as a Catholic, “his ancestors were Jewish,” she said. “I had an elderly aunt who said we were related, but I don’t really know.” She did add that “he looks so much like my father, when I see him on television I’m startled.”

With a family history of forced conversions, many members of her family are Catholic; one is a priest, another a nun. But Aiello has a clear idea of her own identity.

“I absolutely feel Italian. My Italian-ness is my Jewishness,” she insisted. “My role as a rabbi in this little town is to help people know who they are, to help them discover and–if they choose–to embrace their Jewish roots.”

About Robert Wiener

Robert Wiener is a staff writer for New Jersey Jewish News. He can be reached at