The elementary school dance recital was supposed to begin at 8:30. The entire town, about 600 folks, were gathered under the full moon in the public amphitheater eagerly anticipating the show. At around 9:45, Rabbi Aiello, myself, and Cinzia (our neighbor, helper, and friend) grew weary of waiting and headed up the hill for a good night’s rest. Cinzia wagged her finger and nodded in agreement as the Rabbi exclaimed, “This lateness would never happen if Il Direttore was still in charge!”
Il Direttore (the director) is Enrico Mascaro. Enrico was born in Serrastretta in 1941. The midwife rushed him and his identical twin brother, Renato, to the priest and begged for a baptism along with a birth certificate. The priest knew that Enrico’s family was secretly Jewish, and he refused to baptize them. But, knowing the midwife’s real concern, he gave a birth certificate proclaiming the twins’ “pure Aryan blood.” Enrico survived the war, his twin brother did not. There was an epidemic, and Enrico’s mother, the first female doctor in the region, did all she could, but Renato died before his third birthday.
Enrico went to school, completed his Ph.D in Italian language and modern European history in Sicily, and then worked for 46 years in the local school system. He began as a kindergarten teacher (the Rabbi notes that his recitals always began on time!), and he retired as the superintendent of the district. His Jewish background is a little less straightforward.
Enrico’s grandmother fearfully and forcefully insisted that he be baptized in 1946, and in the wake of the holocaust, the priest acquiesced. But, Enrico always knew he was Jewish. It was a poorly kept secret until Rabbi Aiello became an active character in the story of his life. He and Rabbi Aiello are second cousins (everybody in these hills is related), and they married 15 years ago. The first time Enrico wore a yarmulke and held a siddur was when he visited the Rabbi at her pulpit in Bradenton, Florida 14 years ago. A few months later, they visited a synagogue in New York City. As the ark opened, revealing its treasure of seven Torahs suspended from the heavens, Enrico’s jaw dropped and he cried out, “Mama mia! Could they spare just one?!”
Enrico is now an active member of the Sinagoga Ner Tamid del Sud in Serrastretta, the first active synagogue in southern Italy in 500 years. He serves as the honorary grandfather for visiting Bar and Bat Mitzvah young adults. He paints the walls, repairs the ark, and sands the Italian mezuzot that each B’nai mitzvah returns home with. He likes to joke that since I arrived, he has been promoted to chief assistant to the Rabbi. He and his cousin Ennio are currently working through their new farcical union contract with the Rabbi.
One morning last week, I walked into the garden and beheld the fabrica, the factory. Cinzia and Enrico stood under the grape arbor sukkah, pitting the cherries they had just picked from the cherry tree. I would see the meat of the cherries a few nights later, in the form of marmalade baked into a pie. But the cherry pits, nobody will see for five months. With a recipe learned from la maestra, a local teacher whose name Enrico mostly forgot decades ago, Enrico will turn these pits into a delicious cherry liqueur. He places the pits in grain alcohol in the dark for five months, then adds sugar and water and strains the concoction through cheese cloth until it is smooth. Enrico makes little bottles of the cherry liqueur, and likes to give them as gifts. As he taught me the process, we shared a few small glasses of the 2015 batch.
The other day, Enrico handed me a bottle of his cherry liqueur and said, “For Don Gigi, with love, in memory of his father, my friend.” I would like to tell you the story of Don Gigi, but that will have to wait for another time. Until then… Arrivederci…
(To learn more about Rabbi Barbara Aiello and La Sinagoga Ner Tamid del Sud, visit Rabbi Aiello’s website at www.rabbibarbara.com).