Don Gigi the priest burst through the synagogue doors with a wide smile. Trailing him were a group of scout leaders and their spouses. These moral instructors had come to learn about Judaism in the first and only synagogue in southern Italy since the inquisition arrived 500 years ago.
Don Gigi sat in the back of the sanctuary grinning as the Rabbi taught the scout leaders about lighting Hannukah candles, how to blow a shofar, and what a Torah looks and sounds like. She was sure to quote Pope John Paul II’s pleas for interfaith learning and fraternity, and the crowd was eager, enthusiastic, and receptive.
After the session, I headed up the hill and into the clouds to Don Gigi’s house for pizza with him and the others. His house, a centuries old palazzo, is grand and beautiful. Attached to the back of the main building is a church, and a leader named Michele and his English speaking daughter Ale led me on an interfaith field trip into the church.
Draped over the lectern at the front of the sanctuary was Don Gigi’s blue, gold, and white tallis that he bought on his last trip to Israel simply because, “It’s beautiful.” Only partially covering the Jewish prayer shawl was a fabric depicting Jesus. Michele reached underneath the lectern and pulled out communion wafers. He broke a wafer and handed me half. I balked. I’ve read enough inquisition accusations to know that a Jew touching the body of Christ is verboten. Michele noticed my hesitation, smiled, and said, “No blessing, it’s ok,” and we both enjoyed a bit of antipasto.
I was seated at the head of the table next to Don Gigi, with my translator friend across from me, and a doting mom on my right. The mother kept putting more and more food on my plate. At one point, I snuck a piece of pizza onto her plate. My translator friend could not contain her giggles as the woman obliviously ate the piece, unaware of its friendly origin.
Don Gigi looked tired during dinner, probably because his new job is not easy. For many years, he was the beloved local priest, until he was relocated last year to a rough part of Lametzia Terme, the big city below the hills. He won’t say why he was reassigned from his hometown of Serrastretta, and the Rabbi and I can only speculate. We think it happened because he became a bit too chummy with the Jews. He often invited the Rabbi into the church to read from the Prophets in Hebrew, and he loved to join the synagogue to celebrate our holidays. A picture of him lighting the Hannukiah with the Rabbi was featured in a brochure at a celebration a few years ago commemorating his 25 years of service in the Church. There were bishops and other higher ups at the party, and it wasn’t long before he was reassigned. It probably did not help his cause that Don Gigi has a historically Jewish surname, Iuliano.
At the end of the night, after four types of cake were foisted onto my plate, and we all enjoyed some fresh fruit, cherry liqueur, and coffee, Michele came over looking like he had something important to say. With the help of Ale, he told me how religion is used to control people. He pointed to a portrait on the wall of a teary eyed Jesus and said that his religion is so sad sometimes, and it is used to terrorize. He said that the inquisition was really bad for the Jews, and it was also a time of terror, misery, and fear for the Christians. He said that this meeting, this interfaith dialogue, is so crucial because it forges a new more joyous way forward. Whenever someone tries to scare us with horror stories of the other, we now know they are lying. He gave me his business card, had me write my information on a piece of paper, and said we are each other’s contacts to prevent terror.
Don Gigi and his friend drove me home around midnight, handed me a cherry pie, and sent their best wishes to the Rabbi and Il Dirretore.
Until next time… Arrivederci…
(To learn more about Rabbi Barbara Aiello and La Sinagoga Ner Tamid del Sud, visit Rabbi Aiello’s website at www.rabbibarbara.com).