The English Conversation Club meets outside of Rita’s Café once or twice a week. Lidia and I sip cappuccinos, Antonio drinks fruit juice or cold carbonated coffee, and Maria Antoinetta sits with a cup of water and much on her mind that she struggles to express.
She excitedly exclaims, “Bruce Springsteen is the best!” I ask her, “What songs of his do you like?” Her mind churns faster than her mouth can produce words in English, and she turns to a smiling Antonio and spits out paragraphs praising the Boss in Italian for him to translate. Antonio is happy to help translate. He wants to be a European Union translator and is headed to university in Vienna in the fall. His Oxford accent is a bit less professionally useful (post-Brexit), but it is nonetheless charming and impressive. Lidia looks down at her phone as she chuckles at Antonio for speaking the ‘King’s Speech.’ Lidia is a middle aged woman, born and raised in Switzerland by Serrastrettan parents, and she works at the international airport in Lametzia, the big city (80,000 people) below the hills. She is in charge of coordinating the flights in and out for a few airlines. I ask her why it is that I can bring 10 three ounce bottles of liquid onto an airplane, but I cannot bring one 30 ounce bottle onboard. She puffs on her cigarette and shrugs her shoulders in confusion. ‘There is no reason,’ she says, ‘It is all about keeping people afraid.’ Antonio chimes in, ‘I am afraid every time I fly back here because they lose my luggage!’ I nod toward Lidia and say, ‘You know that she is the one in charge of losing your luggage.’ Lidia isn’t paying attention, there is business to deal with on her phone. Antonio’s face displays an epiphany of knowledge and Maria Antoinetta starts cracking up.
Conversation eventually turns to the economy. Lidia complains that there is no economy. Maria Antoinetta says that life in Serrastretta is boring and slow, and that is why she is always visiting her boyfriend in Palermo. Antonio says that he is going to move to a big city as soon as he can because there is no excitement and no jobs in Calabria. I wonder aloud how the unemployment in the region hovers between 20-30%, yet there do not seem to be any hungry or homeless people. Antonio realizes this, seemingly for the first time, and starts thinking out loud. ‘A lot of people do not work, but they do not want for things… Families live together and families are strong here, we take care of each other.’ He looks a little sad when talking about strong families. His father, the fruit vendor next to the church, is very proud of him and the perfect scores he received on his high school graduation exams, and Antonio knows that he will not see his family much once he leaves these green hills for greenbacks. Serrastretta does not have many young adults, almost all leave for work and excitement.
In a few generations, Serrastretta may be a hollow shell of a picturesque hillside village. There are already others ghost towns in the area, and each is a tragic reminder of the disappearing small-town rural lifestyle.
I ask Antonio, what happened? How did the population drop from 6,000 people 50 years ago to around 600 today? Do you think about staying to help rebuild the town? With a tinge of bitterness, he says that there was outside investment and ample opportunity for the previous generation, but they took the funds for private gain and did not pursue education or projects for the public good. He chastises his elders, saying they had no desire to improve and only looked out for themselves. And now, they have the gall to hand his generation the task of reviving a comatose town.
So, what is the role of the rabbi? The role of the rabbi is always to improve the individual and the community, to bring the best out of people so we may strive together and as individuals toward our highest and holiest goals and ideals. The task is never limited to teaching Torah, because if there is no bread, there is no Torah.
The rabbi in Serrastretta, and the only rabbi in the entire region, Barbara Aiello, hosts lifecycle events for international Jews, bringing folks from all over the world to celebrate b’nai mitzvot and weddings, and she generates the (entire) tourist industry. She and a few locals are also working on Save Our Serrastretta (SOS), a group dedicated to repairing abandoned homes and bringing in retirees and anyone else interested in living in these charming hills. SOS is still finding its legs, but it is hopeful.
But maybe the town is in hospice, and the role of the rabbi is to help it peacefully transition. When speaking with the English Club, my rabbinic duty becomes equipping my congregants (who are everyone) for wherever they may be in the future. The Rabbi and the synagogue will continue to try to revive the town, and do what is best for its people, whatever and wherever that may be.
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).