The right of return

My mother is the kind of Jew who’s always on the lookout for someone’s hidden Jewish roots.

When she found out years ago that Ben Affleck’s middle name is Geza, she briefly claimed him as one of the tribe. Meeting my friend and I for a pint at a Penn State bar on the eve of my graduation, my mom launched into a well-informed take on why my Italian-Irish friend, whose mother’s maiden name is Di Gioia, might just have some Jewish ancestry after all.

This is her kind of event.

I’m in Siracusa now, Sicily’s fourth-largest city, for “The New Frontier of Italian Judaism,” a two-day seminar exploring “ebrei di ritorno” – the Italian phrase for Jews rediscovering their connection to the religion.

Coordinated by Gadi Piperno, who works for the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, the seminar is mostly conducted in Italian (and my high-school aptitude with that language is proving a bit rusty) and caters to a largely Italian crowd – drawing in rabbis and Jewish leaders from Naples, Turin and a host of other spots throughout the country.
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But the event’s power transcends language barriers.

Michael Freund is the chairman of Shavei, an Israeli organization that aims to strengthen the connection of descendants of Jews to Israeli and the Jewish people.

Addressing the crowd of about 30 this morning, Freund explained that he’s traveled the world to seminars like this – but this is his organization’s first foray into Italy.

“We are aware of the growing awakening that is taking place in Southern Italy and Sicily as people are looking to reconnect with the Jewish people,” he said. “That’s a process we want to support and facilitate.”

The setting doesn’t hurt either – a beautiful building on Siracusa’s Ortygia island that is also the site of the ruins of the city’s ancient mikveh, dating back to Byzantine times.

I’ve already met three ebrei di ritorno – two middle-aged women and a young pharmaceutical student – and I’m excited to meet more.

These Jews are not flocking to the synagogue in huge numbers – just about 12 to 15 have rediscovered their Judaism so far – but that’s not the point.

There’s a sort of magic to the rediscovery, a pureness in the tale of a girl who grew up going to a Catholic church but kept kosher, even if it was never called as such.

Lost in the murk of politics and denominations, it’s easy to forget that the beauty of Judaism also lies in its simplicity and the consistency with which it throws quirky curveballs – like a growing Jewish community in southern Sicily.

That’s a lesson my mother would certainly never forget, but I daresay I needed the reminder.

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