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									Touring Europe’s Oldest Jewish Community

The picturesque village of Amalfi on the Amalfi Coast, south of Naples. Photos courtesy of Amalfi Life
by Gabe Levenson, for The Jewish Week, March 26, 2008 Travel Writer

A heartwarming, mind-bending journey through southern Italy encompasses more than two millennia of Jewish presence in the boot of land that thrusts itself hundreds of miles from the Alps into the Mediterranean Sea. That long peninsula — of Etruscan ruins and Roman amphitheaters, of ancient cities and hilltop villages, of artists and artisans, of olive trees, tomato plants and grape arbors in its fertile soil — may well have harbored the slaves who rowed the boats or the seamen who hoisted the sails of the trading ships that King Solomon, even centuries earlier, had dispatched from Eretz Israel, westward on the great inland sea, to the Straits of Gibraltar. The authenticated year of Jewish arrival in Italy dates, however, much later, from 163 B.C.E., when envoys of Judas Maccabeus traveled to Rome to negotiate a treaty of peace and economic exchange with the Roman Empire. With the perfidy of power, ironically, imperial Rome sent its legions into Jerusalem, a century later, to quell the Israelite rebellion against Roman occupation of the country. The legions overwhelmed resistance in the year 70 of the Common Era, destroyed the Second Temple and carted some 2,000 Hebrew slaves off to Rome to build the famous (or infamous) Arch of Titus. From that moment, until the Allies took the city during World War II, no Jew would pass through the Arch. Since then, of course, the Arch has been the passageway for a jubilant Jewish population. That period of more than 2,000 years is covered in the upcoming Jewish Tour of Southern Italy, now in its third year, which has been organized by the Amalfi Life travel agency, headed by two seasoned experts — Laurie Howell in New York, a long-time member of Manhattan’s Brotherhood Synagogue, who calls the week-long trip “a spiritual journey,” and Giocondo Cavaliere, her partner in Italy, who is based in Amalfi itself, a town in Campania on the country’s southwest coast. Adds Howell: “The Italian Jewish community is the oldest surviving minority in the known world and it is the oldest diaspora community; our tours are through the southern part of the country, where Jews first settled.”

Local Experts In Rome “Throughout our tour,” Howell says, “you are in the company of local experts, each with an intimate knowledge of and love for his or her native region.” Each of the three tour groups scheduled for departures this year, is limited to 14 participants and is led in Rome, for the first two days of the journey, by Laura Supino, a professional architect, historian and special guide to the Jewish Museum in Rome’s Great Synagogue. Dr. Supino, born in northern Italy, moved as a small child to Rome, with her family. Now a woman in her 70s, she “remembers well,” she says, “the October day in 1943 when the Jews of the city were rounded up and sent to the concentration camps.” There are now about 35,000 Jews in all of Italy, 15,000 in Rome. Says Supino: “The present total Jewish population of the entire country is less than it was in southern Italy alone, as late as the 16th century, when a vast and vibrant Jewish community thrived there.” Walking through the Arch, with its sculptured friezes of Roman soldiers carrying the treasure of Jerusalem, is, of course, one feature of the two-day tour of Rome, the first stop of the trip which Supino conducts. She herself is a member of the Association of Jewish Women in Italy and lectures widely on issues important to Italian and European Jewry. Tour members are led into the Great Synagogue and its Jewish Museum, through the old Jewish Quarter of the city, to the ancient Forum with connections to Jewry, to the Hebrew catacombs at Appia Pignatelli on the outskirts of the city and, nearby, to Ostia Antica and to the ruins there of a first-century synagogue. Accommodations in Rome, as for the rest of the journey, are at four-star hotels, with a full range of services and amenities. Meals are not kosher, Howell explains, but kosher style, each an indigenous, gourmet repast in the style of its region of Italy. Observant group members can choose fish or vegetarian foods, with wide choices available. By Train To Nicastro On the morning of their third day in Italy, the tour group boards a high-speed Eurostar-Italia train for the journey to the town of Nicastro, in Calabria, some 80 miles north of the very tip of Italy. “We travel in perfect comfort through the grand and glorious countryside of the Mediterranean coastline, arriving in early afternoon in Nicastro, now the hometown of Rabbi Barbara Aiello, who acts as guide for the remaining days of the tour,” Howell explains. “Together with Laura Supino in Rome, Rabbi Aisello is one of the principal figures of Italian Jewry.” Rabbi Aiello is the first woman rabbi in Italy — and still one of perhaps half a dozen women rabbis in all Europe. She is a first-generation American, born and raised in Pittsburgh, whose Jewish parents were born in southern Italy — her father in a remote mountain village in Calabria and her mother just across the Messina Straits in Sicily. The rabbi’s father volunteered for the U.S. Army during World War II and participated in the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp in 1945. Equally fluent in English and Italian, Rabbi Aiello received her ordination in the United States and, since then, has been based in Nicastro, Calabria. In fact, she has traced her roots even further back — to a small group of Jewish families expelled from Sicily during the 16th-century Inquisition and known since then as “crypto Jews,” nominally members of the Catholic Church, who maintained their ties to Judaism and its worship traditions in secret. Adds Howell: “Barbara’s personal history holds the key to the Jewish heritage in the southernmost region of Italy. Her research in Italian Jewish genealogy will astound you!”

On the afternoon of its third day in Italy, the tour group explores Timpone, the former Jewish Quarter of Nicastro, led by the rabbi and Prof. Vincenzo Villella of the local University of Calabria. Travelers will see, among other locations in Timpone, the existing structure that had been an 11th-century synagogue, as well as the remains of a mikveh. The rabbi and the professor will speak here about the now all-but-lost Jewish past in these and other Calabrian locations, as well as “about the subtle rebirth now taking place after 500 years,” Howell notes. To The Tip Of The Boot The following morning, the group travels by deluxe bus to the southernmost tip of the Italian mainland, to visit, Howells says, “one of the most amazing discoveries of the very ancient Jewish presence in the Mediterranean,” the excavation site of a fourth century synagogue in the village of Bova Marina. Discovered about 20 years ago in the course of highway improvements, the mosaic floor has been reconstructed and moved to a nearby village location. The day continues with a journey to the town of Reggio di Calabria, whose Archeological Museum contains Jewish artifacts from the late Roman period which have been found in that region. Also a must-see are the Bronzes of Riacce, the 2,000-year-old statues pulled up by a fisherman’s net in 1972. After a night in Nicastro, the journey heads north to Amalfi on the Amalfi coast, first recommended in the 12th century by Benjamin of Tudela, the Spanish Jew who toured Jewish Europe at the time. He, too, may well have sat on an Amalfi balcony, sipped the local wine and admired the view of the Mediterranean. Giocondo Cavaliere, a native and expert on the culture of Amalfi, will talk about the “extraordinary” history and “rich” traditions of the region. And “yes” he will tell the group about the town’s Jewish heritage — the medieval, hand-made paper industry, probably run by the local Jews. There will be a visit also to the nearby villages of Positano and Ravello and (weather permitting) a cruise along the coast. A gala farewell dinner at the hotel in Amalfi is the finale of the trip. On May 12 and May 22, there are departures either from the nearby Naples airport or from the Rome airport. On the Oct. 15-22 tour, Laura Supino, the group’s guide in Rome, will escort the travelers to Rome’s Great Synagogue for a Simchat Torah celebration and procession on the final night of the stay in Italy. For further information or to make reservations, call Laurie Howell at Amalfi Life, 4l Schermerhorn St., Suite 128, Brooklyn, N.Y. 11201; Tel: (718) 797-9300, ext. 1; Fax, (718) 243-1547; Web site,

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