"I was raised and educated as a Christian, but at home there have always been special family traditions," says Carlo Bloch, 52, in a Zoom call from his home in the Italian city of Salerno. "When someone died in the family, they would cover all the mirrors in the house, and on Friday night my grandmother would light candles. According to her, 'So that she would have light in the room.’”
Last summer, Bloch completed a conversion process led by Rabbi Barbara Aiello. He is one of a group of "Jews by choice" who discovered their Jewish roots at a late age and for whom the discovery changed their world.
"It is estimated that about half of the inhabitants of Sicily and Calabria in southern Italy were Jews, until the Inquisition forced them to convert to Christianity or hide their faith," says Rabbi Aiello, who leads the Ner Tamid del Sud synagogue in the Calabria region at the tip of Italy’s boot. "In the five hundred years since then, the significance of the traditions that were practiced in these families has been lost, but the traditions themselves are still preserved in many homes."
Bloch celebrated his first Rosh Hashanah as a Jew. On Yom Kippur he prayed for the first time, "Avinu Malkeinu, Chatanu L’Faneicha (Our Father our King, we have sinned before you)". He tells how, as an Italian Catholic who has never stepped foot in a synagogue and deals with information technology on a daily basis, he will celebrate the High Holy Days.
"I remember hearing a strange sound I didn’t recognize”
"My last name, Bloch, is a familiar Jewish name. You probably know that, but I did not know it most of my life. My father is Swiss, and I always assumed that the name, which is not common in Italy, came from there."
Although he grew up as a Christian, there were hints of the family's Jewish roots. "I went to church on Sundays, but my mother never joined. She treated foods that contained both meat and milk as being 'not good,' but she never said anything about Judaism.
"There were traditions in our family that only around the age of forty I found out were Jewish. When I was a little boy, every year around mid-September we would go up the mountain on the outskirts of town, and my father would ask me to stay in the car. I remember hearing a strange sound I didn’t recognize. One time I followed him and saw him blowing into something, but he sent me back to the car. When we got home I saw this object that my father had blown into, lying on a shelf. I tried to reach for it and it fell and broke.
"The next time I heard a shofar blow was in Rabbi Barbara's YouTube videos, when I started the conversion process. It was the same sound as my father’s shofar, which I had broken as a small child."
Do you think your parents knew the origin of these traditions?
"I think my mother was aware of the Jewish roots of her family on some level, and that my father grew up as a Jew, but he did not regard his Jewishness as something of significance.
"Looking back, I understand that Israel, and Judaism, were always in the background. When imported fruit first came from Israel to Italy, in the 1970s, my parents were excited. I was in elementary school and I remember my mother explaining to me what a kibbutz was. None of my parents' friends even knew that the oranges with the JAFA sticker came from Jaffa in Israel, let alone what a kibbutz was. And they also spoke a lot about Moshe Dayan, the hero with the eye patch."
"Every time, I had to respond that I’m not Jewish"
To the question of why his parents hid their Judaism from him, he has no clear answer. "They hid it from me and my brother on purpose," he says without elaborating. It’s almost like the hiding of Judaism came naturally in the Bloch family. As if the unusual thing is to live and identify openly as a Jew.
"I was not aware of these memories for most of my life. I lived like this, but I repressed the memories. I forgot about it," Bloch says. His three children did not know the family customs until he began the conversion process. A generations-long tradition was to be forgotten.
Eventually, I lost my job because of this antisemitic attitude that I didn’t even understand why it was directed at me. That’s when I decided to look into my family's roots.
"I lived for a while in Switzerland. I worked in a security outfit there, about ten years ago. I had a very difficult experience there with a bunch of racists who worked with me. At first I thought they had something against me because my mother is Italian. But then I realized their problem was my last name.
"In Switzerland, the name Bloch is a well-known Jewish surname. There is a famous chocolate manufacturer named Camille Bloch, who is my father's third-degree uncle. It is a familiar name and he is known as a Jew, so they realized I was Jewish.
"Not everyone was anti-Semitic. When I studied there, whenever they wanted to refer to Jesus or something related to Christianity they asked me if it bothered me, because I’m Jewish. Every time I had to respond that I’m not Jewish. A dish had pork in it, I wouls be told ‘Are you sure you can eat it?’ And I thought they were commenting on the taste or that the dish was unhealthy. I once asked someone who brought it up if he thought I was a Muslim.
"Eventually, I lost my job because of this anti-Semitic attitude that I didn’t even understand why it was directed at me. That’s when I decided to look into my family's roots. And that’s when I also began to remember the things I told you about. During an internet search I came across Rabbi Barbara's blog, in which she writes and talks about family traditions in Italy, whose source is actually Jewish. All of my family’s customs were listed there."
What did you do at that point?
"At first I tried to contact the Jewish community in Bern, Switzerland, where I lived. But we’re talking about a very closed-off, Orthodox community. They told me that if I want to convert, it would have to be with the whole family. My wife is Catholic, and she does not want to convert even though I suspect that her family also has Jewish roots, because her last name, Sabatino, is not common in Italy and sounds like it comes from 'Shabbat'.
"The Jews of Bern tried to convince me that there was no point in it. I was already an adult. I went to see the synagogue several times out of curiosity, because I had never seen a synagogue from the inside before. When I returned to Italy I tried to start learning about Judaism independently, but I got frustrated. It was too hard."
"We are Jews, but we’re not"
And despite this, the story didn’t end there. "After three or four years, I read a few more articles by Rabbi Barbara. Thanks to her, I realized that I could become a Jew."
Rabbi Aiello advocates pluralistic Judaism, and has built her community so that descendants of Anusim or Crypto-Jews can feel at home, alongside Jews from all streams. She declares that every Jew has a place in the "family" and that this non-judgment also includes families in which only one member of the household is Jewish.
"From the articles I understood that my mother's family were 'Crypto-Jews', secret Italian Jews from families that preserved Jewish traditions from the Inquisition period.
"My father, I think, was just a completely secular Jew, who decided to leave the tradition. When we celebrated together years ago and raised a glass, he said ‘LeHayim” in Hebrew. It was the first time I heard that phrase. The next time was during my conversion process, in Calabria."
"After I started researching the family's roots, I once asked my father directly if we were Jews. He answered like a good Jew, with a riddle. 'We are Jews, but we’re not. Do you understand?'
"It took me two weeks to realize that he meant that we were Jews in terms of origin, but not in terms of religion. Because he did not follow most Jewish customs, certainly not since I was a small child.
"Still there are things that remained. There are Hanukkah songs for example, that I recognize their tunes. I heard them online, and I could actually sing along with the recording, without knowing the lyrics. I probably know them from childhood too. In Europe, it is customary to light some candles on the table in the weeks before Christmas. But in my house more candles were lit, and they were placed on the windowsill."
"God came into my life the hard way"
This process doesn’t sound easy. It's a real change of identity.
"It was not an easy path, no. I grew up as a Christian but I wasn’t convinced of the tenets of the religion. I couldn’t understand how a person could also be a God. I did not connect to all the statues and iconography, which seemed to me like something from the pagan world, like in the Roman Empire. It did not feel religious or spiritual to me. So I became an atheist. I began to believe that there is no order in the world. That everything is chaos and everything depends on me. Whether I'll be good or bad is up to me.
It turns out that as a baby I would wake up and always smile and laugh. So my mother and grandmother began to affectionately call me Tzak’le (Yitzhak’le), a German way of saying little Isaac.”
"God came into my life the hard way. Like I said, I lost my job in Switzerland because of antisemitism. I lost everything. The money, the house, the car. Luckily my family stayed with me, but I had to rebuild my life somewhere else. Today I believe it's all a revelation of God through life. He called me back to it."
"Yes. In my secret name, Isaac. Yitzhak. When I started to get involved with Judaism I came across the name Itzhak, and it rang familiar. I asked my father about it. It turns out that as a baby I would wake up and always smile and laugh. So my mother and grandmother began to affectionately call me Tzak’le (Yitzhak’le), a German way of saying little Isaac. I vaguely remembered it was my nickname, but I did not know its meaning. I felt it was a personal calling, and after that discovery I started the conversion process."
"Conversion is the beginning of my Judaism"
Talk about your conversion process. What was it like?
"It was a long process that took about two years because I was working at the same time. I couldn’t study every day as I would have liked. Rabbi Barbara's synagogue was a few hours drive from here. A friend who lived next to me and I would drive there as much as we could, but much of the process was online.
"The conversion process starts with the need to explain why you want to be a Jew. This is the most important part. Those who are unsure, or who do it only out of curiosity, are not allowed to go through the process. There must be a reason. In my case the reason was to connect with my roots, to my family’s roots.
"Then you start learning. You learn the story of the Jewish people from the biblical period to the present day. The traditional story and factual history. Study the Hebrew alphabet, the Jewish holidays and customs. It was weird at first because it felt like academic material you have to learn. I came from a personal and spiritual search and then I had all these customs to memorize.
"At the end of the day, it's important to understand what the Jewish religion is. Why is there a Shabbat? I asked myself quite a bit 'What am I studying for?'. It's not just to get to know the customs and rituals I am supposed to adopt. The Jewishness, expressed in these ceremonies, should be something you feel. Something you need to take ownership of, which is yours. When I realized this, the studying became easier, even though I still have difficulty with the Hebrew alphabet."
And it went smoothly?
"At first I stumbled a lot. At some point I told Rabbi Barbara that I didn’t think I would be a Jew even by the end of the process. I don’t remember the words to the Shema. I don’t recognize all the letters. She replied to me – 'The conversion ceremony is not the end of your process. It's the beginning of the process. It's the beginning of your journey as a Jew.’ It was a very helpful answer. Because until then I had felt unsuitable, unworthy. I would forget the date of this holiday, or that custom. From that point I understood the process. Conversion is the beginning of my Judaism.
"At the end of the study period you have to show that you remember and understand. This is not a university exam, but you have to demonstrate proficiency. Both theoretically and in practice. How to light the candles, what are the blessings, in private and in public. How to prepare food on Shabbat. You have to learn and practice all of this for a year.
"In the end, you prepare a written work that summarizes the process. Why I became a Jew. It’s a personal summary, anything from one page to an entire book. This is not an examination, but a documentation of the experience, of what was learned and became yours."
And when the study period ends?
"When the whole group that converts together is ready, a date is set for the submersion in the mikveh (ritual bath). We met in Calabria, with Rabbi Barbara. We did the exam and then we were immersed in the waters of the Mediterranean.
"It was a beautiful and special experience. We met people from all over the world who were converted by Rabbi Barbara. From Italy, Germany, the United States and more. People who met to become Jews by choice. Jews who wanted to connect to their roots. Three days that we were totally within this experience. It was the first time I held a Torah scroll in my hand."
"There is more than one way to experience religion and tradition"
How does your conversion affect the family? A Jewish father and a Christian mother can be confusing for the children.
"There are not many Jews in Italy, and there are prejudices. But in my opinion it is something that enriches life. Even for my children, who grow up with a Jewish father and a Christian mother. It is enriching, because they can see that there is more than one way to experience religion and tradition. There is no obligation to go to church, or to synagogue. There is no obligation to pray in one way or another, and there is choice. You choose what is close to your heart.
My wife may not have converted to Judaism, but she helps me with the traditional foods. I bake challah for Shabbat, and through that I also explain to her about my customs and faith.
"I ask the children to assist me with the traditions, to light candles with me, or if I am late for the arrival of a holiday I will ask the children to light them before I get home. But they are not required to behave one way or another. They have a very open mind, they lived for a while in another country, they speak German and Italian, which enriches their lives even more.
"My wife may not have converted to Judaism, but she helps me with the traditional foods. I bake challah for Shabbat, and through that I also explain to her about my customs and faith.
"If there's one good thing about this horrible period of the Coronavirus and quarantine, it's that it allowed me to be at home with my family."
"This year, I’ll try to infuse the holidays with meaning"
This year you are celebrating the High Holy Days for the first time as a Jew. How does it feel?
"I experience it with the same excitement as a little boy. Everything about Judaism, everything is new to me. It is clear to me that I will not be able to do everything perfectly, but what is important to me is that I will be able to share these moments with family and not feel like I'm doing something alone by myself.
"This is the first time I’m taking time off work on Jewish holidays, because we finished the conversion in August. I called my boss and said I need days off, because I am Jewish and there are holidays. I cannot move the date. He took it very well even though it is not a very familiar thing in Italy.
This is the first time I’m taking time off work on Jewish holidays, because we finished the conversion in August. I called my boss and said I need days off, because I am Jewish and there are holidays.”
"I mostly look forward to the opportunity to celebrate with my family. To introduce my children and my wife to the holiday traditions. I discovered that some of the Rosh Hashanah traditions were also celebrated in my family. We would eat an apple with honey at this time of year. Sometimes my father would point out that now the Jewish year begins, but it was like pointing out a fact in trivia. Just something happening now, not something significant. This year I’ll try to infuse the holidays with meaning, learn the traditions, eat the traditional food and more. I have a lot more to learn. "
Towards the end of the conversation Carlo gets up from the couch, and takes the mobile device for a short video tour of his home. In the bedroom he shows a crucifix, hanging over his wife's side of the bed. He turns the camera to his side of the bed and shows a relief in which a man with a thick beard can be seen.
"This is Moshe Rabbeinu. The work is called 'Moses before his death', and it hung in my parents' bedroom. My father received it as a gift during his studies. How many bedrooms do you know that have a crucifix and a picture of Moshe Rabbeinu?"