On a sunny mild early December morning, Antonio Calabrese, 49, was on his way to his upholstery workshop in southern Italy’s Cosenza, when he received an unexpected phone call from a friend.
“Tonight, come to Via Arabia, you’re not going to believe how they’ve decorated it for the holidays,” his friend said.
When Calabrese eventually got to the elegant pedestrian boulevard in the city center, the view was indeed beyond his expectations: Two long rows of glittering menorah-shaped lights are displayed on both sides of the street.
“I was completely enthralled. The menorah lights are huge, and seeing them shining in the dark is just amazing,” Calabrese told the Times of Israel.
Calabrese discovered his family’s Jewish origins as an adult.
“I started to identify myself as Jewish about 25 years ago, when I found out that since my surname contains a geographical reference [Calabrese means “someone from Calabria”], it is probably of Jewish origin. About two years ago my wife and I began the formal process of conversion,” he said.
Having Hanukkah references among Christmas celebrations may be not that big of a deal in places where large and prominent Jewish communities live and thrive, but for a city like Cosenza, where only a handful of its 70,000 residents identify as Jewish — not more seven or eight, according to Calabrese — it is remarkable. There is no official Jewish community, nor synagogue or minyan in the town.
The public display of Jewish symbols, as with the menorah-shaped lights, is something that really speaks to Calabrese. His shop, which he invariably closes every Friday an hour before Shabbat starts, is adorned with a big Magen David. Last summer, when the three kidnapped Israeli teens were found murdered, he put an Israeli flag in the window of the store and closed it during the funerals.
The town has historical ties to now extinct Jewish communities. In southern Italy, Jews were expelled or forced to convert to Christianity at the beginning of sixteenth century. Many chose to keep their Judaism in secret, handing down traditions through the generations up till today, when some families aren’t even aware of the meaning behind their customs.
However, in the past few years, the number of those willing to rediscover their Jewish roots has dramatically increased.
“Cosenza has a tradition of being an open city, a city for dialogue and encounter for different people and cultures. We want to revive this tradition and in this sense, the connection with our Jewish heritage and the present Jewish life is extremely important to us,” Cosenza Mayor Mario Occhiuto told the Times of Israel.
For the 2014 holidays, Occhiuto’s administration decided to draw inspiration for its Christmas decorations from the legend of Alar I, king of the Visigoths.
The Germanic Visigoths invaded Italy and sacked Rome, the capital of the empire, in 410 CE. Shortly after, Alar found himself in Cosenza, where he unexpectedly died. According to legend, he was buried in Busenzo, the river that flows through the city, together with his treasure. The treasure allegedly included the golden menorah brought from Jerusalem to Rome by the Romans after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE.
‘Not only did we want to have menorah-shaped lights, but we wanted them to be a central part of the exhibition’
“Not only did we want to have menorah-shaped lights, but we wanted them to be a central part of the exhibition, also to pay a tribute to the concurrent Jewish festival of Hanukkah,” said Occhiuto. (Ironically, Hanukkah celebrates the rekindling of the Menorah and rededication of the Temple that were both desecrated by the Greeks in the second century BCE.) “This is why we have chosen to put them in one of the main streets.”
Among the initiatives to revive Cosenza Jewish history, Occhiuto’s administration has also decided to restore a building located in its ancient Jewish neighborhood.
“Moreover, Calabria has another important connection to Jewish life: We grow the highest quality citrons and every year rabbis from all over the world come here to pick them,” said Occhiuto, referring to Sukkot, when citrons (etrogim in Hebrew) are an essential part of the celebration.
The menorah-shaped lights will also serve as the special background for the public Hanukkah lighting that will take place in Cosenza on December 22.
Public Hanukkah lightings will also take place in Naples, where the only official Jewish community in Italy’s southern region is found, and in the small village of Trani (Puglia).
And in Palermo, Sicily’s Palazzo Steri, which once served as a tribunal for the infamous Inquisition in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a hanukkiah has been lit every night of Hanukkah. There, lighting a hanukkiah is a way of publicizing another Hanukkah miracle: the rebirth of a vibrant Jewish life after 500 years.