Rabbi Pinchas Punterello
Recently I have been looking into the Marrano or Crypto Jewish origins of a network of families in Calabria in Italy. I have learnt that I am not alone in this but that a liberal woman Jewish Rabbi called Barabara Aiello and an Orthodox Jewish Rabbi Pinchas Punterello are also working among the crypto-Jewish families of southern Italy. After five centuries of assimilation, by the mysterious hand of God, the lost Jews are regaining their identity.
I have been researching this crypto-Jewish phenomena since the 1970's being inspired by my own family's history and the writings of the great Anglo-Jewish historian Cecil Roth. We know that the Marrano or Converso families usually only intermarried with other Marrano/ Converso families. Those researching into these Southern Italian Jewish families speak about places using the name Serra as centres of crypto-Jewish activities such as Serrastretta in the Calabrian mountains where Rabbi Barbara Aiello has her synagogue as well as Serra San Bruno, Serra d'Urso near Conflenti, Sera d'asino, Serra Miceli, Serre and Serra Pedrace. The Catanzaro and Cosenza regions of Calabria were the most active regions of crypto-Jewish activity in southern Italy.
Serra is a well-known Spanish Sephardi Jewish surname. St Juniperro Serra was from the well-known crypto-Jewish families of Mallorca. The famous Benedictine Bishop Joseph Serra of New Norcia,Western Australia also came from a Spanish converso family. In Southern Italy it would seem that the leading Aristocratic family of Naples the Dukes of Cassano also belonged to the Serra family.
It would seem that the crypto-Jewish Dukes of Cassano were the secret aristocratic protectors and leaders of Calabrian crypto-Judaism. Their crypto-Jewish origins go back to the 12th century to Admiral Corso Serra of Genoa who was a grandson of Otto de Mari (ancestor of both the aristocratic de Mari and Serra families). Otto de Mari's father Mar Judah (known in Genoa as Ido de Mari) was from Barcelona from the Davidic Jewish family. Mar Judah was the son of Mar Shealtiel of Barcelona a Davidic Prince descended from the Babylonian Exilarchs.
Not all those crypto Jews called Serra are descendants of the aristocratic Serra family but others took the name Serra in honour of this family or after the name of the crypto Jewish settlements called Serra. The first of these Serra centres was the one near Genoa called Serra Ricco in the north of Italy from where the Serra family originated. There was also a crypto-Jewish centre in the area of Serramazzoni in the Province of Modena.
The son of Otto de Mari by his wife Serra or Sarah (meaning High One or Princess) Ricca (meaning the curly one) took the name Sigismondo Serra (meaning the Victorious Defender of Serra). The place where she lived was named in her honour as Serra Ricco or vice versa. Serra Ricco was up high and had a castle or look-out tower (a view from a high place) with a spiral or curly staircase. So Serra Ricco was a pun on the name of Otto's beautiful curly haired wife and the name of his look-out tower with a spiral staircase. The room at the top of the tower was a secret synagogue where the crypto Jews could practice their rituals while on the look out for any approaching non-Jews or enemies. The Look-Out Tower is a kind of Tower of David with the spiral staircase representing Jacob's Ladder, the spiral (lullim) staircases in the Temple and the spiral Jewish side-curls as well as the hidden Teli or Axis of the Universe. The Tower (Serra) was built based on the Tower of David that was in Jerusalem. This Tower of David dated back to at least the time of Herod the Great and survived though refurbished until it was destroyed by the Muslims in 1236. The present tower was rebuilt by the Muslims in 1310.
An example of an Italian look-out tower called a Serra
Giovan Francesco Serra the Marquis di Strevi (born 1609) bought the fief of Cassano near Naples in the 17th century. He was descended from Paola Serra a Senator of the Genoa Republic. His eldest son was the first Duke de Cassano. Giovan's great granddaughter Laura Serra (1723-1790) was the 3rd Duchess de Cassano a crypto-Jewish Matriarch. Her maternal line descended from the crypto- Jewish Spanish Gualterio family descended from a Raffaele Gualterio who intermarried with the crypto-Jewish Genoan noble families. The Gualterio (William) family was descended from a branch of the Davidic House descended from William de Gellone of Septimania that had moved into Spain. A branch of this family also became prominent in the Naples and Calabria region of Italy from the 18th century.
Duchess Laura was a secret friend and benefactor of Rabbi Ishmael ha Cohen (Laudatio Sacerdote) of Modena and her son Prince Pascale Serra studied with the Rabbi and had an illegitimate son Andrea Serra with the rabbi's niece Eva Sacerdoti (they were married in a secret Jewish ceremony). Their son was Pasquale Serra (born 1800 Naples) was the secret Davidic Nasi of the crypto-Jews of Naples and Calabria as was his son Andrea Serra (born 1827). The name Pasquale or Pascale (alluding to Pesach or Passover) was very popular among the converted Jews as were Raffaele, Michele, Laudatio, Angelo, Salvatore, Guiseppe, Serafino, Francesco, Nicola etc.
Rabbi Ishmael Cohen (aka Laudatio Sacredote) was descended from a line of crypto-Jewish Rabbis who had served the Serra family descended from one of the sons of Joseph ha Cohen of Genoa of the 16th century. Duchess Laura was also descended from the Carretto family who descend from Ludovici (Laudatio) Carretto a converso brother of Rabbi Joseph ha Cohen. Duchess Laura's daughter Princess Maddelena Serra and her son Luigi (Louis) Serra the 4th Duke of Cassano were married into the Carafa Stuart-Cantelmo family.
The Cantelmo-Stuart family were descendants of King Robert II Stewart of Scotland. King Robert II's son Prince David Stuart Earl of Caithness and Strathearn had a natural son called Giacomo (James) Stuart-Cantelmo the first Count of Popoli who was an ancestor of Duchess Laura Serra's grandson Giuseppe Serra (1771-1837) the 5th Duke of Cassano and Davidic Nasi of the Italian Crypto-Jewish communities. The Stewart dynasty of R1b L21 ydna is believed to have been of Davidic origin. The present Duke of Cassano is Luigi (Louis) Serra (b.1939) the 11th Duke of Cassano since 1998. Francesco Serra the 10th Duke gave the Serra di Cassano Palace to the State in 1982. The present heir is an Italian writer and former communist called Francesco Serra (born 1964).
Francesco Serra di Cassano (aka Prince Giovan Francesco Serra di Cassano)
The Carafa family were also descendants of the crypto-Jewish family that were Lords of Serra Ricco. They descended from Carafa di Rustico of Caschifellone (Serra Ricco) and his Jewish wife from the Holy Land whose descendants intermarried with the Serra family. Carafa di Rustico was descended maternally from Sigismondo Serra. It would seem that the Serra di Cassano family were careful that they only intermarried with other noble families of maternal crypto-Jewish lineage until at least the time of the 7th Duke of Cassano. Francesco Serra's mother Maria Grazia della Noce however descends from a Jewish family that originally took the name of della Noce (of the Walnut) from the church of St Maria della Noce in Tarano north of Rome. Tarano was most likely a Frankist and crypto- Jewish settlement in the 18th century. They were drawn to Tarano due to the mystical connotations of the Nut or Walnut (egoz in Hebrew) in Biblical and Jewish mysticism and their great devotion to Our Lady.
Eva Sacerdoti's sister Judith Sacerdoti (Guiditta) married Serafino Aiello who studied with Rabbi Ishmael. Serafino with his friend Angelo Martini (the uncle of Rabbi Isaac Sanson Deangli) returned as crypto-Rabbis or Hazans to reinvigorate the crypto-Jewish communities of Calabria. Angelo Martini in Calabria married Maria Cimino from a Calabrian crypto-Jewish family whose ancestor came from Portugal (Cominho) and Northern Spain (Comino). This family was originally involved in the spice trade. Serafino Aiello's daughter Maria Aiello married Pasquale Nero (born 1770) descended from a Calabrian crypto-Jewish family descended from the Sephardi Jewish family of Neyra or Neira.
The surnames of this crypto Jewish network of families in Calabria and its crypto-Jewish centre of Serra D'Urso were Paola, Benvenuto, Vaccaro, Tomaino, Baratta, Mastroianni, Cimino, Nero, Aiello, Martini, Audino, Fillipis, Marotta, Gallo, Sacco, Folino, Muraca, Caruso, Raso, Palermo, Cuatiello, Soraino, Russo, Stranges, Guidice and others. Places in Italy using the name Serra (and possibly Cassano) were centres of secret crypto Jewish activity.
At the same time that the "disciples" of Rabbi Ishmael ha Cohen were reinvigorating the crypto-Judaism of the south, in the north a number of the poorer Frankist (Zoharists) families were settling in places like Godero near Treviso and Riese and Italianising their names. They quickly assimilated into the Italian Catholic community and one of their descendants was St. Pope Pius X.
Often these families of Marrano ancestry may not even know that their distinct customs are Jewish as Rabbi Barbara Aiello discovered. She realised she was asking the wrong question "Are you Jewish?" but started to ask people about the customs followed by the Calabrian descendants of the crypto Jews. Also, one man (who is now a priest) who came from crypto-Jewish ancestry told me that his mother said they kept these distinct (Jewish) customs because they were noble customs of their ancestors. It was common for mothers to tell their children that these customs came from some kind of noble origins of their family and only to intermarry with other families who kept these customs. In a sense they were right as many leading nobles who were also of crypto-Jewish origin did keep these customs such as the Serra family. Also many of those of Frankist ancestry were of noble status as the Jews converted in Poland in 1760 were given noble status and the Polish nobility were their godparents. In some cases the Frankists settled among the already existing crypto-Jewish communities and won over these crypto-Jews to sincere Catholic faith. Unfortunately this was to lead to a greater assimilation and loss of Jewish practices and knowledge after a few generations.
While some of Italy's descendants of crypto-Jews may wish to become Orthodox and Reform Jews there is probably a much larger number that wish to retain their Catholic faith with Jewish identity. We need a valiant Hebrew Catholic to minister to these descendants of the crypto- Jews of Southern Italy and establish Havurot (study groups) for those interested in their Jewish roots without denying their Catholic faith. It is indeed a miracle of Divine Providence that after 500 years of hidden identity that many of the descendants of the crypto-Jews are feeling a call to their Jewish identity. Others are fearful to openly reveal their Jewish origins due to anti-semitism and their fear of a new persecution of Jews in the future.