Anyone with a drop of Italian blood, even Al Capone, was buried at Mt. Carmel and yet my poor Grandpa was all by himself in a non-Catholic cemetery. As a little girl, it troubled me that he wasn’t at Mt. Carmel with the rest of the family, but the subject was taboo.
On family cemetery jaunts, we’d genuflect at our Mt. Carmel gravesites and then detour to Oak Ridge Cemetery where my grandfather, Antonio Scalise, was interred in 1941. I’d murmur a prayer by his sunken little granite pillow etched with the simple outline of Aladdin’s lamp, and kneeling there my gnawing concern would resurface. The unconsecrated ground tormented me because the nuns said that, if you were buried in unconsecrated soil, you went straight to hell.
At some point, a cousin whispered that my grandfather had joined a religious sect, that after some Holy Rollers had a revival at Comiskey Park one summer he’d converted. Having turned his back on the One True Holy Church, I knew he was doomed to Oak Ridge and the eternal Inferno, but I prayed for his soul despite his one-way ticket. He died before I was born, but my Mother always said that he was a really special man, that she’d wished I’d known him because he was such a good person so I hoped that if I prayed really, really hard, God would show him mercy and retrieve him from the fire.
I knew from my Dad that his father had migrated to America and gone to work in the northern iron-ore mountains, had eight children and moved to Chicago when jobs dried up in Michigan. Other than that my Dad shared little. My mom told me that Grandpa was much older than my Nonna and a complicated man. “Something serious happened to him in Italy, something painful,” she startlingly revealed one day. “I sensed a heavy heart. I don’t know what it was—maybe he had a wife who passed away, but there was something,” and then she slowed down, maybe not comfortable sharing her intuitions, scribbled in guesses and perception. “I suspect there was more to his story,” she surmised and, being a mother/mind-reader she preempted me. “Do NOT bring it up to your father. He doesn’t talk about it—I doubt that he even knows what it is.”
She needn’t have worried about me going to my father to check things out. He had perfected a death-stare that so clearly signaled verboten territory that only the blind would dare to proceed. My dad said that my grandpa always said never give anyone ammunition that could be used against you, and my dad’s definition of ammunition was very broad. No one should know where you’re from unless you tell them, people shouldn’t be able to identify your background based on your grammar or vocabulary or your handwriting even, he’d caution. Never let anyone else define you.
This advice was about more than just privacy, though that was in short supply in our neighborhood where hanging out laundry and pushing strollers were the preferred networks pre-Facebook, where yentas archived one’s every move and bested bloodhounds when it came to family business that was none of theirs. This party line had to do with who you were. Somewhere along our tribe’s timeline, prejudice had imprinted hyper-vigilance and embedded a legacy of practical paranoia.
Over the years, when outsiders not so subtle attempts to label me would be way off the mark, I’d picture my dad high-fiving me with a good job as I chose to set the record straight with “I’m Italian-American from Bridgeport, an old neighborhood in Chicago.”
Despite my religious quagmire and parochial scruples, I did manage to grow up. I went to university, made friends with kids of all faiths and no faith, traveled the world, and married a man who defined hell as a closed mind. We chose to create our family via adoption, and being a believer in the power of stories to heal and connect, I shared mine with my daughters confident that I had, at least, the big pieces in place.
Until the day an article in Fra Noi led me to a Mediterranean trail of tears.
Each month Fra Noi, a Chicago magazine whose readers are encouraged to embrace their inner Italian, is packed with heart-attack inducing pasta recipes, the latest on the Euro crisis and articles on Venice's rising sea-levels. This magazine, an occasional lecture or movie at the Italian Cultural Center and vacations to the motherland are about the extent of my being a born-again Italian, but I have always been captivated by stories about the old country.
Not many sagas were shared as my great-grandparents spoke no English, my Nonna's English was very limited, and my mother was not one to look back on her Neapolitan roots. For the most part, she believed that if the toe of the boot was such a great place, my ancestors would never have boarded the boat. “If you weren’t always cleaning and cooking, you could investigate our heritage,” I’d sometimes nag though the look on her face suggested that I needed to be somewhere else immediately. And my father, always working, working, working, had neither the time nor energy to reflect on his Calabrese past.
There were a few stories some of which made sense; others which were contradictory mixed in with legend and myth and, if that wasn't enough to distort reality, you could toss in the family's penchant for hush-hush. "It's impossible to unravel family history, everyone has his version, so don’t waste time looking back, watch where you’re going instead," Mom advised, but once in a blue moon, she'd share a sliver of our past. "After my own father died in the Great Flu epidemic," she might say, "life changed…" and then, as though she needed to make immediate amends for being such a loose-lipped time-waster, she slammed the window of reverie shut to avoid the draft of questions and the chill of inquisitiveness from her middle child. Over the years, I more or less came to accept that they either wouldn’t or couldn’t fill in my blanks.
And then, one day while searching for a holiday cookie recipe, I stumbled on a Fra Noi article and read, "If you're of Calabrese descent, the next sentence you read could forever change how you view your roots."
I caught my breath.
As the persecution of the Spanish Inquisition spread, the article went on, the Jews of Calabria fled to the mountains. Families were arrested, burned at the stake, torn apart… Jews who wanted to avoid torture and death were forced to convert to Catholicism and renamed “conversos.”
Within seconds, my mother’s suspicions, my little girl ‘nosies,’ my dad’s mind your own business caveats ignited into a kaleidoscope of jagged slivers, muddled snippets and sarcastic scraps of information that melted into tears.
Imprisonment, confiscation…a heavy heart, unconsecrated ground…denunciation…something went on over there that no one ever talked about…the fallout of the Inquisition. Ideas, issues, incidents I hadn’t thought about in years collided head-on with conjecture and possibility.
And then, as I continued to read, I spotted my maiden name. There it was in black and white on a glossy magazine page, a clue that even unconsecrated soil could not bury.
…the first active Calabrian synagogue in 500 years is in Serrastretta, housed in a building once owned by Saverio Scalise…
My grandfather was Antonio Scalise. According to Ellis Island’s ship manifest, his last known residence was Serrastretta. He was born in Sorbo San Basile, a town not twenty kilometers away, high on a mountain top.
There is a chance that the insanity of religious oppression forever altered my grandfather’s life. Is there a chance that I own some Judaic roots—that I am the progeny of conversos? According to Rabbi Barbara Aiello, herself a product of this captivating saga, thanks to the intense scrutiny afforded the families of the Diaspora, there exist detailed records, and she will help me research my history. And the etched oil lamp, a symbol of magic to the little girl, may well light the way to truths that no one, including the loving daughter-in-law, ever imagined. With a little Mazel Tov and a DNA test added to this mix, I may at last have an answer for the child who trembled graveside wondering What kind of Catholic was he anyway?
The prospect of putting some of the puzzle pieces in place, the responsibility of untangling some of my father’s Calabrian roots, is both daunting and heartening, but it is time to set the record straight.