In 1983, workers building a road in the southernmost tip of Italy unearthed what looked like unusual ruins in a lemon orchard.
Archaeologists later found remnants of plough-damaged yet still-beautiful mosaic floor divided into 16 medallions adorned with Jewish symbols such as a menorah, a shofar, a lulav, an etrog and a Solomon’s Knot. They also found a walled niche where the Aron Kodesh, or Holy Ark, which contained Torah scrolls, once stood.
The workers had stumbled across the ancient Bova Marina Synagogue in Calabria, Europe’s second-oldest Jewish place of worship, built during the Roman Empire.
Rome’s chief rabbi expressed “complete surprise” as the news spread. It was a monumental find, a rare glimpse into the long Jewish past, but the site was of ruins – few would have imagined that the synagogue would ever see ‘action’ again.
Last week all that changed, when the synagogue hosted its first Jewish wedding for more than 1,500 years.
The couple were two medics, Dr Roque Pugliese and Dr Ivana Pezzoli. Both are descendants of Iberian Jews forcibly converted during the Spanish Inquisition, who returned to their Judaism after discovering their Jewish roots as ‘Bnei Anousim,’ marrying under the Chupa (wedding canopy) last week.
Pugliese’s parents hid their Jewish heritage while he grew up in Calabria and Argentina, and although Pezzoli was raised with certain Jewish traditions, she was “never told why”. Both began an eight-year study of Judaism before undergoing formal conversion, and both now live a religiously-observant Jewish life.
“It was a remarkably moving experience to watch Roque and Ivana get married under the Chupa amid the ruins of Bova Marina’s ancient synagogue,” said Michael Freund, founder of Shavei Israel, which helps people return to their Jewish roots.
“Their wedding symbolises the eternity of the Jewish people and we hope it will inspire other descendants of Jews in southern Italy to return to their roots.”
He added: “Against all the odds, the Jewish spark in southern Italy and Sicily continues to glimmer after so many centuries. We must intensify our outreach efforts to the Bnei Anousim of southern Italy and help them to reconnect with their heritage.”