The Jewish community of Italy is over two thousand years old, and yet, when Eleanor Foa’s father tried to explain their Italian Jewish heritage, it was always a struggle. Few in number, the community is about forty thousand strong today but never exceeded fifty thousand at its height. Italian Jews are neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardi, the author’s father would proudly declare, claiming that Italian Jews were “in a class by ourselves.” Having left Italy for America as a baby in the shadow of the Holocaust, Foa grew up with a deep sense of pride in her heritage, coupled with the recognition that she knew little of what membership in the Italian Jewish community meant. Mixed Messages is Foa’s search to uncover herself, her family, and what it means to belong to this unique community.
The travel recorded in Mixed Messages was born from a conversation between Foa and her sister, Pamela, following the passing of both their parents. “I wanted to fill in the gaps, understand the omissions, elisions and silences. Maybe too, I could unscramble the mixed messages that had infuriated, pained, and confounded both of us,” the author shares at the prologue’s conclusion. The memoir traces Foa’s travel through Italy and family history, while weaving it artfully with the larger history of Italian Jewry.
About halfway through the memoir, Foa and her sister begin the second phase of their journey by reconnecting with extended family in Torino. A lunch in the home of Cousin Anna and her husband, Lallo, complete with tales of the family and the Jewish community of Torino, helps the author recognize how much more connected to the Jewish community her Italian family is than her immediate family. On the walk back to Foa’s hotel, Anna shares her connection to Primo Levi. Following his suicide on Shabbat, Anna was contacted by the authorities, because the community’s rabbi would not answer the phone. When Anna reached the rabbi, he refused to accept the death as a suicide, as there had been no witnesses to the death. This allowed Levi to be buried with full honors in a Jewish cemetery. The author attributes this strangely humorous exchange to the Italian distrust of “all forms of authority, except, of course, that of “Mama.” Italians are well known for avoiding, evading and flat-out ignoring rules and regulations, and obviously Italian Jews are no exception.
Foa’s Mixed Messages is a moving tribute to the richness of her Italian Jewish ancestry. At the same time, it shares the fascinating history of a part of our larger Jewish community that many have forgotten. The author’s engaging writing style makes her book a wonderful way to explore how building a stronger connection to our family can also be a meaningful search for ourselves.
Jonathan Fass is the Managing Director of Educational Technology and Strategy at The Jewish Education Project of New York.