Mixed Mes­sages: Reflec­tions on an Ital­ian Jew­ish Fam­i­ly and Exile

  • Review
By – March 6, 2020

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.

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