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A Question of Identity Leads Home to Israel

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Fabian Spagnoli doesn’t know why the man in the small shop in Spain said it. Spagnoli had gone in to buy a new blanket for his bed. Instead, the man looked at him and told him straight out, “You are a Jew.” Spagnoli and the shopkeeper got to talking and the two became fast friends. The shopkeeper, who was Jewish, began teaching Spagnoli things about Judaism; about synagogue and prayer. “Life is a mystery,” Spagnoli says. “It’s a balance between our personal wills and what G-d wants. Clearly, it was written that this man had to tell me this. It’s something that’s not logical. It’s beyond materialism.”

Whatever the reason, the result of this “chance” encounter has been life changing for Spagnoli, who earlier this year moved to Israel with his wife and 10-year-old daughter. Spagnoli, 50, is now exploring his roots as a Bnei Anousim (a descendant of Jews who were forcibly converted to Catholicism more than 500 years ago and who are often referred to by historians by the derogatory term Marranos) at Shavei Israel’s Machon Miriam Institute for Conversion and Return.

Spagnoli had felt out of place long before the blanket incident. Born in Argentina, his family immigrated to South America from Switzerland after World War II. But Spagnoli’s grandfather wasn’t from there either; he was born in Italy and their name – Spagnoli – means “people from Spain” in Italian.

“I had a real identity problem,” Spagnoli admits. “When I was 15, I used to ask myself, who am I? Who are the people I came from? I didn’t feel fully Argentinian since we used to travel to Switzerland every summer to visit my relatives who were still there.”

To make things even more complicated, Spagnoli’s father, while not describing himself as Jewish, revealed a family story: that the reason the Spagnolis – “people from Spain” – were in Italy in the first place was that they were Jews fleeing the Inquisition. The younger Spagnoli was now thoroughly confused!

After high school, Spagnoli traveled around Europe looking for a place of connection, but eventually returned to Argentina to study law. It was there that he met his wife. In 2001, though, the Argentinian economic crisis sent the Spagnolis into their own personal Diaspora. “My wife was pregnant and I lost my job. The company closed down,” he says. They decided to settle in Italy, in the small town of Perugia where his grandfather was from. They opened a bed and breakfast and Spagnoli felt finally at ease. But it wasn’t to last.

The words of his father and that Spanish shopkeeper continued to reverberate. He knew he was a Jew. “In Italy, every public office and school has a cross,” he says. “I didn’t want to live in a Catholic culture. The fire within me was still burning.”

Once in Italy, Spagnoli learned about Shavei Israel via the Internet. He began attending seminars for Bnei Anousim.

His conviction went deeper still. His journey had led him to marry a Jewish woman. And her background wasn’t Bnei Anousim or hidden like him: she had grown up in the Jewish area of Buenos Aires and her father, an immigrant from Ukraine, was a full member of the Jewish community there. As a result, the Spagnolis were eligible to make aliyah under the Israeli Law of Return.

“That’s the magic of life,” Spagnoli says. “First I’m at a seminar for Bnei Anousim in Barcelona, and now we’re here in Israel. There’s a part of life we can manage ourselves and another part that’s beyond us. To call it destiny…I wouldn’t like this word. But now being here, I think it might be correct.”

Spagnoli’s wife and daughter have actually been in Israel for three years now, but Spagnoli stayed in Italy to be with his sick father, who had also moved back to the town where his family was from. When Spagnoli senior passed away last year, his son finally was able to make aliyah himself.

Spagnoli now attends the new Italian-language classes at Machon Miriam in Jerusalem taught by Shavei’s new emissary Rabbi Pinchas Punturello (see our article about him here [link]). And he’s already found work at a travel operator that puts his proficiency in Spanish and Italian to work. (Spagnoli’s wife works there too.)

“It was challenging to tell friends in Italy that I was coming here,” he confides. “They said – there are a lot of problems in Israel.” Spagnoli has built on that lack of knowledge about the Middle East to “explain to people how it really is” and works part-time as the Israel commentator on several radio programs broadcast from Argentina. He dreams even bigger. “I would like to help open a 24-hour news channel, like CNN, coming out of Israel,” he says.

In the meantime, he says, he is very satisfied with the decision he made to come here. And he is particularly delighted that his daughter is growing up in an Israeli environment rather than “a non-Jewish culture in Europe.” Ultimately, he adds, “there is no other place to go.

Still, Spagnoli has no illusions. “Now that we’re in Israel, the romantic part of the story, the courtship and the dating, is over. I go to work, I take the bus like any Israeli citizen.” It’s not always easy. But it’s ever fascinating.

“Everyone here has a story, a book about them,” Spagnoli says. “I like that. Because I have my book, too.”