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The important thing is action

· Discovering Lea Sestieri, a pioneer in Jewish-Christian dialogue ·

Lea Sestieri was born in Rome on 31 May 1913, in the house on Via Catalana, later given to the Jewish community and in which Elio Toaff subsequently lived. Born into a family of the Jewish bourgeoisie, Lea was a highly cultured woman, well-versed in many different fields.

Lea in Montevideo (private archive)

After attending the humanities branch of the Visconti secondary school, she studied Semitic languages at the University of La Sapienza where she was a student of Umberto Cassuto and of Giuseppe Ricciotti. And it was by Cassuto’s wish that she subsequently took the courses at the Rabbinical College, thereby becoming the first woman to be admitted to it, if only as an auditor. In this same period she worked at the College as a librarian.

In 1935 she married Umberto Scazzocchio and moved to Eritrea with him. Her husband worked as a lawyer. She taught literature at the Italian secondary school in Asmara, while also serving as Curator of Ethiopian manuscripts at the State Library.

Their son Claudio was born in 1938, at the very moment when, while the racist laws were being brought into force in Italy, Lea was dismissed. It was a period of great suffering for her, from which she emerged with difficulty. However, she always refused to give private lessons to the children of representatives of the regime. She would say: “If they don’t want me to teach at school, I am certainly not going to teach in their homes”. She finally succeeded in emigrating and with her husband and son joined her brother Giuseppe, who had already settled in Uruguay. Their departure, in 1941, when the war had already broken out, was one of the last. They travelled from Rome by train through Vichy France and Franco’s Spain to Portugal, where at last they were able to board a ship.

The years that Lea spent in Latin America, until 1967, were intensely busy years of both intellectual and political activity. During the war her husband was Vice-President of L’Italia Libera, the association of anti-Fascist exiles, and later embarked on a diplomatic career. Lea taught Greek literature at the University of Montevideo, as well as biblical culture at various institutions. She also founded and directed a magazine, Amanacer, in Jewish-Spanish for the Sephardim community and published numerous writings: Manuscritos del Mar Muerto (1960), Los libros deuterocanónicos y los manuscritos extrabíblicos de Qumrán (1961), Lengua y civilización micénica y el mundo de Homero (1966) and La poesia épica en la Biblia: el canto de Debora (1967).

As a teacher she had a great ability to transmit knowledge and was very charismatic. Only a few years ago, on the occasion of her 100th birthday, her son Claudio recounted that he was still meeting people in Montevideo who remembered her lessons.

After the war, Lea backed her university teaching with her passionate commitment to the new-born Jewish-Christian dialogue. According to what Marco Cassuto Morselli, one of her dearest students says, she also frequented – not without some diffidence – Monsieur Chouchani, one of the most mysterious figures of 20th century Judaism, the venerated Talmud teacher of Emmanuel Lévinas and Elie Wiesl, who died in Montevideo in 1968 and whose tomb bears an epitaph composed by Wiesel.

Lea also collaborated with ADEI, the Jewish women’s association, but without an emphasis on the female. In speaking to her in later years, one had the impression that she had gone beyond feminism which she considered outdated and obsolete.

From 1968 to 1970 she taught Greek, language and literature, at the University of Beersheba and Italian at the University of Tel Aviv, while for the last decade of her husband’s professional activity she lived with him in Locarno.

In 1979 they returned to Rome where two years later Umberto died. Lea Sestieri then became even busier. She taught post-biblical Judaism at the Pontifical Lateran University, directed the Radici series for the Marietti publishing house and was one of the founders of Amicizia ebraico-cristiana of Rome, as well as giving lectures and undertaking intensive work as a free-lance journalist.

Fr Innocenzo Gargano, a Camaldolese monk, was one of the people closest to Lea in the new-born organization of Jewish-Christian talks at Camaldoli. For about 10 years Lea and Fr Innocenzo animated a “seedbed” of Roman studies, consisting of weekly meetings at which texts by Jewish teachers and by the Fathers of the Church were read. “The spirit of friendship that Lea created made possible new perspectives of interpretation”, Fr Innocenzo recalled, “which I found extraordinarily enriching”.

Her many other writings belong to the Roman period: Gli ebrei nella storia di tre millenni (1980), Le chiese cristiane e l’ebraismo (1983, in collaboration with Giovanni Cereti), La spiritualità ebraica (1987), David Reubeni. Un ebreo d’Arabia in missione segreta nell’Europa del Cinquecento (1991). The latter book is unusual in its overall scope. It is a historical study dedicated to a thorough reconstruction of the figure of David Reubeni who claimed to be a prophet, an adventurer who arrived in Italy from the East in 1524 and died, after incredible events, at the hand of the Spanish Inquisition in 1538. It is a book devoid of indulgence for the Messianic aspects of the adventure of Reubeni and his companion Molho; it is even somewhat ironic, inspired by an almost illuminist spirit.

Ebraismo e cristianesimo. Percorsi di mutua comprensione (2000) was Lea’s last work. The book is a collection of her lectures and lessons, conceived of to strengthen, and in some cases, to create a relationship of understanding and rapprochement.

For Lea, John Paul ii’s visit to Israel on 23 March 2000, which augured an increasingly intense dialogue by both parties, was the culmination of this laborious journey.

On that occasion she wrote: “My point of view – and for about 50 years I have dedicated a large part of my time to the reconciliation between Jews and Christians, seeking to make known to non-Jews who we are and what the Judaism is that we, both orthodox and secular Jews, practise and live – is that we must still face animosity and conflicts; nevertheless I feel, with my sensitivity as a committed person, that the Pope’s tentative steps in Israel were steps whose footprints cannot be obliterated; they must become an intrinsic part of the Christian Church in general, in her reconciliation with those who provided her roots, without which she could not have come into being”.

Lea with her son Claudio Scazzocchio on her 90th birthday

However her interest in biblical texts and Judaism, what she called her “Judaization”, never became a religious way of life. She felt and was profoundly secular, and even knew how to find the words with which to say so: “The more radical my Jewishness became the greater the solidity my secularism acquired”, she would say, recalling her studies at the Rabbinical College so many years earlier, on the occasion of the celebration of her 90th birthday. “What was important for me was to have put into practice on my long journey the teachings I had received then, in dialogue with my teachers and with my companions, regardless of whether these teachings were of human or divine origin. The important thing is action”.

With Lea Sestieri this action was never lacking until the declining strength of such a long old age prevented it. This action comprised first of all her continuous and constant activity in interreligious dialogue, which she carried on with great intellectual freedom and listening to others, but also was expressed in the profundity of her historical and biblical studies, which became, in her own words, “props” of her dialogue, in encounters, without ever losing their depth.

She was a woman – and we believe that all those who, like us, knew her and spent time with her cannot but agree on this – who was truly exceptional, a free spirit and open to the whole world.

Anna Foa and Giovanna Grenga

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