Home Culture Arts & Entertainment Legendary barber’s family secret becomes gripping theatre

Legendary barber’s family secret becomes gripping theatre

The family history of Gino Chiarella, left, is the inspiration for the new play Winter’s Daughter by Jesse Stong. (Janice Arnold pho-to)

Gino Chiarella, who has owned the barbershop in Hotel Ruby Foo’s in Montreal since 1974, can boast that 90 per cent of his customers are Jewish. Some have been coming for decades.

Gino & Dino is one of the few remaining old-fashioned men’s barbershops where scissors and straight razors are wielded. There never was a Dino; Gino Chiarella, at 77, still works alone.

Besides the service and location, there may be an unconscious reason why Jewish clients are loyal to him. In 1966, the Italian-born Chiarella was stunned to learn that he is, at least according to Judaism, Jewish himself.

He kept that family secret, even from his wife and children, until very recently. Now, the world is in on the astonishing truth about Chiarella’s late mother, Rosaria, who lived her whole life unaware of her origins.

The secrecy was not due to shame about being Jewish, but about the unease Chiarella’s grandparents felt until the end of their lives about how Rosaria became their daughter.

The play Winter’s Daughter, which was written by young Montreal playwright Jesse Stong and produced by Tableau D’Hôte Theatre, had its premiere at the Segal Centre on Nov. 27. It is a dramatization of what happened a century ago in rural southern Italy.

The play, however, is fictional, and before its opening, Chiarella quietly told The CJN what he learned in 1966, when he and his wife honeymooned at his grandparents’ farm in Italy’s Calabria region.

Chiarella’s grandfather told him he had something to confide, but Chiarella must first promise not to repeat it to anyone else.

In the aftermath of the First World War, his grandparents were a young couple struggling to survive with their first child, a daughter. In the summer, peddlers came around to the farms selling their wares.

They became friendly with one young couple who also had a girl, a toddler like their own. At one point, the peddler couple asked if their daughter could stay with Chiarella’s grandparents for the winter. They agreed, but the peddlers never returned and his grandparents did not know where they were from. They were foreigners, said Chiarella, but were known to be Jewish. The little girl’s Star of David necklace was kept by the grandparents and passed on to Chiarella that day.

That winter, his grandparents’ daughter died accidentally. Failing to find her parents, they decided to keep the peddlers’ daughter – Chiarella’s mother. They clandestinely buried their own daughter on their land and gave the girl her name, Rosaria.

Their other children that followed never knew she was anyone but their natural sister, nor did Rosaria.

After immigrating to Montreal in 1959, the Chiarellas lived in the Ahuntsic district, where Rosaria raised four sons.

“My mother lived and died (in 2005 at 88) a faithful Catholic,” he said. He remembers her as “very sharp, tough, but a nice lady.”

Chiarella said the revelation had no bearing on his own identity. “Absolutely not, being Jewish is a religion,” he said. Chiarella never left the one in which he was raised.

But the burden of carrying a secret for so long weighed on him.

A few years ago, he saw the semi-autobiographical play Mambo Italiano by Montrealer Steve Galluccio, which is about harbouring a secret about being gay.

“I thought I have a story more interesting than that,” Chiarella said, and realized it would do no one any harm to tell it at this point.

He heard a radio interview with biographer David Brody. Chiarella contacted him and Brody wrote The Peddlers’ Daughter, a short story that imagines what led the Jewish peddlers to abandon their daughter, with a non-fiction afterword by Chiarella.

“Until today, my own family has not known of their true ancestry,” he wrote. “It will not change anything except perhaps to make us a little more proud to realize that we are, in fact, descended from two of the greatest anchors of Western civilization, Catholic and Jewish.”

The story was never published beyond copies made for Chiarella. With his agreement, Brody approached Playwrights’ Workshop Montreal. The job of adapting it for the stage was given to Stong.

Table D’Hôte Theatre artistic and executive director Mathieu Murphy-Perron said the story fit with the company’s belief in the importance of creating historical dramas, not those about well-known events, but real experiences of ordinary people, especially those close to home.

The intimacy of this story struck Murphy-Perron and he is grateful to Chiarella for entrusting Stong with turning it into a play that audiences could reflect upon during its 10-performance run that ends Dec. 8.

Stong said he is neither Italian nor Jewish, but could relate as a parent to the dilemma of a grieving young couple who were just surviving themselves.

Directed by Emma Tibaldo, local actors Michaela Di Cesare and Ryan Bommarito played the couple, Amir Sam Nakhjavani the peddler and Alice Denton was little Rosaria.

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