When you think Greek, you think of a person who descends from Greece and who adheres to the culture of that country, including the Greek Orthodox faith. But Greece is a diverse country, home to minority cultural groups who share segments of Greek culture but nevertheless keep traces of their own identity. Such is the case of the Romaniotes, or Greek Jews. The majority of the “Yiannotes,” as they are more popularly called, trace their heritage to Ioannina in Northern Epiros. Here in the diverse melting pot of New York City, www.greekamericangirl.com had the pleasure of attending the 2nd annual Greek Jewish Festival under the auspices of Kehila Kedosha Janina, the one and only synagogue dedicated to the history and culture of this unique community of Greek Jews.
Scenes from this year’s 2nd Annual Greek Jewish Festival
Who are the Romaniates or “Yianniotes”?
Romaniote Jews are Greek Jews. They speak Greek and trace their history back to the time of the Great Jewish Diaspora. Romaniote Jews are a unique community of Jewish people whose history in Greece dates back over 2,300 years to the time of Alexander the Great. According to the historical accounts, when the Roman Governor Titus destroyed the Temple at Jerusalem, he sent a slave ship to Rome. The ship hit a storm off the coast of Albania and was grounded on the east coast of northern Greece. The Jewish castaways started walking and eventually entered the city of what is now Ioannina or “Yiannena.” They brought with them craftsman skills such as rug making and silversmithing. In Ioannina, they established two synagogues and lived for centuries side by side with their Greek Orthodox neighbors. They left a legacy of exquisitely detailed, refined silver jewelry making for the city and to this day the city of Yannena keeps this reputation. If you want to buy the finest crafted silverware and jewelry, you have to visit Yiannena.
Unlike the Ashkenazi who tend to speak Yiddish and Sephradic Jews who tend to speak Spanish, Romaniote Jews speak Greek exclusively. (Actually its a dialect of Greek known as Yavanic). Unlike the Sephardic Jews that tended to congregate around Thessaloniki and arrived after 1492, the Romaniotes have had a stable foothold in Greece. As a community they are the oldest Greek Jews dating backwards of 2.300 years to the time of Alexander the Great. They also keep distinctive customs as a result. One example of the differences as explained by Stuart Chernin, who comes from a long line of Cohens from Ioannina, a volunteer at the Festival, is how they keep their Torah. Romaniote Greeks keep the Torah in an upright vertical position; Ashkenazi in a slanted; and Sephardic in a horizontal position.
Tragically, the history of the oldest community of Greek Jews was cut short by the Holocaust. 91% of the Jews from Ioannina perished in the death camps of Auschwitz-Berkenau, higher than the national average at 87%. Ioannina was home to two large synagogues and roughly 4,000 members; now a handful, maybe 31, of Romaniate Jews reside in Ioannina, most have relocated to Israel or the US. Chernin testified to his own family’s demise; his grandmother was the sole survivor of the Holocaust, because at age 5, she came over on a boat through Ellis Island as an adoptee for a childless uncle. As the fifth daughter to a poor man, her father could not afford a dowry for her.
Kehila Kedosha Janina (the Holy Community of Janina)
Located in the heart of the Lower East Side at 280 Broome Street, the Kehila Kedosha Janina (the Holy Community of Janina) is one of five remaining temples in what once was a thriving Jewish enclave. It is the only Romaniote Synagogue of the Western hemisphere. The synagogue was founded in 1906 by a handful of Romaniote Greek Jews, but the building that houses the present temple did not open its doors until 1927. While hundreds of synogogues in the Lower East Side have closed their doors, Kehila Kedosha Janina is unique in that for nine decades it has kept its door open.
“Anyone can come and experience an authentic Orthodox Romaniote Shabbat service any Friday,” Chernin explains.
A designated NYC landmark, the synagogue serves as a cultural center for the Romaniote Greek community. In fact, the women’s gallery on the second floor doubles as a museum dedicated to the history and culture of this unique group of Greek Jews.
Marcia Haddad Ikonomopoulos ,the Museum Director and an expert on Romaniote history, writes:
Due to its location west of the Pindos Mountain Range, the community was isolated geographically from the mainstream of Judaism, even that within Greece. Consequently, it developed its own traditions, customs, and minhag, (prayer rites), and remained Greek-speaking even after most other Jewish communities on Greek soil were absorbed into the traditional Sephardic world following the post-1492 influx of Spanish-speaking Jews. Yanniote Jews, as they called themselves (only the scholars used the term Romaniote) remained a small community throughout its existence, probably never numbering more than four or five thousand at its peak.
About half the community (an estimated 2,000) immigrated to the United States between 1902 and 1924. Most settled on the Lower East Side of Manhattan not far from the present site of Kehila Kedosha Janina, a synagogue founded by Jews from Greece. Their reasons for leaving were political upheavals in the Balkans, economic instability, antiquated inheritance laws, and the dowry system plus, of course, the desire for a better life for themselves and their children. Lured by the possibility of educational and economic opportunities, they made the long and arduous journey to the New World. The small size, closeness of its members—most married within the community—and the fact that after immigration to the U.S., the community in Greece never lost touch with the community established in New York, has made quite easy the genealogical aspect of my job as museum director at Kehila Kedosha Janina (The Geneology of Yiannote Jews.)
The Unique Blending of Greek Yiannote and Jewish Culture.
As happens when one culture rubs shoulders with another for thousands of years, many cross-cultural borrowings take place. Liz Alderman, a physician whose great-grandfather was one of the founders of the KKJ, recounts how she and her cousins would play egg wars after Passover, an obvious borrowing of the Pascha Orthodox Greek tradition of cracking red eggs with the traditional response of “Christos Anesti” or “Christ is Risen.”
Then there’s the bougatsa. Bougatsa, a flaky desert made from creamy milk custard, is the staple desert of Iaonnina. It’s renowned in Greece for this delicacy. However, the Romaniotes Greek Jews borrowed the recipe and made a version that is uniquely their own. In fact, the best bougatsa could be had in the main shop in the town owned by a Jewish family, the museum’s director. Cal Attas, an 88-year-old congregant of the KKJ, remembers his great grandmother making a salty version of the Greek pastry. The recipe is lost irrevocably as he never learned to cook it himself.
When you look at the lanterns hanging from the second gallery of the KKJ, they look like the typical kandylia you would find dangling from the iconostasis of a Greek Orthodox Church. That’s because they are. The Jewish congregants brought them over with them on their journey to the New World, but replaced the Christian symbols with the star of David and other Judaic signs. One of the three Torahs in the synagogue has been authenticated by the Chief Rabbi of Athens as dating back thousands of years to the original Romaniote community. How did such a priceless treasure that normally should be in a safe or moisture-controlled glass survive? It was hidden secretly in the sanctum of a Greek Orthodox Church to escape the clutches of the Nazis who were rounding up any Judaica to obliterate the trace of their owners.
The tradition of silver filigree work as mentioned came to Ioannina largely from the Greek Jews. They perfected the art of silver jewelry and fine objects but with time their Greek neighbors adopted the techniques. Ioanniotika jewelry still holds an honored place in Greece thanks to this intermingling. Cal Attis, who was born in an apartment building right across from the synagogue, retired as a silversmith. Unbeknownst to him, his father and his mother’s father were silversmiths. “Silversmithing must be in the blood,” he states, referring to the long tradition of this craft in the Romaniote community.
But putting differences aside, there is much more in common culturally between a Romaniote Greek and a Greek Christian from Ioannina than with a Sephardic Jew.
“Romaniote mothers sang the same lullabies to their children as their Christian counterparts, they kept the same cooking, continued the same traditions,” Haddad Oikonomopoulos explains. “The pre-WWII Romaniotes that came to the US came with lots of the customs and traditions of their native counterparts but with time and intermarriage those customs diffused. What was not diffused was their sense of being Greek.”
So Greek in fact that St. Barbara’s Greek Orthodox Church was where Jewish Greek families sent their kids to learn Greek on the Lower East Side.
The Greek Jewish Festival: Year 2
This year marks the second time the KKJ has organized its Greek Jewish Festival. Last year’s turn out coming in at 2,500 visitors more than doubled this year to a record-breaking 6,000, according to the museum’s director.
“I think its success is due to the fact that we give people what they want and that it is so unusual,” Haddad Oikonopoulos explains. “Many people can’t get their heads around the idea of a Greek Jew. But I explain that we are Greek by ethnicity but Jewish by faith. No festival like this exists anywhere else. We even had people coming from across country this year for it.”
Banners uniting the Israeli, American and Greek flags span the length of the block and they symbolically signal its tri-cultural offerings. This year’s festival featured the traditional piles of Greek food, spanakopita, tiropita, salad, souvlaki. Unique, though, was the mingling of the cultures through music. Sephardic songs in Spanish follow on the heels of Greek folk anthems and some traditional Ladino ballads, a distinct genre of Greek Jewish music. The attraction of the festival no doubt is due to this diverse cultural intermingling.
The Romaniotes or “Yiannotes” stand to show the religious diversity in what is stereotypically considered one monolithic kind of Greekness.
For more information, check out:
www.kkjsm.org: the official website of the KKJ community. Not only a well-organized site, it includes scholarship and targeted articles on the Greek Romaniotes community, mostly to the efforts of its director, Marcia Haddad Ikonomoupoulos, a renowned researcher and unofficial resident historian.
The Greeks of Ioannina (0n sale at the bookstore of the museum)