Sunday, February 15, 2009

NY Jewish Culture Examiner: The Western Hemisphere's only Greek Romaniote Synagogue

When it first opened its doors in 1927 Kehila Kedosha Janina (the holy community of Ioannina) was one of hundreds of little synagogues on Manhattan’s Lower East Side; unlike its neighbors, however, it was not founded by Eastern Europeans fleeing violence and discrimination but by Greek speakers who came for economic opportunity. Not only were these Greek speakers a minority among their mostly Yiddish speaking neighbors in Manhattan; they were also a minority within Greece‘s mostly Ladino speaking Jewishcommunity. Its members come from Ioannina or Janina, a town in northwest Greece near the Albanian border. Today, although almost none of its members still live in the neighborhood, thesynagogue located at 280 Broome Street still usually gets an Orthodox minyan (a quorum of 10 adult males) on Shabbat mornings, and on Sundays it is open to the public at large as a museum.
I toured this synagogue on a recent Sunday as part of a group of fellow members of my Park Slope congregation. We were greeted by two elderly gentlemen who explained that they are Romaniote Jews, the descendants of Jerusalem Jews who were enslaved by the Romans after the fall of Jerusalem in the year 70 C.E. and escaped from a slave ship en route to Italy when a storm left them on the shores of Greece. There they joined an existing Greek Jewish community dating to the time of Alexander the Great. When Greece’s Jewish population increased several fold with the arrival of Spanish and Portuguese Jews in the 1490s the Romaniote Jews became a minority within a minority. Our two hosts spent their childhoods in hiding during World War Two, when The Germans murdered 87% of Greece’s Jews, and arrived in this county in the 1950s.
The approximately 30-40 foot wide three story building, whose interior has been restored to its original design, has a kitchen and dining area on the bottom floor, the main sanctuary on the middle floor, and the women’s section on the top floor. The tour began in the main sanctuary where the lectern is located in the middle of the room while the arkcontaining the Torah scrolls is at the far end of the room. The ark was opened for us, and we were shown the Torah scrolls, which are housed in a case as is the Sephardi practice, and one of which has a unique Hebrew calligraphy particular to Greek Jews. Our elderly hosts were joined by Marsha Haddad Ikonomopoulos, the museum director, who explained that the congregants, who drive to Synagogue, practice a lax form of Orthodoxy: the women do not cover their hair, and after services, when the women come downstairs, men and women greet each other with kisses and on social occasions and celebrations dance together.
Our tour included a Greek lunch of garden salad, olives, feta cheese, stuffed grape leaves, pita bread, and eastern Mediterranean pastries.  On our way downstairs we passed a Wall of Moral Courage whose plaques bear the names of Greek gentiles who saved their Jewish neighbors during the Holocaust. The top floor museum is a work in progress. Its windows house display cases for the museum exhibits, some of which are permanent while others change periodically. The permanent exhibit includes displays of textiles (an industry dominated by Romaniote Jews both under the Byzantine and the Ottoman empires) and of a unique form of birth certificate used by Romaniote Jews calledAlephs which include genealogies and Kabbalistic elements. The current exhibit describes community members’ service in the US armed forces during World War II. Also on the top floor are two tables with books about Greek Jewry for sale and a large flat panel television on which we were shown a half hour documentary about the synagogue; the film would benefit from tighter editing.
The group tour, which includes lunch and the movie, is two and a half hours long, costs $18 per person and is available to groups of at least 10 and no more than 50 people. Individual visitors, who are asked for a small voluntary contribution, are welcome to tour the synagogue on Sundays between 11 AM and 4 PM. The tour introduced me to a community about which I was largely ignorant, and I enthusiastically recommend it.
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