The pre-Ashkenazi and Sephardi Romaniote Jews

The obscure Romaniote Jewish tradition struggles to make the Diaspora aware of its relevance.

invisjew  88 298 (photo credit: Shoka  Javadiangilani)
invisjew 88 298
(photo credit: Shoka Javadiangilani)
'The dust, it's driving me crazy," says Marcia Haddad Ikonomopoulos, squirreling around boxes and piled-high chairs. The dust really is unwieldy and Marcia, clad entirely in black, is dotted with spots. Agitated, she wipes the impressions from her midriff. She's usually in a decent mood, but the renovations at Kehila Kedosha Janina, plodding along with no end in sight, are gnawing away at her patience. Kehila Kedosha Janina, or the Holy Congregation of Ioannina, a synagogue on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, received a boon from the City of New York: Historic landmark status. This distinction came with a $50,000 matching grant to restore the temple's original 1927 exterior. Soon after, another boon materialized: A congregant bequeathed $150,000, funds that are subsidizing the synagogue's interior face-lift. Since the renovations began countless months ago, carpenters have mangled the temple's electrical wiring, they've delayed installing the A/C, the first coat of paint bled after a few preparatory strokes and the handful of congregants who actually make it to the synagogue on weekends have been uprooted, moved temporarily to the basement. Despite these nightmares, the renovations mark a watershed in the history of the Romaniote Jews, an obscure branch of Judaism that predates Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jewry. The city's recognition of KKJ as a historical landmark ensures that even though the Romaniote people will vanish altogether - a prediction that Romaniotes themselves consider a fait accompli - the synagogue will stand as evidence of their existence. Marcia, a tall, middle-aged woman with clear green eyes and jet-black hair, possesses a finely tuned grasp on the history of Greek Jewry. She lectures on Jewish identity and history at a college in Long Island. On Sundays, as the synagogue's museum director, she, along with a few others, enlightens Jewish tourists on the Romaniote ethos. On any given weekend this could be busloads of American tourists to a handful of passersby prompted to stop in by the "Open To The Public, Free Tours" sign on the front door. Rita and Herb Shedlin stopped in on a whim. Native New Yorkers and Ashkenazi Jews, they'd never heard of the Romaniotes before. They circled around the synagogue and its second-floor museum wide-eyed as Sol Kofinas, who was born in Ioannina but escaped to America during the Nazi invasion, imparted the unique history of his Romaniote heritage. "This is fascinating, just fascinating," responds Edith, her husband nodding. Their reaction resembles that of most visitors: Who are these people, the Romaniote Jews? And why had we not heard of them? ROMANIOTES ARE a 2,000-year-old culture virtually unknown, even to their neighbors. A tiny group; a minority within a minority. An obscure branch of Judaism, which few Jews have ever heard of, with traditions dating back to Roman times (from the Kehila Kedosha Janina Web site). Like all Jews, the Romaniotes come equipped with their own mighty legend of survival. On a ship bound for Rome carrying Jewish slaves, just after the destruction of the Second Temple, a vigorous storm blew in, rerouting the vessel and wrecking it near the city of Ioannina in the coastal region of Epirus. Those who survived the shipwreck, so touched by Ioannina's beautiful landscape, decided to stay. "It's a lovely story. But it never happened," says Marcia about the shipwreck. Jews arrived on what is "now Greek soil as early as 300 BCE," writes Marcia in an e-mail. "The first Jews probably arrived from Alexandria in North Africa and were Hellenized." Having absorbed the widespread socio-cultural influences of Hellenism - including the Greek language - they readily acclimated to their new surroundings. "The term Romaniote was coined between the fourth and 10th centuries. While Greek Christians living in the Eastern Roman Empire called themselves Romanoi," Jews, in contrast, used the moniker Romaniote, "both terms referring to the fact that they were citizens of the Roman Empire." Over time, as Ioannina, in northeast Greece, grew into a viable commercial center, it grew into the Romaniote heartland, although the Diaspora stretched to other Greek cities like Corfu, Thebes and Arta. Today, the largest Diaspora of Romaniotes exists in New York, but it's dwindling rapidly. "Everyone's gone," laments Isaac Dostis, a 64-year-old descendant of Romaniotes from Ioannina who grew up in New York. They've gone to New Jersey, to Florida, to Long Island or to their graves. Younger generations show little interest in sustaining the Romaniote legacy, explains Isaac, opting to conflate their traditions with the Sephardim, as Romaniotes have done for centuries since these descendants of Spain settled in Greece. Others do what most Jews seem to do once they've assimilated to American culture: Adhere to the status quo of Jewry - Ashkenazi religiosity. As Isaac sums up, "We have no rabbis. No more prayer books. No teachers. No day schools." The prayer books used at KKJ follow the Sephardi tradition. There are no rabbis in New York or Ioannina. What can be perceived as Romaniote culture - food, architecture, styles of dress, rites, intellectual or aesthetic achievements - are vanishing along with its people. THE HOLOCAUST precipitated the community's downward spiral. Greece, more than any other occupied European country, suffered the worst losses - 87 percent of their Jewry, according to Marcia - although there had been an effort by some members in the Greek Orthodox Church to thwart the deportation of Jews. Ioannina was one of the last cities captured. Stalin's Red Army, encroaching from one end while the Americans infiltrated from another, forced Hitler to wage a heavy coup de grace. Hitler wanted the Jews in death camps murdered fast, so roundups were swift and efficient. The few Ioanninans who escaped the roundup on March 25, 1944 hid in the mountains and joined the Resistance. At the turn of the century, about 5,000 Romaniote Jews lived in Ioannina; just before WWII, their numbers shrank to a population of nearly 2,000. Today, in their heartland, there are only 40 Jews. "We are the orphan children of the Jewish community," says Marcia who, incidentally, is not Romaniote but Sephardi, a fact that's irrelevant since she has embodied the Romaniote identity. "We haven't had our Elie Wiesels or other writers to document our story. When you walk into any Holocaust museum you'll notice our absence. For us, that's very, very painful." A provocative statement, no doubt, but one that conveys the sense of alienation and dislocation that lingers among community members. However, in May 2005, after much petitioning from KKJ members, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin announced that they planned to highlight one Romaniote Holocaust story, on Eftihia Nachmias Nachman, a survivor who now resides in Greece. Nachman wrote a memoir-cum-compendium entitledYannina: A Journey to the Past, edited by Marcia and Isaac. It describes the indignities that Romaniote Jews endured during the Holocaust, and shares in its pages the customs and manners particular to this tradition. Well before the German invasion and near-obliteration of the Romaniotes in Ioannina in 1944, many Jews from this Greek city immigrated to America for economic advancement. In 1906, the first minyan of Romaniote migr s formed. In 1927, with the Romaniote presence growing, community members raised enough money to knock down two abutting tenement houses - housing projects typical in New York City, rising only a few stories high and infamous for their horrifying living conditions - and erect a small synagogue. As was common among Jews resettling in an adopted country, the Romaniotes named their synagogue after their beloved city, Ioannina. (Janina is the French spelling.) IN ITS HEYDAY, around mid-century, KKJ formed the epicenter of Romaniote Jewry. Romaniotes carved out an enclave in the Lower East Side, the iconic, seamy district of Manhattan known for its broad swathe of immigrant populations. Once upon a time, Romaniote bubbies dotted the streets, "sat on stools on Broome Street all the way to Houston Street," jokes Sol as he points in a gesture to indicate the distance. "They'd gossip, talk about cooking, about the young kids." Today, the Chinese have expanded their presence in the Lower East Side from neighboring Chinatown. The odor of Chinese-run fish markets and incense from street-side devotional worship from nearby Buddhist temples mingles with an astonishing scent of decay and rot from sewage pipes. Gentrification, no greater menace to the traditionalists who have sworn to defend New York City from its real estate boom, has pushed many immigrants farther away. Boutiques and bars rise anew. Jewish proprietors have been priced-out; most have packed up and moved on. In fact, KKJ's resilience is astounding; it's one of the few synagogues still functioning in the Lower East Side. Faced with the reality of their own extinction, a handful of congregants embarked on a journey to revive whatever nominal base of Romaniote Jewry exists in New York City. Marcia, Isaac and Hy Genie, KKJ's recently deceased president, set forth a two-pronged plan to salvage the Romaniote identity. First, they sought to establish a museum that would exhibit and celebrate their history in Ioannina and New York City. Second, they promised to do what the rest of the Jewish community neglected - to honor the Romaniotes murdered in the Holocaust. Compared to New York City's prestigious art and cultural institutions like the MOMA or Met, with their vast resources and subsidies, Kehila Kedosha Janina's museum is modest. It resembles, in fact, an attic, its only natural light peering in from a few skylights. The museum, open only on Sundays, doubles as the designated balcony where Romaniote women pray. Black-and-white photographs of Romaniote rabbis, cantors and heroes (of which there are only a handful) are displayed haphazardly but proudly. The instruments used by mohels sit in a walnut-colored china cabinet near an old tube of toothpaste, presumably a popular Greek brand. Traditional silk costumes encased in glass tell the story of fashion and commerce, as silk and other textiles were once popular exports. Individually, these relics seem plucked and propped at random. Collectively, the dearth of objects signals how an oral tradition - one of the oldest in Jewish history - escaped documentation altogether. The Romaniotes were "never aggressive and proud of [themselves] and haven't been since they were submerged in the 15th century [by the Sephardim]," says Dr. Steven Bowman, professor of Judaic Studies at the University of Cincinnati. But when they finally began to "develop national pride in the 20th century," the Nazis nearly wiped them out. "And young kids [today] don't have an identity to latch on to. No heroes. Especially, I should say, no religious heroes." As Dr. Bowman points out, a glossy coffee-table book published in 2000 entitled Synagogues of New York City: History of A Jewish Community, omitted Kehila Kedosha Janina entirely. A regrettable oversight of one of New York's historical gems. As KKJ proclaims on their Web site, the Romaniotes are represented in only one place "in the entire Western hemisphere," at 280 Broome Street on the Lower East Side. "I'm not even Jewish," says Vincent Giordano, a commercial photographer based in Manhattan. Nor is he Greek. Nonetheless, Vincent has spent the last six years working independently to establish a photographic archive on the Romaniote Jews. He recognized their historical relevance one afternoon while snapping photos of the architectural details of KKJ's exterior. Hy Genie popped his head out from the synagogue and encouraged Vincent to take a tour of the inside. Since then, he's expanded this undertaking into a documentary film aptly titled Before the Flame Goes Out, that's still in its early stages. It bemuses Vincent that "one of the major trunks of Jewish liturgical history" has escaped the interest of "mainstream" Jewish institutions. "It would be big news if the newspapers said that 100 Sephardi people were left," says Vincent. "One day, you'll wake up and the last person to write a letter to, to ask a question to [about the Romaniote legacy] will be purely history... That's the urgency of it." ON A COLD Shabbat morning on March 25, 1944, which was also Greek Independence Day and Pessah, German soldiers, with the help of Greek informants and the civil police, surrounded and barricaded the center of Ioannina. German police designated two spots to convene Jews: the military hospital located inside the city and lakeside at Mavili Square, situated in the suburbs. According to several personal accounts, beginning as early as 3:00 a.m., German soldiers knocked at the doors of about 500 Jewish homes. Starting the week before this roundup, German and Greek informants gathered together names and addresses with the help of - as the rumor circulated among some of the captured - a Jewish conspirator working for the Gestapo. As soldiers collected valuables, marshalled prisoners and photographed the roundup, 80 open-air military trucks arrived to transfer captives to a warehouse in Larissa, Greece, a midway stopping point. From there, everyone was transported to Poland by cattle car. "As of 7:45 a.m., the ghetto has been evacuated and all the Jews were gathered together at the designated place... By 8:00 a.m., the transport had begun," reads a report from the German Secret Police. After a difficult three-week journey, including a week-long stop in Larissa, the Jews of Ioannina finally arrived in Poland on April 11, 1944. Records indicate that 1,960 Ioanninans - all Romaniotes - were sent to Auschwitz and its subsidiary work camp, Birkenau. Of the nearly 2,000 Romaniotes captured, fewer than one hundred survived. At the time of their capture, Romaniotes were largely working class. They were lamp and sofa makers, butchers, peddlers, seamstresses and window glazers. They had assimilated fully into Greek culture. In their own social circles, Jews conversed in a Greek-Judaic dialect, but to townspeople they spoke Greek. By comparison, Sephardi Jews in Salonika were comparatively wealthier; they were thought to be culturally insular, a strange people with odd customs and a curious language, Ladino. Those who did survive Auschwitz went to Israel or returned to Ioannina to find the air stale with post-war antipathy. At age 19, Doris Cohen, an Auschwitz survivor who now lives in Brooklyn, New York, remembers returning to Ioannina after the camps and earnestly trying to resume life in her childhood home. "I kept hearing my mother's voice. Can you believe it? My mother's voice! Oh, it was awful. Just awful," says Cohen. Her mother was murdered at Birkenau soon after the roundup. Cohen eventually moved to Athens and then later to New York. Louis Levy, an American naval officer whose ship docked at the Greek harbor, was one of the first Romaniotes to reach Ioannina after liberation. Although Levy grew up in New York, his parents were among the first wave of Ioannina exiles to move to the US. Since the start of the war, communication between the communities had been severed. What news did travel among New Yorkers about their relatives abroad oscillated between misinformation or nothing at all. Levy, eager to learn of their fate and report back, hitchhiked 212 miles from the port city of Patras, where his vessel was docked, to Ioannina. He documented his journey in a 13-page journal entry dating back to June 1945. As he notes, he arrived at a city intact but nearly absent of Jews. He mentions that he met only seven Auschwitz survivors, most of whom returned to homes that were looted or occupied by squatters. To his surprise, these captives were young, ranging from ages 18 to 25, alerting to a community raped of its children and elders. ON THE MORNING of March 25, 1944, a German soldier snapped almost two dozen photographs of the roundup for the German Army and Air Force Office of Propaganda. These were later found with a note: "For Research on the Murdered Jews of Europe." Isaac Dostis discovered reproductions of these photographs accidentally. A few were featured in a monograph on the Holocaust in Greece. They bore the caption, "an unknown city in Greece," recalls Isaac. After some investigating with Hy Genie, he confirmed his suspicions that the photographs were of Ioannina - "there was something about those trees," says Isaac. With Marcia on board, they located the original photographs in a German archive. Prints of these photographs hang in KKJ's museum next to a large map illustrating the journey by cattle car from Ioannina to Poland. Although these photos have circulated in communities where pockets of Romaniotes reside, such as Israel and Greece, Marcia wishes to cast a wider net and reach people who might be able to identify prisoners. So far, they've identified a few, mostly serendipitously, a cousin or grandchild passing through the museum and recognizing a relative. The anxiousness on the faces of those wrapped in heavy coats and blankets, mothers coddling children; these photos from the 1944 roundup mark the moment when their long, formidable struggle begins. There are two clusters, women and children on one end, men on the other. Even in reproductions, these images possess a deep metal-gray sheen. The sky appears blanched, the darks bold. Close-ups in this batch are rare, but there is one particular photo, of a woman perhaps of 18, who looms large in Marcia's search. Anyone who visits KKJ's Web site can link to a page titled "Holocaust in Ioannina." Along with the photograph, the site reads: "We are trying to identify this woman. If you can help us, contact our Museum Director." She's panic-stricken. Her hands sit low, clasped in a gesture of supplication. She is begging, but to whom? The source of her anguish stands somewhere in the distance, outside the frame. Her hair is cut in 1940s fashion, up to the shoulder with a few errant curls. Her coat is tailored close to her body. It appears to have the richness of dark velvet or suede, distinguishing it from other modest coats. "If the Germans were so intent on zooming in on her pain," says Marcia, "then I want to acknowledge her." What is her name? How old is she in this photograph? Did she survive the camps? "Anyone who could possibly identify her will not live much longer," she says wearily. "Time is almost up."