The Jewish Palate: The Romaniote Jews of Greece

Chef Dennis Wasko explores the history of the Jews of Greece, how they integrated into the society and how they adapted their cuisine.

Greece (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Jews have lived in Greece and the surrounding areas for over 2,000 years.  The descendants of this ancient population are known as Romaniotes, which denotes their existence since the time of the Roman (Byzantine) Empire.  They are a smaller Jewish subgroup, distinct from the Sephardic Greek community which did not arrive in Greece until their expulsion from Spain in 1492.  The Romaniote community was once a strong segment of Greek society and large concentrations could be found in most major cities.  Today, after their near annihilation during the Holocaust, most Romaniote Jews live in New York and Israel.
The Romaniote population is thought to represent the oldest permanent Jewish settlement in Europe.  After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE many Jews were taken into slavery and shipped to Rome.  According to Romaniote tradition, some of those ships ran aground in the Ionian Sea near the Albanian coast.  The survivors managed to get ashore and eventually came to settle amongst the Greeks in the area that would become Ioannina.  They adopted Greek customs and culture, but remained Jews.  They adopted the Greek language, but continued to use Hebrew symbols.  Eventually their language became known as Yevanic, a form of Judeo-Greek.
The 12th century traveler, Benjamin of Tudela, documented the existence of large Jewish communities living in Corfu, Arta, Corinth, Thebes, Thessaloniki, and other Greek cities and towns.  The largest population was in Thebes with about 2,000 Jewish inhabitants.  The Jews worked in the garment industry, dyeing cloth, weaving, and making silk clothing.  Benjamin referred to the Jews he saw as Romaniotes.
The year 1492 saw wave after wave of Sephardic Jewish settlement in Ottoman Greece.  The expulsion of Spain’s Jewish population heralded a new era for Greek Jews.  Suddenly, there were two distinct Jewish populations living in Greece: the Yevanic speaking Romaniotes, and the Ladino speaking Sephardim.  Not only did they speak different languages, but they also practiced different customs.  The Romaniotes were followers of the Jerusalem Talmud and the Sephardim followed the Babylonian Talmud.  As a result, the two groups lived in separate communities.  over time, the wealthier Sephardim gained more power and affluence, leading to the assimilation of many Romaniote communities.
By the beginning of the 20th century, the Romaniote population of Ioannina had reached roughly 4,000; but by the beginning of World War II, that number had dropped to about 1,950.  Time and periodic bouts of Anti-Semitism had reduced the overall Jewish population, but especially the Romaniote population which was small to begin with.  The once strong Romaniote population of Corfu was forced to flee in the late 19th century during a pogrom instigated by a blood libel.
The Jewish population of Greece was savaged by the Holocaust.  It is estimated that 86% of Greek Jews were exterminated by the Axis powers.  In Thessaloniki alone, it is estimated that 49,000 Jews were deported and murdered.  Once again, the differences among the Jewish communities became apparent.  The Sephardim were easier to weed out as their Greek accent was not as pure and convincing as the Romaniote Greeks.  In Ioannina, 1,860 out of 1,950 Romaniote Jews were deported to Auschwitz/Birkenau in April, 1944 and murdered.
There are only 4,500 to 6,000 Jews remaining in Greece today.  Most Romaniote Jews live in Israel and the United States.  While there is still a small population remaining in Greece,  it is an aging population and dwindling quickly.   The Romaniotes of today follow the Sephardic Rite as the Romaniote Rite no longer exists except for a few Zemirot used on the Island of Corfu. 
The cooking of the Romaniote Jews is classically Greek with its use of locally gown and seasonal produce.  When the early Jewish refugees settled in Greece, they adapted the cuisine of their neighbors to Jewish Dietary Laws.  This differs from the Sephardic Jews who held on to the culinary traditions of their Spanish ancestors.  Over time recipes were exchanged between the communities so that today both Romaniote and Sephardic recipes are grouped together as one culinary tradition, though many of the Sephardic recipes retain their Ladino names.
One of the most important staples of Greek Cuisine is a pot of braised greens.  Greek peasants have survived many hardships by eating the wide variety of wild greenery that grows all over Greece.  Even in times of great famine the people of the mountainous regions have fared well by simply eating what naturally grew in their backyards.  Drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and paired with rustic peasant bread, the greens become a vitamin packed, nutritious meal.
This is my version of classic Greek-style braised greens.  It makes a great side dish or the focus of a vegetarian meal.  The long, slow braising makes the greens meltingly tender and delicious and they are perfect for Passover or anytime.
Greek-Style Braised Greens
Serves 6
-¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
-1 small onion, finely chopped
-4 to 6 garlic cloves, sliced
-2 pounds rinsed and stemmed kale, Swiss chard, dandelion greens or a mixture, roughly chopped
-1 cup fresh or canned tomato puree
-2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
-Kosher salt and freshly cracked pepper to taste.
-Extra virgin olive oil for garnishing
1.    Heat a large saucepan over medium low heat.  Add olive oil, onion, and garlic.  Sweat until the onion turns translucent and is very soft (about 15 minutes).
2.    Add chopped greens, tomato, lemon juice, and salt and pepper to taste.  Stir to combine, cover the pot, reduce heat to low, and allow the vegetables to steam for 10 minutes.
3.    After 10 minutes, stir the greens.  Cover the pot and allow the mixture to braise in natural liquid for 1 hour. 
4.    Check pot to be sure there is enough liquid.  If too dry, add a little water to moisten the greens. Continue cooking for one more hour or until the greens are very soft and tender.
5.     Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.  Serve the greens drizzled with more olive oil.