The last Renaissance man

A search for the Jewish soul of Chania.

INTERIOR OF the Etz Hayyim Synagogue in Chania, Greece. (photo credit: TAKEN FROM ETZ-HAYYIM-HANIA.ORG)
INTERIOR OF the Etz Hayyim Synagogue in Chania, Greece.
Chania, Crete, October 1999. Nikos Stavroulakis asked us, that Sunday morning, “Where are you going from here?” “Where do you suggest?” “Here, ” sketching a map on a thin paper napkin, “go this way and don't miss this village.” He underlined its name.
“What's there?” “Just ruins, and a great view,” he said.
“What's special about that – ruins? Crete has plenty of ruins.”
An impish but rather sweet smile. Speaking softly, he said, “That's where my grandfather's grandfather slaughtered a few hundred Christians.”
The previous day, his slight form wrapped in a tallit thrown over his head and almost touching the floor, he had mounted the bima, the raised platform from which the Torah scroll is read.
Trembling, visibly shaking with emotion, his voice choked, he had uttered the blessings over the Torah in a 500-year-old synagogue destroyed by the Nazis, in a town now almost totally devoid of Jews. The synagogue was rebuilt and rededicated because of his single-minded efforts.
This Jew, who had invested most of his life in recreating Greek Jewish life, had a great-great-grandfather who was a Muslim leader whose warriors slaughtered Christians. There was more to come, discovered in bits and pieces from conversations and from documents.
His name was Nicholas Peter Stavroulakis. A Greek mentor told me that “Stavroulakis” means “one who wears the cross” – a Christian name. Nicholas is the name of a Christian saint and Peter was the apostle who established the Church of Rome. Nikos’s Christian father, Peter, had been born Muslim and converted to Greek Orthodoxy; hence the brutal slayer of Christians in Nikos's ancestry.
Nikos's mother was a Dönmeh, the descendants of the followers of the false Messiah Shabtai Zvi. More than 450 years ago, these Sabbateans outwardly converted to Islam, but secretly practiced Judaism. They practiced strict endogamy – marriage within the group.
I first heard of Nikos when visiting dear friends in the United States perhaps 45 years ago. On their parlor wall was a series of 11 striking watercolors that radiated inner fire and delicate beauty, based on the Zohar.
My friends toiling their way up the steep slope from the Jewish quarter to the ridge overlooking the Western Wall found a young Nikos carefully clearing the fenced-off area where once stood a Byzantine, and later a Crusader church.
Stavroulakis was in Jerusalem, completing a PhD degree at the Hebrew University in archeology and art history. He had moved to Israel in 1969 and taken the Hebrew name Daniel Hannan. It was here as well that he illustrated the classic translation of the Book of Jeremiah.
So far we have seen five facets of Nikos: archeologist, artist, historian, rootedness in Judaism and spirituality rooted in Jewish mystical tradition. To this we can add love of Israel: the land and its people.
What led a boy born in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin – which from a Jewish point of view might be considered eck-velt, Yiddish for the end of the Earth – the son of a Christian father and a Dönmeh mother, to a deep inner Jewish identity and powerful belief? No one can trace the evolution of another's soul. We barely can trace our own spiritual path, if we have the need and the courage to look inward and search. Here we can only mark some of the stations and their location.
His path led through Notre Dame University, where he studied European literature and philosophy; two years later he earned a master’s degree in Islamic and Near Eastern studies at the University of Michigan. He then began his graduate studies in Islamic art and architecture at London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).
That seemingly dry list of studies reveals a soul in search of his origins, a love of literature and language, and deeper delving into Islamic art and architecture. During his stay in London, the desire to confront his parents' homeland and their own world of the spirit could no longer be contained.
Nikos, by then in his mid-twenties, was also honing his art. In 1958, he left England for Athens and reunited with family there, especially Dori Kanellos, son of his father’s sister, Maria, whom he called “my brother.”
For the next eight years, while teaching in a number of academies, he pursued a parallel career as a painter and engraver, holding several one-man shows from New York to Jerusalem. His works are included in collections at the New York Museum of Modern Art and Houston MOMA, among others.
Most important, Nikos then returned fully to his mother's Jewishness, attending the Athens synagogues and studying Hebrew texts. He sought expression for his mystic bent in Kabbala – not that of Madonna and company, but the Kabbala as a means of uniting with God's presence.
In 1974, Nikos, armed with a PhD from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, returned to Athens, a Renaissance man who had found another mission: to tell the magnificent story of Greek Jewry.
He co-founded, designed and served as director of the Jewish Museum from 1977 to 1993, while acting as consultant for the new Jewish museums of Salonika and Rhodes. He followed this by writing two histories, The Jews of Greece and Salonica: Jews and Dervishes, before writing as a gourmet cook The Cookbook of the Jews of Greece.
In 1995 he returned to his father's ancestral home in Chania, a beautiful seaside Cretan city, storied in Jewish history and scholarship.
It was devoid of its Jews.
Nikos attached a mezuza to his father's home just off the lovely, curving Venetian harbor and set about restoring the small but magnificent Etz Hayyim Synagogue. Single-handedly he raised the funds and revived a dead community by recreating the spiritual expression of his religiosity. He called the synagogue a place of prayer, recollection and reconciliation.
Nikos was a person full of love and gentleness, but with a deep and fiery conviction of right and wrong. His life paid tribute to the 2,300-year-old Greek Jewish world, and his spiritual leadership brought solace to hundreds along the new path for the community he recreated.
THE NAZIS were sure they had removed all traces of Jews from Crete in 1944. That would have spelled the end of well over 2,000 years of a Jewish presence on the island. They did not reckon with Nikos Stavroulakis.
He was suffused, body and soul, with the desire to deny them that bloodstained victory and to recreate the long and rich history of the Jews in Chania.
Over the centuries, the name Chania was equivalent to a strong middle class of Jews: great doctors, outstanding rabbis, influential teachers to Jews and non-Jews, and traders who supplied many of European Jewish communities with kosher wine and cheese.
Sometimes some of these roles were combined.
Nikos was a visionary and a doer, an unusual combination.
What did he find on his return to Crete? Over the war years from 1940 to 1944, the synagogues of Chania had been destroyed, desecrated, pillaged and reduced to scarred reflections of their medieval glory. Painstakingly, Nikos persuaded benefactors – such as the Rothschild, Lauder and other foundations and individuals – to help restore the Etz Hayyim Synagogue.
One of these contributors reportedly asked, “How many Jews are left in Crete today?” “One.”
“So who will pray there?” “I will.”
Nikos harnessed all his unique skills in art, architecture, archeology and history to rebuild the synagogue. True to his word, he arrived every morning at nine to don his tallit and tefillin at Etz Hayyim.
This synagogue is different from synagogues most of our readers know. First of all, Greek Jews originally came directly from the Land of Israel. Over the centuries they continued their original way of prayer (and added to it, sometimes in Greek), which made them quite distinct from the Ashkenazi, Sephardi or Italian rites.
A brief historic reminder: After the Roman empire split in two, in the year 285 CE, the western empire was centered in Rome and the eastern in Byzantium (later Constantinople, and with the Turkish conquests renamed Istanbul). The eastern empire of Byzantium called itself the Second Rome. The citizens of Byzantium were called Romaio and its Jews became known as Romaniote Jews.
Here is what Nikos wrote about the Romaniote synagogue: “The interior of Etz Hayyim is laid out according to the tradition of Romaniote Jewish communities in Greece... This layout is quite different from that of the Sephardi synagogues in Greece and can also be found in Venice, elsewhere in Italy, and occasionally in Turkey and North Africa.
“In keeping with all synagogues the Ehal [Heichal or ark] is located on the East wall, but as is typical of Romaniote synagogues, the Bema [elevated platform for reading the Torah] is located... opposite to it against the West wall.”
Nikos was a man of great scholarship, and was exact as well as exacting; hence the double-y in Etz Hayyim. Hebraists know there is a dot in the letter yod, which doubles the sound. Nikos told me that the woodwork was no longer done as it had been in Europe and somehow knew to send the work to Sri Lanka! Over the centuries, Jews from other countries made their home in Crete. Under Venetian rule for about five centuries, 1200 to almost 1700, some Italian Jews moved to Crete. Spanish Jews came to the island both before and in greater numbers after the expulsion of 1492. Slowly Ladino replaced the Judeo-Greek dialect.
Life for the Jews of Crete was fraught with external pressures and problems. They suffered the antagonism of antisemitic Greek Orthodox priests, who encouraged attacks and commercial boycotts by the Cretan population. Later, when Byzantine rule was replaced by Roman Catholic Venice, they were the odd man out, as the brave and fiercely independent Cretans rebelled countless times against Venetian rule.
Then came the Ottoman Turks, who after years of warfare took the island from Venice and imported another culture, language and religion. All of these elements found expression in both Nikos’s family origins and in his thinking.
He reconstructed the beautiful synagogue, along with its ancient mikve and the tombs of some of its revered scholars, in a perfect embodiment of Jewish Romaniote and later Sephardi traditions.
Its small museum illustrates facets of Jewish life and its demise in Chania. Also memorialized were the 330 Chania Jews who drowned on a torpedoed German ship en route to Athens and Auschwitz.
Thousands have visited Etz Hayyim over the years, mostly non-Jewish tourists as well as Israelis and Diaspora Jews. Chania’s intellectual life has been enriched by the lectures and programs organized by Etz Hayyim .
In 2015, we spent Rosh Hashana at Etz Hayyim with Nikos, who spoke in English for the more than 100 Jews, locals and tourists present. Many were visiting Israelis, for whom I translated into Hebrew.
Then, before the call to prayer, Nikos and the volunteer cantor, Lior Asher of Tel Aviv, fell to their knees and bowed till their foreheads touched the ground. I do not know whether this is a Romaniote tradition or an innovation by Nikos. He had fallen some months earlier, and could not walk far unassisted, but he was like a healthy man as he genuflected.
The congregation, whether sitting or standing outside clustered about the door so they could participate as well, exuded a search for the beauty that is in our tradition, an openness to all people, and Nikos’s own deep belief in God and hope for the reconciliation of the children of Abraham: Jews, Muslims and Christians.
It was not an Orthodox service but all were welcome, men with covered heads, some women with scarves covering their hair and many not. In keeping with the Romaniote and true Sephardi tradition of openness, Athens Chief Rabbi Gabriel Negrin eulogized Nikos 30 days after his death, just as he had officiated at his burial service in the Athens Jewish Cemetery.
Nikos had an immense impact on my own life. Through his eyes and with his ancestry in mind, I wrote a novel, A Tale of Two Avrahams.
Its central story line develops the interplay among a rabbi- philosopher-doctor, Venetian Crete Catholics, Cretan Greek Orthodox, and a Muslim band.
Truth to tell, like many others I loved Nikos and shared his pain as his health deteriorated, so much so that in our last telephone conversation he could barely speak.
To me, to his followers and colleagues, he was a man of intellectual genius, spiritual depth and creativity. Above all, Nikos Stavroulakis was a microcosm of Jewish history, a Greek Jew. Nikos’s friends in Israel and abroad are commissioning a Torah scroll in his memory.
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