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Jewish Journal

Lack of Jewish Life in Greece Just Myth

by Beverly Gray

October 6, 2005 | 8:00 pm

When twilight descends on mountain villages and sun-kissed beaches, sociable Greeks make their way to tiny sidewalk cafes. They toast the end of the workday with anise-flavored ouzo, accompanied by plates of broiled octopus and green olives.

Dinner in the taverna is a long, lingering affair filled with an array of garlicky salads, fish, meat and maybe a slice of phylo-wrapped kasseri. As the night winds down, life moves to the cafeneion, where sweet and potent Greek coffee and perhaps a nibble of baklava serve as the perfect nightcap.

Poets have been known to wax lyrical about "the glory that was Greece." Yet a visitor to Greece today quickly finds that the glory's not only in the past tense. While those who built the shrines to Zeus and Apollo are long gone, the people who inhabit modern Greece are unquestionably alive.

The nation's once-proud Jewish population, which dates back to Alexander the Great, was largely decimated during World War II. But from Rhodes to Athens, Greece's rich Judaic history and culture are being preserved, and the seeds of the Jewish community are beginning to take root again.

Athens, a megalopolis whose population tops 3 million, has all the hallmarks of a major city: museums, theaters, office towers, the occasional Starbucks. Still, it remains quintessentially Greek.

Armed guards in short, pleated skirts; tasseled caps, and shoes with floppy pompoms keep watch in front of Parliament, across the street from Athens' Syntagma (Constitution) Square. At regular intervals, they solemnly perform an oddly lopsided strut, complete with high kicks and sustained balletic poses. It's a hint that the impulse to break out the dance moves is deeply rooted in the Greek soul.

Part of the thrill of Athens is that history is everywhere. A shady café in Plaka borders the delightful Tower of the Winds, dating from the time when Julius Caesar's Romans ruled Greece. On a shopping expedition to the Athens Flea Market, tourists find themselves skirting the Ancient Agora, where Socrates and Plato once strolled. The city's main bus lines terminate not far from the massive, horseshoe-shaped Panathenaic Stadium. Built in the fourth century CE on the ruins of an earlier stadium, it was restored for the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, and played a dramatic role in the opening ceremonies of the Athens Olympiad of 2004.

But what makes Athens most special is the large flat hill in its center -- the fabled Acropolis. Visitors must wend their way on foot, past the charming restaurants and shops of the old Plaka district, to reach one of the world's most dazzling sights. The Parthenon, along with the other ruined temples that gleam in the bright Greek sun, dates from the fifth century BCE. In ancient times this was the center of community worship, and it's easy to imagine throngs of pilgrims bearing offerings for the goddess Athena here.

But not every ancient Greek worshipped a pantheon of gods and goddesses. In the marketplace under the Acropolis are the remains of a fifth century BCE synagogue, which still feature carvings of lulavs and a menorah. Happily, Athens can also boast Jewish sites of much more recent vintage. The city is home to the handsome Jewish Museum of Greece, built in 1997, which gives eloquent testimony to the lost glories of Greek-style Judaism. Today Athens' small but vibrant Jewish community -- comprising more than 3,000 of Greece's 5,000 Jews -- supports a day school, a youth center and a functioning synagogue.

Beth Jacob, founded in the 1930s, occupies an austere neoclassical building on a quiet street that was once the heart of a bustling Jewish quarter. It is open for Sephardic services throughout the year. Directly across Melidoni Street, one can also spot the historic (and well-guarded) Ioannina Synagogue, dating from 1903. Once the headquarters for Athenian Jews who embraced Greece's ancient and unique Romaniote tradition, it is used on the High Holidays, but can also be viewed by special arrangement with the Jewish Community of Athens organization, which shares its premises.

Further afield, the traveler can find traces of Jewish life both on the Greek mainland and on many of Greece's most romantic islands. One prime destination is Thessaloniki, also known as Salonika, where Jews who had fled from Spain in the 15th century found a safe haven under Ottoman rule. As late as 1900, almost half of the city's population was Jewish. Now the 1,300 Jews still remaining in the area enjoy a community center, a school, and a kosher butcher, as well as a daily minyan. It's possible to visit several charming Thessaloniki synagogues, along with a newly enhanced Jewish history museum that stands in the heart of the picturesque Modiano Market.

Jews planning to cruise the Greek islands can explore their heritage when they tire of beachcombing. In Corfu, a 300-year-old synagogue displaying a collection of Torah crowns is open every Saturday and by appointment. Remnants of Jewish life dating back to antiquity are found on Delos, Naxos and Zakynthos, among others. Chalkis, on the island of Euboea, claims to be the oldest Jewish community in Europe: today a 19th-century synagogue is a reminder of past glories. In Hania, Crete, an international archaeological effort led to the recent restoration of a Romaniote synagogue built in the middle ages. And a similar venture, spearheaded by Aron Hasson of Los Angeles, has helped preserve the Jewish historic sites of Rhodes. (See accompanying story.) The island's 16th century Kahal Shalom, Greek's oldest-functioning synagogue, now also plays host to the Jewish Museum of Rhodes. This informative museum makes an excellent jumping-off point for tours of the ancient Sephardic quarter known as "La Juderia."

Most Hellenic vacations prove unforgettable because of the hospitality of the Greek populace, the beauty of the Greek landscape and the antiquity of the Greek culture. It's no surprise that Jews lived contentedly on Greek soil for more than 2,000 years. Today's visitor can revel in the splendors of Greece, while still pausing to remember the Jewish people who once made this land of sun and sea their home.

 

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