A Modern Romaniote Odyssey
By Matt Hanson
I say I am, therefore I am.
I am I, I say.
I am that all of us
I am each and everyone is I.
In the words of G-d to Moses: I am that I am. The great proclamation of humanity is to say, “I am!” and to know oneself as “I”. If identify implies diversity, then to know oneself as I, is to know oneself as us. The proclamation continues: I am therefore we are. We are therefore I am.
I am called by names. And yet, I am not a name, and I do not live for one. I am a life, a being, an existence beyond sense. My names are signs, recognizable because they are shared. My names lead from me to us, to our place and time.
By name, I am another. Names are too often silent with untold histories. Within our names are the secrets of relationship to a place of belonging, and to times immemorial. We need not travel afar to meet the foreign, we need only to remember our names, and their meanings.
My middle and ceremonial names are Alexander and Menachem, respectively. Together, they have a special place in the family histories of Greeks and Jews. I bear my names as one body united with two nations whose peoples are traditionally divided geographically and politically, yet whose bloods mix in my name. We bear our names as one identity among our kindred peoples whose histories are rarely understood in unison. Yet they are because I am.
I am Alexander for the Macedonian prince who introduced his name to the ancient Hebrews of Judea. We are students of philosophy, and we remember the “Great” leader to the East as the first ruler from the European continent to embrace the Jewish people. Since he lived we have known the wisdom of Hellas.
I inherited the Hebrew name Menachem from my grandfather who was born to Greek-speaking Romaniote Jews in New York City. He was close with his many relatives from the modern Greek city of Ioannina, the birthplace of his mother and father. The ways they spoke, celebrated, wrote, mourned, played and cooked are endangered to the world, as they are all but lost to me.
I loved my grandfather. He is present in my earliest memory. Before passing away at one hundred years of age, he was a friend to me as I became a man. As a working-class veteran who grew up in a fatherless family in the Great Depression, he imparted to me an insatiable appreciation for self-education. He gave me more than his books, he showed me a way to my mind.
As Jews, our culture is our family. Honoring his memory for me personally and his example for all, through our family and our culture, I pilgrimed to the lands of our ancestors. I formed a circle, first paying respects to the birthplace of my grandfather with the Greek-Jewish community of Manhattan. I completed the circle by traveling to where our identities merge with the universal narrative of migration.
The story opens in Istanbul. I first travelled there from Brooklyn, to appreciate the Turkish culture and its Ottoman-era history, which was the dominant society of the Balkans when our family emigrated from Ioannina in 1910 and 1912, one year before the city became part of the modern nation-state of Greece.
As I planned for two months in Greece from Turkey, our entire family supported and encouraged me, as did my friends and colleagues. Even the core Greek-Jewish religious community of Kehila Kedosha Janina was with me, as my great-grandfather helped build its foundation in the 1920s as one among the original immigrants from Ioannina.
When my grandfather passed away only days after I crossed the border into Greece, I realized I had left a world behind. I imagined the greater loss that his parents had experienced as immigrants. Continuing on, I felt a profound love, even faith, from my friends and my family and our traditional community organization, almost like what may have accompanied the Jews of Ioannina bound to settle in New York.
In traditional thought, when a person passes away, they become an ancestor to all. I am Alexander Menachem, and my names speak with the voices of the ancestors. Listen. They do not talk of a dead past, they are guides to the place of one human spirit. By travelling deeper into my ancestral history, I returned to the sacred place within.
It was a rare, unexpected winter in Istanbul. The snow fell high. The people of the book counted the year as 5776, 2016 and 1437.
The first public Hannukah ceremony in modern Turkey lit up the Bosphorus shorefront in the Istanbul neighborhood of Ortaköy. One month following that momentous December evening, in the traditionally Jewish, Istanbul neighborhood of Balat, Istipol Synagogue held services for the first time in sixty-five years.
Istipol Synagogue was vandalized only two weeks following its historic reopening. Outside the greyed wooden building, ramshackle and dim, the minority struggle is perceivable. Treated as underclass inhabitants, Jews were traditionally demonized as foreign outsiders awaiting successive expulsions by dominant authorities from end to end of the known world.
Neve Shalom Synagogue is the core institution for Turkish Jews, now sheltered within the Jewish Museum of Turkey, where the document that inspired the Sephardic diaspora is permanently exhibited. Sultan Bayezid II invited the Jews of Spain to settle the Ottoman Empire in the wake of the 1492 Inquisition. With a rich history as Istanbul’s largest congregation, the museum displays a significant Judeo-Spanish, Ladino press archive, an impressive library and a bookstore of rare finds.
The neighborhood is admired for the Galata Tower, a legacy from Genoa, 1348, as the Bubonic Plague ravaged Europe. Along its winding, steep cobblestone, instrument makers purvey the traditional sounds of Anatolian cultural fusions, Greek and Armenian, Persian and Slavic, Arab and Roma. Travelers and residents move in and out of ambient cafes and artisan shops as they have from Byzantine times, when the city was New Rome, to the present.
The gem of Jewish Istanbul is the neighborhood of Balat, situated along the Golden Horn, once home to nineteen synagogues, where only two remain. The bygone Turkish Jews of Istanbul lived in character homes built with unmistakable wooden architecture. They are now abandoned though still exude the soul of the past.
Before entering Istanbul's oldest synagogue, the Jewish Community of Turkey files passport applications under strict watch. Ahrida Synagogue is named after the Macedonian village and lake of Ohrid, the most ancient lake in the Balkans.
Ahrida Synagogue was built some 550 years ago by Greek-speaking Romaniote Jews as they awed at the conquering of Constantinople by a 21-year-old Turk named Mehmet. Ahrida Synagogue represents the oldest continuous Jewish presence in Istanbul, established as eleven centuries of Byzantine rule made way for the Ottoman Empire.
The president of the Jewish Community of Turkey and a local elderly woman accompany visitors, prohibiting photography with an anxious hurry about the remarkable building. Over cold, stone floors and an air of chilling absence, the historic hall of worship is furnished with a boat-shaped bema facing the ark in the core of the interior, an incomparably beautiful example of Sephardic architecture, as the Ladino-speaking Jews of Spain last occupied its holy interior.
Winding through the narrow streets of Balat to its adjacent neighborhood of Fener, the Jewish community lived in the shadow of the mighty Greek Patriarchate, which still presides over millions of Eastern Orthodox Christians. The Patriarchate ruled at the foot of a hilltop overlooking the Golden Horn inlet, where it’s often confused with the lofty bright crimson brick of the Fener Greek High School designed by Ottoman architect Konstantinos Dimadis. Visible from shore, it is a colossal landmark crowning the streets of Fener, only a short walk away from one of the oldest Jewish community foundations, such as what remains behind the vine-covered stone gate of the distinct, wooden architecture of Istipol Synagogue. To contemporaries, Balat shelters a conspicuously conservative Muslim community adorned in long caftan robes called cübbe, and tekke caps visually reminiscent of Ottoman-style dress, remnants of the last Islamic Empire.
From the Sultanate of Bayezid II to the formative years of the Republic of Turkey, Jews have had a certain friendship, though stormy at times, with Turkey, leading up to imperial dissolution and especially during interwar movements toward cultural Westernization and political secularization in the region. During the tragic saga of Nazi persecution, Istanbul was an underground railway for European Jews who survived WWII by making aliyah (settlement in the Land of Israel) under Turkish protection.
Beyond the European shores of the Bosphorus, far afield from the world-famous minaret spires of Eminönü, is the hard-won soil of Greece. Overland from Istanbul, the lime green fields of Thrace open up to thin Mediterranean pine groves, the craggy stone of the ancient builders, and the crystal blue horizon.
The second-largest metropolis in Greece, Thessaloniki is filled with streets discolored with a smog-driven breeze, although lightened by the Aegean Sea backdrop. Distant mountain horizons beckon students and wayfarers, refugees and workers. The alpine wilderness huts in the countryside offer a refuge from the millennia of civilized disorder to the more primeval fantasies of snow-peaked summits and unobscured horizons.
It snowed in the late Macedonian winter as a trio ascended Koziakas Mountain. The frozen sky ceased falling as they entered the mountain hut. After warming to a hearty meal, the young Russian-Greek guitarist among them sang Rembetiko by a midnight fire, evoking the soul of urban blues from Izmir to Istanbul, initially led by the widely celebrated Greek-Jewish voice of Roza Eskenazi. Meanwhile, the hut-keeper poured round after round of dry red wine in copper flasks while hoarding his tsipouro, a local spirit from the region of Epirus made with the solid residue of the wine press.
That night, two seas, a continent and an ocean away, a centenarian man passed away, saying his last kali nichta (goodnight, in Greek). His parents had once fled northern Greece as economic migrants from the sick, old and dying Ottoman Empire. It was 1910 when they embarked from the northernmost Peloponnesian port of Patras. Alongside compatriots of countless identities and creeds, they crept onto the steerage of ocean liners bound for the seaborne myth of New York harbor, Ellis Island. On the ancient Lenape island of hills, he was conceived, the first of seven children, to dream the American dream on the overcrowded East Side of Manhattan.
The dream became his only reality. He only left America to risk the ultimate sacrifice in WWII, and never saw the land where his family had lived for two millennia. Neither had his children. The night he lived his last, his youngest grandchild was there, looking west from a mountaintop where Macedonia borders Epirus.
At dawn, Mount Olympus split the clouds eastward as the Pindos Range enshrouded the western horizon in clouds all the way to the Ionian Coast. Settling at the base after descending Koziakas, the divinely picturesque landscape of Meteora captivated onlookers nearby. Otherworldly cliffs emerge from the Macedonian plain like stalagmites of the prehistoric sea-floor: every one crowned with the foundations of Orthodox monasteries. An entirely visible earthly heaven surfaces on the horizon.
Passage through life is travel. Its most important stages are ritualized by cultural tradition to recognize human archetypes: birth, maturity, death. Most rituals are social. Some are individual. Mourning is one rite of passage that demands the rigor of inward, solitary travel. And so, traveling alone reminds the individual soul of life’s passing.
Awareness of death demands solitude. Jews tear garments while mourning to symbolize emotional separation from the world. At the same time, death unites the living, because it is the physical definition of life. Mourners heal in solidarity by grieving and remembering together. In similar respects, there is nothing like solitary travel to infuse the individual heart with the acceptance of the passage of life, especially on the road when new acquaintances are kind with unexpected hospitality and open humanity.
Nights cooled the early Aegean summer sun in the environs of Thessaloniki, rightly the second-largest Greek metropolis, once proud sister city to Constantinople. Over mushroom soup and rough bread, fresh tomato salads gleamed like the red of the wine served with tzatziki, olives and feta.
The neighborhood haunts of Thessaloniki are tinged with an ancient palette now subdued to a blur of gasoline exhaust down the main thoroughfare of Egnatia. Its crumbling stone monuments are weighed by the ongoing conflicts, seemingly irreconcilable between history and modernity. After centuries of settlement, invasion and fire, the surviving landmarks of the inner city emerge from shadows of abandonment and condemnation, from the clock square of Neapoli, to the highland vista of Evaggelistria, in the Balkan graffiti of Kentro, at the cobblestone dead-ends of Agios Pavlos and throughout the slanted gardens of Ano Poli.
In the collections of the archaeological and Byzantine museums, traveling eyes gain a broader view of the dominant cultures and societies in which Jews had lived for the past two millennia. There are perceivable influences from ancient pagan, and Orthodox cultural histories in the syncretic Greek-Jewish traditions of old Thessaloniki.
In the eyes of the young David Ben-Gurion, the Ottoman city of Salonika, where Atatürk was born to found the Republic of Turkey, was a superlative social model on which to base the nascent state of Israel. He visited the city of the White Tower in 1911 to learn Turkish. That was before the devastating fire of 1917, the final years of an era in which Thessaloniki thrived to preserve its multinational urban society. Only in the Golden Age of Moorish Spain were Jews as free and independent in Europe.
Once known for having maintained the largest Jewish cemetery, the city is revered as the Mother of Israel. Since the aftermath of the Nazi occupation of 1942, the cemetery has been continuously desecrated, by municipal authorities and neofascist vandals alike. Fragments of ornate Jewish headstones now solemnly decorate the floor of the former headquarters of L’Independent, the bygone Jewish press. The downtown building currently houses the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki, conveniently situated a short walk from the picturesque Port of Thessaloniki.
The interior walls of the museum are fitted with exhibits in photography and artifact curated beside panels inscribed with the elegiac words of Jewish author and folklorist Alberto Nar. In the upstairs library, a trove of literature sits stacked and waiting for a curious hand to unlock the distinguished past of a culture ever so desperate to speak out and live again in the hearts of her contemporaries.
Although mostly destroyed, the Sephardic community of Thessaloniki is greatly preserved in its posthumous cultural expression, such as in its literature, which undyingly encourages the importance of diverse inter-social relations. Within the community, this was best, although controversially, demonstrated between the Ottoman Sephardim and the indigenous Greek Jews, the Romaniotes.
In the vibrant seaside neighborhood of Ladadika, where the Port of Thessaloniki and Aristotelous Square encircle the central market district of centuries past, a swastika was graffitied on a sidewalk block only a few steps from the doorstep to the Jewish Museum.
When Anti-Defamation League statistics showed that Greece was the most anti-Semitic country in Europe in 2014, critics argued that the study’s sampling of only 579 citizens from a nation of 11 million was not representative. Unfortunately, despite statistical discrepancy there is ongoing neofascist presence in Greece. And as extraordinary even to Europe, it exists from the parliament to the streets.
On a cool morning in late February, a spontaneous traveler wandered from the broken Arch of Galerius under the aqueduct that spanned from the castle-topped urban highland to the seafront and into the downtown Kentro. There stood the iconic Rotunda of Thessaloniki. The enigmatic dome, surrounded by gardens and an exposed foundation of Roman walls, had just opened its ancient interior to the public for the first time in forty years only two months prior.
The Rotunda is the oldest church in Thessaloniki, and some Greeks claim it is the oldest church in the world, long since transformed from its original cornerstone foundation as a polytheistic Roman temple. A bema had been erected beneath the base of the dome, facing the sanctuary. It is known to scholars that Romaniote architecture shares many traits with Orthodox churches. In fact, early Christians worshipped in synagogues before founding churches. There, under the stone-washed light filtering in above the echoing decrescendos of time, the architectural origins of the worldwide moral establishment still resurrects the human heart from the hard earth below.
Nearby, in the neighborhood of Evaggelistria, beneath a hilltop overlooking the streets reinforced with castle walls, a man opened his home to travelers for a night’s rest and tea. Those staying more than a night were invited to join him and an intrepid band of activists to the northern border with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. He spoke of the ever-pressing need for more humanitarian workers to offer solace for the refugees who were stranded behind barbed wire and armed police. Days and nights they slogged over the mud-strewn tents amassing to shelter the Syrians, Afghanis, and Iraqis increasing to some fifteen-thousand in a Greek village of a hundred-and-fifty. The activists were there with them since winter, and were as committed as the spring sun that scorched like the pots of tea they served while the southern horizon peopled with thirsting exiles en masse.
It is a sense of direction that is essential in the story of all migrants. The four directions are sacred to many across the globe, such as in the Sufi orders of the Muslim world, for the Byzantine Christians and among the Indigenous Peoples who have lived for many millennia on the continent now known as America. Westward is only one direction. Its overemphasized priority in the contemporary migrant narrative is an expression of the global imbalance of human life on the planet.
If in every century a family grows by four generations, then there are four mothers and four fathers every century to carry tradition. In twenty-three centuries, ninety-two mothers and ninety-two fathers have descended from the 3rd century B.C.E. That is a fine assembly, a well-attended synagogue. And that is the extent of history for Romaniote Jewry. The legacies of the ninety-two mothers, and ninety-two fathers who shaped folkloric Romaniote history are mostly lost to the American-born who integrated into a new global culture following the immigrant heyday from 1890 to 1920. Since the inaugural year of Greek-Jewish emigration to America in 1899, there have only been four mothers and four fathers from each generation to uphold traditions that were thoroughly transformed. That's less than the quorum of ten needed for a minyan.
Scholars from around the world agree that the Greek city of Ioannina sustained the voice of the ninety-two generations of Romaniote culture. There is evidence of Jewish presence in Ioannina around the time of its recorded establishment. The earliest mention goes back to the foundation of the Old Synagogue, Kahal Kadosh Yashan, was built in the 9th century C.E. Since then, it is from the well-protected crown jewel of Greek cities, Ioannina, where Romaniote culture flourished beyond compare.
Before the infamous Population Exchange of 1922, which was preceded by the Greek genocide in Turkey beginning in 1914, and followed by the Greco-Turkish War launched by the Greeks in 1919, Ioannina was a Muslim city. Many of the former Turkish residents of Ioannina were deported by government forces on the basis of practicing Islam and speaking Turkish. They resettled in Istanbul, and in villages like Gemlik on the Aegean coast of Anatolia.
The exchanged were fated to a complex of exile and patriotism. Raising youth who suppressed estrangement with nostalgia, they faced Greece from the Asian continent in homes once owned by Christian compatriots of the bygone Ottoman-era, when ethnic and religious pluralism was common to towns and cities throughout the Balkans.
Nowadays, views from the twin Acropolises within the Inner Castle (still known as Its Kale, after the Turkish) show impressive panoramas at Fethiye and Aslan Pasha Mosques against the encircling Pindos Mountains horizon that shade Ioannina on all sides. The classically regional terra-cotta roofs of the city are reflected in the majestic Lake Pamvotis.
Twenty-two years after the ethnic cleansing of Turks and Muslims from Ioannina (which ultimately included a longstanding presence of Albanian Muslims), the Nazis arrived. Jews made up a fourth of the entire population; 4,000 people in 1904 according to Alliance Israélite Universelle, out of about 15,000 all told living in Ioannina at the time. During the five centuries of Ottoman-era Ioannina, which ended in 1913, Orthodox Christians were the largest minority to the dominant Muslim Turks.
With respect to the identity of Romaniote Jewry as Greek-speaking, and the multigenerational nature of community belonging in Greece, it is significant to understand the relationship between language and settlement. Every immigrant knows the value of education. When the children of foreign-born parents learn the dominant language they become socially mobile. As such, immigrant integration is multigenerational, especially in the Romaniote immigrant narrative that emerged from sweatshop labor.
Romaniote identity is a story of Jewish-Greek integration, both in Greece and in diaspora. As Jews integrated into Greece and the civilizations it hosted from ancient times to the present, the religious and secular cultures of folkloric Judaism were strengthened by the intellectual rigor needed to weave faith and philosophy, multilingualism and transnationalism, artisan trade with inter-community relations.
Romaniote Jewry, like Sephardic, Ashkenazic, and Mizrahi, is folkloric. The tradition is based on the concept of folk, a synonym for family, as opposed to central religious institution, and lore or storytelling, as opposed to legal scriptural authority. As a whole, Romaniote folklore is the story of migration, beginning with the oral tradition that recounts a shipwreck carrying Roman slaves from Judea on the shores of the Balkan Peninsula immediately after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE.
One young Jewish-American man, Alexander Menachem pilgrimed to the remote European city mythicized by his late maternal grandfather. At the age of one hundred, he was always known to Alexander as papu, Greek for grandfather. He passed down his Hebrew first name, Menachem for Alexander’s surname, a Greek-Jewish tradition. On his first Shabbat in Greece, as he saw his ancestral country for the first time in his life, his papu passed away. To his last day, he told stories seasoned with the special Romaniote dialect that he had heard in New York with his extended relatives from Ioannina. He told his last story posthumously, through the searching eyes of his grandson.
I first saw the Jewish Quarter of Ioannina on the evening of February the 28th of this year. Unsure of my ground, I stepped off a bus, and walked down Leoforos Georgiou Papandreou, a busy thoroughfare leading toward the downtown core. Soon, I learned that the Jewish Quarter is the downtown core, and its definition is as clear as South and North Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Unknowingly, I wandered past the Levy and Matsas mansions on Kontouriou Street, once known as the Mikri Ruga. I walked past the derelict former Jewish Home for the Elderly, ransacked during the Nazi occupation. A shabbily-dressed woman in very advanced age emerged from the condemnable, splintered structure, squinting at me with a hard smile.
As I continued, I did not notice the Star of David engraved in the building on the corner of Neoptolemou Street, and that down that street stood a home with the Magen David sculpted twice into its metal doorframe. I did not see the swastika scratched out on the exterior wall of the bygone Jewish home.
Emerging out onto Averof Street, where Kontoriou Street is met with a scenic intersection, I stared out over the Pindos Mountain range horizon into the defunct clock tower of the castle, topped with a waving Greek flag.
Walking through the pedestrian alleyways of downtown Ioannina, where tiny Hebrew letters are still visibly engraved above colorfully decorated homes, I did not even notice the Holocaust Memorial dedicated to the Jews deported by the Nazis shaded beneath a tree across the street from the main castle entranceway.
When I arrived at Mavili Square, overlooking a most serene lakeside, I did not realize that I was standing where nearly two thousand Jewish people had been expelled into the dizzying horrors of our cultural trauma. Instead, I admired the island ferries, the waterfront cafes, the castle walls. All I knew was that Ioannina is a city to remember.
I first traveled abroad independently at age twenty from the valley farms of Western Massachusetts, where I was born, to Cairo, Egypt, where I first inhabited a city. Even then, I was always more interested in people than in places. More than to see the Great Pyramid, I explored contemporary Egyptian life. I had the same focus in Canada, Mexico and Peru, steeped in a sense of compassion for the personal and communal narratives of transnational migrants, indigenous communities, and observant religionists.
It had been eight years since I last visited Europe when I moved from relative seclusion in the southern Brooklyn neighborhood of Bay Ridge to the thick of youth culture in the upscale and popular neighborhood of Kadıköy in Istanbul. I was welcomed into close-knit circles of family and friends while living with a most lovely young woman from Ankara. That was November, when the winds off the Sea of Marmara were still warmer than the tempestuous Atlantic air I had known when we met in September. After spending four days together wandering New York in love, she left the U.S. with my promise that I would have a ticket to Istanbul in six weeks. I kept my word.
From Istanbul, I hit the road west to Greece. First in Thessaloniki, a decadent city where I lived for ten riveting days in the homes of new acquaintances, roaming the eclectic culture clashes and visually arresting histories along the seaside streets.
After a sleepless night in the old city, I crept onto another bus, this time direct to Ioannina. Roadsigns to the storied city moved me to reflect on a higher and greater sense of my self. I was overwhelmed with the transmigration of my solitary soul, from finding meaning in life by identifying with individual experience alone to relating with the collective being of ancestral memory as its presence came to life in the appearance of those mountains, that lake, and the city on the horizon.
For four years leading up to those moments, I had firmly obsessed with inexhaustible fascination for the myth that was this city and the landscape that held our ancient heritage for a thousand years. I had poured my heart over my grandfather's stories and the echoes of his voice in tomes of painfully overlooked scholarship from around the world.
Once I had arrived, what immediately captivated me most was how sensitively the youth of Ioannina celebrated and respected and even defended that same local heritage with all of the exuberant spirit of contemporary life.
They exuded that quality of character that I had learned by distilling the personable and everyman wisdom of my grandfather, that it didn't matter so much what you did, what your background was or what cards you were dealt in life. What mattered was simply that you were good. Behind his sly grin, he said it best, "You don't have to be Jewish to be good, but it's good to be Jewish."
Just like in New York, I fell in love with the streets of Ioannina. They are worn to eternity with all the gravity of a thousand years. After a few days frequenting downtown neighborhoods, expected greetings accompany familiar faces. By day the cafes are bustling with all the nonconformist airs of a true university town. By night, the ubiquitous tsiporadikou bar is full with smoke and laughter as complimentary mezze dishes frequent tabletops toasting yamas (to health, in Greek) over the traditional spirit of Epirus.
Archaeological, Byzantine and Ottoman-era exhibits in local museums bring into clear and insightful focus much of the historical spectrum of life for the early inhabitants of Ioannina. The liturgical manuscripts in Hebrew and Ottoman-Turkish, ornately crafted silver, intricately stitched and dyed clothing, every object is an image of lost time that with historical reflection becomes a window opening the imagination into the diverse contexts of local life through the ages.
Local Jewish culture is best exhibited in the Municipal Museum, housed in the Aslan Pasha Mosque. The fine artistry in the manuscript calligraphy, traditional clothing and artisan metalwork of the Jews of Ioannina is apparent, and shared with the historically neighboring Muslim and Christian communities. From its origins in preindustrial social development to its modern manifestations through international cultural revitalizations, Romaniote culture is as creative a heritage of intercultural syncretism as any movement of intellectuals and artists, though in a spiritual style.
What I was after was to better appreciate our uniquely creative literary heritage. The modern Romaniote narrative is proudly dominated by economic achievement, that being social mobility in the face of migration, poverty, war and acculturation, traditionally by its craftsmen who maintained viable economic distinction while trading with diverse customers increasingly defined by ethnicity, religion and eventually nationality.
As a Jewish culture, I wanted to investigate the Romaniote distinction in letters. For that I had to cross Averof Street from the Mikri Ruga onto Josef Eliyia Street, formerly Max Nordau Street, also known as the Megalli Ruga (interestingly, Ruga is a word for “street” shared with Albanian, perhaps a legacy of the famed Ali Pasha).
One of the most iconic streets in Ioannina is named after the best-known Greek-Jewish litterateur in modern history, the poet Josef Eliyia. He was born to a poor family on Arsaki Street, now the alleyway that intersects Eliyia Street where the New Synagogue and Alliance Israélite Universelle once stood.
For the first few days after arriving in Ioannina, I passed through the old Jewish neighborhoods filled with awe. Many fallen roofs and cracked doorways are overgrown with tall weeds over a story tall, emerging from history into the mystic light of a new day with the staggering reality of loss, condemnation and abandonment. One night, while accompanied by Dr. Eleni Kourmantzi, professor of Greek-Jewish literature, she was overcome with chills, imagining the cursed Nazi horrors.
After the Mikri and Megalli Ruga, it was Livadioti, Jukala, Sarava, and the Castle Quarters, silent for the last echoes of the terminally endangered Judeo-Greek tongue. The last individuals of the local Jewish community are mostly reduced to a city block on Josef Eliyia Street, where three survivors and the last Jewish shopkeeper of Ioannina call home today. They number all of thirty-two.
Grappling with the intensity of lingering historic traumas in the present, I received word from my mother. My grandmother had passed away. She had taught me Yiddish, and upheld the Jewish character more vibrantly than anyone I had known. In the interest of better appreciating a holistic picture of the cultural history common to the lost communities of Ioannina, I traveled to Skopje, Macedonia, to rest and mourn in the company of my beloved.
Ioannina is the capital of the northwestern region of Epirus. Northern Greece is generally more similar to Thessaloniki than the rest of Greece in that the culture is more Balkan than Mediterranean. To really understand Ottoman-era Ioannina, I had to traverse landscapes where there were once no borders, and where different ethnic and religious communities once interchanged lands and trades with more fluidity than in the postwar international border paradigm of today.
In the Macedonian capital of Skopje, I visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum which was built on lands that were once owned by the Jewish community who lived alongside the Turkish çarsi (old market of cobblestone streets and artisan factories). It was a first for the Macedonian government, and an example to all nations wounded by genocide, where land had literally been given back to the dead.
Macedonian political history is unique to the Balkan region, and comparatively revealing with respect to modern Greek identity (for example, many Greeks refer to Macedonia as Skopje to distinguish the northeastern Greek province of Macedonia bordering the Macedonian nation-state technically known as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia).
In Macedonia, the three official languages are Macedonian (a South Slavic language close to Bulgarian and Serbian), Albanian and English. In the early 20th century, Macedonia was initially founded as a multi-ethnic parliament of Albanians, Macedonians and Vlachs (an ethnic minority that shares lands and traditions with the people of Ioannina). Unfortunately, its incipient pluralism lasted only ten days.
From there, I travelled onward to the Albanian capital of Tirana. It is a known fact that the Albanians wholly saved the Jews from Nazi extermination. They had upheld a traditional hospitality ethic called besa which, in Albanian, means promise. Jews were considered guests in the promise of the Albanian host society. Albanian culture is notoriously militant. They saw the protection of Jews as a matter of national pride as important as the maintenance of armed defense.
Albanian culture is integral to understanding the social history and regional importance of Ioannina. During the Ottoman era, the infamous Albanian autocrat, Ali Pasha of Tepelene, had nearly gained separatist independence from the Sultan in Constantinople. Due to his militant affront against the dominant central authority, Ottoman troops were redirected from southern Greece. Arguably, the War of Greek Independence was won from Ottoman rule in part because of the need to depose Ali Pasha, the Lion of Janina (an Ottoman spelling for Ioannina).
That rebellious, independent nature is basic to people from Ioannina, a relatively secluded although sophisticated trade town that served as the mainland Balkan gateway to Europe, geographically protected by a formidable, alpine mountain range. The fact that Romaniote, indigenous Greek-Jewish culture thrived so distinctly in Ioannina is because people were more remote there than most Jewish communities in Greece, where the Sephardim had outnumbered and assimilated the Romaniote communities in population and industry since the beginning of the 16th century when they were invited to settle in the Ottoman Empire following the Spanish Inquisition.
Interestingly, the dawn of the Ottoman Sephardim coincided with the Golden Age of the Ottoman Empire, which lasted for two hundred years after the Jews of Spain migrated east to accept the historic welcome from Sultan Bayezid II to live and work within the reign of Constantinople. That same Jewish community had reputably been integral to a Golden Age in Spain also marked by multi-faith tolerance and the blossoming of the arts under Muslim rule on the Iberian Peninsula.
Returning to Greece from Albania after seeing Macedonia completed a circle of many eye-opening introductions to the Balkans, immersed in three wholly different ethnic civilizations, each with its unique language script. Equally striking was the visibility of rival multilateral alliances to the World Powers of the post-Cold War era, and the way in which those geopolitical relationships have shaped Balkan culture, a global powder keg where the fate of Europe was decided and the history of modern nationalism written.
I began meeting with leaders from the Jewish community of Ioannina. First, I met with the president, Moses Eliasaf at Xenia Hotel on Dodonis Street, one of the central arteries in town. I recorded over an hour of his profuse knowledge. One of his chief accomplishments is the restoration of the Old Synagogue. He is a proudly elected town council member and Professor of Medicine. We spoke about everything from Romaniote literature to the significance of Jewish cultural continuity in Ioannina through secularization.
That week, I had the great pleasure of meeting Allegra Matsas, the Secretary of the Jewish Community of Ioannina. She opened the Old Synagogue for me exclusively. And as we walked inside from the narrow cobblestone street immediately turning left once inside the main entranceway of the castle, she began to emphasize the bittersweet nature of survival in the midst of the real, ongoing tragedy of multigenerational community dissolution.
Her father, Joseph Matsa, had begun the work of cultural preservation through his literary work because he had understood that the Jewish community had seen its day in Ioannina immediately after WWII. She is now involved in the transformation of the Old Synagogue into a museum.
On numerous occasions, I met with Isaac Dostis and his partner Diana Sunrise. Isaac is a heritage member of Kehila Kedosha Janina, where his father prayed while the family lived on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He remembers how his family did not speak Ladino (Judeo-Spanish), and how they did not eat rice at Passover like the Sephardim, yet they were Greek Jews. His Romaniote identity boils down to moral courage in the attitude of simple, hard work.
Nine years ago, Isaac and Diana moved to Ioannina together. They are active with youth resistance to neofascism in Ioannina and throughout Greece (as for civil rights in the U.S.), where they continue to advocate Holocaust Remembrance with contemporary relevance to the issues of migrant rights, religious diversity, and minority culture.
They live in an apartment on the downtown city block once given to Jewish survivors returning to Ioannina from Auschwitz-Birkenau. The building is shared by elderly Jews, the last of the original community, such as the last, late leader of synagogue services, who had recently retired from his community work due to ailing health and who passed away a short time ago. One day, a woman returned home to the building, after which Isaac greeted her as the very last Jewish storefront owner in Ioannina.
That afternoon, Isaac conversed with me for many hours on the topics concerning Romaniote cultural action. He had just written a guidebook to local Jewish history, Ioannina, My Ioannina, and continues to be an instrumental community member (despite controversial misgivings with the official Jewish community leadership originally from Greece).
Isaac had revived much of the architectural remnants of the New Synagogue (Kahal Kadosh Hadash), and continues to fight for a more public memorial in dedication to its destruction. He was integral to the maintenance of the core Holocaust Memorial downtown, and advised on the commemorative Holocaust plaque at the Byzantine Museum atop the inner castle acropolis.
He offered his family history archival research services before leading an insightfully comprehensive four-hour tour through the Old Synagogue (Kahal Kadosh Yashan) and surrounding Jewish neighborhoods. The tour concluded with the screening of his film, The Lost Synagogue of Ioannina at an underground activist center organized by autonomous Greek youth. His spiritual and intellectual generosity knew no bounds. Isaac gifted me a complimentary ticket to the opening week of the fifth play he had directed for the stage in Ioannina.
Finally, one of his most impressively honorable accomplishments was his proving the location of the Nazi deportations of the Jews of Ioannina through photo evidence, which became a widely-circulating front-page newspaper story that sold every last issue on the day of its distribution: July 28, 2005.
Before leaving Ioannina, I met with Dr. Eleni Kourmantzi. Although not Jewish, she spent her professional academic career as a peerless devotee of Greek-Jewish culture. She taught Modern Greek Literature at the University of Ioannina, and has published books and taught courses with a central focus on Josef Eliyia. Controversial still today as a dissident poet sympathetic to Communist politics, Eliyia was unsurpassed in the importance of his contributions to Jewish literature in the Greek language. For many, his name became synonymous with modern Greek-Jewish identity.
Greek Independence Day is celebrated every year on March 25th, the exact day when the Nazis deported the Jews of Ioannina in 1944. Seventy-two years after the German occupation, the Cultural Center of Ioannina held a memorial event. There were not enough seats.
Three days later, the center opened its floor to the prestigious Greek author Stavros Zoumboulakis, who focused his presentation on the contemporary influence of Jewish writers in Greece. Jewish culture in Ioannina is ongoing, although in many ways its transformation in the contemporary has been marked by sacrifice, loss and nostalgia.
Staring eastward into the radiant dusk, the snow-capped Pindos horizon hazy over Lake Pamvotis, I was overwhelmed with internal questioning and filled with a renewed sensation of meaning, a revived purpose to pursue communal expression through the folkloric and traditional arts that celebrate the essence of life by relating self to identity, folklore to history, and the world to a place.
What is a Romaniote story? Why are our stories important, not only to us, but to literature? What is the basic character, the central theme, the essential style, and the recurring subjects of the Romaniote literary narrative? Through translation, in diaspora, and even with a healthy mix of criticism and faith, there will always be more to the story as long we are here to remember and create ourselves anew.
Folklore is a timeless craft. It fuses memory and imagination, history and myth. Great storytelling is like great music, a fine wine that only gets better with age. Psychologist and author James Hillman wrote that age develops character in his fascinating book, The Force of Character. As the years pass, many of our stories are lost to the change of tongues. And yet, there are a few that remain essential.
1,870 names are engraved in stone plaques on the walls inside the Old Synagogue of Ioannina (Kahal Kadosh Yashan). Two seas and an ocean away, Kehila Kedosha Janina remembered them on May 1st, for Yom HaShoah, the Day for Holocaust Remembrance. The diaspora community gave homage to the Righteous, the Greek Christians who saved Jews from Nazi extermination. And they stood on a Righteous foundation.
In the first decade of the twentieth century, the Jews of Ioannina went from using string for shoelaces, for which they were mocked by locals as indigent spangoraménous (Greek slang for the poor), to living another life as garment factory employers in New York City.
In the forty years preceding WWII, the Jewish community was halved by emigration, from the Alliance Israélite Universelle census of 4,000 in 1904, to the 1,950 who suffered Nazi persecution in 1944. The honorific plaques inside Kehila Kedosha Janina dedicated to its founders are engraved with Greek-Jewish surnames that do not appear on the memorial plaques in Kahal Kadosh Yashan. Prompted by shipping agents visiting Ioannina with tickets to the United States for three Ottoman liras, as many as one thousand Jewish people left in 1906 alone, an entire quarter of the community population that year.
The young Jewish emigrants leaving Ioannina for America were not solo venturers, they were pioneers of community resilience, working to reestablish stable ground for the community to thrive once again. When the community observes Yom HaShoah at Kehila Kedosha Janina, they, at the same time, recognize and strengthen the Righteous foundation of the community itself.
For that reason, diaspora integration is fundamental to the folkloric Jewish narrative in Romaniote literature, and more, for the greater human narrative in secular world literature with respect to cultural preservation and community survival from antiquity to the present. The Romaniote origin myth of shipwrecked slaves is much more than another narrative of victimhood typical to Jewish and migrant histories. When told with a historical awareness leading to the present, that creation story speaks of compassionate integration, and the ecological adaptability and innate pluralism of multicultural, folkloric and transnational human identities.
Before traveling down the Ionian Coast toward the Peloponnesus, the first Jewish emigrants of Ioannina bound for the United States passed westward through the Pindos Mountains. They stopped at the regional port town of Igoumenitsa, known throughout Epirus as a gateway to the Mediterranean, as they peered into the sea, pondering the fate of fellow communities on the island of Corfu. By foot and cart, and then by sea, they moved slowly past the traditionally Romaniote cities of Arta and Preveza, to the periphery of the Venetian sphere of influence that had kept so many family trades busy since the 1200s.
The third-largest city in Greece is the port of Patras, where the Balkan character of the north gives way to a more Mediterranean air. Two spectacular, verdant hilltops rise over the immense Gulf of Patras across from the city proper, where locals walk through steeply sloped neighborhoods alongside majestic Byzantine ruins in the foothills of Mount Panachaikon. The deepwater gulf is frequented by ocean liners reminiscent of the ships that once carried the overfull steerages of an entirely moveable Jewish heritage.
Eastward in the capital city of Athens, apartment buildings and pedestrian avenues are dense with life in the shadow of Philopappus, Hill of the Muses, a short walk from the Acropolis. Greek youth and shifting foreigners converse in the universal open-air cafe, arguing about the contradictions of Greek Independence and modern identity as Ottoman folk history is popularly and institutionally rejected and displaced by nationalist narratives in politics and education.
A few blocks away from the Arch of Hadrian, a relic of the infamously anti-Semitic Roman Emperor, stands the guarded Jewish Museum of Greece, a world-class outfit. Inside, three floors of exhibits offer any visitor a most invaluable resource into the Greek-Jewish story. The artistry reflected in Romaniote and Sephardic craftsmanship throughout Greek history is visibly expressed in every corner and thread of a world that absorbed pagan, Hellenic, Byzantine, Ottoman and modern influences for over two millennia. The ardent eye of traditional Jewish work ethic fused with the intellectual creativity of the Hebrew culture formed a society imbued with the powerful magic of lasting knowledge.
From the port of Piraeus, ferryboats embark into the Mediterranean, destined for ports throughout the world. Out over the deck of the humungous seafaring vessels, the Mediterranean voyagers of the early 20th century, the Jewish emigrants of Ioannina among them, were mirrored in the faces of refugee children playing around tent villages set up along the docks.
History repeats itself, the common adage says. The children of the current Syrian diaspora, and of the countless human migrations of the past century, will tell stories that echo with the generations descending all the way to the dawn of history, perhaps to the first story of human identity as people began to see themselves in others.
One of the points of cultural integration may just be to increase the awareness that all peoples share one history, and only recognize themselves by movement and return, dispersal and unity. More than to preserve folklore, the importance of cultural memory is to remember where identities blur into the indefinable holism of the human experience, simply through relating to others in a common world.
In the middle of the storied Mediterranean sea is the island of Crete, between Athens and Alexandria where the traditional heart of Greek Jewry first beat to the sound of the Greek tongue as it was heard throughout the known world. After a single weary seasick night, many travelers disembark from Athens to land on the mythical island of shipbuilders and labyrinths, revolutionaries and ascetics. In that strange and haunting tide, the wide range of Romaniote life is clear, from Thessaloniki to the Meditteranean, encompassing the diverse regions and histories of Greece.
In the old Venetian city of Hania, contemporary Jewish life revolves around Etz Hayyim Synagogue, impeccably restored by the former director of the Jewish Museum of Greece, the prolific author and artist extraordinaire, Nicholas Stavroulakis. Through the intricately sculpted wooden decor of the synagogue, authentic stone flooring and purple silk tapestries gleam with polished silver in candlelight. Outside through the worship hall, there is a garden of broken headstones. At the end of the garden is a ladder. The library of Mr. Stavroulakis is sequestered within the Etz Hayyim complex, accessible above the garden courtyard. Visiting scholars are greeted and shown the way by young European volunteers who have chosen to complete national service through Holocaust reconciliation.
Combing through his impressive collections on every subject pertaining to Greek Jewry, from architecture to history, literature and art, any scholar with a keen eye for intercultural fusion will spend hours admiring the vast wealth of literary inquiry from each and every indispensable title. Stavroulakis was undoubtedly one of the most important and searching minds in the field of cultural history.
In his elder years, he was acutely elusive. Calling his number was futile, even if advised to do so by his fellow colleagues. Arriving to Crete and Etz Hayyim in person to ask one of his understudies to meet him was advisedly better, though not guaranteed. Even after wishful visitors demonstrated commitment to seeing him by purchasing every book he had written available in the closet-sized synagogue gift shop, he would remain elusive.
If a meeting with him was not foreseeable possible, it was then recommended to pour over his rare literary output with a complimentary bottle of raki, given traditionally at any nearby restaurant in the core streets of Hania. The Jewish district in the old city is now purely historic to the community, though restaurants will serve dishes once made by the vanished local Jewish community who once called Hania home for over two thousand years. When Alexander Menachem traveled to Crete, Mr. Stavroulakis would not see him. He even dismissed the idea that any Greek-Jewish culture existed. Soon, Alexander realized it was useless to call, and visiting the synagogue, he was only met with the same reply from his principal understudy, postponement after postponement.
Alexander purchased fifty euros worth of books written by Mr. Stavroulakis at the Etz Hayyim Synagogue gift shop. He read them until night fell, drinking like he had never drunk before under the light of the waning Mediterranean sun. He felt the subtle revitalization of history in his bones as he shook with solemn wonder over such literary work. Then the day he was to leave Greece, there was a national strike. By some miracle, he had been given two more days to await the chance to meet with Mr. Stavroulakis.
His last night was now Shabbat. That morning, he visited Etz Hayyim, and the principal understudy had a smile on her face. She spoke kindly in her German accent, asking that Alexander return to be shown to the home of Mr. Stavroulakis later in the afternoon.
Alexander took time before the anticipated meeting for repose and reflection as he walked up to the high ground near the old Jewish quarter. He could see the whole port of Hania, its golden, sunlit stone a bastion of the uninhibited and perpetual confrontation between the sea and humanity. The hours passed quickly. Soon he was on his way spiraling down from the mount into the narrow, sand-washed lanes that breathed with medieval airs leading to the synagogue gate.
\The understudy locked the street entrance-way of the synagogue, the visible Magen David embedded in the restored ancient walls, hardened by untold history. She presaged the meeting with forewarning about the effects of his advanced age, and of his relative seclusion in one of the last genuine Ottoman mansions in the old city. Alleyways closed in like the labyrinth of Daedalus, and Alexander was Theseus on his way to slay the bull.
A wooden double-door opened to stepping stones through an elaborate garden full of deep-green and dusty exotic flora interspersed with lounging felines and ornate sculptures. Through the front entrance, Alexander stepped up a short flight of stairs into a hall of modest furniture leading to the kitchen where the old man sat looking out of a picture window with the garden in view.
His eyes were wide, unusually so for it was less than a natural meeting between friendly acquaintances. “I hope he isn’t as crazy as he looks!” Stavroulakis muttered to his understudy, as she smiled nervously and wandered off after briefly introducing them. Nerves were tensed. Mr. Stavroulakis smoked his pipe. He was not in an agreeable mood. Alexander could hardly gather a response longer than a word, never mind motivate stimulating conversation.
“Contact Rabbi Negrin, in Athens. He is the spokesperson for Romaniote culture, and for Greek Jews,” Mr. Stavroulakis said, finally uttering a full sentence, though offering nothing more substantial from his reputed presence than the wave of his hand in the opposite direction. He confirmed his inscrutable and intimidating character in person.
That evening, Alexander walked himself to the Shabbat service at Etz Hayyim, lowering his eyes beneath the cloud-born sky over stone and sea. He looked beyond the silvery horizon for spiritual encouragement. Once he had mustered the courage to walk through the synagogue doors, he was followed by a middle-aged American couple around a rickety courtyard table. They smiled as wide as an American landscape over the mosaic tabletop.
Mr. Stavroulakis entered the courtyard. His understudy carefully pushed his wheelchair over the front step. He looked around with a friendly attitude. His mood had improved since he had met with Alexander at home. He asked for a shot of raki before the service, and invited the middle-aged American man, and Alexander, to drink to L’Chaim.
The ceremony was solemn. The Cretan Jewish community was absolutely destroyed during WWII when, unwittingly, the British torpedoed the Tanais, a steamer carrying 299 Jews. None survived. Tragically, they were the entire Jewish Community of Crete. The ambiance of the Shabbat service was spirited by the enlightened gathering of Jews from Israel and Greece, and of respectful non-Jewish observers from around the world. At the end of the service, Mr. Stavroulakis gave Alexander the special honor of blessing and breaking the bread by reciting the Ha-Motzi to conclude the service.
They parted that evening on good terms, as the understudy to Mr. Stavroulakis wheeled him away. He asked to speak with Alexander again, calling out his name aloud as he disappeared into the alleyway. Although he had lost much of his physical mobility in the preceding year, his reputation was upheld in the hearts and minds of the Greek-Jewish community in the motherland and in diaspora. His presence will always be felt as the cornerstone of Etz Hayyim in Hania, from the roots of the Tree of Life (as Etz Hayyim translates from the Hebrew). Mr. Stavroulakis has reinforced the significance of history for a community within a community, and for all people who have struggled for independence and dignity on the bare earth of exile. Greece is a country that, despite certain historic indignation, preserves Jewish life with a longevity akin to the land of Israel.
Matt Hanson is a writer and journalist living in Istanbul, and New York, where he works as an arts and culture reporter for various internationally-distributed newspapers and magazines. His piece, “Modern Romaniote Odyssey” was excerpted to introduce his forthcoming photobook, The Clouds of Ioannina, featuring oral histories with one of Europe’s oldest and vanishing minority communities. He is currently producing an anthology of Romaniote Literature to forward an English readers’ appreciation for the Greek-speaking Jewish literary contribution from antiquity through the medieval era to the contemporary.