On my last trip to Greece, soon as we touched solid ground in Athens, I was off on a long awaited expedition.
It had to be thoroughly pre-planned, since I had a lot of ground to cover if I was to have a taste of all that I wanted to see.
The Acropolis was my first stop. It was standing there, majestic and filled with history, just as I imagined, brightly lit by the Mediterranean sun. Going there was a romantic, childhood dream… the result of my fondness for history and magical tales. As I hopped through the ruins, I happily pretended to be an Israelite queen, dressed in my long white summer cotton dress, paying a diplomatic visit to the emperor. The caressing warm sea breeze and the mystical atmosphere of the ancient structures was a treat to my senses.
I vowed to return and spend more time exploring and discovering.
But not now… the rest of my time was allocated to get as deeply as possible into Jewish Athens, breeding ground to even higher thinking and elevated cultural expansion of our people. I have been fascinated with the long Jewish history in Greece, its profound influence on the Byzantine and Ottoman Empire, and in fact, on all of world civilization.
Right from my brush with Greek mythology, I was off to the market by the Acropolis, where you can see a Menorah and lulav carvings, the remains of an ancient synagogue. I wondered about its proximity to the world famous Greek structure, which made the Jewish remains even more mystical.
I would like to share this 2,000 year long coexistence, which turned out to be mutually beneficial to both Greeks and Jews, with a history that to my mind, contributes to the extent of intellectual, philosophical and artistic bend of the Jewish people, and the cultural influence of our people on the world at large.
Greece is a small country sprinkled by white washed islands, running alongside the blue Mediterranean Sea.
Despite its diminutive size, ancient Greece was the cradle of the highest forms in Western Culture. Philosophy, science democracy and the arts, all emanated from this place, with a close connection, mutual respect and influence between the two peoples, with the Babylonian Exile (586-539 BCE) being the catalyst for the camaraderie between Greeks and Jews. When Persian King Cyrus allowed Jews back to their homeland, they came into close contact with the people, whom prophet Ezekiel wrote of as the traders of Javan.
They were, of course, Mediterranean, of similar temperament to the Jews, traded in slaves and worked with bronze. Later, when Cyrus’s son Xerxes (Achasverosh), invaded Greece, Herodotus, the famous Greek historian, wrote about the Jews, calling them Palestinian Syrians, serving the Persian king’s navy (480 BCE).
The Jewish community in Greece was formally established around 400 BCE, flourishing under the reign of Alexander the Great and the following Hellenistic period. This was a time of elevated enlightenment, cultural, intellectual and artistic growth.
During the 300s BCE, a great many Jewish immigrants flooded to the Hellenistic cities of Ionia. The Greeks, though polytheistic, were very accepting of the monotheistic Jews, yet some of the wealthiest Jews were so attracted to Greek culture that they created a strange and most unusual class of semi-assimilated pro-Greek Jews.
Since Greek was the language of commerce, administration and common law, many members of the Jewish communities began to slowly forget their Hebrew, and some books of the Old Testament began to appear in Greek translation in 260 BCE.
Ten years later, King Ptolemy of Macedonia/Egypt, ordered the entire Torah translated into Greek, using 70 scholars with the result known as the Septuagint (stands for 70).
In 167-164 BCE, there occurred the most famous confrontation between Greeks and Jews, when King Antiochus tried to convert the Great Temple in Jerusalem to a temple to the Greek God Zeus. The Maccabean Revolt, led by Yehuda the Maccabee, the Hashmonean, defeated the king’s armies and recaptured the Temple.
According to both the reports of Jewish historian Philo and the Maccabees, during 30 BCE-45 CE. a great many Jews built up well-established communities all over Greece, populating mainly the larger cities, like Athens, Corinth and Thessaloniki.
These communities were called the ‘Romaniot’, a Hellenized Latin term, implying that they lived in the ‘second Rome’, or Greece. They practiced what is called ‘Minhag Romania’, customs in which traditional Hebrew prayers were translated into Greek, recited in Greek with complete devotion, and yet the prayer books were written in Hebrew letters.
During the Byzantine Period, which lasted from 476-1453 CE, the Romaniot communities developed rather strangely. Though uneasy at times, some accepted Joshua of Galilee as the Messiah, yet continued to consider themselves Jewish and remained closely attached to the traditions of the ‘People of the Book’.
The Jewish race has always been one which produced brilliant minds, innovations in psychology science, etc., a fact which inevitably caused arguments and debates, and even great friction, all part of the process of discovery and growth. Even among the great Rabbis and scholars, now as in days of old, there were differences of opinion as extreme as those between the houses of Shamai and Hillel.
It must be said here that the Greek Jews, whatever their mode of practice, were still considered ‘The Chosen People’ and protected by the country’s law.
Jews during this long period went in many different directions some integrated into Greek culture losing some connection to their Jewish roots, yet others insisted on keeping Hebrew alive, by writing out sections of the Tanach in Greek, using Hebrew script.
The Crusader persecution enticed many Ashkenazi Central European Jews to find refuge in Greece, mainly in Salonika. Of course, this enlarged the community and re-infused them with the pure Jewish values and practices brought in by the newcomers.
The Turks captured Constantinople in 1453, and thus, the Ottoman rule came into being. It was based on Islamic Law and recognized Jews as a separate nation with both legal and religious autonomy. Greece became the haven of religious tolerance, in a world filled with crusades and the turmoil of the Spanish Inquisition. The Ottoman regime found Jews a most welcome addition to the Empire, because of their exceptional contributions to commerce, economy and politics. Because of their high intellect, they were given important administrative roles in all segments of life throughout the empire.
After the Spanish Expulsion of Jews in 1492, around 20,000 refugees arrived in Greece. This was the beginning of Sephardic Jewry in Greece, many of them ‘Marranos’ (forced converts to Christianity who practiced Judaism in secret, while openly partaking of European culture). There was friction between the newcomers and the Romanites, ending with the latter accepting the Minhagim (customs) of the Sephardim, using Ladino as the accepted alternate language of Greek Jewry. Ladino is the equivalent of Yiddish used in the Ashkenazi culture, a melodic and rather beautiful language, a combination Hebrew, Spanish, plus a sprinkling of other Mediterranean languages
Now the Marranos could practice their Judaism openly, without fear of retribution. There was a period of peaceful thriving for the members of the Jewish community in Greece. I read accounts by refugees from the Spanish Inquisition and persecution, telling of the sense of relief they felt, when they arrived to this nest of safety, some for the first time in their lives.
This lasted until the Greek war of Independence (1821-1829) from Ottoman rule. The war was a period of terrible terror for the Jewish community, members of which had a deep loyalty to the Ottoman Empire.
The Greek Orthodox Church saw this as a betrayal of Greece and angrily called for revenge. The response caused the slaughter of thousands of Jews, while most of those who escaped the Church’s wrath, moved north, still under Ottoman rule.
In the late 19th century, Greek government felt that Hellenization of all ethnic groups would make for a unified, pure Greek identity, which the Romanites readily accepted, having been Hellenized for centuries, but the Sephardim found this not only problematic, but in fact, unacceptable.
Athens had maintained a substantial Jewish presence since the Middle Ages until the war, which caused hostility toward them. For a time Greece, and especially Athens, lost much of their Jewish residents.
In 1834, the Bavarian king Otto settled there and Max Rothschild established the Greek presence of the Rothschild dynasty.
By then, the New Greek society, far less enlightened, practiced an Anti-Semitic Easter ritual, with a symbolic Judas burnt at the stake. The masses bought into the notion that the Christian messiah’s death was the result of his betrayal by Jews. But back to Greece and it’s Jews.
Max Rothschild convinced the Greek Prime Minister to admonish the ignorant and hateful practice of the burning Judas, which led directly to the enticement of ever growing hatred for the Jews. In the late 19th century, Greek government felt that Hellenization of all ethnic groups would make for a unified, pure Greek identity, which the Romanites readily accepted, having been Hellenized for centuries, but the Sephardim found this not only problematic but in fact, unacceptable.
By the time the end of the century came, the community was legally well organized and was granted an official charter in 1889. A Synagogue was established by the name of Etz- Hayim, which by 1940, could and did accommodate 3,000 people.
With the Nazi occupation, Greece tried it’s best to protect Jews from deportation. Nevertheless, around 65,000 Jews died, most of them in Auschwitz, some massacred by invading Nazi forces in their present homeland.
After the war, the government of George Papandreou was the very first European government to return Jewish Properties confiscated by the Nazis and a Royal decree established a fund of rehabilitation of Jews and their surviving heirs. I found this noble another reason I have a warm spot for Greece.
In 2000, Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis said that no religion should be stamped on ID cards of Greek citizens, regardless of ethnicity. 9.5 billion drachmas were also raised the same year for survivors and their heirs and the Jewish community raised 1 million dollars to save and rehabilitate the remaining synagogues and cemeteries.
3000 of the remaining 5000 Jews live in Athens, with a school from nursery to sixth grade, a youth Centre, and of course, the architecturally charming synagogues, one Romaniot and the other Sephardi, all of which I had to visit, and was given the most generous welcoming tour by personnel, accompanied by refreshments of cold lemonade and fresh figs.
The visit to the Jewish Museum was a joy I’ll carry with me for a long time. It must have shown, because several people asked me if I’m always this happy. I smiled in delight as I wandered the halls of the beautiful building.
I felt a deep connection to many of the precious objects on display, representing the long, rich history of the Jewish people, from Anatolia to Venice. There were ancient vessels, religious artifacts and wonderful clothes from many different periods and socioeconomic origins. There was a replica of the reconstructed synagogue from Patras. Most fascinating was an authentic replica of a room built and furnished, down to the smallest detail, to represent a Jewish home under Turkish rule. Absolutely transporting….
In the Monstiraki area is a flea market, selling odds and ends with oriental music playing in the background, adding color to the already fascinating market. I bought a beautiful old platter, slightly chipped (back in NYC, an antique dealer I trust declared it a genuine antique at least 300 years old). It hangs on the wall at the entrance to my apartment, and is the first thing you see upon entering.
The market is called the Yesurum market, after a Jewish family in Istanbul.
Finally, one can come upon an intact ancient synagogue in Athens, three cemeteries, one of which, in Nicaea, Piraeus, has a Holocaust memorial.
When it was time to leave, I looked back and knew I’d be back soon. And I will, for more digging around and for more cause for wonder.
Love is the most powerful way to create profoundly tangible transformation in everyone who crosses our path. Yet we must be mindful to endow the self with pure, unconditional love and acceptance, which will result in an infinite fountain of empathy and joy, readily available to give others.