Members of the Romaniote Greek Jewish Community of Volos, Greece.
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The Romaniote Jews or Romaniots (Greek: Ρωμανιῶτες, Rōmaniōtes) are a Jewish community who had developed distinctive cultural features and who have lived in the territory of today's Greece and neighboring areas for more than 2,000 years. Their languages were Yevanic, a Greek dialect, and modern Greek. They derived their name from the old name for the people of the Byzantine Empire, Romaioi. Large communities were located in Thebes, Ioannina, Chalcis, Corfu, Arta, Corinth and on the islands of Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Rhodes and Cyprus, among others. The Romaniotes are historically distinct from the Sephardim, who settled in Greece after the 1492 expulsion of the Jews from Spain.
A majority of the Jewish population of Greece was killed in the Holocaust after Axis powers occupied Greece during World War II. They deported most of the Jews to concentration camps, where they were killed. After the war, a majority of the survivors emigrated to Israel, the United States and Western Europe. Today, only about 4,500 to 6,000 Jews, of both Romaniote and Sephardic descent, live in Greece.
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The earliest reference to a Greek Jew is an inscription dated c. 300-250 BCE, found in Oropos, a small coastal town between Athens and Boeotia, which refers to "Moschos, son of Moschion the Jew", who may have been a slave. The Romaniotes are Greek Jews, distinct from both Ashkenazim and Sephardim. Jews have lived in Greece possibly since the Babylonian exile. A Romaniote oral tradition tells that the first Jews arrived in Ioannina shortly after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE.
In the 12th century, Benjamin of Tudela recorded details about communities of Jews in Corfu, Arta, Aphilon, Patras, Corinth, Thebes, Chalkis, Thessaloniki and Drama. The largest community in Greece was in Thebes, where he found about 2000 Jews. They engaged mostly in cloth dyeing, weaving and making silk garments. At the time, they were known as "Romaniotes".
The Romaniotes had distinct customs, very different from those of the Sephardic Jews, and closer to those of the Italian Jews: some of these are thought to be based on the Jerusalem Talmud instead of the Babylonian Talmud. Unlike the Sephardic Jews, they did not speak Ladino, but the Yevanic Greek dialect and Greek. Romaniote scholars translated the Tanakh into Greek. A polyglot edition of the Bible published in Constantinople in 1547 has the Hebrew text in the middle of the page, with a Ladino (Judaeo-Spanish) translation to one side and a Yevanic translation to the other. The siddur (prayer book) for the romaniote rite is the Mahzor Romania.
Waves of Sephardic Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492; many settled in Ottoman-ruled Greece. They were richer, and believed themselves more educated and cultivated than the Romaniotes, so they formed separate communities. They also spoke a separate language, Ladino. Thessaloniki had one of the largest (mostly Sephardic) Jewish communities in the world and a solid rabbinical tradition. On the island of Crete, the Jews historically played an important part in the transport trade. In the centuries following 1492 most of the Romaniote communities were assimilated by the more numerous Sephardim.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the Romaniote community of Ioannina numbered about 4000 people, mostly lower-class tradesmen and craftsmen. Their numbers dwindled due to economic emigration and on the eve of World War II, there were approximately 1950 Romaniotes left in Ioannina. Centered around the old fortified part of the city (or Kastro), where the community had been living for centuries, they maintained two synagogues, one of which, the Kehila Kedosha Yashan Synagogue still remains today.
During World War II, when Greece was occupied by Nazi Germany, 86% of the Greek Jews, especially those in the areas occupied by Nazi Germany and Bulgaria, were murdered despite efforts by the Greek Orthodox Church and many Christian Greeks to shelter Jews. Although the Germans and Bulgarians deported numerous Greek Jews, many others were hidden by their Greek neighbours. Roughly 49,000 Jews, Romaniotes and Sephardim, were deported from Thessaloniki alone and murdered.
The Romaniotes were protected by the Greek government until the Nazi occupation. During the German occupation, the Romaniote ability to speak Greek enabled them to better hide from German deportations and death. The Sephardim, who spoke Ladino first and whose Greek had a distinct, "singing" accent were more vulnerable targets, as their language was one of the factors leading to their great losses. In Ioannina 1,860 out of 1,950 Jews were deported to Auschwitz and Birkenau in April 1944. Most of them were murdered by the Nazis.
The creation of the state of Israel in 1948, combined with the violence and anarchy of the Greek Civil War, was the final episode in the history of the Romaniotes in Greece. The majority emigrated to Israel or the U.S. until today less than 1000 remain in Greece and a smaller number in Turkey.
Today a small number of Romaniotes live in Greece, out of the approximately 4,500 to 6,000 Jews living in Greece today, both from the Romaniotes and the Sephardi subgroups; mainly in Thessaloniki, Ioannina and Athens. About 3,500 people live in Athens, while another 1,000 live in Thessaloniki. The vast majority of Romaniotes live in Israel and the United States (mainly New York). These communities, though they identify as Romaniotes, now use the Sephardic rite: the distinctive Romaniote rite does not survive except in the form of certain hymns used by communities such as Corfu.
In Ioannina, the remaining Romaniote community has withered to a number of 50 mostly elderly people. The Kehila Kedosha Yashan Synagogue remains locked, only opened for visitors on request. Immigrant Romaniotes return every summer and open the old synagogue. The last time a Bar Mitzvah (the Jewish ritual for celebrating the coming of age of a child) was held in the synagogue was in 2000, and was an exceptional event for the community.
The synagogue is located in the old fortified part of the city known as "Kastro", at 16 Ioustinianou street. Its name means "the Old Synagogue". It was constructed in 1829, most probably over the ruins of an older synagogue. Its architecture is typical of the Ottoman era, a large building made of stone. The interior of the synagogue is laid out in the Romaniote way: the Bimah (where the Torah scrolls are read out during service) is on a raised dais on the western wall, the Aron haKodesh (where the Torah scrolls are kept) is on the eastern wall and at the middle there is a wide interior aisle. The names of the Ioanniote Jews who were killed in the Holocaust are engraved in stone on the walls of the synagogue.
The Ioanniotiki Synagogue, situated above the Jewish Community of Athens offices at #8 Melidoni St., is the only Romaniote synagogue in Athens. Built in 1906, it has services only during the High Holy Days, but is opened for visitors on request through the Jewish Community office.
The Jewish identity of a building found in the excavations of the ancient Agora in Athens, is questionable. It is believed that the Metroon, found in 1930 at the foot of the hill Hephaestion (Thesion) was used as a synagogue during its construction at the end of the 4th century CE (396-400). This view was expressed by the archaeologist H. Thompson, from the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, but was not developed into a complete theory. The Jewish identity of the Metroon was based on the small piece of marble found near the Metroon, that had two Jewish symbols carved on one side, and the resemblance of the building to the synagogue of Sardis in Asia Minor.
One hour boat ride from Piraeus, the port of Athens, one can visit the Romaniote synagogue of Aegina. The synagogue was discovered in 1829 in the city of Aegina, near the ancient military port. The synagogue was originally discovered by the German historian Ludwig Ross, from the royal court of Otto. The floor was covered in order to be protected and was studied again by Thiersch in 1901, Furtwängler in 1904, E. Sukenik in 1928, and finally by the German archaeologist Dr. G. Welter, in 1932. The studies were completed by the National Archaeological Service. Based on the quality of the floor's mosaic, the building is believed to have been constructed in the 4th century CE (300-350 CE) and was used until the 7th century CE. The mosaic floor of the synagogue still survives (see photo below) and is made up of multi-colored tesserae, that create the impression of a carpet, in a geometric pattern of blue, gray, red and white. Two Greek inscriptions were found in front of the synagogue's entrance, on the western side of the building. Today, only part of the synagogue's mosaic floor is extant, and it has been moved from its original location to the courtyard of the island's Archaeological Museum.
Only one Romaniote synagogue is in operation in the entire Western Hemisphere: Kehila Kedosha Janina, at 280 Broome Street, in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where it is used by the Romaniote emigrant community. It maintains a mailing list of 3,000 Romaniote families, most of them living in the tri-state area, but it often has difficulty meeting the minyan or quorum for worship on Shabbat and Jewish holidays. It is open for guided tours to visitors on Sundays.
- Elijah Mizrachi, Hakham Bashi of the Ottoman Empire.
- Mordehai Frizis, officer of the Greek Army during the Greco-Italian War.
- Rae Dalven, a prominent Romaniotissa, particularly noted for her translation of modern Greek poetry.
- Amalia Vaka, a singer of Greek traditional and rembetiko songs with a successful career in the United States.
- Gabrielle Carteris, actress.
- Jack H. Jacobs, Vietnam War veteran. Medal of Honor recipient.
- Albert Cohen, francophone Swiss writer.
- Mathias Naphtali, Former Assistant District Attorney of Brooklyn, and Liberal Party candidate for New York State Senate in 1950.
- Greek citron
- Jews in Greece
- Thessaloniki and Ioannina, the two cities in Greece with the most prominent Jewish communities
- Yanina Synagogue
- David M. Lewis (2002). Rhodes, P.J., ed. Selected Papers in Greek and Near Eastern History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 381. ISBN 0-521-46564-8.
- Raymond Detrez, Pieter Plas (2005). Developing cultural identity in the Balkans: convergence vs divergence. Peter Lang. p. 159. ISBN 978-90-5201-297-1. "…but the fact that the most prominent hero of Jewish origin, Colonel Mordechai Frizis (1893-1940), originated from the ancient Romaniote community of Chalkis, speaks for itself."
- Natalio Fernandez Marcos, The Septuagint in Context: Introduction to the Greek Versions of the Bible (2000) p 180. The Greek text is published in D. C. Hesseling, Les cinq livres de la Loi (1897).
- Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue and Museum, The Holocaust in Ioannina URL accessed January 5, 2009
- Raptis, Alekos and Tzallas, Thumios, Deportation of Jews of Ioannina, Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue and Museum, July 28, 2005 URL accessed January 5, 2009
- "Holocaust and present-day situation". Romaniotes Jews. Retrieved 9 June 2011.
- "Ioannina, Greece". Edwardvictor.com. Retrieved 2012-09-07.
- Laura Silver, "Spreading little-known history of Romaniote Jews", Daily News (New York), June 18, 2008.
- Laura Silver. "Spreading little-known history of Romaniote Jews". Europeam Jewish Congress. Retrieved 7 December 2013.
- Liz Elsby with Kathryn Berman. "The Story of a Two-Thousand Year Old Jewish Community in Ioannina, Greece". Yad Vashem. Retrieved 7 December 2013.
- Vincent Giordano, Before the Flame Goes Out: A Document of the Romaniote Jews of Ioannina and New York, sponsored by The International Survey of Jewish Monuments.
- Kehila Kedosha Janina, Romaniote Synagogue in New York (official site)
- Edward Victor, Ioannina, Greece: account of the Kehila Kedosha Yashan Synagogue in Ioannina, with photos. (personal site)
- Deborah S. Esquenazi, The pre-Ashkenazi and Sephardi Romaniote Jews, Jerusalem Post Magazine, October 5, 2006.
- Isaac Dostis Farewell My Island
- Siddur Tefillot ha-Shanah le-minhag kehillot Romania, Venice 1523, Romaniote prayer book
- French: Marie-Élisabeth Handman, « L’Autre des non-juifs …et des juifs : les romaniotes » (The Other for Non-Jews … and Jews: the Romaniots), Études balkaniques, 9 | 2002
- Connerty, Mary C. Judeo-Greek: The Language, The Culture. Jay Street Publishing, 2003. ISBN 1-889534-88-9
- Dalven, Rae. The Jews of Ioannina. Cadmus Press, 1989. ISBN 0-930685-03-2
- Fromm, Annette B. Folklore and Ethnic Identity of the Jewish Community of Ioannina, Greece. Lexington Books, 2008, ISBN 978-0-7391-2061-3
- Goldschmidt, Daniel, Meḥqare Tefillah u-Fiyyut (On Jewish Liturgy), Jerusalem 1978 (in Hebrew): one chapter sets out the Romaniote liturgy.