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The Romaniote Jews or Romaniots (Greek: Ρωμανιῶτες, Rōmaniōtes) are a Jewish community with distinctive cultural features and who have lived in the territory of 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 Nazi concentration camps. After the war, a majority of the survivors emigrated to Israel, the United States, and Western Europe.
The name Romaniote refers to the medieval Eastern Roman Empire, which included the territory of modern Greece, and was for centuries the homeland of this Jewish group. Historically, the Empire was commonly referred to as Romania (Ῥωμανία) and its citizens Romans.
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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. 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 at that time was in Thebes, where he found about 2000 Jews. They were engaged mostly in cloth dyeing, weaving, in producing of silverware and making silk garments. At the time, they were already known as "Romaniotes".
Waves of Sephardi Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492; many settled in Ottoman-ruled Greece. They spoke a separate language, Ladino. Thessaloniki had one of the largest (mostly Sephardi) 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 4,000 people, mostly lower-class tradesmen and craftsmen. Their numbers dwindled after that due to economic out-migration; 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.
The Romaniote Minhag
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 have been based on the Jerusalem Talmud instead of the Babylonian Talmud (see Palestinian minhag). Unlike the Sephardic Jews, they did not speak Ladino, but the Yevanic Greek dialect and Greek. Tobiah ben Eliezer (טוביה בר אליעזר) a Greek-speaking Talmudist and poet of the 11th century worked and lived in the city of Kastoria. He is the author of the Lekach Tov a midrashic commentary on the Pentateuch and the Five Megillot and also of some poems. 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 on one side and a Yevanic translation on the other.
The Romaniote Jews sub-divided the Torah in Sedarim and they read the whole Torah in the Palestinian way of the Triennial cycle. They also had their own order for reading the Haftarah. The Romaniote Torah Scrolls are housed in "Tikim" where they never are taken completely out. The siddur (prayer book) for the Romaniote rite was known as the Mahzor Romania. The Minhag of this siddur, which is the Minhag of the Byzantine Jews represents probably the oldest European Prayer rite. The Jewish Museum of Greece also published in 2004 a Romaniote rite Haggadah (The Ioannina Haggadah). The Romaniotes were well known for their hymns in Judeo-Greek language and for their special way of cantillation. They also sang their Jewish-Greek folksongs. Jewish immigrants from Sicily brought to Ioannina the celebration of the Sicilian Purim Katan. The Jews of Ioannina called this holiday "Pourimopoulo". They read the special "Megillah for the Purim Katan of Syracuse" and sang corresponding songs and hymns for this festivity.
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 massacred despite efforts by the Greek Orthodox Church and many Christian Greeks to shelter Jews. Although the Nazis deported numerous Greek Jews, many were hidden by their Greek neighbors. 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 Romaniotes' ability to speak Greek enabled them to hide better from German deportations.
Today approximately 4,500 to 6,000 Jews remain in Greece. Of these, only a small number are Romaniotes, who live mainly in Thessaloniki, Ioannina, and Athens. About 3,500 Jews now live in Athens, while another 1,000 live in Thessaloniki. The vast majority of Romaniotes have relocated to Israel and the United States.
In Ioannina, the Romaniote community has dwindled to 50 mostly elderly people. The Kehila Kedosha Yashan Synagogue there 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 services) is on a raised dais on the western wall, the Aron haKodesh (where the Torah scrolls are kept) is on the eastern wall and in 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 now has services only during the High Holy Days, but can be opened for visitors upon request through the Jewish Community office.
The Jewish identity of another building found in the excavations of the ancient Agora in Athens, is questionable. It is believed that the Metroon, discovered 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 a 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.
After a 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 services every Saturday morning as well as all major Jewish holidays. The synagogue also houses a museum devoted to Greek Jewry and offers 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 Bakas, 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.
- Albert Levis, a psychiatrist, philosopher and innkeeper of the Wilburton Inn in Manchester, Vermont
- Greek citron
- Jews in Greece
- Hellenistic Jews
- Jewish Koine Greek
- 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).
- "The prophetic readings of the Byzantine ritual differed fundamentally from those of the other Rabbanite Jews of the diaspora. They have been preserved in the editions of the haftarot published with the Commentary of David Kimchi in Constantinople, 1505; and in the edition of the Pentateuch and haftarot, published in Constantinople, 1522" (and theorizing the Romaniote readings were a perpetuation of the selections of early medieval Eretz Yisrael). Louis Finkelstein, "The Prophetic Readings According to the Palestinian, Byzantine, and Karaite Rites", Hebrew Union College Annual, vol. 17 (1942-1943) page 423; Adolf Büchler, "The Reading of the Law and Prophets in a Triennial Cycle (part ii)" Jewish Quarterly Review, vol. 6, nr. 1 (Oct. 1893) pages 1-73, discusses in some detail evidence of very early choices of haftarot, particularly of the Karaites.
- J. Matsas: Yanniotika Evraika Tragoudia; Ekdoseis Epeirotikes, 1953
- 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.