The Greek Jewish community is made up of a rapidly dwindling elderly population. The local caretakers of the synagogues and their ritual objects are dying out and increasingly objects and sites are being sold off. Like other European communities, most of the Greek Jewish communities did not survive World War II. A staggering 87% of the community was decimated, the greatest percentage of Jewish losses of any occupied country during the Holocaust. Fortunately, some of their rich artistic heritage has survived.
The goal of the Center’s most recent expeditions to Greece in the summer of 2001 and spring 2002 was to document the remnants of this rich visual Jewish culture and to interview the elders of the community in order to trace lost traditions. The various local traditions are also explored; the diverse non-Jewish cultural and visual environment within which the community resided influenced their crafts and customs. All these findings are compared with other Jewish communities in Turkey, Bulgaria and others who also lived under the Ottoman Empire.
ROMANIOT, SEPHARDIM AND ITALIANS
The Jewish population in Greece is comprised of two main groups. The Romaniot Jews trace their roots to the Byzantine era and make up the earliest Jewish community. They speak Greek and have their own liturgical tradition, which has endured particularly in the communities in Ioannina, Corfu, Previzia, Arta, and Trikala. Only twenty Jewish families still live in Ioannina today. On the eve of the Holocaust there were about 2,000 Jews.
The second community is that of the Sephardi Jews who immigrated to Greece at the end of the fifteenth century, after their expulsion from Spain. The Spanish community spoke Judeo-Spanish (Ladino), and continued with their Sephardi rite and traditions. The Sephardi Jews spread throughout Greece, but the vast majority lived in Thessaloniki, Vollos, and Trikala. Unlike most Jews expelled from Spain who maintained their own traditions, these émigrés merged with the local Romaniot communities.
Jews from Sicily, Venice and other Italian communities, immigrated to Greece and established their own small communities. The Sicilians came after the Spanish expulsion in 1492 and brought some of their traditions which influenced the Romaniot communities. For example, the Jews of Ioannina celebrated “Purim of Saragossa” which had been a local Sicilian feast celebrating a miracle that occurred to the Jews during the reign of Alphonso V. Historical documents record the existence in 1914 of a small Jewish Sicilian community in Ioannina comprising 30 families. And indeed during the documentation we found some traces of this community.
Unlike other communities in Greece, most of the Jews of Corfu followed the Italian tradition. Since the island of Kerkira was occupied by the Venetians for 400 years beginning in 1386, the local people as well as the Jews absorbed the Italian culture and combined it with their own Greek culture. However, unlike the surrounding population, a large group of the Jews in Corfu actually originated from Italy, especially from Venice.
One of our main goals was to observe whether the Romaniot, the Sephardi and the Italian communities who kept different liturgical traditions also had different synagogue architecture and decoration and different ritual objects.
The origin of the synagogue architecture of each of those communities is still obscure. However, their characteristic architectonic features can be defined. The common components and similarities in shape and liturgical orientation shared by the Romaniot communities in Thessalia and Epiross, may attest to a common visual tradition, while traces of the features characteristic of the synagogue in Corfu, may suggest an Italian influence.
Ioannina had been part of Albania until 1913, the year it was joined to Greece. The city was the capital of the district of Epiross, in northwest Greece and is named after Ioanis Yanis, namely "Saint John." The majority of the Jews of Ioannina were part of the Romaniot community. This community was one of the oldest and most important in Greece. According to some scholars their origin can be traced back to the ninth century, based on the fact that the Ioannina Jews spoke an ancient Greek dialect. However, the earliest document known is from the fourteenth century, granting the Jews protection by the Emperor Andronicus II Palaeologus (1282-1328).
The only synagogue remaining in Ioannina is also the earliest one remaining in the regions of Epiross and Thessalia. Its structure and components may shed light on the characteristic features of the synagogues in the area. Unfortunately three of the four synagogues which stood in the city of Ioannina no longer exist, and only this one is left. However, during our documentation we discovered unexpected ritual objects which formerly belonged to all four synagogues. Their importance and extent were heretofore unknown to the members of the community or to scholars.
It appears that there were two large synagogues before World War II: the Old Congregation synagogue, which still stands, and the New Congregation synagogue, which was entirely destroyed during the War. Each of these consisted of a compound with a large prayer hall and a small one called the Minyan, all surrounded by a wall creating an inner courtyard with a well and a place for erecting a sukkah. The large prayer halls were used on Mondays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Holidays when the Torah portion was read, while the Minyanim were used for daily prayers. The Minyanim were especially remembered by the present members of the community as having been used for the special liturgy of Kabbalat Shabbat (welcoming the Sabbath on Friday evening).
Kahal Kadosh Yashan
The Old Congregation - Kahal Kadosh Yashan - situated within the city walls, was built during the Ottoman rule. After the rebellion of the Christian community, which began in Trikala in 1430, most of the churches in the region including in Ioannina, were destroyed and the Christians were forbidden to live within the walls. Since then, the Jews, who lived near the city gate, were allowed to live within the gates, while the Muslims who immigrated to Greece with the Ottoman rule also established a community there. Unlike the Christians, the Jews did not oppose the Ottomans and some of them were civil servants. They were protected by the wall and felt secure enough to build up and conduct their own communal life.
The contemporary Old Congregation synagogue was established in the middle of the 18th century. It is a compound, consisting of a large prayer hall which still stands and a destroyed small prayer hall called “Minyan Beit Avraham.” Both are surrounded by an outer wall which encloses an inner courtyard with a well, and a sheltered yard used for a sukkah. The high wall, which surrounds the compound, was probably built in 1877, as marked on the dedicatory plaque attached above a simple arched entrance that can be reached from the western alley. It is certain that an earlier building stood in the same place as the current one, probably from the 16th century. A renovation of the building in 1851 is mentioned on the dedicatory plaque attached to the facade wall. An additional plaque indicates that another renewal took place in 1869. It is possible that the later renovation took place after a big fire in 1860, which destroyed part of the old city including the bazaar and the Jewish quarter, as testified by an inscription engraved on a “shada'iah," a unique kind of silver plaque documented during our expeditions (no. 279). This fire had been deliberately set and severely damaged the economy and social situation of the Jews in the city and forced them to change their occupations, from craftsmen to merchants.
The large prayer hall is a rectangular broad house structure two storeys in height. It is divided into three broad sections by three arcades, which create a longitudinal nave flanked by two aisles. The Torah ark and the large Reader’s Desk (teivah) are built within niches situated on the east and west walls opposite each other, creating a liturgical bifocal synagogue. On the same axis, below a blue cupola that adorns the centre of the nave, is an additional small moveable table, used as a second teivah.
The ark is built within a rectangular niche which extends towards the outer eastern wall. The contemporary wooden cupboard dating from the end of the 19th century replaced the original earlier ark. It comprises a deep cupboard, used for storing the Torah scrolls. Two arched Tablets of the Covenant adorn the ark and are flanked by fence-like edges. In the opposite western wall is a large trapezoidal and elevated teivah, built within a rounded niche, which extends towards the synagogue facade. On both sides of the elevation are two staircases for reaching the table used for reading the Torah portion. This large teivah was used on Saturdays and Holidays when the synagogue was full, while the small teivah was used for daily prayers.
Similarly organized spaces can be seen in Trikala and Volos, in the region of Thessalia. The commonality of form shared by synagogues in Ioannina and the Thessalia region -- broad house structures, liturgical bifocal orientation and elevated teivot, may suggest common visual and liturgical traditions. However, in Trikala and Volos an additional large teivah built in the middle of the synagogue may indicate different and additional traditions which influenced them. Likewise, it is still unsure whether the moveable small teivah in Ioannina represents the same tradition noted in Thessalia or was a table moved into the synagogue for practical reasons after the war.
This arrangement of two teivot within one synagogue has been documented by the Center researchers in other congregations around the world, such as Provence, Turkey, Cochin in southwest India, and Georgia. The fact that all these congregations are composed of descendants of Spanish exiles may suggest that this feature is a Sephardi liturgical custom, which was transferred by the Sephardi Jews into their new places of residence. It is also possible that this bifocal arrangement in Ioannina was ad hoc, resulting from purely local circumstances.
The main entrance to the Old Congregation synagogue is situated beside the teivah, to the south, while an additional side entrance is located in the extreme northeast corner, for the use of the Jews who lived in the eastern part of the neighborhood. Six pairs of elongated and arched windows are located on the south wall, while the north part is divided into two floors. The upper one contains the women’s gallery, situated atop the side aisle, which can be reached from an outer staircase built in the southern wall. A separate and later entrance is on the northern side of the outer wall, probably dating from the late renovation in 1877. The synagogue has seating for about 700 people-- eloquent testimony to what was once a large, thriving community. Marble plaques, attached to the north, east and western walls further commemorate the life of this community. The exterior is painted in blue and white.
The only remnants of the small synagogue (Minyan), which was situated in the northeast corner of the Old Congregation compound are the north and east walls, which shared the exterior wall surrounding the compound and the ruins of the south wall.
The name and the use of this building became clear while documenting some ritual objects with dedicatory inscriptions which mentioned a certain small synagogue. A dedicatory plaque revealed that the Minyan was built in 1868 and was called “The House of Abraham,” (Minyan Beit Avraham) after the patron who donated the funds to build it. A dedicatory plaque, which probably originally belonged to this Minyan had been attached to the facade of the Old Congregation synagogue and indicates the year 1874 as the year it was established. It also commemorates the soul of Abraham Salomon (Avraham Shlomo) by his wife Sarah. An additional marble plate found in the back yard revealed the whole story. It appears that Abraham Salomon died in 1868, leaving a debt to the Old Congregation synagogue. His wife Sarah had to pay the debt through a guardian and thus she was obliged to build the small synagogue (Minyan) which she named after her husband. The building was completed after three years, in 1874 – the year indicated on the plaque. Several years ago the Center documented an Ioanninan community synagogue built in 1920 in Jerusalem bearing the same name – a fragment of tradition which immigrated with the Ioanninan Jews to Israel.
During the war the Nazis destroyed the entire compound of the New Congregation synagogue, which was built outside of the Ottoman’s city walls. The only remnants of the structure are archival photographs, historical documents, and interviews with the elders of the community. They all suggest that the New Congregation synagogue shared a common plan with the Old Congregation synagogue, and featured the same components. Thus it was built as a rectangular broad house structure divided into three broad sections by three arcades. The Torah ark and the large Reader’s desk (teivah) were built within niches creating a liturgical bifocal synagogue. Dedicatory inscriptions engraved on various ritual objects documented during our expeditions and some rabbinical responsa also revealed the circumstances and the date that the new compound was built.
The New Congregation
It seems that as a result of the Sephardi Jewish immigration during the 16th century, the disparate communities were forced to pray in the same synagogue. Despite their different customs and liturgy, two of the rabbinical leaders, Rabbi Benjamin son of Shemaria and Rabbi Samuel from the house of Kalai, of the city of Arta, forbade the members of the community to pray in different synagogues. In spite of the rabbinical opinion, dedicatory inscriptions engraved on shada'iot indicate that during the beginning of the 18th century a certain New Congregation was established. It is obvious that a synagogue designated as "new" underscores the existence of an old, already existing one. Hence, the sole synagogue in Ioannina gained its name the "Old" Congregation synagogue as a result of the new one. The earliest evidence indicating the New Congregation dates to 1725. It is not the only evidence. According to the marble dedicatory plaque found in the back yard of the Old Congregation building it appears that in 1874 a new synagogue was built and in 1859, a new Talmud Torah was established by an Italian Jewish family named Batinno. Whether it marks the construction of a new building, a renovation or an entirely different structure, is still unclear.
It is also not known who made up the congregation that established the synagogue and under what circumstances. The appearance of some Italian names may suggest that it was an Italian community. Some of the members of the community who still live in Ioannina are Italian speakers and share some Italian customs and traditions. Although the names of some of the members of the New Congregation were Italian, it seems that they merged within the local community, and eventually may have adopted the Romaniot rite and customs. The formulas of the dedicatory inscriptions and the variety of the ritual objects that belong to the synagogue indicate Romaniot rites and customs. The minyan of the New synagogue was called “Minyan Hadash”, a new minyan.
The only surviving Romaniot synagogue on the island of Corfu also has a liturgical bifocal configuration, although within a different structure. The seventeenth-century rectangular synagogue is three storeys high, one of the highest buildings within the quarter. On the first floor are communal rooms and an inner courtyard used for a sukkah. The elongated rectangular prayer hall is on the second floor. The ark and teivah are situated at opposite ends of the rectangle – in the southeast and northwest respectively. The women’s gallery, probably an eighteenth-century addition, is built along the northeast and northwest sides. The gallery is not accessible today since its door is blocked and the staircase was demolished. The seating arrangement of the main hall is along the side walls.
The Jewish communities living in Corfu, the northern island in the Ionic Sea, were divided into three main congregations. Each prayed in its own synagogue and conducted different customs and rites. Out of the three synagogues, only the Greca synagogue, conducting the Romaniot rite, remained. The members of the Scoula Italiana originated from Venice and Spain, while the Sicilian Jews prayed in Scoula Corfiuty. The Greca synagogue is built within the former Jewish quarter, which at present is inhabited by local Greeks. Although the basic liturgy and customs in this synagogue were Romaniot, the members of the community absorbed the Italian culture and combined it with their own Greek culture.
Their Italian Jewish tradition is noticeable in the shape and style of their ritual objects as well as in the structure of their synagogue. The Torah ark in Corfu dated 1786 is a massive decorated wooden cupboard, extending into the inner space and situated in the middle of the southeast wall. It is a polygonal structure consisting of a facade with six wooden pillars supporting an entablature, and a drum, topped by a cupola. Evidence of repairs in the exterior wall corresponding to the location of the ark, may suggest that the original structure of the ark protruded beyond the present wall, although the few members of the community who still reside on the island do not recall whether this was the case. The teivah is located on the northwest wall opposite the ark, and placed upon a high podium that can be reached by two side staircases.
Despite the resemblance in the bifocal structure and the high built podium, the Greca synagogue also reflects Italian influences. The teivah is a baldachin-like structure composed of a cupola supported by four columns emerging from a wooden balustrade. The wooden structure is adorned with golden acanthus leaves and with openwork carving. The ceiling is marked with an oval contour. These contours, as well as the design of the ark and teivah, and their bifocal placement are characteristic of central Italian synagogues, notably similar to the seventeenth-century Scuola Italiana and Spaniola in Venice. However, unlike the rich Baroque decoration of the Venetian synagogues, the one in Corfu reflects a local Greek decorative concept of simplicity with an almost undecorated interior.
The features which distinguish each community can also be seen in their ritual objects, their shape, variety and dedicatory inscription formulas.
Shada’iot and other Dedicatory Plaques
Amongst the most important finds of the Romaniot community are silver dedicatory plaques from the communities of Ioannina, Arta and Previzia dating from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries. The plaques are called shada’iot, after shadai, the name of God engraved on most of the plaques. The name Shadai and most of the inscriptions were believed to have apotropaic powers. The source of this special custom is still obscure; although it may well have its roots in Italy, tracing its source requires in-depth research.
The shada’iot were donated to the synagogue for a variety of reasons, some private, such as an appeal for a better livelihood, a cure for an illness or for God’s protection of a newborn baby. Some inscriptions were dedicated for the exaltation of the soul of a parent or a child who died. Others bear communal information that also serve as historical documents: for example, the death of members of the congregation during pogroms, a fire in the Jewish quarter, a burglary of sacred objects and their return to the synagogue. A specific example of such an event is seen in twin shada’iot (Inv. 98.54; 98.55) dedicated in gratitude to God for the rescue of a family and the town’s citizens during the Greek war of independence against Turkey in 1913. A relatively large number of plaques mention deaths of infants and children, which may attest to a high child mortality rate, which might have been the result of poor health care, a disease or an epidemic.
A special group of plaques bearing the Priestly Benediction (Numbers 6:24) are donations made in honor of living youths. It is still unclear whether these were dedicatory plaques marking a Jewish life cycle event – perhaps a rite of passage such as becoming a bar mitzvah, or perhaps a special custom that was related to the youth of the community.
The inscriptions are engraved in Hebrew, in most cases clearly written in square letters by a silversmith who was familiar with the language. Some of the inscriptions reflect the local pronunciation of Hebrew. For example, instead of pronouncing “sh” the Greeks pronounce “s”; instead of the guttural “ch,” they pronounce “k." Thus "taksit" replaced the word "tachshit," which means ornament. Other inscriptions are crudely engraved. Some engravers seem to have copied inscriptions without understanding their meaning. Thus words are at times not divided correctly. These differences in the inscriptions may indicate the work of different silversmiths, possibly non-Jews or artisans not familiar with the language.
The silver plaques are designed in several shapes; some have a drop-like shape, others dating from the end of the nineteenth century, are shaped like an eight-pointed star. Several inscriptions were engraved upon segments of silver belt links. Of special interest are the plaques shaped as a double-headed eagle, the emblem of the Greek-Orthodox Church (also adopted as the Jewish Museum emblem). Since most of them were cast, it is possible that members of the community bought them at the local market and used them for this exalted purpose.
The plaques dedicated to the synagogue were sewn to the Torah ark curtain according to the Romaniot tradition. Although dedicatory plaques are known from other communities, they were hardly ever donated as mere plaques, but usually as attachments to other ritual objects. The Romaniot plaques are unique, since they are objects unto themselves.
Four different dedicatory plaques also originating in Ioannina were documented in the Jewish Museum of Greece. These plaques do not have the word “shadai” which characterizes “shada’iot.” They are pear-shaped, topped by an arch with a round medallion in their centre enclosing a dedicatory inscription written in ink on paper. It appears that they were used as Torah case plaques. Since such plaques were not seen in the Ioannina synagogue itself or elsewhere, and the fact that three of the donors of these plaques are members of the same family, leads us to believe that this type of plaque is a specific local object and does not reflect a tradition.
Alongside the shada’iot, which display a uniquely Romaniot custom, other objects found among the Romaniot communities, differ from their counterparts in the Sephardi communities.
Torah Cases and Mantles
Unlike the Sephardi and the Italian communities, who keep the Torah scrolls in textile mantles, the Romaniot Jews, including those of Corfu, cover their scrolls in wooden cases in keeping with Eastern Jewish custom. The cases consist of several types, the most common being a polygonal case with ten to twelve facets. It has a flat roof and is surrounded by coronet-like crenellations. The earliest case found dates back to the beginning of the 18th century. Most cases of this type are painted with foliate motifs in various colors.
Different features characterize the place of origin within Greece of these Torah cases: for example, the front and back openings of most cases originating in Corfu are accentuated by protruding wooden bars, which are lacking on the other Romaniot cases. A unique type is the faceted Torah case with a flat top, enclosing an additional inner cupola. The lace-like carved cupola resembles the structure and decoration of the teivah, which stands within the synagogue. Most of these cases are decorated with stucco attachments of foliate motifs, mostly painted in gold, blue and red. This type was found only in Corfu, and it is still unclear whether it resulted from local traditions or reflects a Venetian influence.
Mappot – Torah Case Wrappers
Additional artifacts used by the Romaniot communities are Torah case wrappers, put upon wooden cases, and named “mappot" (mappah-singular). Most wrappers documented originated in Ioannina, (although they were documented in the Jewish Museum), while a few others originated in diverse places. The Torah case wrappers can be divided into several groups: the first is a rectangular cloth enclosing a central section usually made of a costume in a secondary use. Above this central section, a long narrow strip is attached in a "ח" shape. The strips bear dedicatory Hebrew inscriptions containing the donor’s name, the occasion, and the date. At times the name of the New congregation synagogue appears. (It should be noted that no mention of the Old congregation synagogue in Ioannina is made on these wrappers. It is still uncertain whether the wrappers are a custom developed in the New congregation synagogue or whether the wrappers from the Old congregation did not reach the museum.) Most of the donors are women, although a few are men.
The wrappers reflect the impact of local customs and crafts on Jewish objects. Hence, the hand-made woven strips are traditional non-Jewish artifacts made by local women in the Ioannina region (the technique is named kaltsodeta in Greek). The strips were part of a man's costume and served to hold up the men's socks. From comparisons the team found that the sock strips also bear inscriptions, the name of the sock's wearer. Since this woven work was considered women's work, Jewish women in all likelihood crafted the wrapper’s strips. The strips are one example of traditional local crafts which were assimilated into Jewish life. Another example is a decorative strip named “ieratiki tressa” which literally means the priest's braid. These strips were originally woven for garments worn by the Christian priests. It is possible that some of the strips were bought in the local market.
The second group of mappot share the same structure and shape, but lack the strips and the inscriptions. A few wrappers are rectangular cloths with or without inscriptions, probably originating in places other than Ioannina. An example is the wrapper with Hebrew and Greek dedicatory inscriptions, given to the museum by the synagogue in Patrass at 1978 (78.224). The dedication indicates a donation by Miss Bond Elhdi, in 1913 to a congregation called “Kandia” (Heracleion). Strangely, most wrappers are dated to the mid-nineteenth century, especially the years 1847 - 1949. The reason for this is still unclear.
Me’ilim - Torah Mantles
As mentioned previously the Sephardi communities use Torah mantles. Most mantles were documented in the Jewish Museum, and were made after the war. They can be divided into two groups. The first are trapezoid mantles with a “soft” top, while the second are cylindrical mantles with stiff wooden tops. Both groups have Ladino inscriptions along with Hebrew dedications.
A few cylindrical mantles were dedicated to members of the congregation who were executed in Nazi extermination camps. An example is the mantle donated to the Holy congregation “Beit Shalom” in Athens for the eternal memory and repose of the family members Hayim (and) Elijah Ha’elyon, who died in concentration camps in Poland. (Dedicated in) Athens the month of Shvat 5707 = 1947” (81.17).
Unfortunately World War II and the Nazi acts against the Jewish population of Thessaloniki almost succeeded to annihilate the Jewish visual culture of one of the largest and most important communities of Greece. In the museum, there are no mantles originating in Thessaloniki. It should be mentioned that the only surviving ritual objects which were carried by victims of the Nazis from Thessaloniki to Auschwitz, were found and documented by a team of researchers from our Center in 1992, at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw.
Rimonim - Torah Finials
Unlike the objects which characterize the Romaniot or the Sephardi communities, Torah finials are used by both communities. They differ due to various factors, such as Italian or Ottoman design influences. The characteristic features that were found can define the city of origin as well as the style of its crafts. For example finials crafted in Ioannina are bulbous-shaped, common among Jewish communities which lived under Ottoman rule. They differ however, in proportion and decoration. Their elongated shafts are faceted and usually engraved with dedicatory inscriptions. Their body forms slices decorated with foliate motifs.
Among the Torah finials used by the Greca community in Corfu, was a pair of eighteenth-century finials originating in Venice. These tower-shaped finials are composed of three diminishing tiers with several arched niches in each tier. The Sanctuary Implements, which are usually attached to the niches in Venetian finials, are missing. They were found attached to the back wall of an eighteenth century Venetian-type Hanukkah lamp. Joining them are other Implement motifs, such as the Four Species which do not commonly appear on Venetian finials or Hanukkah Lamps. The donors of the lamp must have commissioned additional elements to fill the space of the lamp’s back wall.
The plaques and other ritual objects donated by the Romaniot communities share the same dedicatory formulas. One of the most common is the biblical paraphrase: “In the day that he goeth into the sanctuary” (Exodus 28, 29; Leviticus 10, 18; 16, 23; Ezekiel 44, 27). The biblical verse relates to the Temple sacrifice of purification, but here it relates to the donation to the synagogue, which may serve as a replacement for sacrifice of purification.
Another formula is the Mishnaic phrase, which appears only on Torah finials: "(Rabbi Simeon said: there are three crowns) the crown of the Law, the crown of Priesthood and the crown of Kingship; the crown of a Good Name excels them all" (Mishnah Avot 4:13). This phrase is not unique to Greek ritual objects; it appears on ritual objects such as Torah crowns, mantles and Torah ark valances from other Jewish communities.
Led by Ariella Amar, Head of the Synagogues and Ritual Objects Section of the Index, the team consisted of researchers Ya’arah Morris, Einat Ron and Irena Chernetsky, architect Boris Lekar and photographer Zev Radovan. Four synagogues and six hundred ritual objects were documented as well as the collection of Jewish ritual objects in the Jewish Museum of Greece in Athens.
The Jewish Museum of Greece was established in 1977 by Nikos Stavrolakis in order to preserve the Greek-Jewish visual heritage. The current director is Zanet Battinou who assisted us greatly in our work at the museum. Over the years, the museum has collected objects from different communities around Greece. Some of the objects exhibited here are the only remnants of many local communities.