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Jewish Art in Greece

The sixth biennial symposium of the Center for Jewish Art was held in September 1997 in Greece. Thirty-five friends of the Center from the United States, France and Israel joined Center staff and distinguished lecturers for an eleven day tour to extant Jewish communities in Corfu, Ioannina, Athens, Rhodes, Halkis and Salonika. The symposium was enormously successful and informative and participants were welcomed with warm hospitality by their Greek hosts.

Participants of the symposium 'Jewish art in Greece' at the Jewish Museum in Athens.

Participants of the symposium 'Jewish art in Greece' examining ritual objects at the Jewish Museum in Athens.

The Jewish community of Greece is composed primarily of two groups, Romaniot (old local community) and Sephardi. During the Holocaust almost ninety percent of the Greek community was annihilated, thus almost decimating one of the oldest Diaspora communities and its rich artistic tradition. Today the five thousand remaining Jews of Greece are divided predominantly between the cities of Athens and Salonika, with smaller communities distributed in fewer than ten other towns and villages.

During the symposium, participants were struck by the strong sense of identity of the Romaniot community. Although they consider themselves a distinct community, much of their material culture and traditions have been greatly influenced by other Mediterranean countries. For example the bi-polar structure of the synagogue, which features the tevah (bimah) and heikhal (Torah ark) on opposite ends of the synagogue, is also commonly found in Italy. Their use of tikim (Torah cases) instead of Torah mantles, is common in several North African countries as well.

There are customs which may be distincly Romaniot and have not been previously seen by Center researchers. Special charms, shadai'ot, are often found on Torah curtains, and the perimeters of the Torah ark door are decorated with Torah finials. The Romaniots also produce a unique document for the Brit Milah called an "Aleph". In addition, some of the features of their ketubbot (wedding documents) are notable. For example:Ø the ketubbot are dated from the destruction of the Second Temple; and it is written that the husband and wife are mutually obligated in all aspects of the marriage.

The Romaniot and Sephardi communities have traditionally remained separate, which can be seen today in places such as Ioannina and Halkis, which have remained strictly Romaniot. Each group still retains its distinct identity. Until recently, the Sephardi Jews spoke Ladino, and Romaniot prayer books written in Greek with Hebrew script were common. However, today the Romaniots and the Sephardi Jews do intermarry for the simple reason that so few Jews remain in Greece.

The symposium began on the island of Corfu, located in northwestern Greece. A lovely opening night dinner set the pace for an exciting week and a half of lectures and touring. The following morning informative talks about Greek Jewish history, architecture, and ritual objects prepared the participants for the riches they were about to see.

During the first day's excursion, participants visited the island's only remaining synagogue, the seventeenth century Venetian style Scuola Greca. A double staircase leads to the second story synagogue, which is situated above the community offices. The elaborately decorated tevah and the heikhal are located on opposite sides of the synagogue with long benches running lengthwise between these two focal points. Decorating the opening of the heikhal are rimonim (Torah finials). Inside the heikhal, which has both an exterior and interior parokhet (Torah curtain), are the Torah scrolls which are stored in tikim. The tikim are colorful and richly decorated and reminiscent of Italian style.

Particularly noteworthy were a black tik with black rimonim used for Tish'a b'Av, and a small tik (without a Torah inside) used for children on Simchat Torah.

On the second day of the tour, participants traveled by ferry and bus and an arduous climb to the town of Ioannina. They began their visit with lunch in a restaurant with a breathtaking view of the lake and the old quarter. They later walked to the old quarter where they visited the remaining Yashan (old) Synagogue. Unlike the synagogue in Corfu, the heikhal did not have the decorative surrounding rimonim, although hooks for the rimonim were evident. In typical Romaniot fashion, the parokhot had hooks for hanging shadai'ot. A beautiful parokhet, which was once used as a dress, was decorated with elaborate Ottoman-style gold embroidery. The many Torah cases had cloth wrappers.

Participants also visited an ethnographic museum in Ioannina, which houses among its collection, Jewish costumes and other Jewish objects. Before departing for Athens they went to see a memorial dedicated to the Jews of Ioannina who perished in the Holocaust.

Symposium participants spent the next few days in Athens where they heard several lectures and were introduced to the large and important collection of the Jewish Museum of Athens. Guiding participants through a selected part of the collection was the museum's founder, Nikos Stavroulakis, one of the symposium's guest lecturers. While packing up the collection for the move to its newly renovated home, curators of the museum were surprised and delighted to discover that it was considerably larger than they had thought (see Events).

A one-day trip to Rhodes brought visitors to the old Jewish quarter where participants visited the old Kahal Shalom Sephardi Synagogue and the cemetery. According to Stavroulakis, this synagogue with its four antique columns was built in 1575 and is the oldest surviving synagogue in Greece. The Center staff was disappointed to discover that the few remaining ritual objects, which they saw the previous year, were no longer to be found in the synagogue.

The town of Halkis claims a continuing Jewish presence for two thousand years, although this can not be substantiated. The eclectic style of the synagogue reflects the many changes and renovations which have been undertaken since the synagogue was rebuilt in its present form in 1854. The Romaniot synagogue has two entrances, and antique columns which were part of an older structure, divide the interior space. Although the Jewish community in Halkis is Romaniot, several tombstones in the old cemetery have names of Spanish origin. The cemetery also contains Ottoman tombstones, some dating from the sixteenth century. Community members are very proud of their cemetery, whose style of tombstones are unique in Greece, and therefore believed to be special and typically Romaniot. Center researchers, however, have seen similar tombstones in Morocco.

Although not much remains of its once flourishing Jewish community, many of the symposium participants accepted the Salonika Jewish community's invitation for an optional day of touring. The old Sephardi community of Salonika came to an abrupt end when most of its Jews were deported to Auschwitz during World War II. A new community of returning survivors was established here after the war. Community members who shared stories of the rich heritage of the old community graciously received participants.

Interspersed with tours of the ancient Jewish communities and their artifacts were fascinating lectures about the history of the community, its architecture and ritual objects. Professor Yom Tov Assis treated our participants to several lectures including one on "Romaniot Jewry: Cultural and Religious Life" which described the Greek-speaking community, its distinct traditions and customs and how they differ from both the Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities.

In his lectures about ritual objects of the Jews of Greece, Professor Bezalel Narkiss described some of the special characteristics of the objects and rituals of the Sephardi, Romaniot and Italian communities. He also lectured about the shape, decoration and usage of an unusual Hanukkah lamp, which developed in Salonika during the seventeenth to twentieth centuries.

Symposium coordinator and Center Deputy Director Ruth Jacoby, presented lectures on the ancient synagogues and cemeteries of Greece.

Dr. Shalom Sabar enlightened our participants with information about Greek Hebrew Illuminated Manuscripts and ketubbot. He also presented a lecture on "Book Printing and Shabtai Zvi."

Architect Elias Messinas, who is a Ph.D. candidate at the National Technical University of Athens, gave a general lecture on synagogue architecture of Greece and its many influences from Jewish Spain to the Ottoman Empire. He also presented a photo exhibition of synagogues of Salonika.

Nikos Stavroulakis spoke in one lecture about liturgical textiles such as Torah curtains and Torah mantles and their iconographic and geographic significance, and in a second lecture about Jewish costumes of Greece.

Many of the cultural riches of the Jewish community of Greece were revealed during the symposium. However, we were also reminded that precious objects, if not closely guarded, tend to disappear. In the one-year interim since the Center began its work in Greece, we have seen evidence of this unfortunate trend, and we are reminded of the urgency for documenting objects in the small dwindling communities. Therefore, the Center hopes to send in the near future the first of three expeditions to document the Jewish art of Greece.



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