Greece--a Jewish Historyby K. E. Fleming
K. E. Fleming's Greece--a Jewish History is the first comprehensive English-language history of Greek Jews, and the only history that includes material on their diaspora in Israel and the United States. The book tells the story of a people who for the most part no longer exist and whose identity is a paradox in that it wasn't fully formed until after most/i>
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K. E. Fleming's Greece--a Jewish History is the first comprehensive English-language history of Greek Jews, and the only history that includes material on their diaspora in Israel and the United States. The book tells the story of a people who for the most part no longer exist and whose identity is a paradox in that it wasn't fully formed until after most Greek Jews had emigrated or been deported and killed by the Nazis.
For centuries, Jews lived in areas that are now part of Greece. But Greek Jews as a nationalized group existed in substantial number only for a few short decades--from the Balkan Wars (1912-13) until the Holocaust, in which more than 80 percent were killed. Greece--a Jewish History describes their diverse histories and the processes that worked to make them emerge as a Greek collective. It also follows Jews as they left Greece--as deportees to Auschwitz or émigrés to Palestine/Israel and New York's Lower East Side. In such foreign settings their Greekness was emphasized as it never was in Greece, where Orthodox Christianity traditionally defines national identity and anti-Semitism remains common.
Michael Llewellyn Smith
Winner of the 2009 Runciman Award, Anglo-Hellenic League
Winner of the 2008 National Jewish Book Award in Sephardic Culture, Jewish Book Council
Honorable Mention for the 2009 Edmund Keeley Book Prize, Modern Greek Studies Association
"With this innovative, soundly researched work Professor K. E. Fleming has filled a long-standing need for the story of Greek Jewry to be told fully."Jewish Book World
"What is a Greek Jew? Fleming pursues this question through various Jewish experiences (Romaniot and Sephardi) during the stages of the emerging modern Greek national identity. Her well-written, gripping story argues that 'Greek Jew' is actually a phantom term that emerged formally only in 1920 with governmental recognition of the Salonika community, and developed among young Jews during the 1930s, later concretizing in the Nazi concentration camps and the Jewish Diasporas to Palestine and the U.S."S. Bowman, Choice
"This book is an excellent effort to explain the quandary of the Jews of Greece during the country's turbulent 200-year history."Jay Levinson, Jewish Tribune
"This is not a 'religious book' meant to inspire. It is the very well told story of a once flourish Jewish community whose history must never be forgotten."Jay Levinson, Jewish Magazine
"K. E. Fleming has produced an insightful historical overview of the Jewish presence in Greece from the establishment of the Greek state in the early nineteenth century to the post-Holocaust era. . . . [U]ntil the appearance of Fleming's work there was no overarching account of the Jewish experience in modern Greece, and this book fills that lacuna extremely well."Alexander Kitroeff,American Historical Review
"This fascinating book examines the concepts of identity and nationality as experienced by Jews, while paying tribute to those who were lost in World War II and to the righteous gentiles who saved the remnants of the community. Professor Fleming has written an important work on a little-known subject. It belongs in all academic Judaic collections."Barbara M. Bibel, Association of Jewish Libraries Newsletter
"This volume, which displays solid scholarly standards, is also highly interesting as it follows the multiple destinies of these Jewish groups and demonstrates how complex Jewish history ishow diverse and how difficult to categorize. Fleming has succeeded in escaping preconceived attitudes and in treating the object of her investigation with detachment but also with the empathy required for all genuinely good research projects."Esther Benbassa, Journal of Modern History
"[A]n absorbing story, well told and referenced, and a worthy winner of [the] Runciman Award."Michael Llewellyn Smith, Hellenic Review
Barbara M. Bibel
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Read an ExcerptGreece-a Jewish History
By K. E. Fleming Princeton University Press
Copyright © 2007 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One INTRODUCTION
ON OCTOBER 26, 1914, Thomas Donnelly, justice of the Supreme Court of the State of New York, signed off on docket #4979-1914 C, legally certifying the incorporation of the "Jewish Community of Janina, Inc." A parenthetical note explained the name to the court: "(Janina [is] the name of a town in Greece)." What was being incorporated was a "Greek Jewish group." These notes were deceptively simple. For Janina (Jannina) had only been part of Greece for one year, and the idea of a "Greek Jew" was all but nonexistent-at least in Greece.
In 1914, Jannina was home to one of the oldest Jewish communities in Europe: the so-called Romaniotes, the indigenous, Greek-speaking Jews who had first settled in the south Balkans in the first centuries C.E. At the same time, it was one of Greece's newest towns: just one year before, in 1913, the town, along with most of what today is northern Greece, had been taken from the Ottoman Empire by Greek forces in the second Balkan War. This "town in Greece," like many others, had spent the previous five hundred years as part of the Ottoman Empire.
Hundreds of thousands of the region's inhabitants, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim alike, were profoundly affected by the transition. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw massive migration from the Ottomanborderlands to the United States. Between 1873 and 1924, almost 550,000 Greeks from the Ottoman Empire and Greece arrived in America. With them were many Jews, both Greek-speaking Romaniotes from around the south Balkan mainland and Sephardim from the city of Salonika-the descendants of the Jews expelled from the Iberian Peninsula starting in the late fifteenth century. Between 1895 and 1906, up to 30 percent of the total population of the northwestern Greek district of Epirus, of which Jannina was the seat, emigrated. The Jewish Community of Janina, Inc. was made up of recent émigrés who were part of this mass movement.
The corporation's nine original directors had come together to create a social and religious home for the burgeoning new Romaniote community of New York's Lower East Side. All recent immigrants, six members of the board were naturalized U.S. citizens while the remaining third were Greek nationals. The new corporation had as its goal "to unite the Jews of Janina for the promotion of their welfare, physically, morally, and intellectually," and to "aid and assist them financially and morally; to cultivate and foster social intercourse among the members and in general to ameliorate their condition."
The founding of the Jewish Community of Janina, Inc. signaled a significant Greek Jewish presence on lower Manhattan-one that grew in the wake of the Balkan Wars (1912-13) and during the interwar period, when there was another, smaller wave of emigration. Of the roughly six thousand Jews living in Jannina at the turn of the century, more than half had departed by 1930, most to the United States.
By the mid-1920s, when America's new "closed door" immigration policy took effect, slowing the growth of the New York Jannina community, affiliate organizations-a burial society and a benevolent foundation-had been established; money was being raised to build a permanent home for the Janniote congregation. By 1926, the burial society (the United Brotherhood of Janina, which resulted that year from the merger of various other organizations) had 250 members, and total holdings valued at just over $12,000. Annual dues averaged $6.60. A constitution was drawn up, officers elected, and fees set according to age. The next year a permanent synagogue, the Kehila Kedosha Janina (holy community of Jannina), was founded. Services were packed. The New York community was so large that the Janina Brotherhood had a Harlem Division and a Downtown Division, each presided over by its own rabbi.
The Kehila Kedosha Janina, at 280 Broome Street on lower Manhattan, was the social and spiritual hub for the thriving group of new Greek Jewish immigrants. While Janniotes made up the congregation's core, the synagogue drew congregants from all over Greece. Over time, in a nice ironic reversal of the conditions that had prevailed for centuries in the south Balkans, Ladino-speaking Sephardim-who in Greece had dominated Romaniotes in number-were incorporated into the group, which to this day follows the Greek/Judeo minhag (customary practice). As in Greece, in New York the Romaniote rabbinic establishment interacted with various Sephardic congregations. Close ties were maintained with the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue at 133 Eldridge Street, for instance; while the Eldridge Street synagogue had a Hebrew school, the Kehila Kedosha Janina did not, so young New York Romaniotes training for Bar Mitzvah would study with the Sephardim.
In early June 1935, a young man from the Jannina community was Bar Mitzvahed at the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue. "It was a very memorable day for me, my family and friends." The celebration lasted for two days; the following weekend when the young man was called up to the Torah back at the Jannina synagogue another party followed. The young man was Hyman Genee, who until his death in early spring 2006 was the president of the Kehila Kedosha Janina. Well into his eighties, Genee ran the synagogue, served as the reader, and generally kept the congregation in line-it no longer has a rabbi (the community's last rabbi passed away in 2000), and conducts its own services. "You have to make the effort to be here on time," he would reprimand the congregants. Punctuality is not simply a matter of etiquette but also necessity. Nowadays, it can be difficult to gather the ten-man minyan, or quorum, required for services to begin. Those who've arrived on time can sit around for hours waiting for the latecomers before they're able to start. Sometimes extreme measures are taken; if nine men have arrived, and a tenth doesn't seem forthcoming, the congregation may open the curtain covering the Torah scrolls (heikhal) and let the scrolls serve as the tenth man. One morning as the minutes ticked by, Hy joked that he was going to go grab someone off the street, "circumcise him on the spot," and have him complete the minyan.
In keeping with patterns on the Lower East Side as a whole, as its Greek Jewish immigrants became established in the United States and accumulated wealth, they moved from Manhattan to the outlying boroughs, New Jersey, and Long Island. After the boom of the 1920s and 1930s, and slight growth as Holocaust survivors came in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the number of congregants began a steady decline, while affiliated organizations that drew together the increasingly far-flung Greek Jewish population in the United States grew. Now known as the United Brotherhood/Good Hope Society of Janina, it has over eleven hundred members. It is the key organization in the States via which the descendants of Greek Jews can express and propagate their identity. The Sisterhood of Janina, Inc., the women's branch founded in 1932, is active in charitable work and has over three hundred members from across the country. The Kehila's actual congregation, however, has all but disappeared.
Today, 280 Broome Street is an unassuming building sandwiched between Chinese food warehouses; the formerly Jewish neighborhood is now overwhelmingly Cantonese. Recently renovated, the synagogue's clean rusty pink facade stands out on a block of dingy tenements and storefronts. The space inside is long and narrow, running north-south, configured with the central reader's platform (bimah) facing north toward the heikhal. (Romaniote synagogues are usually laid east-west, with the heikhal on the eastern wall and the bimah on the western one.) But the Janina congregation's tiny lot size and its orientation led to the Kehila's unusual layout, which is more in keeping with traditional Sephardic synagogues. Upstairs is the women's section (ezrat nashim); the women who sit there today regularly shout down at the reader to speak up, or to add pieces of news they'd like included in the week's announcements. The news reports are not, for the most part, upbeat: word of elderly former congregants who have died or suffered illness, and news of perennial vandalism of Jewish sites in Jannina, back in Greece, feature prominently. Downstairs in the basement is a modest kitchen and a common area where a blessing of bread and wine (kiddush) is held after services. Until the recent renovations, the room's walls were plastered with tourist posters of Greece and Israel; kiddush regularly includes grape juice, shots of ouzo, spanakopita (traditional Greek spinach pie), kalamata olives, hardboiled eggs, and feta cheese. Bagels or bialys with cream cheese and salmon are a frequent supplement.
In decor and gustatory tastes, as in their self-identification, the Kehila's congregants are at once fully Greek and fully Jewish, and their immigrant culture is interwoven with both Greek and Jewish organizations. The synagogue has sponsored Greek language classes, trips to Greece, and kafeneíon evenings designed to replicate the social ambiance of the traditional Greek coffeehouse. Tributes included in the Kehila's seventy-fifth-anniversary commemorative volume are full of Greek turns of phrase: "Yássou [Hello] to all" and "s'agapó" (I love you); a beloved deceased relative is remembered with the Greek term for grandfather as "a great Papoo." As is the case for other diaspora émigré groups, the Greeks of the Janina synagogue are particularly pointed about the expression of their national origins. Some, like Genee, were born in the United States, to parents who came to the States before Jannina became part of Greece in 1913. Others were born in Greece, survived the Holocaust in hiding, and came to the United States in the 1950s and 1960s.
Ilias Hadjis, for example, was born in Athens in 1937, and spent the occupation hiding in the Pilion Mountains and Athens. Koula Cohen Kofinas, born in Larissa in 1938, spent the war posing as a Christian. "I used to go to church and light a candle. First because we didn't have a place to thank God. And second, we didn't want to give [those around us] any reason to think of us as different." Almost twenty years later, she came to the United States. Her husband, Sol Kofinas, who now directs the museum run out of the Broome Street synagogue, spent the occupation hiding in a woodshed with his brother. His father was among those infamously locked in the Athens Melidoni Street synagogue by the Nazis just before Passover in 1944; his mother had fled with the two boys, but was caught by German guards when she sneaked back to the family's house to get some diapers and clothing. Kofinas left Greece in the 1950s. The congregation also includes many Sephardim of Salonikan origin (there was a merger with a Sephardic synagogue in the 1970s), but resolutely sticks to the Romaniote liturgy and insists at all times that it is Greek. When a would-be congregant phoned the synagogue and asked, "You're not Ashkenazic, right? You're Sephardic?" he received the somewhat brusque reply, "No, we're Romaniote."
The congregation's sense of Greekness is fostered by its diasporic, immigrant identity and U.S. context. While in Greece, Jews like Kofinas had a complicated national identity-there was in many settings a vague sense of "us" (Greeks) and "them" (Jews). "Greek Jew" was not an established category. In the United States, and particularly New York City, the Greek immigrant as a category is well-known. The religiously pluralistic surrounding environment doesn't necessarily expect Greeks to be of one religion or another, and Greek Jews in this country more easily inhabit both "halves" of their identity than they did in Greece. Here, their Greekness is not challenged but rather taken as a matter of fact. Meanwhile, Greek Jews back in Greece still struggle today to assert their legitimacy as Greeks. They are often suspected of having divided loyalties between Greece and Israel, or are told that Greekness and Orthodox Christianity are coterminous. The New York context, however, which is far more used to Jews (and far less critical of Israel), more easily embraces the idea of multiple, overlapping identities, such that the members of the Kehila Kedosha Janina are woven into the fabric of an immigrant narrative that has fostered Greek Jewish identity for more than a century.
Hy and his fellow congregants, Romaniote and Sephardic, while now unified by the smallness of their congregation, their shared status as first-, second-, and third-generation immigrants, and their adoption of a unifying national term-Greek Jews-by which to identify themselves, are actually of astonishingly diverse origin. The congregants' distant roots are in a swath of territory reaching from Portugal and Spain, to the northern Balkans, to Alexandria, Egypt. Until the twentieth century, there was no such thing as a Greek Jew. Nor was there a definitive Greece; the country's boundaries were not fixed until after the Second World War. After the Greek War of Independence (1821-33), Greece consisted of small portions of the mainland (see figure 3.1, chapter 3). Over the course of the nineteenth century it grew until, by the end of World War I, it had doubled in size. Finally, after World War II the Dodecanese Islands, of which Rhodes is the largest, were ceded to Greece. Only retroactively have the Jews from these places come to be regarded as a nationalized collective, as Greek Jews. Indeed, Rhodes is a case in point; while at the time of the Nazi deportations from the island Rhodes was actually Italian, its destroyed Jewish community is now classified by Yad Vashem (Israel's official Holocaust "Remembrance Authority") as part of Greek Jewry- an ex post facto classification based on the fact that Rhodes today is part of Greece, and one that says little, if anything, about its Jewish community's own identity.
This awkward category and the communities to which it refers-some of which considered themselves Greek, and some of which did not-reflects the complicated path minority groups negotiated in the transition from a world of empires to one of nation-states. The Jews who today are collectively called Greek-in Israel, the United States, and other places in the diaspora as well as in Greece-are described by a term that would have been meaningless to their ancestors. With the exception of some (largely Romaniote) communities (notably, in Athens and Jannina) in the last decades of the nineteenth century through World War II, the designator would have been met with puzzlement. Salonika, home to sixty thousand Jews before the Holocaust, became part of Greece only in 1912. The Judeo-Greek culture that began to emerge there in the 1920s and 1930s was arguably as much a reflection of assimilation as it was of a new, distinctly Jewish, Greek identity, and was in any case tragically short-lived. Jews from Rhodes were Rodeslis, a Turkish word that simply means "from Rhodes." While Rhodes is now included in Yad Vashem's list of destroyed Greek communities, it was not part of Greece until 1947, by which time almost all of its Jews had either left or been murdered by the Nazis. Many Jews from the Island of Corfu-which joined Greece in 1864-historically called themselves Italian or Apulian; those who called themselves Greek (Griega) did so in reference only to the language they spoke (and in a typical early modern Mediterranean cultural mélange, used an Italian term to designate their Greekness).
Greek Jews, a unified, nationalized category, emerged out of multiple and fragmented communities, and fully gained purchase, paradoxically, only once more than 90 percent of all Jews actually living in Greece had ceased to exist. The first topoi in which a distinct Greek Jewish identity fully emerged were, like Broome Street's Kehila Kedosha Janina, outside of Greece. It was in Auschwitz and afterward in Palestine/Israel-settings characterized, like New York's Lower East Side, by mass heterogenous Jewish populations-that Jews from Greece came to be defined as a nationalized group, as Greek Jews. One of this book's primary interests is in this phenomenon of what might best be termed "extranational nationalization"-the striking dynamic by which a formerly imperial group of peoples were converted, largely in settings beyond Greece's borders, into a single nationalized people. It is a process that was driven initially by the transition from the Ottoman Empire to the Greek nation-state, but was completed with the Holocaust and the foundation of the state of Israel.
Excerpted from Greece-a Jewish History by K. E. Fleming
Copyright © 2007 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
K. E. Fleming is professor of history and Alexander S. Onassis Professor of Hellenic Culture and Civilization at New York University, where she also serves as associate director of the Remarque Institute.
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