Romaniotes in America.
for Nicholas Stavroulakis, in blessed memory.
By MATT HANSON.
Burst O tear into sob, and you lyre into lament, That pain may flow refreshed to soften the breast. Ah, extolled Yanina, oh blossomy haunts of visions, Embittered because I left you, yearning torments me.
—from “Nostalgia” by Josef Eliyia, trans. Rae Dalven
THE ORIGIN STORY of Greek-speaking Jews, as known to the oral folklore of the endangered Romaniote culture, begins with freedom from Roman enslavement. It was by the force of nature, seasick in the tempest-tossed Mediterranean where fresh captives from Judea survived the wreck of slave ships sailing to pagan Rome.
The descendants of that mythicized shipwreck washed ashore, and found kin from an earlier Hellenistic, Greek-speaking Jewish diaspora predating Roman colonization by some three hundred years. They landed in Greece following Rome’s destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, and the expulsion of Jews from Judea in 70ad. In 1913, the archeologist André Plassart uncovered what is considered by many to be the oldest synagogue in the world on the Cycladian island of Delos.
Romaniote identity is founded in ancient Hellenism, which produced the Judeo-Greek traditions that have culminated in a proud, contemporary American immigrant heritage. Kehila Kedosha Janina on 280 Broome Street in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, literally named, in Hebrew, for ‘Holy Community of Janina’, is dedicated to future generations, but built by the immigrants who first left the Ottoman Empire from what is now Ioannina in northwestern Greece.
WHEN THE FIRST Jew arrived in New York from Greece, the Lower East Side’s Tenth Ward was the most crowded place on the planet. Over 700 people lived in every square acre, as tens of thousands of pushcarts lined the streets of a city where 600,000 Jews called home. The year was 1899, and Zachariah Yomtov disembarked at Ellis Island a misbegotten fellow, disdained by his family in Greece.
He stayed in a cold-water flat not far from where he first landed in Battery Park, but soon found work in the Bronx at Schinasi Brothers, Inc., a wealthy Sephardic-owned cigarette and cigar manufacturer whose Riverside Drive residence became the last privately owned freestanding mansion in Manhattan.
When Zachariah sadly met his end one commute by falling under a horse-drawn carriage, his fellow Greek Jews, themselves fresh off the boat, presided over his funeral arrangements. But they underestimated the antagonism of their prevailing co-religionists, the Ashkenazim of Eastern Europe. The diasporas are often at odds. One argues over authority, the other over integrity, and all over tradition. A saying continues at Kehila Kedosha Janina: Three Jews, fifteen different opinions. Even the Sephardi Jews would not help. He died penniless.
The leaders of the Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazim did not accept that the Greek- speaking Jews were even Jewish at all. Up against a brick wall, those earliest Romaniotes of New York established an independent burial society to mourn Zachariah according to Jewish law. The society is known as the United Brotherhood of Janina. Formed in 1907, it is as vital today as it was then.
THE DEVELOPMENT OF Kehila Kedosha Janina from 1926 to 1927 was not only the natural progression of Greek-Jewish self-determination in New York, it was the fulfillment of two millennia of dreams by a community of freed slaves subject to successive autocracies, most of which were ruled by the emperors and sultans from Byzantine and Ottoman Constantinople.
In 1924, two tenements stood at 280 Broome Street. One was owned by an Ashkenazi couple, Jack and Rebecca Ohrenshtein who changed any malign assumptions the nascent Romaniote community may have had about Ashkenazis in New York when they sold the building to them. That year, Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Act, restricting global immigration. Only a hundred Greeks a year could enter America.
The Supreme Court officially incorporated the Jewish community from Janina in 1914, the year after Greek nationalists claimed Ioannina from the Turks during the Balkan Wars. For the next decade, the community raised enough pennies to purchase two tenements and knock them down. They were paving the streets in gold with their labor. They dreamed of America, and lived it to the fullest.
Two years after the Ohrenshtein deal, the buyers established Kehila Kedosha Janina. By then, the congregation had been organized for two decades, led by the Colchamiro family. The community hired an affordable architect and laid the brick themselves. Following its opening, the synagogue seated to capacity, eventually establishing a second division in Harlem. They had come a long way from a small, second floor loft on Forsythe Street where they began gathering outside of their private homes to remember the Mahzor Romania minhag, the special Romaniote tradition of Jewish prayer. It’s a tradition with an interesting linguistic history that intersects with a life in exile in America:
One lexical item in particular, common to all the Jewish languages of Europe, points to a distinct common ‘Romaniote’ substrate. This is the verb that appears as miauder, meltare, meldar (et alia). These local forms all evolve ultimately from the Greek verb meleta–n, ‘to meditate’ used in the Septuagint as the translation of the Hebrew root HGH (הגה .(From its use in the Bible the word came to mean ‘study’ and this meaning was attached to the cognate Late Latin borrowing from Greek, meleta–re. This verb came to be used by Jews to mean specifically ‘study of the Torah’ and was consequently used by Jews in preference to the verb meditari, the Latin word used by Jerome in the Vulgate to translate .הגה. The various traditional pronunciations of ‘whole Hebrew’ (i.e. the written Hebrew text as opposed to Hebrew words taken over as loan-words into the vernacular) may also tell us something about the influences on Romaniote Jews. The pronunciation of Hebrew was assimilated to the pronunciation of the surrounding language. Thus only in Yemen all the phonemic distinctions of Hebrew are maintained…1
And in America, the storefront doubling as a house of worship was a staple to neighborhood life for many religious communities. For example, African-American church storefronts were known for their participatory rituals. Similarly, the tenement synagogue is an invaluable historical and architectural treasure that the Greek Jews have maintained with extraordinary tact and verve. Kehila Kedosha Janina is the last of five active synagogues in a neighborhood that once hosted over four hundred.
AMONG THE FIRST young men to earn his Bar Mitzvah at Kehila Kedosha Janina was thirteen-year-old Menahem, the son of two Janina-born economic migrants who met in the downtown tenement districts of Manhattan in the 1910s. He was the first born to Solomon Asser and Julia “Zoya” Epstein. They made their lives with the teeming immigrant workforces who struggled and sometimes perished in the garment sweatshops of the Lower East Side.
Zoya pumped a sewing machine by foot at home while she watched her increasingly numerous children play and grow amid the overpopulated urban poverty. Solomon often spent nights after factory work in the cantina before coming home with a strap in his hand to take his aggression out on Menahem.
Solomon emigrated from Janina with his brother Simon, a Hebrew scholar who later served Kehila Kedosha Janina as one of its first cantors. His photograph is exhibited in its second-floor museum at 280 Broome Street. They were a long way from the cool and rainswept air that drifted off Pamvotis Lake along the shorefront neighborhoods of Janina where Romaniote Jews lived for a thousand years.
From the Ottoman trade networks of premodern Greek-speaking society in Janina, Solomon became a foreman in the garment factory business on the Lower East Side, employing mostly Ashkenazi and Italian stitchers. With him, Zoya had Menahem and six other children in a world that could be torn from the pages of How the Other Half Lives, raised in a sixth-floor tenement walkup on 94 Allen Street, today the same block as the Tenement Museum (and right across the street from Kehila Kenosha Janina).
KEHILA KEDOSHA JANINA is a testament to individuals who prioritized community while living in the thick of American poverty as the First World War raged in Europe. From Allen Street, the family scratched out every nickel to heat their tenement in the winter months, surrounded by countless births and unspeakable deaths, the hoards of newcomers and pestering landlords. Despite moving a bit uptown to 199 Allen Street on the corner of Delancey, Menahem slept in a clothes-drawer while his infant kid sister died of the 1918 Spanish Flu.
As Zoya sat over a Singer machine at home, Menahem found refuge from the Manhattan pavement that seemed to raise kids too hard too fast. He stared out at the city from his rooftop, clotheslines swaying. In 1919, he looked down into the streets where a veterans’ parade was in full, patriotic swing. The Great War was over. It was his first memory, and he would recount it into his one hundredth year. Together with such stories, he would say: We were poor, but we were happy because we were together.
Solomon moved again twice around Lower Manhattan, to Ludlow and Spring Streets. Then, finally, they moved up in the world, all the way across the East River to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a veritable Jerusalem of the West for those who despaired of the deplorable tenement conditions. New Yorkers began to call the Williamsburg Bridge the Jew’s Highway as an exodus rose out of the Lower East Side.
Unmoved from her faith in her community, Zoya steadfastly walked that mammoth bridge every Shabbat to pray in her Romaniote custom at Kehila Kedosha Janina. After services, she walked from the second floor women’s section to share a few solemn regards and even crack a few Greek jokes over hard-boiled eggs and her very own kaltsounia, sometimes washing it all down with a thimble of homemade tsiporou, the regional spirit of her mountainous and cloudy Greek hometown.
The year after Zoya left Janina in 1912, the national independence that Christian Greeks wrested from the Turks in 1832 had finally swept Epirus. Since then, social commentators have argued that Greek and Jewish identities have grown apart. In her book, Greece: A Jewish History, K.E. Fleming articulated how New York preserved Romaniote culture in direct continuity with premodern Janina:
The congregation’s sense of Greekness is fostered by its diasporic, immigrant identity and U.S. context…In the United States, and particularly New York City, the Greek immigrant 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.”2
THE ROMANIOTE JEWS of the Lower East Side did relatively well in the harshly competitive frenzy of the American capitalist labor market. Only a decade after disembarking at Castle Garden, remembering the Athenian port of Piraeus, they were on their way to relative sanctuary in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge on South 9th Street, between Bedford and Driggs Avenues.
The community followed. Judeo-Greek sayings were heard in bursts from apartments above Peter Luger’s German steakhouse, telling the kids and their cousins to be careful as they walked under the bridge to the George Washington statue and looked up with awe at the dome of the Williamsburg Savings Bank, later having a knish on Roebling Street before playing handball in the parks up to Division Avenue.
With Solomon as its head, the Asser family appeared in the 1930 census. They were employers, relatively prestigious considering that they shared a building with widowed single mothers and a few teenage factory hands from Eastern Europe. Still, they rented their home.
In March of 1934, the Janina-born patriarch of the Asser family died for lack of modern medicine on New York City welfare (he could have lived if he had a kidney replacement). He was survived by six children and his Greek-speaking wife.
BY THE 1960s, MOST Jews had left Broome and Allen Streets. While the early 20th century melting pot in the Lower East Side remains to some extent with Little Italy and Chinatown, the bygone Jewish territory that once bordered them was as stark as south Williamsburg is today. From Essex to Forsyth, Hester to Houston, the orthodox tailors and mazel tov silversmiths closed shop and moved across the East River strait to the Yiddish billboards and Ashkenazic delis of Lee and Roebling Avenues.
In the following two decades, Latin American migrants filled the Lower East Side tenements. To the memory of Sol Cofinas, who has attended Kehila Kedosha Janina since the 1950s, they were, at times, difficult neighbors. Chinatown began to engulf the neighborhood around Kehila Kedosha Janina in the 1980s, drastically changing the social reality. But Cofinas complements his most recent neighbors for valuing education and family.
He is a post-WWII Greek immigrant and Holocaust survivor, who hid from the Nazis as a young boy in Athens. Though he tragically lost his mother to the occupation, he was saved by righteous Christians. He later met his wife Koula, also a Greek Jew, who suffered a similar fate. Nowadays, Cofinas is a great-grandfather and the patriarch of the only remaining Romaniote family who regularly attend Kehila Kedosha Janina.
Every Saturday, he crosses Delancey to attend Kehila Kedosha Janina. Often leading the Shabbat service is his yeshiva-trained son Chaim, whose own son recites Torah together with the sons of synagogue president Marvin Marcus, of Sephardic ancestry from the historically Greek, but now Turkish city of Izmir.
They are the contemporary core of the traditional synagogue community at Kehila Kedosha Janina, with older Greek-speaking Jewish men in attendance on occasion as well. Sol humorously recounts times when he has had to shout out into the street from the front door of 280 Broome, looking for Jewish men to join the minyan, as they are often hard-pressed for a quorum of ten men.
Christians may have bells, and Muslims the call to prayer (now mostly amplified through loudspeakers), yet, in New York, it’s not unheard of for a Jewish man to walk unawares by the only active Greek synagogue in the Western Hemisphere and soon find himself reciting Torah under Byzantine lamps.
ON SUNDAY AFTERNOONS, Kehila Kedosha Janina transforms into a three-floor museum, hosting secular tours for Jewish schools, preservation societies, and urban explorers from all over the world. Many arrive feverishly itching to tell the story of how they came to learn of Kehila Kedosha Janina, and their connection to its history. One man reminisced of his days as an orphan in New York, and how he later searched for his family history in a village outside Janina, only to find that his parents lived in Manhattan.
When all is quiet, Sol takes a rest from his role as the most authentic voice leading tours to reminisce on the old days when Kehila Kedosha Janina was packed for services. He worked factories in midtown then, answering to employers who were known to bark at Jews: “If you don’t come in on Saturday, don’t come in on Monday!” He is about as quick to laugh as he is to take a vacation to Greece.
The second-floor museum was founded in 1997 by the Romaniote-American dramatist, author and filmmaker, Isaak Dostis. He grew up in the Lower East Side in a Greek-speaking Jewish household. His father walked to pray in Kehila Kedosha Janina from home on Norfolk Street, where one of his neighbors, an Albanian Muslim man, was family to them. Isaak has lived in Ioannina for the past decade, giving Jewish history tours and directing plays with his wife, Diana Sunrise.
In 2004, the world-renowned Holocaust studies scholar Marcia Haddad Ikonomopoulos took over directorship of the museum with her reputation as the first to publish essential studies on the Nazi deportations of Jewish communities in Greece. She is a descendant of Sephardic Jews from Thessaloniki. In the last three years, she has enthusiastically supported Andrew Marcus, the elder of the Marcus brothers, and youngest board member at Kehila Kedosha Janina, in his efforts to organize the Greek-Jewish Festival outside 280 Broome Street between Allen and Eldridge Streets.
Since the inaugural festival in 2015, the community has been overwhelmed with newfound praise and appreciation from the local neighborhood to the global community. Books are selling, concerts are crowded, lecturers are in demand, as the meaning of cultural revitalization is strengthening in the blood and bones of Romaniote Jews from New York to Athens.
WHILE THE GREEK-Jewish Festival was a first for Kehila Kedosha Janina, it was not a first for New York City. The Manhattan Opera House hosted a Greek-Jewish festival for Jews from Ioannina in 1935. Museologist and curator, Annette B. Fromm wrote about the festival in her 1992 book, We Are Few: Folklore and Ethnic Identity of the Jewish Community of Ioannina, Greece.
According to her research, the festival was a sensation. The Ioannina-based newspaper, Epiros commented on the event, saying that the Greek Jews feel like every Greek because they are Greek. One of the official speakers at the festival was Archbishop Athanagoras, originally from Ioannina. He listened to the Ioannina regional accent spoken by the Jewish Greeks before him. He listened to them sing Greek and Jewish anthems and watched them dance, and finally expressed deep nostalgia for his childhood when he lived with them in the streets of Ioannina.
If the 1935 festival was attended by the Asser family, they were likely still enduring the traditional year of Jewish mourning. The loss of their pasha Solomon the year before coincided with the high school graduation of the first born son. Intellectually gifted, a voracious reader and athletic iconoclast, Menahem was unable to go to college due to the family tragedy.
It was also the middle of the Depression, and President Roosevelt offered him and 500,000 other young men that year a job maintaining national parkland in the Civilian Conservation Corps. He took it, and was soon waving goodbye to his mother, his four brothers, his sister, and all of his aunts and uncles and cousins from a train leaving Pennsylvania Station bound for Mount Rainier in Washington State.
Returning home, he renewed his government service in the armed forces during the Second World War before moving to Massachusetts, where he continued to slave away in the garment business into his sixties with a disgruntled in-law for an employer. It was another immovable factory position undeserving to his expansive character, as he always recalled and in many ways relived the sweatshops, the unions, the pickets, the lack of opportunity and the low pay.
Of course, it didn’t stop him from raising a family. The challenges of the garment trade were practically as traditionally to him as Judaism, as he remembered his grandfather Menahem, a tall and hefty Greek who walked the Lower East Side selling lengths of fabric from his shoulder.
The next time he walked into Kehila Kedosha Janina it was a lifetime later, for his 90th birthday. He was back on his old stomping grounds, again outside that brick foundation once laid by his father and his community. He walked inside, under the stone engravings honoring his surname and sat lightly on the original wooden benches that his father and uncle assembled in the 1920s.
It was the second of June 2005. His youngest grandson, also given the Hebrew name Menahem, had recently graduated from high school, and was feeling freer than usual. He walked out of the birthday reunion at Kehila Kedosha Janina, and headed towards Eldridge Street through Chinatown. He did not realize that his grandfather was born across Allen Street behind him. He simply wanted to wander.
The night before, he had shaved his head to the skin for no special reason. He respectfully wore a hat over his yarmulke inside the synagogue. When curiosity led him to a Buddhist shrine, he kneeled to get a closer look at a porcelain sculpture, and on the belly of Buddha he caught himself staring at a swastika, unaware of its significance in Eastern spirituality.
It was out of context, he thought, lightly startled by the infamous symbol. Innocent, without much more than a thought beyond the ambient sounds and the smell of the air on the street, he returned to the synagogue, covering his head.
He had no idea that his family’s beloved Janina had lost 1,870 of its 1,950 Jewish residents at the hands of the Nazis, who decimated 87% of the Greek Jewish population, only second by proportion to the unspeakable loss of three million Jews in Poland. The Asser and Apstein families left Janina with thousands of economic migrants before the Balkan Wars militarized the region, and eventually the world.
HIS WANDERINGS TURNED into searching from the comparative literature department at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, to the Arabic Language Institute at the American University in Cairo, Egypt. His searching turned into finding when he enrolled in the International Indigenous Studies program at the University of Calgary and wrote research from Mexico and Peru, eventually returning to Egypt to reconcile the African refugee narrative with the causes of Indigenous Peoples in the Americas.
Finally, he sat before his elderly grandfather. At a hundred years old he still spoke of life as a Greek Jew in New York. He had a quick tongue, always ready to quip: The first hundred years are the toughest, he said. You don’t have to be good to be Jewish, but it’s good to be Jewish, he laughed. The world is the insane asylum of the universe, he protested.
Inspired, his grandson moved to Brooklyn. One day, he met a young woman from Istanbul. They promised to meet again. If it wasn’t fate, it was chance that with her he found his way to Ioannina. Returning to New York after six months in fourteen cities following Romaniote history from Turkey to Greece, Macedonia, Albania and Italy, it was summer and the second annual Greek-Jewish Festival was in full swing.
He met his mother and her cousins at a cafe a couple of blocks from the teeming crowds who elbowed their way to baklava and belly dancing. One cousin who had lived across the street from Kehila Kedosha Janina spoke of his one and only visit to Ioannina. He still wished to return.
In generations past, the steps to Kehila Kedosha Janina were consecrated by the profound nostalgia of a people linked to their beloved city. In its synagogue, Greek-speaking Jews prayed for the land which had been synonymous with the community itself for a thousand years. For its descendants, whether religious or not, Kehila Kedosha Janina stands as a doorway of return, and more, as a spiritual mirror that reflects in each and every individual the significance of who came before them.
IN 1961, THE AMERICAN-Canadian journalist and urban activist Jane Jacobs coined the term social capital while living in Greenwich Village. She rallied with unrivaled ferocity against Robert Moses, famously known to New Yorkers as the Master Builder. If not for her unwavering intellectual protest, Kehla Kedosha Janina may have crumbled beneath the concrete pillars of a superhighway.
It is not only respect for tradition that has preserved the Lower East Side, and New York City, as a walking city altogether worlds apart from Los Angeles, and most of America. It is due to the resilience of community values led by such exemplary thinkers as Jacobs who spoke on behalf of the people living on the ground, and their history, their humanity.
At the height of protest against the Lower Manhattan Expressway, as the plan was called, Jacobs stood only six blocks from Kehila Kedosha Janina, where Broome Street meets Little Italy, to make a speech before her comrades. When the initial plan for the highway was issued by the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Commission led by Moses, the route was planned for the north side of Broome Street, as an eleven-lane elevation from Watts Street (which becomes Broome Street after West Broadway).
What was to become known today as the only active Romaniote synagogue in the Western Hemisphere could very well have been demolished by the Master Builder himself, who apparently saw fit to tear down the Haughwout Building and Castle Clinton among countless historic structures.
Journalists, activists, and community leaders of all kinds are following in the footsteps of Jacobs to slow the pace of urbanization before it demolishes history, which to more and more communities is all they have left before they are completely forgotten, and worse, forget who they are themselves. As the Canadian First Nations author and broadcaster Thomas King once wrote in his Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative, “The truth about stories is, that’s all we are.”3
Demonstrations take many forms. It is not all slogans and battle cries, banners and footsore marches aimed at taking down the socioeconomic elite. Sometimes, it is heard in the melody of the bouzouki over Hebrew verse. Sometimes it is read in a book by a Greek-speaking Holocaust survivor. Sometimes, it is as delicious as kaltsounia. Sometimes, it is the Greek-Jewish Festival in New York.
Matt A. Hanson is an art writer and freelance journalist. For the past three years, he has published weekly art reviews on Turkish and Middle Eastern contemporary artists and art histories, and has written for Tablet Magazine, Al-Monitor, ArtAsiaPacific, The Millions, Hyperallergic, and Words Without Borders and he has work forthcoming from the Jewish Review of Books and Rudaw English. As a former resident of Egypt, Canada, Mexico and Peru, his writings have been translated into Arabic, Hebrew, Turkish and Ladino. He also writes poetry and short fiction and is currently working on an immigrant novel reflecting on his endangered Romaniote heritage. He reports for the Fortnightly from Istanbul.
- Aron C. Sterk, “Latino-Romaniotes: The Continuity of Jewish Communities in the Western Diaspora, 400-700ce“, Melilah, Manchester Journal of Jewish Studies, pp 33-34.
- Fleming, p 5.
- King, p 2