The Romaniotes are a Jewish population who have lived in the territory of today's Greece for more than 2000 years. Their language is Greek. Large communities were located in Thebes, Ioannina, Chalkis, Corfu, Arta, Corinth and on the islands of Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Rhodes, and Cyprus, among others. The Romaniotes are distinct from the Sephardim, some of whom settled in Greece after the 1492 expulsion of the Jews from Spain.
The earliest reference to a Greek Jew is in an inscription, dated c. 300-250 BC found in Oropos, a small coastal town between Athens and Boeotia, and refers to him as "Moschos, son of Moschion the Jew" who may have been a slave. The Romaniotes are Greek Jews, distinct from both Ashkenazim and Sephardim. Jews have lived in Greece possibly as early as the Babylonian exile, and certainly had established communities in major Greek cities by the time of Jesus. A Romaniote oral tradition traces the first Jews to arrive in Ioannina shortly after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD. According to the New Testament, in the early days of Christianity, St Paul had preached is several Jewish synagogues in Greece.
Benjamin of Tudela records the existence of Jews in Corfu, Arta, Aphilon, Patras, Corinth, Thebes, Chalkis, Thessaloniki and Drama. The largest community was in Thebes, where he found c. 2000 Jews. They engaged mostly in cloth dyeing, weaving and making silk garments. These Jews were at that time, knows as "Romaniotes".
When the waves of Sephardic Jews coming from Spain with the expulsion of 1492 settled in Ottoman Empire Greece, they were richer, prouder and more cultivated, separating themselves from Romaniotes. Thessaloniki, a city in northern Greece, had one of the largest (mostly Sephardic) Jewish Communities in the world and a solid rabbinical tradition. On the island of Crete, the Jews played an important part in the transport trade.
Eventually, most of the Romaniote communitites were assimilated by the more powerful Sephardim. Remnants of the Romaniotes have survived in Yannena (Epirus) and the USA (Kehila-Kedosha-Janina Synagogue in New York City, built in 1927, is a gathering spot for these Greek Jews). The Romaniotes had their distinct customs very different from those of the Sephardic Jews; unlike the Sephardic Jews, they did not speak Ladino, but Yevanic Greek dialect and Greek. Romaniot scholars translated the Tanakh into Greek (see Septuagint).
At the beginning of the Twentieth century the Romaniote community of Ioannina numbered approximately 4000 people, mostly lower class tradesmen and craftsmen. Economic immigration caused their numbers to dwindle and at the eve of the 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 owned two synagogues, one of which, the Kehila Kedosha Yashan Synagogue still remains today.
World War II and the Jewish Holocaust
During World War II, when Greece was occupied by the Axis, 86% of the Greek Jews, especially those in the areas occupied by Nazi Germany and Bulgaria, were murdered despite efforts by the Greek Orthodox Church and many Christian Greeks to shelter Jews. Although the Germans and Bulgarians deported a great number of Greek Jews, many were hidden by their Greek neighbours. Despite this though, roughly 49,000 Jews were deported from Thessaloniki alone and exterminated.
The Romaniotes were protected by the Greek government until the Nazi occupation. During the occupation the Romaniotes could use the Greek language better and more efficiently than the Sephardim, who spoke Ladino and their Greek had a distinct, "singing" accent. That made the Sephardim more vulnerable as targets, and was one of the many factors that lead to such great losses among Sephardim communities. In Ioannina 1860 out of 1950 Jews were deported to Auschwitz and Birkenau in April 1944. Most of them were exterminated by the Nazis.
The creation of the state of Israel in 1948, combined with the Greek Civil War, was the final episode in the history of the Romaniotes, the majority of whom migrated to Israel or the USA.
Today a small number of Romaniotes live in Greece, mainly in Yannena (Ioannina), in Israel and the U.S.A. (mainly New York). Greek Jews historically tended to follow the Jerusalem Talmud instead of the Babylonian Talmud, and developed their own Minhag and their own Greek-Hebrew language, called Yevanic - a term that originates from the 'Ionian' Greeks.
There are approximately 4,500 to 6,000 Jews living in Greece today, both from the Romaniotes and the Sephardi subgroups. Most of them still live in Thessaloniki.
Ioanniotiki Synagogue remains the one Romaniote synagogue in Athens, behind the Jewish Community of Athens offices at #8 Melidoni Avenue. Built in 1903, it has services only during the High Holy Days, but is opened for visitors on request through the Jewish Community office.
In Ioannina, the remaining Romaniote community has withered to a number of 50 mostly elderly people. The Kehila Kedosha Yashan Synagogue 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.
Kehila Kedosha Yashan Synagogue
The synagogue is located in the cradle of Romaniote culture, Ioannina, in the old fortified part of the city known as "Kastro", at 16 Iounstinianou street. Its name is in the Yevanic language and means "the Old Synagogye". 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 (were the Torah scrolls are read out during service) is on a raised dais on the western wall, the Aron Kodesh (were the Torah scrolls are kept) is on the eastern wall and at 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.
Famous Jews in Greece
Yevanic language, the Judeo-Greek dialect of the Romaniotes.
Thessaloniki and Ioannina, the two cities in Greece with the most prominent Jewish communities.
Jewish Holocaust of Thessaloniki
Rae Dalven, "The Jews of Ioannina", Cadmus Press (1989), ISBN 0930685032
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