4-11 Adar, 5778                                                     Feb. 19-25, 2018 -- THE JEWISH OBSERVER, LOS ANGELES  --  603rd Web Ed.


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The first historical reference on the establishment of Jews in Greece is made on an inscription found at Oropos, Attica (dated between 300 and 250 CE) and refers to the Jew from Biotea, Moshos Moshionos. It is said that the first Jews who came to Greece were slaves, who were sold by the various conquerors of Judea to neighboring peoples.

Among other Jews, the name of the high priest Jason the 3rd is mentioned as going to Sparta during the reign of king Antioch (who was enthroned on 175 BCE).  In the book of the Maccabees is included a list of cities, dated from 142 BCE, which compared to the list composed by the historian Filo Judeus, refers to the existence of Jews in various areas of Greece such as Sparta, Delos, Sikyon, Samos, Kos, Crete, Thessaly, Biotea, Macedonia, Aitolia, Attica, Argos, Corinth as well as Cyprus.

When the Apostle Paul visited Thessaloniki he found there an organized Jewish community and preached in the Synagogue Etz-Hayim. He also discovered Jewish communities at Philippoi, Veroia, Corinth and possibly in Athens. The Jewish population in Greece increased during the period of the Judaic Wars (66-70 CE). The testimony of the historian Flavius Josephus mentions that 6000 Jews were sent from Vespasianus to Nero to work at the isthmus of Corinth. The ancient Jewish core which existed in Greece constituted the base of Jewish communities during the Byzantine era (from 330 CE) when the capital of the Roman empire was transferred to Constantinople. During the 12th century, the well known Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela mentions that he met Jews in Corfu, Arta, Patras, Nafpaktos, Corinth, Thebes, Chalkis, Thessaloniki, Drama and elsewhere.

Jews were also living in the islands of Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Rhodes and Cyprus. The largest community visited by Benjamin of Tudela was that of Thebes, which numbered 2,000 members whereas in Thessaloniki lived 500 Jews. In the remaining cities the number varied from 20 to 400.

Their main occupations were weaving, textile dyeing and silk industry. These Jews, called Romaniotes, were fully incorporated into the Greek culture and it is characteristic that they were writing Greek texts using the Hebrew alphabet. A massive wave of immigration occurred during the 14th century and mainly during the 15th century when Jewish refugees from Spain and Portugal settled in the Greek region.

These Jews were called Sephardic Jews (Sepharad-Spain). They mainly settled in Thessaloniki and in towns of Thessaly where the Sephardic Jews introduced the Ladino language (Spanish-Hebrew language) and their own customs and tradition. Approximately the same time, Jews from Hungary, after the occupation of this country by the Turks, during the reign of Sultan Murat, settled mainly in Kavala and Sidirokastro. The same happened during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent. Moreover, during the 16th century, Italian-speaking Jews from Apoulia (South Italy) settled in Corfu. From the 16th until the 18th century, the Jewish community of Thessaloniki was one of the largest Jewish communities in the whole world. Other significant ones were the Jewish community of Rhodes and of Crete which was famous for the development of rabbinical philosophy.

After the establishment of the modern Greek state, in 1832, the Jews were granted equal civil rights to the other Greek citizens, from the first Constitution in 1844. During the time between 1882 till 1920, the Jewish communities were acknowledged as legal bodies. In the beginning of the 20th century, approximately 10,000 Jews were living in Greece. After the Balkan wars (1912-13) and the liberation of Northern Greece, Epirus and the Aegean islands, and of Crete (1908) and Chios, the number of Jews increased to approximately 100,000.

During World War II, when the Italians (1940) and the Germans (1941) attacked Greece, 12,898 Jews fought in the Greek army. Out of these, 343 had the rank of officer or non-commissioned officer, whereas more than 200 fell in the battlefield. After the end of Wold War II less than 10,000 Jews existed in Greece. During the Nazi occupation the Jewish Communities in Greece were decimated by the transportation of the Jews to concentration camps in Poland and Germany or by their execution. The losses reached 87% of the Jewish population in Greece -- one of the highest percentages in Europe. Most of the Jews who survived, owe their survival to the help offered by the Christian population to their Jewish brothers. A number of Jews who managed to avoid arrest, entered the resistance, fighting in the mountains, or in the secret urban war against the conqueror. The Jewish population decreased more during the years after the war due to the immigration of numerous Jews to Israel and to the United States. Today, approximately 5,000 Jews live in Greece organized into eight communities.

The collection of the Jewish Museum of Greece includes more than 7000 objects -- material evidence of 2300 years of Jewish life in Greece. The exhibits include: The history of the Greek- speaking Romaniote Jews, whose presence in Greece goes back to the 3rd century BCE. The arrival of the Spanish-speaking Sephardi Jews, in the 15th century CE. The Jewish calendar and the cycle of the Jewish holidays. The religious items used in synagogues. The every day life of the Greek Jews which is reflected by the costumes, jewelry, embroideries, military souvenirs, photographs and various documents. This very rare collection covers four centuries of Jewish life, taking into consideration that the oldest textiles and marriage certificates belong to the 16th century CE. The thematic exhibits cover the nine levels of the building, a total approximate area of 800 square meters. All levels radiate around an octagonal atrium, functioning as the central axis of the exhibit. At the top, a domed clear glass skylight brings ample natural light into the building.

The ground floor houses the restored interior of the old Romaniote synagogue of the Jewish Community of Patras. Two cases display embroidered textiles and synagogual artifacts, whereas a third one displays traditional wooden cylindrical cases (Tikkim) for the Sefer Torah (Book of the Pentateuch), which belong to the Greek Rommaniote tradition.

On the first level is described the cycle of the Jewish holidays, having as the central subject the Sabbath (Saturday), the seventh day of the week, a holy day reserved for rest, which is observed by Jews as a remembrance of God's rest after the Creation. Here the exhibits include Hanukkiyot (the special eight-branched cantelabra), Meghilot (scrolls containing the book of Esther), Novias (traditional Sephardic sugar sweets for the Purim holiday), the special tray for Seder (for the Jewish Passover) and the Shofar (a ritual trumpet made of ram's horn).

On the second level can be found historical evidence of the presence of Jews in Greece from late antiquity (3rd century BCE) until the 19th century, is presented through documents, inscriptions and books. Military uniforms and decorations, photographs and publications of that time, remind the visitor of the contribution of Greek Jews to the military struggles of the Greek nation. On the same level, the Greek-Jewish contribution to the restoration of the Jewish people in the land of Israel, is presented.

The fourth level. Here the exhibits are dedicated to the tragic history of the Shoah (Genocide or Holocaust), and to the decimation of the Jewish population of Greece (87%) by the Nazis. Prisoners clothes from the concentration camps, photographs, official documents and other items, describe the tragic catastrophy. A case near by displays objects from the prisoners' liberation from the concentration camps

Traditional costumes, covering the period from the mid 18th century until the mid 20th century, illustrating the dress code of the Romaniote and Sephardic Jews are found on the fifth level. Bridal dresses, jewelry, belts, buckles, embroidered hats and shoes, everyday and official garments and children's clothes revive a past which is gone forever.

On the sixth level of the museum, a variety of ritual and domestic objects describe the rites of passage which mark the cycle of every Jew. The marriage, the circumcision, the religious ceremony of the coming of age, the domestic life as well as death, are presented by garments, embroideries, tools and household objects, amulets and other items. In addition to these six exhibit levels, the museum, possesses modern storerooms where two thirds of the collection are kept, in three separate rooms, according to their material (metal, paper parchment-wood, textiles-costumes). It also has a conservation laboratory specializing in paper and a photographic archive and laboratory.

Further to these facilities, in the exhibition area one can also find a small video room and a discovery room for educational programs. Two levels of the museum are specifically designed to house periodic thematic exhibits of painting, photography, books etc. There is also an organized sales department at the ground floor functioning as a gift shop with souvenirs, books, cards, exhibit replicas etc. Finally the museum has on its top level a rich research library which will soon be electronically recorded and a study room which is open to the public during museum hours.

-- Courtesy Jewish Museum of Greece