In a story published by The Jewish Week, author Diane Cole explored the Lower East Side of New York City, discovering a community of Greek Jews, or Romaniote Jews, that continue to keep their heritage thriving.
Romaniote Jews, according to the article, are Greek Jews whose ancestors arrived in Greece as far back as the days of Alexander, and whose population kept on growing in the country as the Roman Empire existed.
Cole interviewed Marcia Hadad Ikonomopoulos, the museum director at Kehila Kedosha Janina synagogue in downtown NYC. Originally from Ioannina, the synagogue’s founders settled on the Lower East Side when they came to the States. Kehila Kedosha Janina also houses the oldest Torah from Greece, circa 1750.
In an excerpt from The Jewish Week, here is a bit of history on Romaniote Jews:
Jews first arrived in the Ionian coastal area in a Roman slave ship sometime after 70 CE, after having been taken captive in Jerusalem after the destruction of the Second Temple. After large numbers of Sephardic Jews began arriving in Greece after the expulsion from Spain in 1492, most, but not all Romaniote communities became assimilated within the Sephardic culture. Janina was one that retained its original identity — speaking Greek, not the Judeo-Spanish dialect of Ladino, and adhering to its own Hellenistic prayer chants. But by 1900, its Jewish population had shrunk to about 4,000; by the beginning of World War II, that number had diminished to 1,950. In March-April 1944, the Nazis deported 1,860 to concentration camps; the great majority were murdered. Today, the Jewish population of the town is between 50 and 100.
Many Greek Jews flock to the synagogue, thankful there is a place the community can go to partake in their traditions and culture. Greek Orthodox priests have even visited, noting that the chants in the synagogue are very similar to those done in church.
For more information on Kehila Kedosha Janina, located at 280 Broome Street, NYC, visit their website: http://www.kkjsm.org.