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The Romaniot Jews of the Lower East Side

By Vannina Maestracci

Advisor: Professor Rhoda Lipton

INTRO: The many synagogues of Manhattan's Lower East Side are filled with the memories of the Jewish immigrants who came here -- mostly from Eastern Europe. But at 280 Broome Street, the small red brick building holds a sanctuary unlike any other. There, men and women still worship according to unique ancient traditions... that come from Greece - and that are slowly disappearing. Vannina Maestracci tells the story of this small congregation struggling to keep its culture and its prayers alive.


Hyman Genee still remembers the chanting he heard as a boy at the Kehila Kedosha Janina synagogue..

[NAT SOUND]... Almost seventy years later, he's the one who sings those chants in the same synagogue as the chazan - the cantor. Every Saturday, Genee leads the small congregation of just over twenty men and women in Sabbath services. He recreates the traditions that his parents and other Greek Jewish immigrants like them brought to the Lower East Side.

GENEE: We're really struggling and there are times on a Saturday morning if, for example, one or two guys are away for a personal reason, it's quite difficult to get a quorum or a minyan as we call it, which consist of at least ten adult men. (...) The word is lack of people. Period. We have been in business continuously for 70 years. And the congregation is getting older not younger. Who knows when our time will be up, it's certainly much sooner than later.

At 75, Genee - a small man with vibrant eyes - is one of the last who still knows the Romaniot services. For more than thirty years, Hy, as everyone calls him, has been the president of the Janina synagogue. Now, he fears that his generation will be the last to perpetuate religious life in the Broome Street sanctuary.


And if religious life ends at the synagogue, the story of the Greek Jews who worshipped here could be lost... The story is one of unique cultural traditions that are disappearing. Genee and many of the congregants are part of a little known sect of Judaism. They are not Ashkenazim - Yiddish-speaking Jews from Eastern Europe... and they are not Sephardim - Ladino-speaking Jews from Spain. They are Romaniots... Jews from Greece whose history dates from the time of the Roman Empire.

Their story and - their cultural background - are mostly unknown...even among other Jews.

GENEE: When I met my wife's mother for the first time, her mother said to her daughter -my wife- she says, "He's not Jewish, he doesn't speak Yiddish. How can he be Jewish?"

The Romaniots don't speak Yiddish. They speak what one congregant calls "the language of Ioannina" - the Greek dialect used in the Romaniots' native region.

According to legend, the Roman Emperor Titus was bringing a cargo of Jewish slaves from Jerusalem to Rome. A massive storm swept the ship onto the shores of what is now the Albanian coast. Titus let the slaves who survived the wreckage - go free.

The survivors climbed the mountains and settled in the province of Epirus in what is now northern Greece.

The legend is of course just that...a legend. New York University Professor Dan Georgakas teaches a course entitled "Jews, Greece and History." He says the presence of Jews in Greece is recorded fact and presents his own interpretation.

GEORGAKAS: ...the Romans did bring 6 to 7,000 Jews as slaves to dig the Corinth canal. And I can't see why not people escaping from there and if they escaped from there, they would go into the mountains exactly where they would go would be Epirus.

Epirus - and its largest town Ioannina - were the heart of Romaniot traditions.

Today, approximately fifty Jews still call Ioannina home. The synagogue opens its doors only on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year - and Yom Kippur - the Day of Atonement... when a rabbi travels from Israel to lead the small community in religious services.

The Broome Street synagogue is firmly rooted in Ioannina. The sanctuary was built by Greek Jews from the town who immigrated to the United States at the turn of the century. Ioannina was not forgotten -- the synagogue was named after the town and mirrors Romaniot design with the benches facing each other.


It's on those same benches that the congregants sit today for Purim service...

[NAT SOUND]... Men face the alter at the center of the sanctuary -- where Genee leads the chants. The women follow the services from the u-shaped balcony on the second floor.

The silver flower motif of the blue wall-paper has faded with time. The ark - where the torahs are kept - is preserved by a bright red and gold curtain. Genee cherishes the torahs kept inside -- especially three torahs he says were brought to Broome Street from Ioannina. The scriptures are protected by strong wooden or metal boxes called tiks -- a reminder of a time when Romaniots didn't have synagogues and traveled with their torahs.

The steam pipes still hiss as they did seventy years ago. The only things added were electricity -- and memorial plaques to honor congregants who died. The three rabbis of the congregation are among those names.

GENEE: We used to have three rabbis and we don't know if they were fully ordained or not but as far as we were concerned they were rabbis. And they were a wonderful, harmonious group. They all knew exactly what was expected of them, what readings to say and what chanting. And when they used to chant, they chanted in unison and it was really wonderful. It would have been a terrific thing to have recordings in those days. Unfortunately, it didn't happen. We have tried to recreate some of the tunes and the chants that we have as our parents used to do.

[NAT SOUND -- PIUYYTTIM/ underlay]

The chants are piuyytim -- poems inserted throughout the religious services. These unique prayers were written by rabbis in Greece and are still used at the Janina synagogue. There are no more books of piuyyttim so Genee reads them from photocopies.

[NAT SOUND -- turning photocopied pages/ GENEE: This one is for Rosh Hashanah - underlay singing]

GENEE: We are very fortunate that we have certain prayers and certain chants that we
perform or say that you would not find in any other type of synagogue. And I think they're great. I'm prejudiced in that regard that I believe that ours - although I'm sure I'm wrong - is the best you'll find anywhere.

And Genee cherishes the piuyyttim.

GENEE: My favorite? They're all good, are you kidding! Well, may be...Na, they're all good.

The use of the piuyyttim is one of the few things in the religious service that is strictly Romaniot, says Professor Mark Kligman of Hebrew Union College. He spent months observing the liturgy of the congregation and says the service is very close to Sephardic.

KLIGMAN: ... a guess would be that 90 to 95 percent of it is the same as the Spanish and Portuguese tradition. The five percent of it that does not appear in the prayer book at present because the community doesn't really have its own prayer book.

The Janina congregation prays with a Spanish-Portuguese book... and the congregants feel very close to the Sephardic tradition. In Greece, most Jews are Sephardic. The Romaniot Jews have been a minority since the Sephardim settled in Greece after 1492 when the Spanish Inquisition forced them to flee. The Sephardic rites and customs supplanted the Romaniot traditions in most towns and cities, says Dan Georgakas.

GEORGAKAS: Usually when the Sephardic arrived in any number they overwhelmed the Romaniots who are not as well educated in the religious, they're not as well formed religiously in terms of scholarly works. (...) They look down upon these people, in fact they're not sure that the Romaniots are really Jews, and for a long time, at least a hundred or so years, both communities aren't happy with marriages, they say, well you don't want to marry outside your faith.

The Romaniot Jews were mountain Greeks -- proud of their heritage. The Sephardic Jews settled mostly in large cities. They were a wealthier and more influential community than the Romaniot. That domination was even felt in Romaniot religious life, says Professor Steven Bowman of the University of Cincinnati.

BOWMAN: The Sephardim out of their benevolence supplied Greek-speaking Jews with synagogue prayer books... which of course were according to the rites of Sephardim. Hence, the synagogue service that the Romaniot Jews use today is a Sephardim service because the Sephardim gave them books and therefore they use it.

Bowman says this is why the Romaniots adopted some Sephardic traditions over the years. And - like today at the Janina synagogue on the Lower East Side - the size of the community made it harder to perpetuate Romaniot traditions in Greece. The Romaniots were first overwhelmed by the Sephardic presence. And then, says Professor Bowman, their number fell through emigration.

BOWMAN: There were never that many to begin with after the Ottoman period and as these communities primarily in the late 1900 century saw waves of immigration for them, ultimately they lost half of their population so that on the eve of World War Two instead of there being 4,000 Jews in Ioannina there were now only 2,000 Jews in Ioannina.

Those who did not leave for the United States or other countries were left to face the Second World War in Greece. The Holocaust killed a great majority of Jews in the country... and the Romaniots nearly disappeared. In 1943 Michael Matsas was a teenager. He joined the resistance in the mountains of Greece and says most Jews knew nothing about the Holocaust that enveloped Europe.


MATSAS: I'm convinced that the Jews of Greece had the illusion that nothing was going to happen to them. And this is based on the fact that not even one solitary Jew in Greece knew anything about the concentration camp, let alone knowing about the Final Solution or the death camps.

Deportations in Greece started in 1943, much later than in other countries. But before the end of the war, the overwhelming majority of Greek Jews, both Sephardic and Romaniot, had perished. Matsas researched the Greek Jewish population during the war and estimates that out of 77,000 Jews in Greece, only 10,000 survived. As for the town of Ioannina, out of 1,850 Jews, 163, less than one out of ten people, lived through the war. Historian Dan Georgakas says that the Romaniots never recovered.

GEORGAKAS: The Nazis have succeeded in Ioannina and elsewhere in that so much of the population was lost that you end up with too small a group to continue a community. I mean, yes, 60 people can be Jewish but can you really sustain a faith?


At the Janina synagogue, the faith is still alive. But for the congregants, the question is for how long. That's why they want to leave something behind -- as a trace of the Romaniot community in the United States. And what they decided to leave is a small museum.

The idea was brought by Isaac Dostis who worshipped in the Janina synagogue until he was fourteen.

DOSTIS: I remember what you're hearing now. Now listen to that... [NAT SOUND --
STEAM PIPES] I remember the steam pipes in winter. That's what I remember coming in. I remember the smell of coming into the synagogue. (...) I remember the food after the synagogue service. We would go either downstairs or upstairs and we would share food after each service.

As a child, Dostis was always told he was Sephardic - like most Jews in Greece. But even then he says, he couldn't understand the differences he saw in his own traditions.DOSTIS: In having Sephardic friends, I found that why didn't I speak the Ladino that they do? I don't. Why did they have certain foods that I don't eat? Why is the synagogue a little different then the other synagogues I'd gone? Why did we have certain customs?

Dostis only found the answer to these questions when he started searching for his cultural roots - five years ago. Through readings and trips to Greece, he learned he was a Romaniot. That's when he came back to the Janina synagogue - where many congregants - just like Dostis - did not know they were Romaniots. Making a clear distinction between Sephardim and Romaniot is still hard for the congregants.

Last January, Genee spoke in front of a group of Sephardim visiting the synagogue.

MAN: Do you ever call yourselves Sephardic or is it strictly Romaniot?

GENEE: Well, you're hitting a soar point with me now. I want to tell you a little story about that. Of course, I always grew up with the impression that I was Sephardic which is a truism (...) there's no question about it. Another branch of Sephardim is Romaniot Jews.

Genee went on to explain how he found out - in 1982- he was Romaniot when a man asked him...

GENEE: He says, 'What are you?' I said 'I'm Sephardic. He says, 'No you're not Sephardic,' he says 'You're Romaniot.' I took that with me and since that time and with the help of our coordinator of the museum we are now Romaniot Jews.

As the museum coordinator, Dostis helped bring out the specificity of Romaniot traditions - and their differences from the Sephardic. Starting the museum last May was part of this effort to explain and preserve the Romaniot heritage.

DOSTIS: What we want to do is have Romaniot be known before it is gone. And this is one way to do it. If we had kept on going the way we had, with the small congregation and no one knowing us truly, even ourselves, we didn't know we were Romaniots - within ten years we would have died a nice, peaceful death. And people would sort of remember us but in reality they would not know us. Now, people have a chance to know us.

The museum is mostly a family affair. Every Sunday, Genee or Dostis along with two other congregants, Solomon Kofinas and Ilias Hadjis, guide the visitor through the history of Romaniot Jews.


On the second floor of the synagogue, large maps and texts tell the story of the Romaniots. Traditional Romaniot clothes, religious objects and even Greek Jewish recipes are also displayed. Many of these treasures were found by the congregants in their homes - where objects brought by their parents from Ioannina were buried for years.

DOSTIS: Other items were in the synagogue that nobody coordinated (...) and so we go into these old areas in the synagogue and all of a sudden we'll find this, and we'll find that. They found an engraved Shofar - a ram's horn blown on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur... and old birth certificates from Ioannina called alephs. The alephs were home-made family trees which also tell religious history through mystical symbols.

And Dostis has more plans for the synagogue. As well as the historical exhibit, some two hundred books were gathered to form a library on the Romaniots. Next May, a new section will be added to the museum displaying objects of daily life of the congregation in New York.

Later, he plans to open a cafenio - a Greek coffee house - in the basement of the synagogue - and even a art gallery. He says he wants the sanctuary to remain a place for people to meet and share - when religious life has stopped here. [NAT SOUND -- SERVICE] Dostis - like the Broome Street congregants - knows this is just a matter of time.

DOSTIS: You see it comes through education so if there are no more rabbis, there are no more services in that tradition. (...) So there is no way, and I don't mean to sound deadening about this, but there's no way that the Romaniots will continue. The other reasons are the Romaniot are moving into other synagogues. The Romaniot are intermarrying. And that's not bad, intermarrying is not bad for me. But there is no way that this will flourish anymore and so all we can do is elongate it. We can keep it going a little longer.

Keeping it going a little longer has been possible, says Dostis because of Genee - one of the last person still able to lead the services in Romaniot traditions.

DOSTIS: If it wasn't for him this community would have died even quicker. (...) We're in a slow process and in ten, fifteen years people may still gather here with the stuff that we are doing but the synagogue in itself won't be a functioning synagogue. So Hy is the center of all this.

But Genee says religious life will go on, even without him as the cantor. As long as the synagogue has a mynian -- the quorum of ten men required for orthodox Jewish services -- the congregation will live.

GENEE: People say "Well if it wasn't for you, the synagogue wouldn't last" but that's not so. If I'm here and I have only eight other people that are here we can't have services. So I'm only one out of ten. I may have a little bit more background, more knowledge as to how the services are run, but that's secondary.

Genee still hopes that the congregation survives with younger members. The Janina synagogue has opened its doors to Jews from all backgrounds. The latest congregants here have been Sephardic. But Dan Georgakas says that these newcomers to the sanctuary cannot perpetuate Romaniot traditions.

GEORGAKAS: It might survive by co-miggling with Sephardic in being part of the Sephardic phenomenon but...then that would change its character. And of course History is an example of people changing their character. That's not necessarily tragic in itself. But it's a small communityto begin with and especially given the dynamics of big cities and where people live, when you have a synagogue located in a hard to get to, not particularly desirable part of the city and everybody is spread out miles and miles away, it's pretty hard to maintain a community life except for holy days and things of that nature and that's not enough. In the long run, it's not enough.

In his study of the Janina synagogue and its liturgy, Professor Kligman recorded every Jewish holy day service at the Greek sanctuary... all lead by Genee. It's the only collection of the chants at the Janina synagogue. But that says Genee- could be enough to keep the religious services remembered.

GENEE: This will be on tape and will be available for future generations to know who we were and when we were here. We hope that somewhere along the lines somebody is going to say 'Gee, that's a really nice, unique service. We ought to try to revive it.' I hope they do.


So far no one has come forward to perpetuate religious life at the Janina synagogue. Dostis will insure that the cultural legacy of the Romaniot is preserved. But when Hyman Genee stops leading the congregation in Sabbath services, there is no one to replace him.

This is Vannina Maestracci reporting.


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