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
[NAT SOUND -- PIUYYTIM]
Hyman Genee still remembers the chanting he
heard as a boy at the Kehila Kedosha Janina
[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
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
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.
[NAT SOUND -- PURIM]
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.
[NAT SOUND -- STEAM PIPES]
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
[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
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.
[NAT SOUND -- PRAYER FOR THE DEAD/ underlay]
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?
[NAT SOUND -- PURIM]
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
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
Genee went on to explain how he found out -
in 1982- he was Romaniot when a man asked
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
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
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
[NAT SOUND -- MUSEUM TOUR]
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
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
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.
[NAT SOUND -- SERVICE]
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.
[NAT SOUND -- PIUYYTTIM]
This is Vannina Maestracci reporting.
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