Spreading little-known history of Romaniote Jews
Ilias Hadjis volunteers to give tours at the Kehila Kedosha Janina synagogue.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Ilias Hadjis addressed a half-dozen people in the women’s section of a lower East Side synagogue. He pointed to cities on a map of Greece and rattled off their Jewish populations.
“Athens is 3,000,” he says. “One hundred in Halkis. One hundred on the island of Corfu. One thousand in Saloniki.” And Janina (or Ioannina), the northwestern Greek city that gives name to the synagogue and museum where Hadjis volunteers each week? “Thirty nine.”
Kehila Kedosha Janina, the Holy Congregation of Janina, is home to a New York community of Romaniote Jews who trace their lineage not to Eastern Europe like the predominant Jewish culture in the neighborhood, but to ancient Rome.
The shrinking congregation was founded in 1927 by 50 families. Two thousand years prior, their ancestors were forced to leave ancient Israel on a slave ship bound for Rome – thus the term Romaniote.
A storm forced the boat to land in Greece, where the immigrants developed a distinct culture with its own Greek-Jewish dialect, its own prayer
books – in Greek and Hebrew – and its own signature foods.
Museum director Marcia Haddad Ikonomopoulos says the synagogue at 280 Broome St. maintains a mailing list of 3,000 Romaniote families, most of them in the tristate area. Fewer than a dozen still make their home on the lower East Side.
Hadjis, 70, is a key player in keeping the community’s traditions alive. He arrived in New York in 1955 from Greece and took night classes in English at Washington Irving High School.
Since then, except for a brief stint in the Army, he has lived nearby. But even when the neighborhood was predominantly Jewish, he was an outsider.
“If you don’t speak Yiddish, you’re not a Jew,” he says. “If you don’t speak Ladino [the language of Sephardic Jews who trace their history to post-Inquisition Spain] you’re not a Jew.”
Hadjis is clearly a member of the
tribe. He married an Ashkenazi woman and has a grown daughter – who won’t forgive him for not teaching her Greek.
On Saturdays, he worships at the synagogue “85% to 90% of the time.”
On a recent Sabbath, only nine men were present, one short of the quorum needed to pray in the Orthodox tradition.
But Hadjis and his peers relied on a solution that is kosher under Jewish Law. “We open the Torah, we make the Torah the tenth man.”
On Sundays, he welcomes visitors who come to the synagogue to learn about a heritage that is still largely unknown.
Two Sundays ago, Hadjis sat in a high-backed chair in front of the Torah, a royal blue skullcap crowning his full head of white hair.
His feet didn’t always touch the floor and he massaged the rounded edge of the chair’s wooden armrests as if coaxing out stories of loss and survival.
He told a handful of visitors – Jewish and not, from the upper West Side and the suburbs – about the history
of the synagogue and of his family.
Born in Athens, Hadjis grew up in the city of Volos. During World War II, his immediate family sought refuge in Athens.
“My mother had to cook and clean for Germans,” recalled Hadjis, “selling her jewelry to survive.” Sixty-five percent of Greece’s Jews were exterminated during the Holocaust, he said.
Hadjis, his sister, brother and their parents survived. So did his mother’s veduzas – the glass cups used to treat illness with cupping are on display in the museum.
The extended family did not fare as well. Thirteen relatives – cousins, aunts, uncles and a grandfather – perished, many of them on March 25, 1944, Greek Independence Day.
“They did it to show the Greek government they don’t care,” says Hadjis of the Nazis. “They wanted to take all the Jews.”
The stories leave an imprint on visitors.
“I didn’t expect it to be such a personal tour,” said Alicia Colarossi of the upper West Side.
Carly Helfand, 12, has Romaniote roots. Her grandfather’s cousin’s name
is engraved above the door to the synagogue sanctuary.
“It’s nice to see we can learn more,” she said. “It’s nice that he can explain it to us.”
The portly, friendly-faced Hadjis does more than bask in the light of the synagogue skylights and describe the delicious leek croquettes – keftikes des prassa – a recipe that appears in a Greek-Jewish cookbook sold at the museum.
During the week, Hadjis works as a merchandising manager for the Gristedes supermarket chain, a job that began when his father opened a small grocery store with his sons on the lower East Side.
“I’ve been dealing with people all my life, so it’s easy for me to connect,” he says.
Museum director Haddad Ikonomopoulos called him an integral part of the synagogue, the museum and the community. What would they do without him?
“We’d have to close the doors,” she says.