The Jews of Greece Presented in Rockville

by Elias Messinas, Ph.D.


On September 24, Magen David Sephardic Congregation, in Rockville, held the fifth in a series of cultural programs focusing on Sephardic Jewish communities.  This program highlighted the Jews of Greece. The cultural programs of Magen David, the only Sephardic synagogue in the nation's capital, consist of films, speakers, exhibits, handouts and desserts prepared by women (and men) from the country being featured. Exhibits include family pictures, maps, books, family keepsakes, bibliographies, and web site listings. Previous cultural evenings have been devoted to Jewish communities in Morocco, Turkey, Egypt, and Iraq. I participated as a Greek-Israeli architect and historian. A practicing architect and critic in Israel, I'm also the editor of Kol ha KEHILA.

The cultural program on Greece was co-sponsored by the Embassy of Greece, Kol haKEHILA (an organization dedicated to the preservation of synagogues in Greece and the promotion of Greek Jewish culture), and the Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies based in New York.
It included greetings from the political counselor Vassili Costis of the Embassy of Greece, and Rabbi Hayyim Kassorla of Magen David; the screening of the short film "The Jews of Salonika" by Beth Hatefustot Museum in Israel;  the screening of a preview of the film "Pilgrimage to Yanina" by Vassilios Katsoupas (Independent Greek-Canadian filmaker based in Toronto-born and raised in
Greece, originally from Yanina, once capital of the Romaniot Jews); a brief testimony by Paulette Nehama, member of the local Greek Jewish community of Volos and survivor-in-hiding during the Second World War in Greece; an exhibition, books and cards sales, and a reception of homemade Greek desserts.

Greek Jewish familyThe traditional Greek Jewish deserts were prepared by Paulette Nehama, Rose Miller, Nina Kaplanides, Eleanor Matsas, Suzanne Madeoy and Denise Suissa. They included Baklava, Koulourakia, Revani, Karydopita, Paximadia and Skaltsounia. All cooking was done at Magen David, under the supervision of Jodi Kassorla, the rabbi's wife.

The exhibits consisted of pictures of families, synagogues, famous rabbis, maps, Jewish houses, people, and Jewish artifacts from home (Shabbat candlesticks, trays used during special holidays, and costumes worn).  "We try to give faces to these communities," said Gail Shirazi, Program Chair
for the Sisterhood of the synagogue and Israeli Acquisitions Specialist at the Library of Congress, who was the force behind the organization of the event. "We try to make them taste, feel, smell and touch the communities."

Paulette Nehama, originally from Volos, brought pictures of her family Mourtzoukos, a prominent family of industrialists, owners of a textile factory called "Leviathan." Nehama also brought pictures of the Greek Pavella family who saved her by hiding her during the Second World War. Judith Mazza, whose family came from Ioannina (Yanina) exhibited an "aleph" (decorated birth certificate) from Yanina and a Ketuba from Corfu from the early 1900s that belonged to her family Nehama and Mazza today live in Bethesda, MD.

These events are not only of historic or educational content. People come to meet other people and often they find people they have not seen for many years. "In previous events, members of different groups (like the Iraqis) came out of the woodwork. People connected with others they haven't seen since leaving Iraq," says Shirazi. The program on Greece attracted Greek survivors and Jews of Greek origin, many of whom left Greece in the 1950s. "My mother-in-law was ecstatic to meet other Greeks and have the opportunity to discuss mutual friends and relatives," says Richard Glaser
of Owings Mills, MD, whose wife and mother-in-law came from Patras at the end of the Second World War.

But it was not only the event itself that had an impact on people. The preparation of the event was an experience of its own. "The stories and experiences shared during our planning meeting were amazing.  Two of the women present were hidden as children by Greek families.  Mrs. Matsas was
also present and spoke a little about her husband's experience during the War," says Shirazi.

Jews have lived in Greece since antiquity. Salonika, one of the most important Sephardic centers prior to the Second World War, which was inhabited by Jews from Spain, was called "Mother of Israel" and "Jerusalem of the Balkans."  Ioannina, an important center of Romaniot Jews, Jews who lived in Greece since antiquity, has a functioning synagogue and still retains some of its ancient Jewish traditions.

Greece, like most of Europe, suffered greatly during the Second World War, and the Jewish communities counted great losses in people and property. Greece lost 65,000 of its Jewish pre-War population, or 86% of the pre-War population, the highest in Europe. Today about 5,000 Jews out of a total population of 10 million live in Greece.

The cultural evening on the Jews of Greece was attended by over 250 people.

Elias Messinas is the author of The Synagogues of Salonika and Veroia.
To learn more about the history of Greek Jews, click here.

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