Adina's experiences studying the Jews of Greece on Crete and Rhodes in summer 2007
Monday, July 9, 2007
I’m enjoying Chania very much. The Etz-Hayyim synagogue is wonderful. Before WWII there were 300 Jews here in Crete, but they were all put on a ship to be taken to the Concentration Camps and the ship was torpedoed. That was pretty much the end of Jewish life here until a few years ago. The Synagogue was abandoned for almost 50 years and a few years ago it underwent renovations and was rededicated. Jewish life here now is really quite unconventional. There are only about 8 Jews on the island and only a few of them live here full time. So the community is more of a Chavurah of Jews and non-Jews. They have regular cultural and educational events, along with Kabbalat Shabbat services every Friday night, whether there is a minyan or not. The synagogue is a monument, like Kahal Shalom in Rhodes. Tourists come and visit and are reminded of what once was a vibrant Jewish community. But the fact that they have services and regular events makes it so different from Rhodes. There is life here, there's community, even if its not 100% Jewish. Who says it has to be anyway? My first week here Etz-Hayyim put on a concert of Baroque Sephardic music, which was wonderful! All of the songs were in Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish, which was a completely new sound for me. The band came all the way from the Hag, in the Netherlands. They're called Me Amargates Tu and have such a unique and beautiful sound.
One of the most interesting things about Etz-Hayyim is that although the building, along with most of the formerly-Jewish homes, was almost destroyed, the original mikvah was left completely intact and still functions today. The water is fed from a spring and is ice-cold, which is quite an attraction in this heat. It seems miraculous that Jewish life ceased to exist here for years, but the Mikvah remained, as if waiting for people to come back and make use of it.
Also there are 4 rabbis buried within the walls of the synagogue. According to what I’ve been told, the first rabbi passed away at a time when there was a lot of political unrest. During his funeral procession it was unsafe for the Jews of Chania to leave the city walls and so they turned around and went back to Etz-Hayyim. The only safe place they had was inside the courtyard of Etz Hayyim, so they built a small stone wall, in order to separate the land that the synagogue was on and what was to become a cemetery, and buried him there. Over time 3 more rabbis were buried there and their tombs still remain today. I find all of this completely fascinating, I’ve never seen anything like this before.
Wednesday, June 27, 2007
Part 2 of my Jewish Studies adrventure in Greece has begun. I’m now in Crete, which is a different island. My last night in Rhodes I saw a documentary about the Jewish community of Rhodes that was made several years ago. It was in French with Greek subtitles and most of the interviewees spoke Ladino, so I only understood small bits of it, which was a disappointing.
My ship from Rhodes left at 4:30am. The ferry is huge! It pulled into the harbor around 1am and dozens of cars and full sized trucks drove off along with hundreds of people. The whole experience of the ferry was so strange. I got on the ship around 1 am. And found out that the ticket I had paid for would only allow me a seat on the inner deck but that I could purchase a cabin with a bed…but not until 4:30am when the ship had set sail. I have no idea what the reason for that was but I was pretty tired and crabby by then so I just waited. The whole voyage lasted about 12 hours and the view from the deck outside was beautiful. I took a few pictures but I don’t know which islands they were. The ship left me off in St Nicholas, which as a town about 2 hours from where I thought I would be let off, called Herakleion. Subsequently I ended up on a bus for 2 hours to Herakleion and then changed buses for a 3 hour trip to Hania where I’m currently hanging my traveler’s hat.
The trip was quite harrowing but well worth all of the hassle. The apartment where I am staying is absolutely beautiful. I have a lot of space and the best part of it is the view which overlooks the harbor. I can see the entire city and large stretch of the shoreline from every window in the house. The water is sparkling blue during the day and the city lights are beautiful at night. There is always music playing and sometimes a few ships sail by.
The one draw back is that it has been unbearably hot here, we’re talking temperatures in the 90’s during the day and just slightly lower at night. Last night it was 86 degrees at 10:30pm! Cold water hasn’t even been coming out of the faucets, it’s always hot. I have an unquenchable thirst here, I’m always just drinking water non-stop. Apparently this heat wave is unseasonable and there are rolling blackouts all over Hania because people keep their air conditioning going all day. My apt. has A.C. in the kitchen, there’s a big couch in there so I might even sleep there tonight.
Wednesday, June 27, 2007
I’ve moved into a rented room a few blocks from the synagogue. There was a problem with my apartment and it was going to take longer to fix than I had planned on staying. One advantage is that it’s just closer enough to the Mosque and I can here their evening prayers from my outside patio. The melodies remind me a bit of Kol Nidre services with their serious but beautiful tones. The woman who rents the rooms is German and she only speaks a few words of English. I’ve told her I’m American and don’t speak German but we both communicate by speaking our own languages and gesturing, which is kind of funny.
My computer has been giving me trouble, which has made writing difficult. Also, I can’t seem to find any shop which sells a notebook. I’ve looked in every store and no one has them. My friend Stella has been looking for one too. We’ve both noticed a complete lack of bookstores. How can this be? Stella shakes her head when we talk about this, she remembers what the town was like when she lived there as a girl. She says “no one here needs to read or write anything?” It’s so hot that many people sit outside their homes talking to their neighbors. A lot of the conversation sounds like yelling to me, but I’m told that this is a normal tone of voice and people aren’t as angry at each other as they might sound to me. Also people here stay up later and wake up earlier than I’m used to. Many shops and restaurants here stay open until 10-11pm and re-open in the morning as early as 8:30.
Right now I’m listening to “Summertime” by Miles Davis, which makes me feel a little less far from home. I’ll admit that while this experience has been good overall, it’s been strange. Totally immersing myself in another culture, alone, has been difficult. I’m still not used to all of it, sitting in cafes and not being able to understand a word of conversation going on around me. I’ve picked up a little Greek but I’m amazed at how many other languages I hear spoken, mostly German and Swedish are the ones I can identify. This part of Rhodes is very touristy so most people here speak English. Yesterday I was eating in a taverna and I ordered pasta. I asked the waiter for tomato sauce. First he brought me something that looked like Russian dressing and when I said “marinara sauce” he came back with mayonnaise. All I could do was laugh. Later I looked it up tomato sauce in my Greek phrasebook and realized I should’ve said “saltsa.” Who would’ve thought?
Another thing I can’t get used to are the showers here. All of the showers only have a few inches of raised flooring , which isn’t high enough to keep the water from spilling all over the floor. Each bathroom has a drain on the floor outside of the shower because clearly people know that the water gets everywhere. Making the edges of the raised shower floor just a little bit higher would remedy this problem but instead the floor is wet all day. What is the point of that?
I’ve catalogued most of the items for the museum. Some of them were interesting, but a lot of them were textiles that even my co-workers found unexciting. People have donated several headscarves, all of which are identical except for their color. There are a lot of table cloths as well. Some of the items are completely foreign to me, for example, a hand-made cloth which is essentially an envelope for pajamas. As Stella explained to me that this was meant to be to be stored underneath your pillow during the day, she said jokingly “how much time we wasted on making such things, now we take our pajamas and throw them on the floor and who cares.” Another item, made of burgundy velvet and intricately embroidered with gold thread, turned out to be a cushion cover. For some reason I thought that this particular item would’ve been more exciting. All of the textiles are hand-made, and the quality of the work is amazing, but I’m not sure they can stand alone as examples of Jewish life as it existed in Rhodes. All of them were intended for a daughter’s trousseau (or dowry). Stella has related to me the tremendous amount of work that went into preparation for Jewish holidays on the part of women and I wish there were more physical examples of that to put into the museum. Maybe I’m wrong to think of these things as trivial. I have to remind myself constantly that there was no Macy’s or Target, in fact there still isn’t.
Monday, June 18, 2007
So for I've catalogued about 150 items for the museum. There are some that look like nothing special, a plain head-covering, a handmade table cloth, but some of them are fascinating. There are 3 pairs of Mikvah clogs, all of them very gorgeous, hand made with a tremendous amount of detailed work. My favorite is a purple velvet dress which was used for special occasions. It has gold embroidery all over and a long train with a belt. I can only imagine the amount of time it must've taken to make it, and it's survived over 100 years. It's amazing when I think about how many machine-made t-shirts I've purchased which don't survive their first machine-washing.
One of my other favorite pieces is a "cucharera," which is basically a fancy fork and spoon holder. It was a very typical thing for Rhodian Jews to own, but I've never seen anything like it before. They also have a very old Megillat Esther in a silver scroll holder. When I hold these things in my hand I wish they could tell me their stories. Where did they come from? How have they survived when the people who lived here didn't? How did they get here?
Stella, one of the volunteers, was born here in Rhodes. She was taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau when she was 12 and survived. She took me around the old town to photograph the formerly-Jewish homes. Some of them were ruins of homes that were bombed out, but most of them look like every other home, and are now occupied by Greek families. I guess I had expected them to have something interesting about them, some distinguishing marks but they didn't. I'm glad that these homes are seeing new life but it's sad to think that the people who once lived there have been forgotten and that no sign of their existence remains. While we were walking a saw a small cat with a broken paw, which broke my heart. I wish I could've helped it.
An American man has appeared outside the synagogue. He begs for money and food, he says he's on his way to Israel and is sure that God will help him get there. I gave him a bottle of water and some people here bought him some food. He said the man who owns the house next door lets him sleep on the floor at night. He asked us if there are any Jewish families who would like to welcome a stranger to Shabbat dinner, but we told him there is no one. The Jews here don't make kabballat Shabbat. I hope he makes it to Israel.
Thursday, June 14, 2007
I am absolutely in love with the Mediterranean Ocean! It’s so different from the Atlantic (duh!) The water is SO gentle. The waves are tiny and just sort of rock you. You don’t have to worry about being pulled under the water or knocked over by huge waves. You can swim out as far as you want and float without getting knocked around. Instead of sand the beaches are full of stones and little pebbles. The stones are beautiful but they’re rather rough on your skin. However, they don’t get stuck in your bathing suit or in every available crevice the way sand does, which is nice. Many of the women go topless to the beach, which I could really do without, but I guess the general lack of inhibition is a good thing. Either way, I’m keeping my entire bathing suit on.
Every morning I’m woken up by the horns of the cruise ships pulling into the harbor. They blow loudly over and over again, like truck horns but 10 times louder, as they dock, as if to say “ok everyone, we’re here, get up.” I’ve never really experienced anything like the tourism that exists here. Every shop and restaurant is equipped for tourists, they’re like carbon copies, selling all of the same things. Each square has a fountain, with the same jewelry shops, shoe stores, mini markets, t-shirt and knock-off designer handbags. It’s hard to find anything original which is pretty disappointing.
What’s also sad is the near complete lack of real Jewish community. The Kahal Shalom synagogue is the only shul that survived the war. Nearly all of the Rhodian Jews were killed and the ones who live here have been transplanted from all over the world. In fact I’ve heard that many of them were brought here in an effort to repopulate the Jewish population on the island. There are 37 Jewish families, all non-practicing, which is sad but who can blame them? The only services that are held here are for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the occasional bar-mitzvah or wedding. There is no rabbi, no JCC, no youth group, no mikvah, no Kosher anything. I wish I could change it…
I grew up in a Conservative Jewish home and as a “rabbi’s kid,” I basically lived in the shul for the better part of my life. Because of this I can lead a service, any time, anywhere, baby! But they won’t let me lead one here which makes me so mad. Most European denomination of Judaism are non-egalitarian, which means they don’t treat men and women equally. This includes: men and women sitting separately in the sanctuary, men only serving as rabbis and cantors, among other things. I believe everyone is entitled to their own “flavor” of Judaism, but the non-egalitarianism of this community makes me quite angry.
According to Jewish tradition there must be 10 men in order to hold a service. Conservative and Reform denominations have declared that both men and women can be counted in this quorum, but here they only count men. Many tourists come into the shul and the volunteers here beg anyone, especially the Israelis, to make a minyan so that they can have an actual service. The shul is empty most of the year so a service here would be SUCH a mitzvah. Most people don’t have enough men in their groups, or don’t know how to have a service, or don’t have anyone to lead one. Over and over again, I say “please let me do it, I want to lead.” But all they tell me is “you can’t do it, you don’t count.” I’ve never had anyone say that to me in my whole life, and it hurts more than I can explain. But I don’t accept this at all. Before I leave here I’m going to open my mouth and let out the best Sh’ma I’ve got. We’ll see who doesn’t count.