Adina's experiences studying the Jews of Greece on Crete and Rhodes in summer 2007
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.
Thursday, June 14, 2007
Things here are moving QUITE slowly. I work with a lot of older people who are trying to put this museum together and apparently they, and life here in general always move at a geriatric pace. Although this place is open, it's not really finished, it's more a work in progress. The "museum" is just a few rooms with a few pieces on display, mostly they have a lot of information on plaques, but I've been told that some of it is wrong. Right now they are waiting decide where items will be placed, which is taking quite some time since there are a lot of conflicting opinions. My job is to catalogue the items. I give each one a specific number, write out a description of the item in a ledger and tag it. Each tag needs to be sewn onto the items, which is interesting, because I've never been much good at sewing. Many of the artifacts are incredibly old. There's a dress here that's over 100 years old that's belonged to a Jewish woman from Rhodes. It hasn't been preserved or taken care of in any special way and yet it has survived. There are also a lot of decorative carpets and textiles. My favorite pieces are 2 pairs of clogs that were to be worn in the mikvah (ritual bath). The clogs are wooden and have gorgeous stones in-laid all over.There is a mikvah here in the synagogue that the Jewish community used to use, but now it's just for display. Now that I've started cataloguing I've finally made myself useful, after being here for a week. Until now people were giving me very superficial tasks to do, which was very annoying, hopefully now I can do more of the things that I came here to do.
The culture here is quite different than I am used to. For example, people aren't squeamish about sharing food. They stick their forks and fingers in food that is being shared, which I'm not used to. I guess they're not germ-freaks like in the U.S. Also, everyone smokes! Men, women, older and younger people, everyone carries around lit cigarettes. I can't stand the smoke.
I went to a Turkish-Greek Friendship Festival last night. First they had some "modern ballet" dancers, which was nice, and then a singer came on stage with an instrument like a guitar and played for almost 45 minutes non-stop, not a single pause. The audience didn't like this one bit and were chatting the entire time. People kept applauding to encourage him to stop, but he just kept playing.
Saturday, June 9, 2007
I’m sitting here in my window again. At night when the streets are quiet I can hear the ocean. Since I’ve left home I’ve wondered if I look strange to other people. Can they tell I’m foreign? I’ve never been a foreigner in my whole life, now I know what it means. How confusing it is not to understand what people around you are saying, or to look at a street sign and only wonder what it says. It’s uncomfortable, but also a little bit exciting. Every day is a new adventure. All the shopkeepers and waiters here think that I am Greek, they speak to me and see the puzzled look on my face and then they speak to me in English, and all the while I am thanking God that English is an international language.
Today I helped catalogue books for the library in the synagogue. Most of them were in English, a few in Greek, Italian & French. What surprised me most were the few in Judeo-Spanish, which, sadly, is quite a lost language – almost non-existant in my Jewish education. There were a few Sephardic cookbooks, one of which was made by the Sephardic Jewish women of Zimbabwe – wow! Who knew?
The majority of the books were personal accounts and historical texts about the Holocaust. I flipped through a few pages of the English ones but couldn’t bear to read more than a few paragraphs. There was a time in my life when I couldn’t stop reading about it – the darkest of times in the history of our peop le. I read every book I could get my hands on, Number the Stars was my favorite. Looking back I think I needed to read them all to really wrap my head around such a tragedy. When you’re a child 6 million is too big a number, but one story at a time, tragic though they are, is a bit easier to understand. But somewhere along the way I changed and it all became too much and I stopped reading about the Holocaust. Every year there was the obligatory book on the subject to read in school. My classmates in public school never said it to me but the look on their faces when English teachers announced we were moving onto “this year’s book about the Holocaust,” I could tell they were thinking, “Do we really have to read another?” And to be honest I sometimes felt that way too. It’s not that it wasn’t important or I didn’t care, but it was too much. Too much pain and suffering to read and imagine in my head, too many names that I would want to remember and couldn’t keep in my head. But now I’m here, working with these people, people who are not just another story, living breathing people who have lived through this all – thank God, the children of survivors, and people who simply don’t want the story to die. They don’t shut out the memories. Instead they come here every year and tell the story of the thousands of Rhodian Jews who were taken from their homes and had their lives stolen. They tell anyone who will listen, any tourist who wanders down the right cobblestone street and finds this little shul, Kahal Shalom. They cry, sometimes they laugh, they speak in Greek, French, Italian, Spanish, English just to communicate with whoever gets off the cruise ships in the harbor. In quiet voices the visitors ask Stella, a very special woman, where were you? Where did they send you? She answers with a smile “Auschwitz-Birkenau, when I go, I go 5-star” A woman who can say this, and with a smile, is incredible. So I won’t read every book, but I’ll keep reading them. I’ve only been here 3 days but every time I walk in the shul I cry a little behind my big sunglasses. And when I go home I’ll tell my friends what happened here, so that at least a few more people will know.
Monday, June 4, 2007
And thus beginith my adventure...and my blog. I'm sitting in Newark Airport with 3 hours to kill and all I can think is, thank God I didn't fly out of JFK. As I sit here waiting, happy that I'm not traveling with an infant or small children, I can't help but wonder what the next 7 weeks of my life will be like. In my head its just one big question mark, sprinkled with scenes from My Big Fat Greek wedding, which was appropriately on VT last night. As the credits rolled and the characters drank celebratory shots of ouzo, my mother looked at me said "well, now you've learned everything you need to know for your trip." My mom is usually right about these things. :)