Jewish Life in Greece - Adina Mindick

Jewish Life in Greece - Adina Mindick

Adina's experiences studying the Jews of Greece on Crete and Rhodes in summer 2007

Posted by Adina Mindick at 6:20AM   |  Add a comment
The wedding

I had a very exciting weekend as I was invited to my first Greek wedding. I was invited by Manos, Alex’s brother who was the best man or koumbaros. The koumbaros is not only the best man, but acts as a witness or sponsor to the marriage and helps perform some of the ceremonial parts of the wedding. He’s also in charge of inviting people, which is where I come in.

  The wedding was outdoors next to a small-ish hotel in the evening. The guests arrived and then waited for the bride. As she got out of the car and walked toward the aisle, looking fabulous, everyone clapped and cheered. The entire time I was thinking “wow, imagine if you could get up every day, looking fantastic and had people clapping and cheering for you when you got out of your car. I would never sleep in again.” The ceremony was really interesting. The service was all in Greek so I didn’t understand most of it but there were a lot of interesting rituals and I did get some explanations afterward. The priest read from a silver-plated bible which he had the bride, groom, best man and the flower girls each kiss upon closing it. Then the priest blessed the wedding rings over their heads three times and then the koumbaros placed them on their fingers, switching them 3 times. This represents the unbreakable bond of Christian Marriage. Then he placed 2 wreaths joined by a ribbon on each of their heads and recited a prayer. The koumbaros switched them over their heads 3 times. This represents virtue and holiness. They drank wine from the same cup, just like Jewish weddings, which represents that the couple will share everything from now on.  The priest and the couple all walked around a small table in a circle 3 times, chanting a prayer, which represents the promise of the couple to preserve their marriage bond forever. The circle symbolizes eternity and the triple circling honors the Holy Spirit. One thing that really shocked me was the fact that people were talking throughout the entire ceremony. Babies were crying, even the flower girls were talking and didn't remain stationary throughout the service. I couldn't believe that people were chatting, but thought it was pretty funny. As the ceremony ended people threw rice and flower petals.

After the wedding each guest was given a pastry of fried dough covered in honey and a small cup of Raki, which is a local alcohol. At the reception there was traditional dancing, with the bride and many of the wedding guests, and a band that played traditional Cretan music. The whole thing was lovely and there were rose petals EVERYWHERE. I had so much fun and was very happy to experience it.

Posted by Adina Mindick at 5:46AM   |  Add a comment
Silver pomagranate

Things here in Chania have been relatively quiet. I’ve gotten to the beach several times, which has been wonderful, and I’ve done a lot of research in the library at Etz-Hayyim. I usually work there in the evenings when there are very few visitors. Usually I do some work  and stroll through the courtyards and sanctuary. Although it’s a small space, which I walk through every day, I always find something new which I hadn’t noticed before. Yesterday I spotted a huge column stretching from one side of the courtyard to a tree on the opposite side. Although I detest insects and can usually be found running away at the site of them, I couldn’t help but watch. Each one of them was carrying something, working together to complete some large task, probably located beneath my feet. It must have been similar to the restoration work that needed to be done on Etz-Hayyim.  A seemingly endless  amount of tasks, which was accomplished through the hard work and collaboration of many people. I’m in awe every time I walk through those doors and think about what used to be here and what is here today.

I tried the plums from the tree growing in the front courtyard yesterday too, they are small, about the size of large grapes and delicious, very juicy and sweet.  Across from Etz-Hayyim is a restaurant called Xani (pronounced like Chani or Hani), the owner, Dimitri is friendly with the Etz-Hayyim community and he was the one who told me to try the plums. As he picked some fruit off and handed it to me I hesitated, thinking “is it safe to eat this? Can you really just eat it right off the tree?” Don’t worry everyone, I washed it off thoroughly!! After eating 2 or 3 of them, and wondering if I’d get sick or not, I thought how odd it was. This is the same way fruit grows before it arrives in the grocery store right? There’s also an olive tree, an etrog tree and a grapevine in the courtyard. I also have a grapevine growing on my balcony but have been warned that none of these will be ready until the winter time.

I had a really cool experience when I was souvenir shopping around town.  There’s a jewelry store I’ve gone into twice, which has really interesting stuff. The shop owner was very friendly and remembered me the last time I went in. As I paid for gifts for the people who are hardest to shop for on my list she handed me a small box and said it was a gift to remember her by. I didn’t think much of it because it had come from the same shelf as the empty gift boxes. I opened it the following morning and had no idea what this small silver object inside was. I asked Alex, the secretary of Etz-Hayyim, who informed me that it was a silver pomegranate. He told me it was a symbol of good luck and that there’s a tradition of smashing a pomegranate on the ground on New Years and the seeds represent the progeny you will have. I think it’s one of the best gifts I’ve ever gotten.

Here are some more of my cultural differences, enjoy.

•         Beaches: If you want to go to the beach in the U.S. you must schlep your towels, blanket, food, beverages, chairs and umbrellas. If you want to go to the beach in Rhodes or Chania: The umbrellas and chairs are already on the beach and you will pay 5 euro for that and as much sun as you can soak up before getting crispy.

•         Laundry: In the Mindick home: Laundry can be done at all hours of the day and night, and all 4 children have be known to make pilgrimages home from college simply to do so. The wash and dry settings are in English and DON’T forget to empty the lint!!! In my apt in Chania: The washing machine settings are in German and you will take the instruction manual, type the settings into a translation Web site and still not be able to make heads or tails of them. {If anyone knows what buntwasche or hauptwasche means PLEASE let me know}. Also there is no dryer  so don’t even think about hoping for soft and fluffy towels.

•         Microwaves: In the U.S. –they are in just about every kitchen, in fact a microfridge was the definition of “kitchen” in my freshman and sophomore year dorm.  Don’t cook anything for more than 30 seconds or else it will burn. In my apts. In Rhodes&Chania: No microwave, but there is a French press…and an oven which I sometimes walk away from and forget about.

•         The supermarket:   In the U.S. if you are looking for any flavor of soup, don’t worry, Campbells has already made it. Just bring your reading glasses to the supermarket because they all look the same and you’ll have to allocate at least 20 minutes in your grocery shopping schedule to squint down the aisle until you find Cream of Mushroom. In Chania: Campbell’s does not exist and neither does the entire aisle of soup cans.

•         Radio stations: In the U.S. – you can usually find a variety of music by browsing through different stations. In Chania: techno station #1, techno station #2, techno station #3….


Home in one week!

Posted by Adina Mindick at 2:27PM   |  Add a comment
They REALLY aren't lying when they say "fresh fish" on the menu

Things Are Just A Little Bit Different in Greece

So  for everyone playing the home game I thought I would take this opportunity to enumerate the cultural differences that I have discovered here. I find them incredibly interesting, and many of them are pretty funny…once you get over the shock and confusion. It should be noted that these observations are based solely on my personal experiences in Rhodes and Chania, Crete, which are very tourist-oriented areas. Some of them, as I have been told, are common throughout the Mediterranean and some are not, but they do not necessarily reflect common practice throughout Greece or among Greeks in general.

*Please note that this research was done strictly with anthropological educational purposes, discovered largely by accident and should be taken lightly J Enjoy!

•         Proximity with which people stand next to each other : In the States this space varies but in general strangers keep a polite distance ( Not having ever measured this space this anthropologist hereby promises to immediately make use of a ruler as soon as she is back in America). In Chania, it is not uncommon for people to actually, physically move you out of their way, or stand so close to you in line at the grocery store that their milk and frozen pizza actually make contact with your skin.

•         Pace of life: In the U.S. everyone wants everything immediately; if not sooner, in fact if it was already done yesterday then it’s perfect. In Rhodes&Chania– you will sit in a restaurant for the rest of your life unless you flag down your waiter and ask him or her for the check. 

•         Store hours: In the US: You can pretty much work around a 9am-5pm schedule. 7-11, many fast food chains and my mom’s kitchen are open 24 hours a day (thank God!). Retail stores are usually open until around 9ish and don’t even try and figure out when the cable guy or plumber will actually grace your home with his presence. In Chania: Many places are open by 9 but many businesses take a siesta between 2-5:30pm. On Tuesday, Thursdays and Sundays they reopen around 6, but on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday they don’t reopen at all. If you are bleeding from the head and need a pharmacy the 5 that are closest to you are probably not open but they will have a piece of paper posted with the names and addresses of one other pharmacy in the area that is open…but it’s in Greek.

•         Animals: In the U.S. dogs and cats are pets. If you see either of these animals they are usually accompanied by an owner. You may pet the animal if, with or without the owner’s permission (because after all, this is America!). In Greece: 99% of the dogs or cats in the streets are strays, flea-ridden and homeless L They will look at you with the saddest little eyes you have ever seen, you will want to gather every 4-legged creature that crosses your path, personally feed, groom and give a home to every one of them. Do not even think about it!

•         Tone of voice:  In the U.S:  Every day conversation is usually conducted in a casual tone of voice. If you hear yelling, screaming or wild hand gestures you can assume that the person speaking is upset, angry or possibly intoxicated. Please note, exceptions include: any and all 12-16 year old girls and anyone on a cell phone in a Starbucks or subway. In Rhodes&Chania: Normal conversation is casual but can quickly change to yelling which is always accompanied by hand gestures. Do not assume that the speaker is angry; in most cases they are not upset but are merely enthusiastic or passionate about the subject.

•         Eating in Restaurants:  In the U.S. – if you would like to eat at a restaurant, you select one,  possibly examine the menu before you sit down, or just asked to be seated. You will always be given ketchup if you order a meal with French fries. You will also be given the check whether or not you’d like to sit and chat with your friends or family for longer than the length of the actual meal.  In Rhodes& Chania (the tourist areas) – if you walk by any sort of eating establishment you will be greeted by a waiter or waitress who will inform you of how wonderful their food is, how nice a place it is or simply say “come have a drink/something to eat.” If you have the unfortunate luck to be in an area in which there are many restaurants right next to each other be prepared to have this conversation with the people standing outside every restaurant you pass. When ordering a meal with French fries you must ask for ketchup.

•         Prices: In the US: prices are set, rarely can you bargain with the employees. In Chania: “The price is 200 euros…but for you 175. Where are you from? Oh you’re from NY? Then it’s not too expensive…”

•         Price of bottled water in the U.S. - $1.50-$2.00

•         Price of bottled water in Chania:  .30-.50 euro which is equal to about 45-75cents.

I find all of these differences fascinating and quite humorous.  More soon!


Posted by Adina Mindick at 3:56PM   |  Add a comment

More adventures in Crete!  I went hiking today in a mountain which has 3 monasteries. It’s called Governeto – thank you to Leah Golberstein for insisting that I go here.  When you get onto the Monastery property itself you drive through a vineyard on one side and an olive tree orchard on the other. Here there are hundreds and hundreds of goats everywhere! They also have a huge area with beehives where they make honey and thyme plants everywhere. They even have “mountain tea” which you can buy in just about any café. Then you get to 2 of the Greek Orthodox monasteries, which are beautiful. At this point you can hike down into the mountain which leads all the way to the ocean. About a quarter of the way there are the remains of a Minoan temple and a very creepy cave. This area was locked, which is apparently unusual, so my friend Anja and I snuck in through a large hole in the stone wall – we’re very sneaky. Then about halfway down the mountain are the ruins of a Venetian monastery.  It’s abandoned now but one of the buildings seemed to have been turned into a tiny one-room Greek Orthodox church, with several large and beautiful icons. There are candles and people still come there to pray. Can you imagine hiking halfway down a mountain to pray? It must be quite a sight.  One of the buildings has completely lost its roof and there’s an olive tree growing straight out of it – I love it! At this point Anja and I had to slide down a hill on our hands and butts to get to the part of the path that leads to the ocean. I was fairly certain I was going to fall and break my leg but thankfully I didn’t and it was well worth it. This part of the hike was a treck over big rocks and when we got to the shore it was fantastic. The hike back was actually the hardest part because we were now walking back up. The heat of the day and the sharp change in elevation really got to me and getting back proved to be quite difficult. I think I had a bit too much sun because I was pretty sick the rest of the day. BUT I’m feeling better now and the entire trip was fantastic, I’m so happy I got to see this. I’ve never been much of a hiker but I’m glad I made the exception.

I wrote an article about the Sephardic concert that Etz-Hayyim put on, which is on their website now.  I’ve also been taking tons of pictures, which I hope everyone can see. 

The heat hasn’t been quite as bad as when I first arrived, but I’m still getting used to it. Summers here are so different than back home, where frequent thunderstorms break the heat and humidity. Apparently here it doesn’t rain in the summer, oh well, I can keep hoping and drinking water.


Posted by Adina Mindick at 2:05PM   |  Add a comment
Etz Hayyim

So far Chania has been quite an adventure. The area is touristy but not as much as Rhodes.  I can’t tear myself away from the view of the harbor from my apt. I think I’ve taken about 100 pictures of that alone.  My schedule is great here too, I have time to do work and go to the beach for a few hours most days before going into the synagogue. There aren’t usually many visitors so it’s fairly quiet. The library here is small but perfect for my project. There are shelves full of books about Greek Jews, newspaper articles just about Etz-Hayyim and lots more.  I’ve found several books here that are really helpful, including one on all of Holocaust memorials and monuments on each of the Greek Islands. Although the library itself is stuffy, there’s no internet to distract me, its cozy up there and sometimes I fall asleep, but what’s a little napping among friends?

This past Shabbat I got to help lead Kabbalat Shabbat services, which was very nice. Usually the Synagogue director leads them but he was away this weekend.  Myself and a few of the other regulars lead different prayers, including a couple from Manhattan who were visiting on their vacation. They told me they’d already met a handful of other Jews from New York so far and that “we’re all Jews from New York but we only meet up here on vacation,” which was pretty funny. Some Italian visitors asked the how big the Jewish community in their area was, to which they responded that there were maybe 50 or 60 synagogues within a 100 block radius, “on Shabbat you see everyone walking around coming to and from shul, it’s like a little Jerusalem.” I think I saw the Israeli couple sitting across from them raise their eyebrows but I think they refrained from commenting. All in all it was a very nice evening.

I’m not sure I’ve gotten sued to the food here yet. I’ve been warned not to eat at any of the restaurants along the harbor because they’re apparently not clean and overcharge all of the tourists. This pretty much rules out 75% of the eateries within walking distance of my apt.  I’ve been eating at this one place a lot; it’s called Tamam and is supposedly a “safe” place to eat.  The food there is delicious. I keep eating this one dish, whose name I can’t pronounce or even attempt to spell here, it’s basically just pureed eggplant with chicken and tomatoes, also some spices I can’t determine. I’m not usually such an adventurous eater but I’m glad I tried this because it’s great. I am starting to miss things like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Starbucks  and more than anything – Chinese food! I once saw a cartoon in Hadassah magazine with the current Jewish year subtracted from the current Chinese year, the remainder was labeled “number of years that Jews had to live without Chinese food.” I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so hard at anything and I’ve never forgotten it.

Posted by Adina Mindick at 10:43AM   |  Add a comment
Tomb of one of Etz-Hayyim's Rabbis, buried witin the courtyard

 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.

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