Super Subcultures

Praying for Keeps

As Manhattan’s Greek Jewish population dwindles, a sliver of a synagogue on the Lower East Side remains a spiritual home for a diverse Diaspora.

Praying for Keeps

When Sol Kofinas came to New York from Athens in 1957, he was, like so many immigrants before him, in search of a better life. With the help of two aunts already living in New York, Kofinas settled on the Lower East Side among Jewish immigrants like himself.

Except that most weren’t like him. They had no clue how to prepare eggplant burekas or kasher a leg of lamb for Shabbat. Kofinas didn’t recognize the melodies they prayed to or the Yiddish they spoke. Knishes and gefilte fish were foreign to him, and the Jews Kofinas met in America certainly couldn’t trace their roots back 2,300 years from a slave ship bound for Rome, as he could.

I question, “these people are Jewish?” says Kofinas, laughing.

Usually, it was Kofinas who got that question.

Sol Kofinas, now seventy-six, is sitting in the sanctuary of Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue on Broome Street between Eldridge and Allen. Built in 1927 by Jews from the northwestern Greek city of Ioannina (Janina in English), where Kofinas’ mother was born), the majority of Kehila Kedosha’s members are Romaniote, Jews of Greek descent. Neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardic, they have maintained distinctive liturgy, customs and traditions for over two millennia.

Most Romaniote Jews came to the U.S. during the massive wave of immigration between 1881 and 1924, placing them among the 3.5 million Jews who arrived in America during this period. In Greece, many worked in textiles, and once in New York, they found their garment district niche selling aprons, underwear and nightgowns out of their tenement basements. In 1906, when the Kehila congregation was founded (two decades before the synagogue was built) there were between two and three hundred Jewish families from Ioannina in the New York area. By the 1920s, the Romaniote community had grown so big that a sister synagogue was opened in Harlem. Later, as many Romaniote Jews moved uptown to be closer to the textile factories where they worked, two additional offshoot synagogues were founded in the Bronx, plus a third in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.

Since then, much has changed. The Romaniote garment shops on Broome Street were replaced first by Puerto Rican and now Chinese merchants. The sister synagogues in the outer boroughs are long gone, and on most Saturdays Kehila Kedosha struggles to gather enough people for a minyan—the quorum of ten Jewish adults, in this case men, required to carry out certain religious obligations. Over the years, many of Kofinas’ friends from the neighborhood moved down to Florida, and the New York Romaniote community as he once knew it no longer exists.

Sal Kofinas inside Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue on Manhattan's Lower East Side
Sal Kofinas inside Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue on Manhattan’s Lower East Side

Kofinas and his wife, Koula, are two of only a handful who remain on the Lower East Side near the synagogue, where a bustling Greek Jewish community once occupied all of Broome Street. Kofinas still recalls when the whole block used to smell of bamyes, okra grilled with garlic and tomatoes, and yaprakites—stuffed eggplant—even until the 1950s and 60s.

Now, Kehila Kedosha is the only remaining Romaniote synagogue in the Western Hemisphere. The synagogue has a number of rare Torah scrolls from Greece, including one of only three Torahs in the world written in traditional Romaniote script that dates back to the 1750s.

Megilahs Esther (the Book of Esther), which is read aloud on Purim
Megilahs Esther (the Book of Esther), which is read aloud on Purim

Since retiring in 2007, Kofinas devotes much of his free time to the Kehila Kedosha synagogue and museum, where he met his wife, and where his children and grandchildren had their Bar Mitzvahs. It’s where Kofinas, after losing his parents and two siblings during the Holocaust, began a new life.

“The only synagogue that we feel like is our home is this one here,” Kofinas says in a thick Greek accent. “This is, for us, like a family.”

When I first visited Kehila Kedosha, I’d never even heard the term “Romaniote Jew”—despite the fact I am one.

I never met my paternal grandmother, but I knew she was a Jew from Greece who immigrated to Chicago in the 1920s from Halkis, a small town on the island of Euboea, just north of Athens. According to my father, she always felt out of place on Chicago’s old “Great Westside,” where neither Greek (mostly Greek Orthodox) or Jewish (mostly Eastern European) immigrants accepted her as one of their own. Her husband, my grandfather, was a Sephardic Jew born in Turkey; both my maternal grandparents were Greek (Orthodox, not Jewish). Though I was raised with both Jewish and Greek traditions, the two rarely converged. My Jewish upbringing was fairly typical of reform “lox and bagels” suburban Chicago Jews, and there was little connection between it and my Greek influences. So when I moved to New York and found out about Kehila Kedosha, the only remaining Romaniote synagogue in the Western hemisphere, I felt an obligation to check it out because…well, I wasn’t quite sure.

The story of this obscure branch of Judaism is no different from the history of so many other immigrant groups: the first generation concentrates in one area, disperses by the second generation and loses cultural ties by the third. One might look at this unassuming sliver of a shul tucked between graffitied grates and Chinese merchants and see the remnants of a lost community. Or one could take note of the recently restored synagogue façade, the stone rendition of the Ten Commandments and the Star of David stained glass window juxtaposed against the Greek flag, and instead see a minority within a minority that has remained remarkably well persevered across an ocean and over two thousand years.

Inside the synagogue
Inside the synagogue

“My general feeling is that it’s just a special, special world,” says Marcia Haddad Ikonomopoulos, the Kehila Kedosha museum director. “It’s a world that not only—and it still amazes me—do most Jews not know about, it’s a world that’s sort of in between. Most Jews look at this community and say, ‘Are they really Jewish? How could they be Jewish? They don’t speak Yiddish, they didn’t come from Eastern Europe. Can Jews speak Greek?’ Which really shows the lack of knowledge, because we had the longest continuous Jewish presence in the European Diaspora.”

The Jewish presence in Greece dates back as early as the fourth century B.C.E. According to Romaniote oral legend, after the destruction of The Second Temple, a storm forced Jews on a slave ship bound for Rome to land in Greece instead. Over the course of two thousand years, these Romaniote Jews (so-called because they were once citizens of the Roman Empire) developed ethnic Greek traditions and customs, but maintained a strong religious Jewish identity. Later, when Sephardic Jews settled in Greece in the fifteenth century after their expulsion from Spain, they brought their own distinct customs and language, Judeo-Espanyol. When Greek Jews, both Sephardic and Romaniote, immigrated to the U.S., they often lived in the same neighborhoods and were lumped together by others—even though a language barrier divided them and they often attended different synagogues. (Like my grandparents, marriage among Romaniote and Sephardic Jews was fairly common.)

Over half the Jews in Ioannina immigrated to the U.S. in the early 1900s. Some left due to strife caused by the Balkan wars, others on account of frustrations with the dowry system, and others still when the land went from Ottoman Turk to Greek (Christian) rule, perhaps driven by a mandatory closing of business establishments on Sundays, which negatively impacted Jewish shop owners who observed the Sabbath on Saturdays. Those Jews who remained, in Ioannina and throughout Greece, were nearly wiped out during the Holocaust, when over 67,000 Greek Jews—an astounding 87 percent of the Jewish population in Greece—perished. Proportionally, Greece suffered the largest Jewish loss of any officially occupied country during World War II. About half of those remaining moved to Israel; only 4,500 live in Greece today.

“Judaism is a religion, Greekness is an ethnicity. This community feels it very strongly. They feel both Greek and Jewish and have no problem with it at all,” says Ikonomopoulos.

Wearing both a hamsa, the palm-shaped amulet which some Jews believe wards off the evil eye, and a mati, the Greek equivalent, on a chain around her neck, Ikonomopoulos, sixty-seven, is a driving force behind the preservation of Romaniote culture. She serves as docent at Kehila Kedosha’s museum and curates the memorabilia; every year she escorts a tour throughout Jewish Greece and Bulgaria. She’s also part of a group planning a Lower East Side History Month next year, and when the Golden Dawn, Greece’s Neo-Nazi party, allegedly opened up an office in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens, she raised awareness against its message of hate in her monthly newsletter, which goes out to more than five thousand households.

Kehila Kedosha museum director Marcia Haddad Ikonomopoulos in the synagogue
Kehila Kedosha museum director Marcia Haddad Ikonomopoulos in the synagogue

Yet unlike Kofinas, Ikonomopoulos didn’t grow up in the Romaniote community. She is a Greek Jew but is of Sephardic descent. Her family is from Salonika, a Greek city that once had a large Jewish population. She was raised with many of the same foods and customs as Romaniotes, but it wasn’t until later in life, after a visit to Greece, that she became part of the unique community on Broome Street.

“When I went to Ioannina for the first time [in the mid-90s],” says Ikonomopoulos, “that community just wrapped itself around my heart.” Also on that trip, she encountered an Ioanninan who asked her, “Why did you come all the way here? You could’ve gone to downtown Manhattan.”

As I speak with Kofinas and Ikonomopoulos, twenty-year-old Andrew Marcus walks into the sanctuary like it’s his living room. Wearing the standard young Brooklynite uniform — jeans, flannel shirt, black square-framed glasses — one would not assume this Hunter College math and physics major studies ancient Judeo-Greco liturgy in his spare time. But Marcus, along with his younger brother Ethan and Kofinas’ grandson Seth, comprise the small “regular crew” of young adults representing the next generation of the community on Broome Street. That Sunday, like many others, Marcus had come from his home in Brooklyn Heights to take care of odd jobs around the shul.

“I’ve been to Orthodox synagogues, I’ve been to conservative and reform ones, so you know, all of them were different and some felt more similar. Really, for me, I haven’t been to any other place that felt as homey as this shul,” says Marcus. “It’s a communal effort, and we have to do our part.”

Twenty-year-old Andrew Marcus unfurling a Greek flag from a window on the synagogue's second floor.
Twenty-year-old Andrew Marcus unfurling a Greek flag from a window on the synagogue’s second floor.

At Kehila Kedosha, donations and volunteers keep the community afloat. There’s no congregant membership fee or a paid Rabbi; services are only held on Saturday mornings and high holidays. Were it not for the synagogue’s designation as a City of New York historical landmark, the slice of prime real estate it occupies may have long ago transformed into just another condo or coffee shop. That’s part of why Marcus feels a sense of responsibility to do his part.

“Marcia [Ikonomopoulos] says we follow in people’s footsteps, so we’re always cognizant of that and respect the people who came before us. But it’s always a struggle to keep bringing people in,” he says.

Marcus and I get to talking in the modest synagogue basement, but not before his father, synagogue president Marvin Marcus, insists on fixing me a plate of leftovers from the previous day’s Purim festivities: burekas, feta cheese, kalamata olives, grapes, a boiled egg, sweet bizcochos and marble halvah for dessert. I can’t help but nosh as I ask Andrew about the distinctions between his Jewish experience and that of his non-Greek Jewish peers.

He points to my plate: “You’re eating the big differences right here.”

Yet Marcus doesn’t speak Greek, live on the Lower East Side or regularly eat Romaniote cuisine at home. In fact, his mother is Ashkenazi and his father Sephardic. Because Kehila Kedosha is the only non-Ashkenazi synagogue remaining on the Lower East Side, some Jews with Sephardic roots, like Marcus and his family, have “adopted” Kehila Kedosha. Many Sephardic Jews find they have more in common with Romaniote traditions than Askhenazi—particularly those from countries near Greece, such as Marcus’s grandmother, who is from Turkey. Marcus attended synagogue here as a child, and maintains a strong enough connection that he’s taken it upon himself to study the unique melodies of Romaniote prayer and the special piyutim, or liturgical poems, in ancient Judeo-Greco recited on holidays. Marcus began studying the Romaniote musical tradition for his Bar Mitzvah, when guests rocked out to Sephardic and Greek music played on the oud and bouzouki. It was, says Marcus, unlike any Bar Mitzvah his friends had ever attended.

“The other big thing is that we had a belly dancer, because my dad likes traditional stuff. I don’t think any of my friends ever saw a belly dancer, let alone at a Bar Mitzvah. So that was fun,” he said. “Some people thought it was more risqué, but for us it’s more of a traditional thing.”

Yet Marcus recognizes that had he not grown up in close proximity to Kehila Kedosha, his Jewish experience might have been very different.

“I might be in a conservative synagogue now and I’d be like every other–not to belittle them, but I don’t think I’d be that special. I don’t know how much of a connection there would be,” he says. “The big difference is that there’s this, like, floating idea that you’re Jewish, but there’s nothing to back it up. There’s no foundation. So the synagogue has been a strong foundation for me.”

The following Sunday, Ikonomopoulos hosts a celebration commemorating the 100th anniversary of Ioannina’s integration into modern Greece. As Ikonomopoulos clicks through a PowerPoint presentation and lectures to a full house in the synagogue balcony (where women pray) I’m distracted by the Romaniote memorabilia on display in the museum surrounding us: wooden sandals women wore to the mikvah, the intricate filigree border on a Greek shofar, an instrument made from a ram’s horn used on the Jewish New Year and other special occasions, traditional Greek pantaloons and vests, and hand-painted Alephs, certificates bestowed upon baby boys at their brit milah (circumcision). Unique to Romaniote culture, Alephs are both an amulet to protect a child from evil and genealogical documents: each lists the name of the baby boy along with the names of his father and grandfather.

A woman walking in late interrupts the lecture mid-sentence and turns to apologize to the entire audience. “Excuse me, I haven’t seen her for I don’t know how long,” she says. No one seems to mind as she and Ikonomopoulos chat for a minute before continuing.

After the lecture, the same woman comes up to me. “Are you Greek? Do you have a boyfriend? You have an Ioanninan-looking face,” she says by way of introduction.

Yes, I am of Romaniote descent, I answered, but emphasized I was there as a reporter. It felt disingenuous to claim a deeper bond. But as I would soon learn, there are many people with only peripheral connections to their Romaniote heritage, and they comprise a vast network that orbits around Kehila Kedosha and the tight inner circle.

There was the Abraham family, with whom I chatted over coffee and Greek pastries: Arnold Abraham and his sister Lois (Abraham) Davis, their spouses, children, and ninety-year-old father Morris, Harlem and Bronx-raised but of Ioanninan descent. The elder Mr. Abraham had attended Kehila Kedosha briefly as a child but hadn’t been back in decades; that day was the first time the younger Mr. Abraham had been to the synagogue in his life. As the paximathia (“Greek biscotti”) and kourabiethes (buttery almond cookies covered with powdered sugar) are passed around, Davis tells me, “I don’t think my father would’ve ever imagined coming back years later with his six grandchildren.”

Yet there they are. Though Arnold Abraham admits that Romaniote traditions don’t have much bearing on his family’s observance of Judaism in general—the biggest connection is the food, he says—he and his wife are having their youngest son’s upcoming Bar Mitzvah in Ioannina.

“Instead of just throwing a big party, we’ll make a big trip,” says Abraham. “We’ll go to the synagogue that our ancestors used to pray in, and bring it back to life.”

His sense of pride is apparent in his children.

“Whenever I tell my friends I’m Greek and Jewish they’re like, ‘oh wow, that’s really amazing,’” says Abraham’s teenage daughter Ilana.

The sense of belonging that comes from being neither here nor there seems to be a defining reason so many people remain anchored to the Romaniote community, no matter how far they drift. During my previous visit, Ikonomopoulos had taken my picture with her iPhone and, unbeknownst to me, included it in her monthly newsletter under the “∆ikoi Mas, Los Muestros (Our Own) Come Home” section (labeled in Greek, Judeo-Espanyol, and English). People from all over the world visit Kehila Kedosha, and it’s there they might find themselves connected not just to the Lower East Side and the synagogue, but to the five thousand households worldwide on Ikonomopoulos’s mailing list, all part of the extended community of Romaniote friends and family.

I consider myself somewhere on the fringes of this far-reaching network, and though I don’t intend to make major adjustments to my Jewish observance, I’m thankful that Kehila Kedosha’s door is always open if I—or perhaps someday my children—ever decide to return. As for the next generation of Kehila Kedosha’s immediate family, no one, including the regulars, is quite sure of what’s next.

“I don’t have an easy answer,” says Marcus thoughtfully. “I’m trying to figure out who I’m going to marry and what we’re going to do first. Hopefully, if we can keep it going. I’d like to have my children come here and be raised in this community because they were so good to me.”