I recently took a wrong turn on the Lower East Side — and walked right into the Jewish past.
Because my sense of direction has never been dependable, it was no surprise that as I walked from the subway to the modish Lower East Side bar where a friend was hosting a party, I lost my way. The surprise was where I found myself instead: in front of a two-story honey-colored brick tenement-width building whose distinctive stained-glass windows featured azure blue and white six-pointed stars. Above the front door, a stone frieze displayed two proud lions of Judah standing protective guard on either side of the two tablets of the Ten Commandments, encircled by an inscription in Hebrew. Finally, crowning the building’s decorative upper façade hovered one more set of carved tablets, again with Hebrew lettering.
The overall effect was a proud proclamation: this is a Jewish house of worship. Clearly not the chic bar I had sought — and which, I later found, turned out to be just a block away.
But the party could wait. For the moment, I stood where I was, transfixed. Though the building’s architectural style spoke of the early-20th century, its appearance was brand new. Huh? No, I laughed inwardly, I had not stumbled into a time warp (nor a waking dream-like Woody Allen film fantasy) — though the neighborhood’s surrounding melange of hipster bars and upscale restaurants made the discovery of an almost hidden Jewish house of worship from another era in their midst feel that way. On the contrary, I decided, this was the opposite of fantasy: so vital a Jewish presence here, amid and despite the never-ending upheavals of urban demographics, signaled a toughness and determination to not just survive, but thrive. I needed to find out more.
The synagogue I stood before, a brightly polished bronze plaque on its exterior informed me, was Kehila Kedosha Janina: the synagogue of the Romaniote Jews, built on this site in 1927, more recently restored and renovated with care, and now a designated New York City landmark.
Romaniote Jews? For sure I’m familiar with the broad categories of Ashkenazic (from Eastern Europe) and Sephardic (from the Iberian peninsula and the Middle East) Jews. But this was a phrase I had never heard.
Nor have most people, I was assured by Marcia Haddad Ikonomopoulas, the synagogue’s museum director, who greeted me when I returned to the synagogue — and this time, with Kehila Kedosha Janina as my actual destination, I did not get lost.
Romaniote, she explained, refers to Greek Jews whose ancestors arrived in the lands of Greece as early as the era of Alexander the Greek, around 300 BCE, and who continued arriving even as Greece, and Jerusalem, became parts of the Roman Empire. The good news: This gives them “the distinction of being the longest continuous Jewish presence in the diaspora, going back 2,300 years,” says Ikonomopoulas.
But the history of Janina (the English transliteration of Ioannina), the town in northwest Greece that the founders of this Lower East Side synagogue called home before coming to America, also has its dark chapters. According to legend, Jews first arrived in the Ionian coastal area in a Roman slave ship sometime after 70 CE, after having been taken captive in Jerusalem after the destruction of the Second Temple. After large numbers of Sephardic Jews began arriving in Greece after the expulsion from Spain in 1492, most, but not all Romaniote communities became assimilated within the Sephardic culture. Janina was one that retained its original identity — speaking Greek, not the Judeo-Spanish dialect of Ladino, and adhering to its own Hellenistic prayer chants. But by 1900, its Jewish population had shrunk to about 4,000; by the beginning of World War II, that number had diminished to 1,950. In March-April 1944, the Nazis deported 1,860 to concentration camps; the great majority were murdered. Today, the Jewish population of the town is between 50 and 100.
And Kehila Kedosha Janina is now the Western Hemisphere’s only surviving synagogue of this Jewish culture.
The congregation itself was founded on the Lower East Side in 1906 by Jewish immigrants from Janina, and by 1927 enough money was raised to open the building that continues to be a fully functioning synagogue, with services every Shabbat and on all holidays. Its numbers are small — rather than a formal membership list, it has a group of devoted regulars and committed board members. But unlike so many other area shuls that, in the second half of the 20th century, moved with their congregants to other boroughs or suburbs, or merged or disbanded altogether, Kehila Kedosha stayed put, and stayed open.
One reason was the determination of Isaac Dostis, who established the synagogue’s museum in 1997. “That brought people through our doors,” brought attention to the Romaniote Jews, and subsequently led to grants for restoration and landmark status, says Ikonomopoulas. Equally important was the dedication of Hy Genee, who died in 2006. “He was the backbone, he kept it going,” says KKJ’s current president Marvin Marcus, who recorded Genee changing chanting piyutim in the haunting, traditional Romaniote style, and urges me to listen.
And what they saved is more than a time capsule. Step inside the sanctuary, and it looks much like it did in 1927, thanks to a historically informed renovation completed in 2006. Sunlight beams down from the original skylight, illuminating a narrow room with wooden benches, centrally placed bima and wooden Torah ark beyond. The tin ceiling, hand stenciling in lieu of wallpaper, and hanging chandeliers all reflect the original décor. Dangling from above are at least a dozen metal and glass memorial lamps, donated by family members of the deceased, both to keep memory alive and to add beauty to the sacred space.
As I walk the length of the room, my guide is Marvin Marcus’ 16-year-old son Ethan Marcus, whose bar mitzvah took place here three years ago (as did his older brother’s a few years prior). He eagerly drew aside the curtain to the ark to show me the array of six Torahs within (another one is currently being repaired). None of them is robed in the traditional mantle seen in Ashkenazic synagogues. Instead, each is contained within a velvet-covered wood and metal case — a protective holder called a “tik.” The custom is “exclusive to the Romaniote community,” Marcus tells me. Then he undoes the clasp to open a crimson and gold case and reveals the yellowed parchment scroll within. “This is the oldest Torah, from Greece, about 1750,” he says. “We never remove the Torah from the tik. Scholars feel that this tradition is Torah dress dates back to Second Temple destruction when Jews were forced to carry the Torah scrolls — literally carry them — from Jerusalem to the Eastern Mediterranean, by hand. They needed something to protect them, and so created the heavy metal and wood cases.”
Another distinctive aspect of the Romaniote Jews is the sound of the service itself, with chants and melodies that “sound like they come from the mountains — and the community originally was from the mountains!” says Ikonomopoulas with a laugh. “I had a Greek Orthodox priest who was in here and said, this sounds like our chant! And the question is, who got it from whom?”
Upstairs, the women’s gallery (the men sit downstairs, and women are not counted as part of a minyan, even though sparse attendance can make it difficult sometimes to gather a Shabbat quorum of 10) doubles as a museum. Exhibits display everything to do with the history of Janina’s Jewish community — and with the history of the Kehila Kedosha Janina synagogue, including photos and history and ceremonial objects such as antique brit milah instruments, seder plates, spice boxes, and candlesticks. Best of all, organize a group of ten or more to tour the museum and sanctuary, and you’ll get a traditional Janina lunch, too. “We make great food, much better than Ashkenazi!” gloats Ikonomopoulas.
Jeffrey Mordos, an advertising executive and KKJ board member, agrees. Having grown up on the Lower East Side, attending the synagogue with his Greek immigrant parents, Mordos positively kvells as he remembers his mother’s traditional holiday dishes: for Purim, for instance, Haman’s ears, consisting of deep-fried dough shaped in circles (like ears) and dipped in honey; and for Passover, soup served with crushed matzah and, in what seems like a traditional, finished with egg-lemon sauce. “My wife will still make those dishes and our kids still enjoy and the tradition carries forward,” he says.
But it’s much more than food traditions that keep him at KKJ. “What draws me is keeping the traditions of Greek Jewry alive as long as possible,” he says. “When you recognize that Greece lost something like 90 percent of its Jews in the Holocaust, that raises the likelihood of Greek Jewry vanishing. So beyond the personal interest, there’s a historic component which is very important.” Kehila Kedosha Janina forms an important part of that mosaic. And it’s an easy destination to get lost in. ◆
Diane Cole is the author of the memoir “After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges,” and a frequent contributor to many national publications, including The Wall Street Journal.