Greek Jewish Festival Celebrates Romaniote And Sephardic Jews Of The Lower East...

Greek Jewish Festival Celebrates Romaniote And Sephardic Jews Of The Lower East Side

by Rachel Goldsmith

Over 6,000 people came out to share in Kehila Kedosha Janina’s (KKJ) celebration of Greek Jewish heritage on Sunday, May 22, tripling last year’s 2,000 attendees.  Participants – Jewish and non-Jewish alike – crowded the block of Broome Street between Allen and Eldridge Streets to taste Greek foods, hear Greek music, and shop from vendors bearing goods from both Greece and Italy.  Tours were held to allow visitors a peek into the Western Hemisphere’s only Romaniote Synagogue, with small exhibits set up in the women’s section.  Members of the shul proudly shared stories of their grandfathers reading from the sifrei Torah and showed off photographs of their ancestors, many of whom were first-generation Americans.  

The KKJ community is neither Ashkenazic nor Sephardic, and it was one of the first Jewish communities to reach Europe.  Their tradition is that of the Romaniote Jews – that is, the Jews who left Eretz Yisrael during the time of the Roman Empire, possibly as early as the second century BCE.  As the legend goes, a group of Jews sailed on a ship toward Rome, where they would work as slaves, when a huge storm steered the boat off-course.  The captain realized that would not make it all the way, so he told his passengers to try to swim to shore – those who made it would be free.  They set up a community on the Aegean coast, and ultimately, the largest of their communities was in the picturesque city of Ioannina.  Having arrived in Greece centuries before the 1492 expulsion of Spanish Jewry, these Greek Jews spoke Yevanic, a Judeo-Greek, as their vernacular, as opposed to Ladino, and they have their own sets of foods and rituals.  Since much of the community in Ioannina was lost in the Holocaust, there is added need for the Romaniote Jews in New York to hold fast to their traditions.

Kehila Kedosha Janina’s building is a designated NYC landmark and continues to hold Shabbat morning and holiday services.  Obviously, there were daily minyanim during the heyday of Lower East Side Jewry, but as community members have left the neighborhood, and many synagogues have closed their doors, the KKJ community has remained committed to keep the shul running regularly.  Tours of the museum are available every Sunday and by appointment, and the community hosts concerts, lectures, and annual trips to Greece, priding itself on being a repository for both Romaniote and Sephardic Jewish history.  The festival has become a way to publicize their unique culture, and also to preserve it.  It celebrates the century-long presence of Greek Jewish life on the Lower East side, and it aims to energize the Greek and Sephardic Jewish communities that have remained in New York.

This one-block festival has been a great way for KKJ to reach out to the local Jewish community and its institutions and small businesses – and they timed the event with Lower East Side History Month, too.

In addition to the synagogue itself, there were a few affiliate organizations that were represented, including the Greek Jewish & Sephardic Young Professionals Network, the Lower East Side Preservation Initiative (LESPI), the Tenement Museum, and the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy, which organizes walking tours of Jewish sites.  The Greek Jewish festival was a fun and colorful way to cast a spotlight on the rich heritage of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, showcasing all that the historic community still has to offer.  With such success at this year’s festival, there has already been talk of spreading into a larger space next year.

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