(JTA) — When the Jews of Ioannina gathered in their whitewashed-stone synagogue over the weekend, it was to commemorate 70 years since the Nazis destroyed their community.
But the March 30 gathering also served to highlight a source of present-day sadness: the withering of the unique 2,300 year-old Romaniote Jewish tradition.
Ioannina, a postcard-pretty town in northwestern Greece with a medieval fortress perched by a bright blue lake and surrounded by snow-capped mountains, once was the center of Romaniote Jewish life. Today, however, the community in Ioannina numbers fewer than 50 members, most of them elderly. The last time the community celebrated a bar mitzvah was in 2000.
The community’s leaders fear for its future.
“It is very difficult,” said Moses Elisaf, the community’s president. “We try to do our best to keep the traditions, but the numbers are very hard.”
“I don’t like to think about the future. It is very hard to be optimistic,” he said, standing on the peaceful lakefront Mavili Square, where the Nazis loaded the town’s Jews onto trucks to be shipped to Auschwitz.
The Romaniote Jews, neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardic, emerged from the first Jewish communities of Europe. Records indicate the first Jewish presence in Greece dating back to 300 BCE. A ruined second-century BCE synagogue on the Aegean island of Delos is believed to be the oldest discovered in the Diaspora.
These Jews became known as the Romaniotes, speaking their own language, Yevanic, or Judeo-Greek, a version of Greek infused with Hebrew and written with the Hebrew script.
Romaniote synagogues had a unique layout. They had their own religious traditions and prayer book, the Mahzor Romania. Much of the worship was in Yevanic, and the tunes, including for reading the Torah, were heavily influenced by Byzantine music.
“The Romaniote tradition is hugely important. It is a pre-Diasporic tradition based on the Talmud Yerushalmi,” said Zanet Battinou, the director of the Jewish Museum of Greece and herself a Romaniote who grew up in Ioannina.
But it is a community and a tradition that has long been in decline.
Following the expulsion of the Jews of Spain in 1492, many Sephardic Jews found refuge in the Ottoman Empire that then ruled Greece. Soon, major Sephardic communities sprang up, most notably in Thessaloniki, known as the Jerusalem of the Balkans.