Photo: Iason Athanasiadis, Patrick Leigh Fermor, the Jews of Jiannena, me and my mother.

6 Sep

Iason’s original wide-angle of the remaining Old Synagogue in Jiannena (there was a larger new one outside the walls of the old city but the Germans blew it up, ’cause — I dunno — out of boredom and too much beer some afternoon.):

Iason attached Patrick Leigh Fermor‘s description of the shul, from A Time of Gifts :

“Wandering about northwestern Greece, I made friends with the Rabbi of Yannina, and he invited me to attend the Feast of Purim. The old, once crowded Sephardic Jewish quarter inside Ali Pasha’s tremendous walls was already falling to ruin. The rabbi had assembled the little group which was all that had survived the German occupation and come safe home. Cross-legged on the low-railed platform and slowly turning the two staves of the scroll, he intoned the book of Esther – describing the heroine’s intercession with King Ahasuerus and the deliverance of the Jews from the plot of Haman – to an almost empty synagogue.”

A Time of Gifts, Patrick Leigh Fermor

Έσπευσα, of course, to correct Fermor and Athanasiadis, since we’re talking about Jews and Jiannena especially:

I dunno if this is interesting to you or not, but Fermor is wildly wrong — in a way he rarely is — in calling the Jews of Jiannena Sephardim.  The Jews of Jiannena were totally “Romaniotes”, meaning Jews that had lived in Greek lands (Romania/Byzantium) way before the Ottoman conquest and the subsequent Sephardic influx that came with the Jew’ expulsion from Spain in 1492.  In most Jewish communities in the empire, the flood of Spanish-speaking Jews soon swamped the old Romaniote, Greek-speaking communities, but in Jiannena, and in a couple of other towns (Volos, Halkida I think) the Romaniotes held out.  (In Jewish Istanbul, the two communities lived side by side, though the Sephardim were the clear majority.)

Only pointing this out because survivors and descendants of Jewish Jiannena are ferociously proud of the fact that they still speak Greek.  Their rites and cantorial traditions are unique, and they have a synagogue of their own in New York and two in Israel, where their traditions are carried on, and which I always went to for the Jewish High Holy Days in autumn: Kehila Kedosha Janina. In Jiannena itself, ironically and sadly, there is no longer a rabbi to serve the some thirty-member community of survivors. So a rabbi comes from Istanbul and only for Yom Kippur, and he’s Sephardic.

I should’ve known better than to think that Athanasiadis didn’t know that Fermor had made a mistake:

You’re absolutely right and I did a double-take when I read it too… exactly because the Jews of Yiannena are notorious for being the only Romaniot community to have (semi)-survived in Greece when most of the others were subsumed under the tide of Andalucian Jews. But I left it in as it’s a direct quote from the book. However, it would be great if you were to post your comment below, so that ppl know what’s going on.

Οπότε Μπάκε, what’s your story with Jiannena’s Jews or with Jews generally? Well, what my story with Jews is, is a long one. For now, let’s just say that I’m from New York, and that should suffice.

What my story with the Jews of Jiannena is…is pretty much explained in an old post of mine that I’m pasting below. Ironically — or through some sort of Jungian synchronicity — I wrote it just around Purim some years ago, the holiday on which Fermor stumbles upon the lone rabbi reading the Megillah of Esther. Check it — and the footnotes — out if you have the patience.


It’s Purim tonight! — something like a letter to my mother…

15 Mar


Esther before Assuereus, Nicolas Poussin, circa 1640 (click)

For Purim this year I’m posting this poem by Greek Jewish poet Joseph Eliya, who was from my mother’s hometown of Jiannena in the northwestern Greek region of Epiros.  (See the tab box on the right for the hundred references to Jiannena and Epiros on the Jadde).

The Jews of Jiannena were Greek-speaking Romaniotes, descendants of the Jewish communities of Greece, the Balkans and Asia Minor that existed since Hellenistic times and that held out culturally against the flood of Spanish-speaking Sephardim that found refuge in the Ottoman Empire after their expulsion from Spain in 1492.  They were called Romaniotes because Romania (the kingdom of the Romans) was what the Byzantines called their polity and what we too – till the early twentieth century – also called ourselves: “Romans” – which it always aggravates me to have to explain.  But it is one of the rich ironies of history that the only inhabitants of Greek lands that stayed faithful to their true name for themselves were Jews, while we sold our souls to the West for the promises and prestige we thought the re-excavated neologism “Hellene” would curry us from the Frangoi.

So Eliya’s native language was Greek, and though he wrote some of the most beautiful translations of Jewish Biblical texts into Modern Greek, particularly one of the Song of Songs and a series of love poems to Rebecca, in a rich, florid, archaic idiom, he also wrote homelier poems in a folksier Jianniotiko style like this one, “something like a letter to his mother” on the occasion of the feast of Purim.

For those who don’t know, Purim is the day that Esther, the Queen Consort to the Persian King Ahasureus, and her uncle Mordechai, foiled the plans of the king’s evil minister Haman, to have the Jews of the kingdom massacred.  It’s generally celebrated by listening to the book of Esther in synagogue, the Megilla, sending food and giving charity to the poor and dressing up in costume, an aspect of the celebration that may be an interborrowing due to the fact that it tends to fall around Christian Carnival.

Eliya was a poor schoolteacher who died at the young age of thirty, and I believe this poem was written when he was away from his beloved Jiannena, and his beloved mother, on a teaching post in the Macedonian city of Kolkush.  It’s a sad, therefore — and very Epirotiko in that sense and in tone — poem, that’s in sharp contrast to the happiness of the holiday.

This poem also has an added emotional subtext for me.  My mother’s best friend when she was in elementary school was a Jewish girl, Esther — Esther Cohen.  “Astro” they called her, in the Epirotiko diminutive; “Tero” is also another form for the same name.   And as a little girl from a peasant family recently moved to Jiannena from their village in the mountains just to the south, I could tell that her stories about her friendship with Astro were her first lessons in tolerance and difference, whether she would’ve called them that or not (we certainly wouldn’t in our day…I’ll leave them for another post).  And she may have known it even less, but her friendship with Astro may have prepared her for life in New York in ways she was probably never conscious of.  And what she may have been even less conscious of — though maybe I should give her some credit: I do know for sure that my mother’s stories of her friendship with Astro served as my first lessons in decency and openness to those different from you.  Of that there’s no doubt.  So this post is something like a letter to my mother too.

Always they ended in a kind of distracted silence, for she never knew what had happened to her friend during the war: “Τι νά’χει γίνει η Άστρω;” she would mumble.  “What can have happened to Astro?”  And what was strange was that she could’ve found out; there were surviving Jews in Jiannena that she knew and there were even Jewish Jianniotes in New York she could have asked.  But it was like she didn’t want to know.  Even odder, I’ve had several opportunities to find out as well; Kehila Kedosha Jiannena, the Jianniotiko shul in New York on Broome Street has records on the whole community.  But it’s been almost as if I don’t want to know either.

Here is Eliya’s original Greek, with my free verse translation below.



(Something like a letter to my mother)

It’s Purim tonight!  The thrill and joy of the great feast!

Light in our souls, and a smile on the lips of all.

And I, my orphaned mother, the refuse of exile*

Waste away in a chill joyless corner.

It’s Purim tonight!  And the synagogues open their arms wide to the faithful children of my ancient people.

And they read again with wonder, from the white parchment, the triumphs of Mordechai and Esther through the ages.

It’s Purim tonight!  Young and old gather at home, at hearth, to hear the Megilla’s** tale.

And I mother – with the burning lament of exile – tearily thumb through my Bible in a lonely corner.

Your son won’t be bringing you candles or flowers from shul*** tonight, mother.  And if your crying is bitter, don’t lament too deeply.  My Fate has been decided, and poverty — poverty, mammele**** – has no feel for sympathy.


Notes on my translation:

*”Exile” here does not imply political banishment or anything of the sort.  It’s the word “ξενητιά” as Eliya spells it, that’s so central to understanding the Greek and — it probably goes without saying — the Jewish soul, but is so devilishly difficult to translate precisely.  It means absence — absence from the place where one should be, from one’s heart’s homeland.  Through and because of emigration and poverty most often but not always; it’s often something one feels without having had to leave.  The Turkish “kurbet” is the word closest in meaning that I know from another language.

**Not to be disrespectful, but the Megilla, the Book of Esther, is quite long, and is proverbial, in at least Ashkenazi humor, for being tedious and monotonous to listen to — but one bears it.  It’s exactly the same as the Greek term “εξάψαλμος,” the Hexapsalm, a selection of six psalms that is always read at the beginning of Matins and I’m not sure if during other offices, and would be beautiful if correctly and carefully recited according to the rules of Orthodox recitation.  Unfortunately, it’s usually read in an incomprehensible blur of mumbled boredom by the lector or cantor, which actually makes it even more tedious and irritating to sit through.  It’s usually a good time to go out for a cigarette.  I just always thought the similarity was funny.  “Ωχ, τώρα θα’κούσουμε τον εξάψαλμο,” a Greek will say with dread when faced with a berating lecture or kvetch session or someone’s tiring complaint that’s so repetitive you just tune it out, just like a Jewish New Yorker will say: “I really can’t listen to his whole Megilla right now…”

***In the second verse, Eliya uses the Greek word for synagogues and I translated it as such.  In this last verse, he uses a homier, Epirotiko form whose intimacy I felt was better conveyed by “shul.”

****And last but not least, we run into the painful translation issues that are generated by the fact that English is almost completely lacking in a system of diminutive terms of affection, especially compared with the highly elaborate diminutive terminologies of Slavic languages or Yiddish (or I assume Ladino) or even Greek.  At no point in the poem does Eliya refer to his mother as “mother” but rather “my little mother” — “μανούλα’μ” — “manoula’m.”  This is a term of affection used often by Greeks and especially Epirotes to refer to anyone, not just one’s mother, not even necessarily a female (Athenian idiots making fun will darken or double up the “l” to make it sound more northern and Slavic and hickish; for me it’s just more beautiful…); one will say to a young boy or even a friend: “Come here, manoula mou… What’s wrong, manoula mou?”  Just like “mammele” is used in Yiddish.  But I felt that using “mammele” throughout would have sounded too Yiddishy and cute, and so I saved it for that last, most intimate verse, and used mother elsewhere.  After all, this is a poem that above all is an expression of the most Jewish kind of mother-son bond.  But Yiddish and its many beauties is cursed now, by its sudden, dramatic extinction in Europe, and its shadow survival only in American entertainment, with the danger of always lapsing into a default comic tone.  It’s sad.  The translation from the Greek of the last line of the poem, for example: “poverty has no feel for sympathy…” would literally be: “…but poverty doesn’t know from sympathy.”  But then I’d be writing Larry David dialogue.


FINALLY, I’d like to thank Marcia Haddad Ikonomopoulos for the scan of the Greek text of the poem.  I’m in Athens now, away from my library and couldn’t find it anywhere online.  I wrote to her and within five minutes she had written back to me with both “Purim” and “Esther,” another of Eliya’s poems about the biblical heroine.  She suggested that “Esther” is a poem more appropriate to the happiness of Purim than the melancholy of “Purim.”  Unfortunately, it’s written in a much more difficult, semi-biblical, archaic language that I didn’t have the time to translate.  I promise her however, that as soon as I get a chance I will work on it and post it on the Jadde — out of gratitude to her helping me out for this, and out of gratitude to the one-woman pillar of the Kehila Kadosha Janina community that she is.  I’d also like to thank the whole congregation there for always making me feel so welcome when I attend on Erev Simchas Torah; the rabbi and his stentorian voice, the three young men who lead prayer and are perhaps the community’s most precious resource — let’s see if I remember correctly: Seth, the rabbi’s son, and the brothers Andrew and Ethan, who though they’re from a Sephardic family from Berroia, devote their shabbes and yontif time to energizing this tiny community in need of outside help.  The warmth of the community has always moved me and I’m grateful for both the odd need for Jewishness in my life and the link to my mother and her childhood that they unknowingly provide.  Thank you.




5 Responses to “Photo: Iason Athanasiadis, Patrick Leigh Fermor, the Jews of Jiannena, me and my mother.”

  1. Sevina Floridou September 9, 2020 at 7:21 pm #

    Are you sure Yiannena is mentioned in ‘A Time of Gifts?’ I just read the trilogy and it’s set across europe eccept for thecend of Brokamily closet of secretsen Road when he vidits Athos. I’m about to embark on ‘Roumeli’ and Yianina (his spelling) is in the index. My great grandfather was Romaniote from Yiannena only its a hushed up story in the family closet of secrets…

  2. Sevina Floridou September 9, 2020 at 7:21 pm #

    Are you sure Yiannena is mentioned in ‘A Time of Gifts?’ I just read the trilogy and it’s set across europe eccept for thecend of Brokamily closet of secretsen Road when he vidits Athos. I’m about to embark on ‘Roumeli’ and Yianina (his spelling) is in the index. My great grandfather was Romaniote from Yiannena only its a hushed up story in the family closet of secrets…

    • nicholasbakos April 9, 2022 at 10:55 pm #

      Hmmmmm…. Now I’m not sure. Για να το λέτε…ίσως όχι


  1. Photos: some extra photos of Jiannena synagogue | Jadde-ye-Kabir - September 7, 2020

    […] To complement yesterday’s post: Photo: Iason Athanasiadis, Patrick Leigh Fermor, the Jews of Jiannena, me and my mother. […]

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