Kehila Kedosha Janina

Arts, Church Hopping, Columns, Visual Arts — By on March 9, 2012 at 6:00 am

Just when New York City was beginning to feel a little small, even a bit predictable, a friend invited me to hear a talk at Kehila Kedosha Janina—the only Romaniote synagogue in the entire Western hemisphere.

Greek American Dimitra DeFotis gave a riveting account of her travels and research to discover what happened to the Greek Christians that had once lived in one village in Turkey:

Join veteran New York financial journalist Dimitra DeFotis in a moving multimedia journey through time & modern Turkey as she searches for her grandparents’ once-thriving silk-producing town. Brutally emptied of its Greek Christians, including her family, 90 years ago, the place remains full of memories. And surprises. Connect with today’s villagers & hear how one reporter found a way to connect with her ancient roots. A story as universal as family.

Afterwards we ate lots of baklava.

The Romaniote synagogue that hosted the event has its own story of religion, ethnicity, and culture.

Synagogue: Kehila Kedosha Janina

Location: 280 Broome Street, New York, NY


Architect: Sydney Daub

Built: 1927 (though the congregation itself was established in 1906)

History: So just what is a Romaniote? During the Byzantine Empire (395–1453), the term “Romaoi” referred to Byzantine Greeks. Greek did not necessarily mean ethnically Greek, though. It meant anyone who was Hellenized—in other words Greekified. They spoke Greek and were Christian. Taking their name from this, Romaniotes are Jewish Greeks, people who are ethnically and religiously Jewish who live in Greece or amongst Greeks. They first arrived in Ioannina (northwestern mainland Greece) after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, according to Romaniote oral tradition. They were sent on a slave ship to Rome, but a severe storm landed them instead in Greece. Over time, they spread out to other areas of the Greek mainland and islands. They spoke Greek and Yevanic (the endangered language that blends Hellenistic Koine and Hebrew). During World War II, the Nazis killed 86% of the Romaniotes, despite efforts from the Greek Orthodox Church to protect them. When the Greek Civil War broke out in 1946 and the state of Israel was created in 1948, most of the Romaniotes left Greece. Today, there are less than 6,000 Romaniotes in Greece.

Some of the Romaniotes that fled Greece settled in New York. The Lower East Side—the LES for those of you in the know—is one of New York’s oldest neighborhoods. Ethnically diverse, it has been home to Greeks (abstract expressionist painter Theodoros Stamos was born here in 1922) and Jews (New York’s oldest synagogue building was established here in 1849)—and apparently Greek Jewish people. Of course, we can’t forget the Chinese (the first Chinese person moved to New York in 1858). The Romaniotes built Kehila Kedosha Janina on Broome Street, which is part of Chinatown.

Exterior design: Most Romaniote synagogues run east to west, but Kehila Kedosha Janina runs north to south.  The

Interior design: The Ehal (containing the Menorah, Altar of Incense, and Table of the Showbread) is on the north side, even though it’s usually on the east side in most synagogues, as it’s supposed to be on the wall facing Jerusalem.

The bimah (the elevated area where the Torah is read aloud) is in the center of sanctuary.  This is the common location for it in Orthodox synagogues, but Romaniote synagogues usually place it on the west wall.

Perhaps the most intriguing architectural element of Kehila Kedosha Janina—one that I’ve never seen in a Protestant church—is that the middle portion of the second floor is cut out to create a balcony effect. Men and women sit separately in Orthodox Jewish synagogues.

Museum: The synagogue is also a museum. You can arrange to visit the museum and have lunch:

For only $18 per person (minimum 10 – maximum 50) your group will receive a complete private tour of the synagogue and museum, personally led by our Museum Director, Marcia Haddad-Ikonomopoulos.

This includes a traditional Greek-Jewish kosher lunch, consisting of Greek salad, yaprakes, bourekas, kourlouia, seasonal fruit, hot and cold beverages.

There is also art, costumes, books, and maps on display.

Claim to fame: Kehila Kedosha Janina is the Romaniote synagogue in the Western hemisphere.

You may also be interested in:

Church Hopping: Agia Lavra – In 1453 the Byzantine Empire fell to the Ottoman Empire, and on March 25, 1821, Metropolitan Germanos of Patras raised a revolutionary flag under a tree outside of Agia Lavra, a monastery in the Peloponnese.

Stephanie Nikolopoulos writes about growing up Greek American on her website:

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