Who are the Romaniote Jews?

Who are the Romaniotes and why is their unique history and culture of interest? According to Judaic scholars, dating back to the Ottoman Empire, there are four distinct branches (traditions) of Judaism: Sephardic, Ashkenazic, Mustarib'a and Romaniote. The Romaniotes are Greek speaking Jews of ancient Roman citizenship with their own liturgy and cultural traditions. The word “Romaniote” is a Hellenized Latin term for Greece, or “second Rome”. 2300 years of Greek language, culture and tradition have acted upon this pocket of Jewish heritage to create the Romaniote's unique history and culture.
The Romaniotes have their own language...it is actually a dialect of Greek that combines words and phrases from Hebrew and Turkish. This Romaniote language is a purely spoken one...there was no literature written in Romaniote. The language is only spoken by the older generation and soon it will be known only second-hand.
The Romaniote Jews have their own form of wedding blessing. Upon the betrothal, seven
A painted wood Tik
Ioannina, 19th Cent.

blessings are bestowed on the bride and groom to be. At the end of a full year, the ketubah (the wedding contract) was read at the wedding ceremony proper. This is unique in that other Jews bless the bride and groom at he time of the actual wedding. In addition, there are ritual differences in the building and use of the mikve (ritual bath). Local Ioannina traditions also dictate many idiosyncratic uses of food, gift giving and celebration and the dowry. While it is a traditional custom of Jews to keep the Torah scroll protected, the cylindrical casing utilized by the Romaniotes is an ancient custom they choose to keep alive. This casing is referred to as a “tik”. Tiks range in appearance from simple and plain to ornate and decorative. The word tik is a Hebrew word coming from the Greek, “thikai”. Among the Romaniote Jews, tradition dictates that the most holy Sefer Torah, the Law of Moses, be read with the scroll standing upright in its tik...it is considered improper to lay it flat. The Sephardic Jews do lay it flat and read it at a slight angle.
The Romaniotes traditionally use an amulet known as an aleph. This hand-painted “birth certificate” was created by a family member and then handed down. The aleph was written in mystical codes for the purpose of warding off the wiles of Lillith, Adam's first wife. She was said to be active forty days after childbirth when she tried to smother both mother and child. The aleph contained the name of the child, the date of circumcision and the names of three powerful angels, Sanvai, Sansanvai and Samangloph. Alephs were created for male children only.
The Romaniote Jews from Ioannina constituted a Hellenized community with distinct worshiping customs, which were not seen in other communities, with the exception of the Romaniote groups in Arta and Preveza. For example, in religious ceremonies and family celebrations many hymns and prayers (piyyutim) were chanted (these were not contained in the Western prayer books). These synagogue songs were compositions of native Romaniote rabbis who inserted them into the prayer books. These hymns are particularly distinctive in the liturgy because the Ioannina Jews recited them in the vernacular Greek language. Many local customs manifest themselves through the ritual practices and observances of the Jewish holidays…largely through the use of Greek. During Purim, the festival of Esther, the Yanniote Meghillah (a silver filigree scroll to read the festival story) is used as part of the celebration. This scroll is presented to the groom at the wedding and is treasured as a family heirloom. In Ioannina, the celebration of Promoplo, a secondary version of Purim, has Sicilian roots that are evidence of strong local customs that are uniquely Yanniote and that have been passed down from generation to generation.
"Ianina" an illustration by Barbié du Bocage from "Voyage dans la Grece" by François Pouqueville, Paris 1820
The Romaniote synagogues had a typical construction, although not all followed tradition. The synagogue proper was laid out east to west with the ehal (the ark) on the east wall and the bimah (the reading platform) on the west wall. Seating was along this east-west axis with the benches in the men's section facing each other. The mehitza (women's section) ran along three sides of the balcony facing the ehal, and had it's own entrance. This interior conforms to a system that has Venetian influences, and in the example if the Janina Jews, local influences as well. The Ioannina community (Ioannina is the capitol of Epirus, the northwest region of Greece) was the largest and most representative of the Romaniote heritage and was the most resistant to change, which is why a study of the Ioannina Romaniotes reveals traditions dating back many centuries.
In 1492, Sephardic Jews were expelled from Spain (as a result of the Spanish Inquisition) and large numbers settled in the Balkans. Jewish life at this time in the Ottoman Empire was diverse and cosmopolitan. Jane Gerber, Director of the Institute for Sephardic Studies at CUNY tells us, for example, "...the original Greek-speaking Jewish population in Istanbul, the Romaniots, retained indiginous traditions that had developed over the course of centuries in Christian Byzantium. In addition, successive waves of immigration from Germany, Hungary, Provence, and Bohemia throughout the 15th and 16th centuries not only reinforced the Romaniot community but also introduced seperate houses of worship and ritual practice.The mix became even more complex and diversified, of course, when the post - 1492 migrants arrived with their own customs, Spanish language, characteristic lifestyle, and a new sense of Sephardic pride and assertiveness. It was not long before Ladino triumphed over Greek, Provencal, Italian and Yiddish in the marketplaces, workshops, and several of the synagogues - a living remnant of the lost "homeland" of Spain". The Romaniotes welcomed the Sephardim and for a time, the two communities co-existed in relative harmony. Over a number of generations, however, the more educated and sophisticated Sephardim dominated the Romaniotes, and for the most part, dictated the religious and liturgical rites along with other customs. The Sephardic language of Ladino flourished. While many of their unique customs and traditions remained, the Romaniotes were dramatically and irreversibly infulenced by the Sephardim. Today, the remaining Romaniotes consider themselves Sephardic.

What was happening in Greece at the turn of the century? What prompted the Jews of Ioannina to come to America?

Following the creation of the Greek kingdom in 1834, the early, modern Greek state sought to recover what it saw as its historic lands. Greece was not alone in this thinking. Throughout the Balkans, regions wanted autonomy and freedom from the Ottoman Turks. By the turn of the century, the Greek Jews, Romaniote and Sephardic, found themselves surrounded by Serbs, Albanians, Bulgarians, etc., and now began to assume some of these identities. This was a time of great political and social upheaval, war, economic crisis and cultural instability...and from this turmoil, the modern Greek state emerged, freed from the Ottoman Turks. During this time, a great wave of emigration began and between 1912 and 1920 great numbers of Greek Jews and Christians left their homeland and settled in Europe and America.

The Romaniote Jews settled in NYC, on the Lower East Side...What was happening there when they arrived?

In the 1880's, and up until the turn of the century, a great number of Germans came to live in NYC...so much so that during that time,
Lower East Side - 1905
NYC was the third largest German-speaking community in the world, behind Berlin and Vienna. Most of these immigrants settled on the Lower East Side. Many were Jews who brought with them skills, talents and a certain business acumen. They settled quickly and became craftsmen, merchants and businessmen. For them, assimilation came swiftly. They worked very hard to establish themselves, as “German-Jews-becoming-Americans”. In the early 1900's, the pograms swept through Eastern Europe, and huge numbers of Jewish immigrants from Russia and Poland flooded NYC...they too came to the Lower East Side. New York's German Jews, especially the more affluent among them, looked down on this Jewish mass arrival. They worried their own success would be undermined. They considered these “Hebrews” and “low-class Jews” a threat. As Dr. J. Silverman stated at an 1889 lecture at The Temple Emanu-El, the newcomers were “a standing menace” because their “loud ways and awkward gesticulations are naturally repulsive and repugnant to the refined American sensibilities”. The “thoroughly acclimated American Jew”,
THE HEBREW STANDARD agreed, “is closer to the Christian sentiment around him than to the Judaism of these miserable darkened Hebrews”.
The Lower East Side of New York
The established German Jews were becoming bourgeois Reform Jews and ridiculed the new arrivals. They derided the immigrants' language, dress and habits, which the German Jew thought unclean, and found them backward, clannish and alien. The immigrant Jew, of course, was clinging to what he knew…his faith and religion. To this religious and cultural disdain was added the class contempt that investment bankers and sophisticated merchants had for peddlers and tailors. In the early 1900's, when the Romaniotes arrived in America they walked into this highly charged and turbulent neighborhood. They settled around Broome Street, near Allen and Eldridge streets...and in 1927, built their synagogue. The Romaniotes then began their odyssey...their great American adventure. From the streets and the tenements of the teeming Lower East Side, the Romaniotes sought their version of the American Dream. Over time, like others before and after them, the Romaniotes assimilated into the American culture. They spread out near and far...they embraced the new and different and let go of the old and familiar. Only a handful of the Romaniotes remain on The Lower East Side where their saga began.

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Vincent Giordano
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