My Cousin Vangelis and I are travelling in Epirus in the north-west of Greece. High up in the Pindos mountains, Ioannina – the regional capital – is located. The trip gave me a unique opportunity to join the Yom Kippur service in the local synagogue and to learn more about one of the most outstanding Jewish communities in Europe.
As a consequence of the strike of the air traffic controllers in Greece the days before, I was unable to catch my flight from Athens to Ioannina. Aegean Air counters were in a total mess and I had to take the bus. In the late afternoon my cousin Vangelis picked me up at Ioannina bus station and we stayed over night in Metsovo high up in the Pindos mountains. We literally drove through the clouds when we returned to Ioannina in the morning. Surprisingly we had difficulties finding hotel rooms in the old town, some of the small hotels and pensions were fully booked due to Jewish visitors who came due to a high holiday – as was told to us. We found a hotel in the former Jewish neighbourhood – the synagogue is situated just around the corner. We were just in time for the eve of Yom Kippur.
While Vangelis returned to his books, I went to the synagogue. A paper at the gate announced a meeting at noon and the programme for the holiday – starting with a service at 7:30am. At noon a dozen of people gathered and started to decorate the synagogue. Oil lamps were prepared and hung up next to the Thora shrine. A woman kindly answered all my question and adviced me to return at 10:30 next morning to see the service.
When Vangelis and I arrived at the synagogue in the morning of Yom Kippur we found about 20 men there – already praying since the early morning. More people appeared as time passed by and the service reached its climax soon by the opening of the Thora shrine. Men were called up to read from the Thora – mainly elder men, Cohanim and Levites, the notables of the community.
The Jews of Ioannina are special. While the majority of Greek Jews is of Sephardi origin – descendants of those who fled Spain in 1492 and received asylum in the Ottoman empire – Ioannina’s Jews emigrated to Greece directly after the destruction of the second Temple, since the 8th century they live in the city. They call themselves Romaniotes (Roman Jews), their customs slightly differ from Ashkenazi and Sephardi customs. This is also visible in the interior design of the synagogue. The Bima is not placed in the centre of the interior space but opposite of the Thora shrine. This creates a space between both poles of the synagogue, benches are positioned to both sides of it. While women originally observed the service from a balcony, they have there benches in the main hall of the building now. Ioannina’s Jewish community is obviously a very liberal and open minded one.
Like other Jewish communities, the Jews of Ioannina suffered a cruel fate during the German occupation. Who did not flee the city and joined the partizans in the high mountains of Epirus, was deported to Auschwitz – most did not return. more than 1,800 out of 2,000 were murdered. The Jewish community of Ioannina has now about 40 members. They all were assembled when the Yom Kippur service reached its climax.
When I left the synagogue, I asked a man leaving at the same time for the way to the Jewish cemetery. He kindly offered me a car ride, and looking on the dark rain clouds I gratefully agreed. My host turned out to be a Professor of Computer Science at Ioannina University, who patiently answered all my questions.
Due to the holiday I found the cemetery closed, but at some places the wall was low enough to have a look inside. The territory is partly well maintained, partly densely overgrown.
Vangelis and I are now already in Parga at the north-western coast of Greece. We are going to explore the mountains of Souli, were our ancestors used to live more than 200 years ago. But this is a different story and not subject of this blog…
Learn more about the Jewish community of Ioannina: http://www.kis.gr/en/index.php?option=com_content&view=category&id=31&layout=blog&Itemid=62