April 20, 2004

Statement of the Historic Districts Council
Before the Landmarks Preservation Commission

Re: Designation of the Kehila Kadosha Jannina Synagogue, 288 Broome Street, Manhattan


The Historic Districts Council is the city-wide advocate for New York City’s historic districts and for neighborhoods meriting preservation. HDC is very pleased to have the opportunity to testify in support of the proposed designation of the Kehila Kadosha Jannina Synagogue.

On first view the little building on Broome Street of the Kehila Kedosha Jannina hardly seems among the more distinguished among all the varied architectural legacies of the Jewish Lower East Side, whether surviving in their original function or as vestiges of ethnic succession either to Judaism or from it, And yet it is a cultural landmark far more significant than its size or unimpressive architecture can reveal: it is a very special survivor in an area of survivors--it is the only remaining synagogue not only in New York but even in all the New World of a distinctive branch of Judaism, the Romaniote.

The small, beige-brick synagogue building proclaims its Judaism with prominent metal Magen Davids on the parapet and the Tablets of the Law high in the façade. Lower, above the entrance, the Tablets reappear in a kind of armorial form, crowned between supporting lions, that is frequent in such locations and is here framed in an orientalizing cusped arch. It is only on picking out the lettering on the lintel below this motif that one recognizes something special: the name “Janina” clearly stands out in its Hebrew transliteration and the founding date, “1906” of the Common Era, appears in Arabic numerals alone.

Yanina, as the name of this ancient town in northwest Greece is often spelled, has had a long and varied ethnic history of which the ancestors of this congregation have formed a part. (The name has had many forms, but the type used in the inscription has historically been more widely used than the archaizing official Greek name “Ioannina” [Iwannina].) The town, now the capital of the province of Epirus, has probably been best known for its association with the early nineteenth-century Turkish/Albanian despot Ali Pasha celebrated by Byron and other writers of the Romantic era, largely for his role in the confused struggles usually summarized as the “War of Greek Independence.”

Janina appears to have been one of the later centers of Romaniote Judaism and almost the last to survive. This branch, quite different from the Sephardic tradition as well as the Ashkenazic one that predominated on the Lower East Side, maintains special customs and rituals, at least partially in Greek, derived from a long, relatively undisturbed past in the Greek-speaking world that was embodied in the Byzantine Empire and survived through the Ottoman period into modern Greece. Many of the inhabitants of this world and their customs are traditionally designated by such words as “Romaic” and “Romaniote,” which are clearly derived from the Roman identity long associated with this world.

In fact the Romaniote tradition, though sorely diminished, is the direct descendant of the Greek-speaking Judaism that was widespread in the largely Hellenistic world of the Mediterranean and that extended to Rome itself. This early Diaspora had a kind of center in Alexandria, which was a kind of New York of its time in its diversity as a commercial and cultural capital. The Jewish community here formed a significant portion of its population and early on required the Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint. The great Alexandrian philosopher Philo Judaeus participated in the world of the synagogue and that of the great library that was in effect the first university. It was in this world that post-Temple Judaism developed and in which Paul, a proud Jew, corresponded in Greek with other Greek-speaking Jews who were becoming followers of the new religion of Christianity in its earliest form as a Jewish sect. The earliest Christians in Rome were an extension of this Greek-speaking world, as the Kyrie Eleison survives to testify. Thus this Jewish subculture helped shape not only Judaism but all western culture as well.

Time and the breakup of the Mediterranean world weakened and dispersed the Greek-speaking Judaism that was an intimate part of it. More recently the growing nationalisms of Europe, spreading into cultures that had not experienced the more tolerant Enlightenment that had helped shape earlier nationalisms, as well as the competition of newer forms of Judaism, exerted very different pressures that all worked against the survival of the remaining communities of the tradition. The twin disasters of the Holocaust and Stalinist Communism have all but completed the task of destruction. Now the critical mass necessary to the survival of the tradition seems nowhere to exist. Thus the main task of the Commission is clear: to preserve this building, which should also stand as a monument to American diversity and liberty.

One would think, however, that the congregation that seeks designation must hope for and deserve more. The door of this unassuming synagogue and to the associated museum is not merely the way into the past of a threatened tradition, but a potential window into a world of which we are all descendants. In the relative isolation of Janina, where this Greek-speaking community survived for centuries among the hills in dominantly Albanian surroundings it is likely that this tradition survived relatively intact. It is urgent for its members to be put in contact with appropriate institutions and experts in order to preserve whatever else can be saved of this invaluable tradition from dilution, dispersion, and destruction.

Documents obviously can be sought out and saved or copied. On the Internet there is mention of a failed attempt to record the Judeo-Greek chants or hymns that are an essential part of the ritual. If this has not been successfully done, it should be done before it is too late. Both the music and the language could potentially provide information not only for ethnomusicology and the history of Judaism, but also for the potential of the singing and Greek pronunciation orally handed down in this community to contribute to knowledge of classical antiquity. Technical works on both subjects survive from ancient times, but they have little reality without the sound of a living tradition; and in the case of music little indication exists of how to interpret the surviving musical settings of which we literally cannot read a note with confidence. If by some lucky chance documents with old musical notation exist for pieces that are still being sung, they might provide new insight into this long-gone world that stands at the fountainhead of our culture. This may be but one of the ways that the knowledge embodied in this once-great tradition could contribute to the world of today before this window into a past world is closed forever..

 


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