31 July 2009

Crete: The Etz Hayyim synagogue

Crete's Jewish history is ancient - some 2,000 years old.

Nazis arrested the Chania community of 263 Jews on May 29, 1944. As Jewish residents were imprisoned in nearby Ayas, the little Romaniote Etz Hayyim (one of the two congregations) synagogue was already being vandalized by the Nazis and townspeople.

The prisoners were sent to Heraklion and put on the Tanais, which was torpedoed by a British submarine the next day (June 9). It sank with no survivors. The prisoners were likely being sent to Auschwitz.

The Guardian posted a story by Antony Lerman about the restoration of Etz Hayyim, which he calls a synagogue with an extraordinary history.

The building was occupied by squatters who were forced to finally leave in 1957, and the building became the property of the Central Board of Jewish Communities of Greece. Portions of the small site were taken by adjacent property owners.

The former Jewish quarter underwent a revival; were built, but the synagogue became a dumping ground.

Enter Dr. Nikos Stavroulakis. I first became acquainted with him through his Greek Jewish cookbook with its marvelous illustrations and fascinating recipes. He decided that the synagogue had to be reconstructed and renovated and become a living congregation again despite the lack of any known Jews living on Crete.

Stavroulakis is a man of many talents: a Jewish art historian, museum designer and curator, author, theatrical costume designer, artist, cookery writer and more.
He returned to his late father's besides, who had returned to his late father's house in Chania, persuaded the World Monuments Fund and some wealthy donors to back a plan to rebuild Etz Hayyim. On 10 October 1999, after five years' work, 350 people assembled to witness the rededication of the synagogue.
He wanted more than a memorial to the Jews who had perished and more than a small museum focused on Crete's Jewish history.

Lerman attended a recent Friday night service - for visiting American Jews - and Nikos spoke:
He recalled a line of Kafka's, "a cage went in search of a bird", and said this is what happened with the synagogue – and the bird came.

Not that he meant Etz Hayyim's "community" is in any way captive, but the very rebirth of the synagogue opened up the possibility for an incredibly diverse number of people to find some new meaning in their lives through the presence of the synagogue and their various connections with it.
The building serves as a synagogue but other events are held there such as concerts, lectures, community meals and exhibits. Jews with Crete connections have used its library and resources for genealogy purposes, while others have conducted private research.

The Crete community is transient, representing all streams of Judaism or none at all; some stay for days, weeks or months. Only rarely is there a minyan. Lerman calls Etz Hayyim as being at the frontier of modern Jewish experience,

Read the complete article at the link above for more of Lerman's insights on his recent visit.

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