People often ask me where my family came from before the United States. I always proudly answer, “Greece.”
Shocked, they respond, “Really? I didn’t know there were Jews in Greece.” Not only are there still Jews in Greece today, there is an active, vibrant, and growing Greek Jewish community in New York City, with an amazing Greek Jewish Festival.
How exactly did the Festival begin? On Sundays in NYC, my father would always take us to different street fairs, which gave us the opportunity to explore the incredible diversity of culture throughout the city. He would often joke that the synagogue should put on a street fair of its own, highlighting our unique Greek Jewish heritage. But after years of street fairs and joking about what our own would look like, my brother finally said, “Let’s do it,” and went ahead to lead the charge in founding the first event of its kind in the world.
I grew up in Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue and Museum, the only Romaniote synagogue in the Western Hemisphere. Romaniote Jews are a unique community whose history in Greece dates back over two thousand three hundred years to the time of Alexander the Great. They were historically distinct from the Sephardim, who settled in Greece after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and spoke a Judeo-Spanish language known as Ladino. Yet the Romaniote Jews kept their unique Greek language, customs, foods, and traditions, distinguishing them from both the Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazim of Eastern Europe and the Sephardim of the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East.
The idea was simple but organizing it was not easy. It required months of preparation, community buy-in, and fundraising to get it off the ground. In fact, one of the biggest challenges we faced was receiving the proper number of signatures from the mostly Chinese-speaking residents of our street to support a festival. Today, it’s amazing to watch the older Chinese residents of our Lower East Side block dance in the street to the live Greek, Ladino, and Israeli music.
The festival has succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. At our first festival in 2014, we had over 2,000 people join us. In 2015, over 6,000, and last year, more than 8,000. People now come from around the world to join us. This year, the festival kicks off with a special Greek Jewish Shabbaton with four esteemed Romaniote and Sephardic Rabbis from around the world. The Rabbi of the Jewish Community of Athens in Greece and delegations from Greek Jewish and Sephardic communities in Seattle, Miami, Indianapolis, and beyond will be in attendance.
The greatest success, however, is seeing the third and fourth generation Greek Jews return to the Lower East Side every year, to the community their grandparents grew up in, re-engaging with their heritage and connecting to their Romaniote and Sephardic identities. Through the new Greek Jewish Young Professionals Network formed by some of the young leaders within our community, we now host Jewish education classes, Young Professional Shabbatons, tours of Jewish Greece, and Greek cooking classes. We are bringing our once dispersed community back to their home.
Not only am I more hopeful now than ever before for my community’s future, one that was unclear only a decade ago, I am proud to be a part such a warm and loving Kehila (congregation), one that represents the best that the Greek Jewish tradition has to offer.