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Greek Jewish enclave in NY and french-speaking jews in Greece

After the opening weekend at the expansive Cinerama Theater downtown the Festival has now moved over to more modest quarters in the auditorium of the Seattle Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) on the edge of the University of Washington campus. The museum lobby is quite interesting itself with an exhibit of old Seattle photos currently on display featuring celebrity visitors to Seattle in the good old days. Among them, a very young Marlon Brando, shown fishing with a local native American, a lovely Marilyn Monroe before she was all the rage, and Babe Ruth, the legendary "Sultan of Swat" slugging one out in a local stadium that long ago disappeared from the local landscape.

One of the advantages of the smaller, more compact venue is that the screening room looks nearly full, whereas at the spacious Cinerama attendance seemed rather sparse with many seats in the vast hall unfilled leaving unsightly gaps. On the third day of the festival the surprises continued rolling forth revealing two unique jewish communities with Greek roots.

"The Last Greeks of Broome Street" is a rich, densely loaded 28 minute documentary describing the practically unknown new York jewish community of Greek Jews known as "Romanites". The name stems from the fact that these were originally a group of Jewish slaves who were to be deported from The Holy Land to Rome in the earliest days of the Diaspora, but only got as far as Greece, then part of the Roman empire. There they took root and established a peculiarly unique brand of Judaism, which is today neither Sephardic nor Ashkenazic, with a litany all its own written in a mixture of Greek and Hebrew.

Greek Jewish immigrants of this sect, mingling with the Yiddish-speaking east European Jews of the Lower East Side in New York at the turn of the century, established a small synagogue , Kehila kedosha Janina, which still stands on Broome street, now practically lost in a sea of Oriental -- Chinese and Vietnamese -- shop signs. The building which was recently declared a National treasure, has been turned partly into a Museum of Romanite Judaism and is therefore in no immediate danger of extinction, however the scattered aging Romanite community keeps dwindling so that there is barely a prayer quorum of ten men available on any given Shabbes.

Ed Askinaz, the son of an original Kehila member, took it upon himself to document the synagogue and the Romanite community, dragging his father down to the "old neighborhood" from the Brooklyn suburbs for the first time in forty years to point out things of interest. Here there are comical moments, as when Ed asks his father how come he never came back here in all these years, to which the father replies, "I dunno -- It was so far away ... after all we were living in Brooklyn (15 minutes away by car!). As the story unfolds we travel as far afield as Boca Raton, Florida, for a reunion of elderly Romanites and see how closely knit the community is, even after all these years.

The film is finely detailed with many interviews of Romanites, still keeping the faith and still keenly aware of their uniqueness as Jews -- although it isn't easy since they are now so widely scattered. In the old days all lived within a six block radius of each other, the doors of all apartments were always kept open and Romanites entered other Romanite dwellings as though it were one big extended family. In the two reunion scenes we see white haired oldsters doing Greek line dances and interacting with each other like family at a giant Bar Mitzvah with a Grecian twist. At the end we see young Ed Ashkenazi dovening (praying) in the renovated Broome Street Synagogue along with other younger Romanites, still determined to keep this unique ancient tradition alive. A beautiful film and a beautiful story -- Hats off to Ed Ashkenazi!

The Broome Street story was the warm-up for a 52 minute documentary on the once thriving Jewish city of Salonika (now, Thessaloniki), Greece, where urban renewal has all but eliminated the last traces of, not only the Jewish, but the Turk-Islamic communities which existed there side-by-side prior to the war. Numerous minarets which dotted the city-scape in old photographs were unceremoniously pulled down and a new University has been built over what was once the Jewish cemetery. This straightforward document was produced in Belgium/Netherlands and directed by Maurice Amaraggi, himself a descendant of Salonika Jews. The director follows his family roots back to the great port city on the Aegean Sea -- Salonika is the second largest Greek city after Athens -- where a cosmopolitan Sephardic community of some 50,000 comprised the commercial elite of the city and sent their children to French schools. This community was completely wiped out at one stroke during the Nazi-German occupation, deported en masse to Auschwitz, with very few survivors scattered to the winds. A pitiful few came back after the war but are now mostly absorbed into the general Greek populace.

In the film we see Salonika as it looks today, very modern with endless waterfront cafes -- contrasted with old photographs of the old Jewish markets and landmarks. In one cafe at the far end of the embankment --(it reminds one of Venice) -- a few old-timers still play backgammon and one surviving Jewish merchant muses on the fact that, although he always felt Greek, his non-Greek Jewish name always made him feel like an outsider. (So, why didn't he change it?). Although the physical vestiges of the Jewish past are all but gone many former Salonikans still carry the city around in their hearts. One elderly Jewish lady stills runs a French book store and tells us in flawless French that the basic language of the Saloniki Sephardic Jews was French rather than Ladino. They were the business elite of the city and not only sent their kids to the French school, but used French as their everyday language, while their original Ladino, a 15th century version of Spanish mixed with Turkish and Hebrew, continued to be cultivated more or less like a pet within the community. Greek, the language of the Goyim was a third language used mainly for business. Alas, lament several oldsters -- the children no longer speak the Ladino language and the fully expect it to die out with their own generation.

The uniqueness of this Aegean Pearl City is underlined by the tale of a man who immigrated to France and insisted that his nationality was not Greek but Salonikan! His fervent attachment to his native city was so convincing that a French court granted him "provisional Salonikan citizenship" for two years while awaiting his French citizenship papers.

"A Green Chariot", (Israel, 2005) is a 47 minute made-for-TV fiction film addressing the assimilation problems of new Russian immigrants to Israel.
The Russian Jews, after many decades of Communist atheism are by and large secular and tend to speak Russian amongst themselves, rather than Hebrew. Sasha, the hero of the piece, is so intent on becoming a real Israeli that he rejects his entire former Russian identity, changes his name to "Yair" and refuses to speak anything but Hebrew, even with his own estranged father and former Russian buddies. Moreover he becomes fanatically religious and is all set to marry a beautiful religious Israeli girl. So everything looks fine for new immigrant Sasha-Yair.

The fly in the ointment arrives in the form of a family package from the Ukraine containing relics of his deceased mother. Among them is a golden cross -- with the obvious implication that his mother was not Jewish! If his mother was not Jewish then, according to Jewish law Yair is not Jewish, so, if he's still hot for the Judaic Identity program he will have to undergo an official conversion process. The religious questions thrown at him by a panel of examining rabbis are so easy for the young talmudic scholar that he makes them look like sheepish idiots. But the knowledge that he is, biologically at least, half Goy claws away at his conflicted sense of self-identification, and he finally balks at the lest step in the conversion proceedings, the Mikvah ritual bath immersion which will presumably wash away the original sin of not being Jewish enough. He angrily rebels against the whole religion bit, goes back to his circle of secular Russian youngsters, again speaks Russian, and plays a popular Russian song, "Green Chariot" on the piano to validate his return to the down-to-earth Russian fold.

Will his religious girl-friend fiancée give him up now that he is no longer a Jew? Not on your life. "A little piece of metal is not going to change my feelings about you", she assures him warmly -- Well, as long as he takes a bath in the ocean (instead of the Mikvah ritual bath) to wash away his sins -- which Sasha dutifully does, clad in a pink female gown delivered by her parents to the beach. Sounds a bit corny or sentimental? -- but it isn't, because actor Vital Friedland, himself a new Russian immigrant to Israel invests the role with a sense of real conviction and Daniela Wincer is such a looker that it's worth going through a few hoops to win her hand.
Moreover, Gilad Goldschmidt is a veteran director who knows how to get the most out of a short story like this. The version here had English sub-titles when Hebrew was being spoken, and English plus Hebrew when the dialogue was in Russian -- a nice workout for the linguists in the audience.

On tap, "TOOTS", the life and times of the famous Jewish Broadway restaurateur, "Toots" Shor, who was equally at home with mobsters and movie stars.

Alex, sEATTLE, March 22, 2007

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