Saturday, September 27, 2014


The recent event commemorating the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki, organized by the Thessaloniki Association “White Tower,” with the support of the Jewish Community Council in the Victorian Parliament, was unique in the annals of Greek community endeavor. For the first time, Greeks and Jews came together to celebrate the history of a vibrant community that came to Thessaloniki in search of a haven from persecution and intolerance, only to be decimated, centuries later, by an inhumane hate-preaching regime, for whom persecution and intolerance was its sole raison d'être.
Keynote speaker Dr Helen Light, in providing an overview of the history of the Thessalonian Jewish community highlighted the manner in which it was able to flourish in Thessaloniki and make meaningful contributions to its culture and economy, all the while retaining and developing its own unique sense of identity. Keynote speaker Eyvah Dafaranos on the other hand, captivated all present, not only with her spellbinding bilingual English/Hebrew delivery, but also her unique, learned and sound analysis of Greek musical and literary responses to the deportation and ultimate massacre of Thessaloniki’s Jews, emphasizing that it is not only through shared places, but also through shared forms of expression such as music that communities can establish lasting bonds of friendship and solidarity. In his remarks, Greek Ambassador Dafaranos, in assessing the contribution of the Thessalonian Jewish community and its ultimate destruction at the hands of the Nazis, stressed the importance of continued vigilance against copycat fascist and racist movements such as the unspeakably vile one that is currently blighting the Greek political proscenium. This sentiment was returned to time and time again by the many Victorian state parliamentarians present, and indeed most eloquently by Federal MP Maria Vamvakinou.
Events such as these challenge the outdated, hypernationalistic narrow conception of Greek history as something that pertains only to the “Greek” race, (however this is defined), and properly places it in context with the world around it and the many peoples who have called Greece home. Organised as one of a series of events celebrating the sisterhood of the cities of Melbourne and Thessaloniki, the aforementioned event is laudable as it highlights the infinite possibility of development of a culture, in a region that is benign, benevolent and not only tolerant but actively advocates diversity. This was certainly Thessaloniki for a significant period of time and surely is the case for Melbourne today.
The praiseworthy homage to Thessalonian Jews in the form of the event organised by the Thessaloniki Association, cements centuries of interwoven cultural and religious existence. Dr Helen Light pointed out that historically, the Thessalonian Jews were left to their own devices. While some Byzantine Emperors imposed some sanctions upon Jewish worship, these were relatively harmless compared to the intense western European persecution of Jews and further, the Ecumenical Councils of the Orthodox Church emphasized the Jewish community’s right to worship freely. Other speakers mentioned the active role of the Greek Orthodox Church in opposing the Nazis’ deportation of the Jews during the War. Such a noble tradition comes in marked contrast to the intolerance and anti-Semitism displayed by Golden Dawn today, proving that its ravings are without any roots in modern Greek culture.
The function had at its aim not only the celebration of Thessalonian Jews but also the commemoration of the destruction of that community by the Nazis during the Second World War. At some state, though this was not within the ambit of the aforementioned event, it would be useful to examine the multiple facets of the terrible tragedy that befell Thessaloniki’s Jews.
The fact remains that the vast majority of Greeks who actively opposed the Nazi deportation of the Jews in various parts of Greece and did their best to hide or rescue Jews from their fate. The church hierarchy in particular, including the brave bishop of Zakynthos and Archbishop Damaskinos condemned the deportations of the Jews at considerable risk to their own lives, and issued fake baptism certificates and other documentation in an effort to save Jews from their fate.
A very small minority however, actively assisted the Nazis, claimed indifference and, opportunistically helped themselves to the spoils of looted Jewish property in Thessaloniki after the deportation of the community. In his ground-breaking play “Salonika Bound,” local writer Tom Petsinis emphasizes the lasting bitterness created by the perfidy of Greek neighbours refusing to deliver Jewish property they have illegally occupied back to their rightful owners upon the return of Holocaust survivors to Thessaloniki after the War. Fittingly enough, such reconciliation as takes place, occurs in multi-cultural Australia.
In his research, U.S historian Andreas Apostolou looks at latent anti-Semitism among hitherto marginalised elements of the Thessalonian Greek community, who jumped on the Nazi bandwagon. Thus it should come as no surprise that local Greek anti-Semites assisted the occupying Nazis in publishing two propaganda newspapers that vilified the Jews. On 21 April 1941, the day after Hitler’s birthday, Greek collaborators put up signs in Greek and German declaring “Jews unwelcome in this shop.”
Similarly, the collaborationist Greek administration in Thessaloniki assisted in Nazis in the oppression of the Jews. One figure for whom more than opprobrium is merited, is the administrator for northern Greece, Vassilis Simonides who was based in the city. When the Nazis decided to round up all the Jewish males of the city for forced labor in July 1942, Simonides issued a proclamation specifying that this applied to men of Jewish “race,” regardless of their faith. This was the first time that Greece had ever defined Jews by race. The Greek collaborationist police and the Thessalonian municipality participated in registering close to 9,000 Jewish men, while German soldiers beat and humiliated them. The Greek police then marched the men away to work on German military projects, supervised by Greek engineers. Demobilized collaborationist Greek military officers supervised the Jewish slave-labourers, sometimes participating in the German abuse.
In January 1943, the Germans provided the Greek quisling government with advance warning of the Jewish deportations. After his discussion with the collaborationist Greek prime minister Konstantinos Logothetopoulos, “ambassador” to Greece Altenburg told Berlin to expect “no difficulties” from him. As such, the collaborationist Greeks implemented German measures designed to isolate the Thessalonian Jews. Throughout February and March of 1943, they carried out German orders expelling Jews from public bodies and associations, forcing them to wear the yellow star, and banning Jews from public transportation. The Greek administration also assisted in the confinement of the Jews to two main ghettos, something unprecedented in Greek history.
Andreas Apostolou also points out that it was the Greek collaborationist police who, on 15 March 1943, marched Jews to the railway station. Eighteen trains, supplied by the Greek railways, took 45,324 Jews to Auschwitz. Further, Greek officials also persecuted Jews of their own accord. When, during the spring of 1943, Italian consular officials issued protection papers to 75 Thessalonian Jews with apparent ties to Italy, collaborationist Greek officials confiscated these documents, allowing the Nazis to arrest and deport these Jews. By late 1944, as the Nazis were preparing to leave the city, there were just 13 Jews were known to have remained. While the Red Cross, bribes, and an American passport saved five of them, Greek collaborators shot the remaining eight on 8 September 1944.
The recent commemorative event presents a unique opportunity for us to examine these difficult matters and to place them in perspective. Examining the extremely small extent of Greek complicity in the deportation and persecution of the Thessalonian Jews, as well as the vastly greater instances of the heroism of the Greeks who opposed such measures, will provide much needed background that permits analysis of the resurgence of intolerant and fascistic tendencies among some of the modern Greek populace today. The Thessaloniki Association is to be commended for reaching out to a community for whom Thessaloniki is also home and whose history is a shining beacon of endurance, survival and triumph despite the odds.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 27 September 2014

Saturday, September 20, 2014


In the beginning when the world was young, I had no concept of a cookbook. Instead, my late grandmother would make notes of ingredients at the back of an old telephone directory that was so ancient that it still contained Melburnian numbers of only six digits. Such entire would be made in her spidery writing in an amalgam of phonetic Samian dialect and Hellenized English, hence «κάστα σούγκα» for caster sugar, «λαδ» for olive oil, but «όλιου» for vegetable oil, «πάουντα,»for powder and «κουραμπιέδις» for kourabiedes. Charitably, family members now consider that this reflected both her inherited phonology and long sojourn in Australia. Having been brought up by my grandmother however, I would argue that the whole thing was an elaborate code, deliberately designed so as to lead anyone astray, who would attempt to crack its secrets. How else can one explain the cryptic entry «σάμθιγκ» within the list of ingredients for carrot cake? Even today, after some seventeen years of us poring over the recipes, most of them still defy decipherment.
In our household, my grandmother’s cookbook was referred to awe-inspiringly as «του βιβλίου,» much in the same way as is the Bible. Yet it was only much later that I learned, when traveling to Greece, the cookbook in the Greek parlance is generally referred to as «Ο Τσελεμεντές.»At first, I labored under the impression that this was but a charming retention of an old Ottoman word in the Greek language but this is not so, for the Turkish word for cook book is yemek kitabı. As is turns out, Tselementes is purely Greek, in the sense that it refers to Nikolaos Tselementes, one of the most influential cookery writers of modern Greece.
Born on the island of Sifnos, at the turn of the last century, he studied cooking for a year in Vienna and, on his return to Greece began to publish his Cooking Guide (Οδηγός Μαγειρικής) which in addition to recipes included nutritional advice, international cuisine, cooking news, and sundry other items.
A polite and genteel Gordon Ramsay of his time, in 1919, he became manager of hotel "Hermes" and in the next year, departed Greece for America, where he worked in some of the more expensive restaurants of the world, while also undertaking higher studies in cooking, confectionery and dietetics. In 1920, decades before the advent of Nigella and mass cookbook marketing, he published the influential cookbook, Cooking and Patisserie Guide. Returning to Greece in 1932, he founded a small cooking and confectionery school and brought out his most famous known book of recipes, which, being the first complete cookbook in Greek, had over fifteen official reprints during the following decades. He even published a cook book in English in 1950, entitled Greek Cookery.
Purists abjure and execrate the name of Tselementes, for Influenced by French cuisine, he is responsible for the introduction of such abominations as Béchamel sauce and vinaigrette to our once innocent palates. Yet centuries before, ancient Greek cookbook writers were similarly cursed by prudish Romans for the bastardization of their own cuisines, for Tselementes apart, food-writing within Greek culture enjoys an ancient and most noble pedigree.
Take Lynceus of Samos for example, brother of the historian Duris a classical Greek author of comedies, letters and humorous anecdotes. Living in the late 4th and early 3rd centuries BC, he is the celebrated author of the essay’ Shopping for Food,’ and his writings betray a special interest in gastronomy. He was also the addressee of an important letter by Hippolochus on dining in Macedon. He would be practically unknown if it were not for numerous quotations from his works in the Deipnosophistae of Athenaeus. A the single surviving fragment from his play Kentauros ("The Centaur"), is quoted by Athenaeus. This is a scene set at Athens in which a dinner menu is discussed with reference to the guests' cities of origin and probable food preferences.
Fusion cuisine also appears within the writings of the ancients. Mithaecus, a cook and cookbook author of the late 5th century BC was a Greek-speaking native of Sicily, who is credited with having brought knowledge of Sicilian gastronomy to Greece. Being expelled from Sparta, as a bad influence, he even crops up in Plato's dialogue Gorgias.
Mithaecus is the earliest cookbook author in any language whose name is known. One recipe survives from it, thanks to a quotation in the Deipnosophistae of Athenaeus. It is in the Doric dialect and describes, in one line, how to deal with the fish Cepola macrophthalma, known in modern Greek as kordella and in ancient Greek as Tainia :
Tainia: gut, discard the head, rinse, slice; add cheese and oil.
The addition of cheese seems to have been a controversial matter; Archestratus, another food writer is quoted as warning his readers that Syracusan cooks spoil good fish by adding cheese. The same Archestratus, pioneered poetic food writing, a genre that appears to have died out in the modern world and is in dire need of resuscitation. His humorous didactic poem Hedypatheia ("Life of Luxury"), written in hexameters, advises the gastronomically inclined reader on where to find the best food in the Mediterranean world. The writer, who was styled in antiquity the Hesiod of gluttons, pays great attention to fish, although some of the early fragments refer to appetizers, and there was even a section on wine.
As can be seen, most of our knowledge of Greek food writing comes from the work of Athenaeus “Deipnosophistai,”meaning dinner table philosophers. Though the author of a treatise on a species of fish known as the thratta, Athenaeus’ ‘most famous work includes extensive quotations of other contemporary for writers. Thus we learn from him that Timachidas of Rhodes composed a work entitled Deipna or "Dinners” which included a section on the correct way to mix Rhodian wine. Similarly, Epaenetus is extensively quoted as the author of a treatise "On Fishes" and another "On the Art of Cookery.” Similarly, the description by Hippolochus, a Macedonian writer, of a wedding feast as quoted by Athenaeus is vital in advising us as to how meals were repaved in the northern Greek kingdom. The brilliance of Athenaeus lies not only in his remarkable description of what may be considered the first patents but also in proving the ancient provenance of Masterchef. He mentions that in 500 BC, in the Greek city of Sybaris in Sicily, annual culinary competitions were held. The victor was given the exclusive rights, not to a television show or a spin off restaurant but rather, to prepare his dish for the state, for one year.
Unlike the Romans or earlier Greeks, Byzantine cookbooks seem to be rare indeed. In fact, only very tempting references to Byzantine cooking are found tucked into diplomatic reports and biographies of the Imperial family. We know that the Empress Lupicina of the Danube Valley was a cook, and that Theodora, wife of Justinian, imported cooks from Persia, India, Syria and the Greek mainland to serve at her court.
The last proper cookbook to come out of Byzantium was that of the doctor Anthimus, shortly after 500 AD. However, we do have a description of omelettes that were very popular throughout the Empire and were known as sphoungata, "spongy," penned by Theodore Prodromos. And of course these recipes, emerging from the darkness of the obscurity of centuries past, are infinitely fresher and more appealing than those emerging from the pretentious pages of Kyria Vefa, hapless erstwhile star of ANT1 television morning shows and author of cookbooks, in the most Tselemdrian of traditions.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 20 September 2014

Saturday, September 13, 2014


I have always idly entertained the implausible theory that Cypriots have some manner of connection with the subcontinent. I base this absurd hypothesis on the generally darker hue of the Cypriot skin and the undulating lilting tone of their accent, which reminds on of spoken Gujarati. Yet I believe I have of late, discovered the final, incontrovertible piece of evidence that backs my claim for evermore. Watching the 1975 Indian film classic 'Sholay,' recently, I stumbled upon a music/dance number entitled "Mehbooba," supposedly composed by the great Rahul Dev Burman. With only minute adaptations, this song basically is identical to the Cypriot folk song: «Τα ριάλια,» the only difference being that while Mehbooba talks of roses blooming in the desert, «Τα ριάλια is a love song whose chorus mysteriously fixates upon the search for riyals (a Middle Eastern form of currency) deposited in the bank by a malcontent. Given that Sholay is both a love story and a story about robbers, the two sets of lyrics are not as disparate as they may first appear.
The successful reception of a Cypriot song within the complex constructions of the Indian musical tradition raises the question as to whether other songs of this nature have been subsumed this most prolific of Indian industries. While the wading through the multitude of songs composed in India every year is a weighty task, rather than demand damages for breach of the copyright held for «Τα ριάλια,»and other possible musical borrowings, it is worthwhile to consider that the Greek purloining of Indian songs has deep roots and in fact, has had a significant effect on the development of Greek popular music.
The modern connection between Greece and Indian music surprisingly lies through 1930's Australia, when an Australian of Greek and Scottish origin became one of the biggest stars of Indian cinema. Fearless Nadia Hunterwali, resplendent in in a mask and hat and with whip in hand, became one of India's most successful female actors and stuntwomen.
Early bondage footage notwithstanding, it was the bleak economic condition of Greece in the early 1950s that facilitated the influence of Indian music via film in the country. Post-war Greece had been devastated by the occupation and civil war. An atmosphere of depression and mourning prevailed as people tried to rebuild their lives. Social dislocation as people fled the countryside for cities or foreign lands, often living in unhealthy and oppressive circumstances, caused a climate of desperation in which Indian movies made an indelible impression.
The plots of the overly emotive Indian films resonated with the wounded Greek psyche. Suffering women, street children who had to drop out of school, jealous sisters-in-law, vengeful mothers-in-law, interdependencies, betrayals, and frequent unhappy ends were all circumstances one could easily identify with. Maidservants and factory workers saw themselves depicted on the movie screen, hoping for deliverance via a transcendence of class and other barriers via marriage to a rich young man they worked for.
The exoticism and exuberance of Indian film sets and costumes was matched by the musical score underlying them. Actresses such as Madhublala have featured in songs by no less a personage as Kazantzidis, while such is the enduring presence of Mangala (from the Angelopoulos hit: "Mangala, the daughter of the maharaja" borrowed from the song "Gao tarane man ke") in the Greek psyche that she even features in a recent Indian-themed childrens' song performed by the bizarrely named 'Mazoo and the Zoo."
Indian film tunes pervade Greek music of the fifties and sixties. Kazantizidis classic «Καρδιά μου καημένη,» is directly derived from "Dunia me ham aaye" from the film Mother India, whereas the equally classic «Αυτή η νύχτα μένει» is taken from "Ulfat ka saaz chhedo" from the 1953 hit movie "Aurat". Angelopoulos' famous song «΄Οσο αξίζεις εσύ is also an Indian adaptation, from the song "Duniawalon se duur," featured in the movie Ujaala. Similarly, Petros Anagnostakis song «Κάποιο τρένο» is adapted from the Indian "Pyar hua ikrar hua." Voula Pala and Apostolos Kaldaras were also prominent exponents of the art of Indian adaptation.
Apart from their emphasis of the soulful themes of the films, the songs were popular with the Greek people because they were rendered in an oriental style that was popular with Asia Minor refugees and with residents of remote villages, where older musical traditions were remembered. Original Greek songs with Indian motifs began to be created. In order to hellenize the music, composers often speeded them up, simplified sections where they could not reproduce the trained voices of the Indians, and changed instruments, using the bouzouki.
Not all Greek musicians appreciated this craze. In his autobiography, the great Vasilis Tsitsanis, had this to say about the exploitation of Indian music:
"Indian rule (Ινδοκρατία) started to prevail in the field of popular music in the first few years of the 1950s. Those irresponsible so-called composers, without a trace of shame, took music from Indian records and, after changing the lyrics into Greek, presented them to the public as their own creations and genuine Greek songs. An unprecedented wave of Indian songs swept over our country.
'Everything we [rembetika and popular music] composers had created with sweat and blood was swept away by Indian rule. And yet nobody ever spoke out against these criminals. nobody denounced them so that the entire world could learn who, in cold blood, had killed genuine popular music.
'One of these criminals would go with his tape recorder to cinemas playing Indian films and record the tunes. After, he would write new lyrics, make the record and have a big hit. And when I say "hit", I'm talking at least 100,000 records. With each record they put out, they were able to buy themselves a new flat.'
It remains that while Tsitsanis was steadfastly opposed to Indian music, he was not above orientalising his compositions, often using Arabic rather than Indian themes. Yet it is a testament to the popularity and pervasiveness of Indian music during his time, that it entered one of his most renowned songs: «ΖΑΪΡΑ.» While the chorus is a pastiche of Turkish and Arabic words, the song concerns a young lady who apparently is about to be abducted from the embrace of a who else, Indian maharaja.
The craze for Indian music was not restricted to Greece alone. During the period of Greek mass migration to Australia, Melbourne Greek community stalwart Peter Yiannoudes imported films from Greece for the emerging Greek including Indian films, mainly Bollywood features which played to packed houses of mainly Greek migrants, further popularizing Indian based Greek music.
Ultimately, as the bourgeoisification of Greek society became more marked and the economic and social standing of Greek people improved so that they adopted 'European' aspirations, Indian inspired music was considered quaint and retrograde, an embarrassing interregnum in the development of 'proper' Greek music and quietly fell out of fashion. Given the enduring popularity of many of the Greek artists who dabbled in Greek-Indian fusion however, it appears that this cross-cultural, hybrid genre will be played and enjoyed by the Greek people for decades to come, as will its modern day antecedents, if the unprecedented popularity of deep dark and mysterious Greek chanteuse Despina Vandi's «Ανάβεις Φωτιές,» among the inhabitants of Udaipur, is anything to go by.
First published in NKEE on 13 September 2014

Saturday, September 06, 2014


There are mysteries, and mysteries within mysteries, especially with regard to our progenitors who, having given us life, assume in our eyes, Olympian, pre-historic dimensions, given that they existed at a time when we did not. The first mystery of pappou Manoli pertained to his name. When his abashed son, gingerly approached him with the prospect of shortening his surname to something more euphonious to the Australian professional ear, rather than the storm of disapprobation his was bracing himself for, he was treated to his father nonchalantly shrugging his shoulders: “That’s fine,” he remarked to his astonished son. “It’s not our real surname anyway. It was your grandfather’s nickname in Smyrna and it stuck.”

The second mystery related to a cryptic note found in pappou Manoli’s wallet by his son after his recent passing away. The note read:“In my shaving gear, there is a lot..” Now when pappou Manoli was in hospital, he continuously asked after his shaving bag, to the consternation of his family who could not understand why the seemingly insignificant bag was so important to him. Examining pappou Manoli’s bag, his son discovered a false bottom. Opening it, he was astounded to find it lined with a mass of five dollar notes. This in itself, solved yet another of pappou Manoli’s mysteries.

For years, pappou Manoli would send his wife to the bank to fetch him five dollar notes, to the bemusement of the tellers at his local branch. These, as it turned out, were carefully secreted in the false compartment of his shaving gear and distributed to the children of his neighbourhood, who would often come to visit him. So beloved by the neighbourhood children was he, that one of these, brokenhearted upon hearing the news of his passing, referred to him as his “third pappou.”

Among his papers, pappou Manoli’s son discovered a page upon which was written the sentence: “I would like, at some stage to note down the story of my life.” Chances are that unless you are a member of the Monash Greek Macedonian Elderly Citizens Club, the name Emmanuel Georgiefendis means little, for pappou Manoli never got to commit his life story to writing. In many ways, this is fitting, for someone who preferred to be judged by his deeds rather than his words. Yet tantalizing crumbs remain. The finding of a chance photograph of pappou Manoli as a young man dressed as an evzone in the Royal Guard, attests to a life of service and commitment. And yet pappou Manoli refused to display the photo and never discussed his time as an evzone, as he did not want to “show off.” It is from minute clues such as these that all those who loved pappou Manoli, are now compelled to construct a mosaic of a thoroughly selfless, self-effacing man who, without ever being exposed to the community limelight, made a remarkable contribution to his local community.

Being a son of refugees from Smyrna and growing up in rural Drama in the thirties ensures that adulthood is reached uncomfortably earlier than usual. For pappou Manoli, the process is accelerated when his father, the mayor of his village, dies and he, at the age of thirteen, assumes the role of provider for his mother and other siblings. That tradition of service and protection is continued while an evzone and later, as an “agrofylakas,”or rural policeman, guarding the land and livelihood of his fellow villagers.

Arriving in Australia and settling initially in Richmond, pappou Manoli’s life ostensibly mirrored that of a myriad of other migrants, focusing as it did, upon settling in a new land and creating a comfortable life for his family. As a linesman at PMG, he, like my grandfather, learned Italian, in order to communicate with his co-workers, in a practical application of multiculturalism the way it should have worked, as a mosaic of cultural exchange, rather than a melting pot of mono-culture.

Very soon, however, pappou Manoli began to establish a reputation for sagacity, discretion and dependability. Streams of newly arrived migrants would come to him, seeking help with family, financial or other issues and many were the marriages and relationships that survived solely as a result of his sage advice. At a time when the Greek community was close knit but also self-righteous and judgmental when it came to people’s personal lives, pappou Manoli was able to look beyond convention and see only a human being in need, protecting the persecuted, succouring the destitute and sheltering those who had no place to go.

Pappou Manoli’s humanitarian mission extended to his beloved Monash Greek Macedonian Elderly Citizens Club, where he contributed time and effort and it is especially there that his name will be lovingly remembered. Yet pappou Manoli’s sense of community extended far beyond ethnic considerations, as his Asian neighbours came to discover one day while in their garden, attempting to prune their trees. Hard at work, they heard a cry: “Stop! That’s not how you prune!” And there was pappou Manoli, with trusty pruning shears at the ready, waiting to show them how it is done. Over the years, these neighbours would glean much horticultural lore from the vast repository of pappou Manoli’s life experience for he had a pleonasm of advice to spare and, most importantly, an inordinate love of trees and order. Pappou Manoli evidently had no qualms in approaching strangers and introducing himself, despite his basic English. Possessed of his secret weapon, a smile that would break out from beneath his heavily mustachioed countenance, his charm offensive would render even the most anti-social of people powerless to his ministrations. All his other neighbours and many other ‘strangers’ thus also benefited from his care, advice and intervention for pappou Manoli’s love for the members of his community was boundless.

Just before pappou Manoli left this earth at the venerable age of 86, wracked by the pain of an operation, he did not neglect to smile and thank the nurses and carers who were looking after him. It is this basic human dignity, so important now than ever before in an increasingly isolated, fragmented, technological world that remains as an example to us all. If measured by the yardstick of modern success, pappou Manoli’s passing should have left us all unmoved, a mere passage of one more elderly Greek member of the community to its terminal point. Pappou Manoli never became rich, never achieved the pinnacle of his career or assumed the public limelight. Yet it is his commitment to the care of others that constitutes the real binding element of our community, moreso than any building, festival or dinner dance and it his example that shall prove to be inexorably enduring.

When pappou Manoli’s son discovered the cache of five dollar notes in his father’s shaving equipment, he contrived of a fitting way to ensure his father’s legacy. Taking the money down to the school of his local parish, where pappou Manoli was a stalwart, he arranged for each child to be given a five dollar note and a photograph of pappou Manoli, ensuring that their ‘third pappou’s’ generosity and example of dignity and humanity will endure, even beyond the grave.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 6 September 2014

Saturday, August 30, 2014


Something strange happens to me whenever I see the Greek flag, especially the variant without the stripes which has been the flag of that country for most of its existence and which now is taken to be the flag of the people, rather than the nation. I become suffused with a warm glow, my cheeks redden and the hairs of my arms stand on end. All at once, my brain becomes flooded with a myriad of thoughts, images and inherited memories. This flag, is the flag of my ancestors. It is a tangible manifestation of a faith in something higher than the paltry needs of daily existence that unites all of us. It is a symbol of the survival of the Greek people through centuries of persecution, degradation and even genocide, at the hands of a conqueror who treated them as second class citizens by virtue of their religion. As such, it is a reminder that no matter how desperate times can be, there is always hope of rebirth and justice. It is a manifesto of democracy and equality, kindness and compassion; ideals that are inextricably interwoven within the warp and the weft of the modern Greek identity. This is not the flag of a nation, but rather of a way of life and of a free people who take the values of fairness and liberty with them wherever they go.

When the flag of the Greek people flies, as it did on the 25th of March in Federation Square this year, I notice how the blue and white cross already exists within the Union Jack of the Australian flag, and marvel at how symbolic this is of the manner in which the aforementioned Greek ideals also exist within and form the foundation of the core values of Australia.

I am reminded of the times when Greeks and Australians fought or struggled together side by side, each under their own flags or eachothers, such as during the Gallipoli campaign, when Greeks nursed Australian soldiers on Lemnos, while 15,000 of their compatriots were ethnically cleansed from Gallipoli in order to make the area secure from attack by the Allies, or during the Second World War, when doughty Greek villagers, with limited or no knowledge of Australia, risked their lives to protect and harbor Australian soldiers, purely out of a sense of decency, compassion and heroism. When I look upon the Australian flag, then, I am filled with pride and wonder, not only at the place of my birth and home but also, in the way a place has been found for my own unique cultural identity within it.

It is for this reason that Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s recent comments about flag flying are disturbing. Quoth he: "I don't know what the legal position is but frankly the only flag that should be flying is the Australian national flag," He went on to say "everyone has got to put this country, its interests, its values and its people first, and you don't migrate to this country unless you want to join our team," clarifying his position thus: “If people want to be flying other flags — a corporate flag for instance — fine, but the Australian national flag should always be part of it.”

One must of course point out that the Prime Minister’s comments were made in the context of allegations that Australians were flying the flag of the heinous Islamic State here, a flag that has become synonymous with genocide, intolerance and some of the worst depravities ever witnessed this century, committed by beings purporting to be human. The support by small sections of the local community for the Islamic State and its bloody doctrine of intolerance and extreme brutality is of course gravely disquieting. For if Australian citizens not only condone the massacre rape and persecution of innocent people who just happen to be of another religion or ethnicity, but in some isolated cases, travel to the scene of the crime in order to take part, then it is logical to draw the inference that such persons do not share the values of tolerance, democracy and freedom of speech that characterize the Australian way of life.

Yet in the hype and hysteria surrounding the small section of the community that supports ISIS in Australia, comments by the Prime Minister that imply that no other flag but the Australian flag should be flown, and that even corporate flags should be accompanied by the Australian national flag are not helpful and appear to directly oppose everything that multiculturalism is about. For it is but a short step from these comments, abjuring Islamic fundamentalism, to creating suspicion and a climate of disapprobation against all expressions of cultural or ethnic affiliation. One would hate to deduce from the Prime Minister’s remarks that a result of the activities or opinions of a tiny minority, ethnic communities such as the Greek one, which has not only integrated itself harmoniously and without incident within the broader fabric of Australian society, making lasting contributions to it, while simultaneously proudly maintaining its sense of diversity, need to feel wary of ever again making manifest expressions of their culture, lest they be accused of being un-Australian.

The multi-cultural ideal was one where all persons could feel free to maintain and express their ethnic, cultural and religious identity as long as they did not impinge upon anyone else’s rights to do so. Rather than being a threat to “Team Australia,” multiculturalism purported to be of immense benefit to the country, enriching it socially and transforming Australia from a Anglo-Celtic colony to a thriving cosmopolitan modern nation. The fact that the Prime Minister of such a multi-cultural country is made so insecure by the deluded few who support the crimes of the Islamic State, so as to feel the need to issue an opinion which in effect calls for a blanket on the free flying of ALL flags, or at least their buttressing by an Australian flag suggests that multi-culturalism, at least in the way it is seen by the dominant group, is more fragile than previously thought and that, in keeping with the excellent theory of multiculturalism developed by George Vassilacopoulos and Tina Nicolacopoulou in their ground-breaking study: “From Foreigner to Citizen: Greek Migrants and Social Change in White Australia 1897-2000," we are once more, by virtue of some of our co-citizens’ inability to espouse humanitarian ideals, to be branded as foreigners and potentially subversive.

Undoubtedly, this was not the Prime Minister’s intention. Yet his unfortunate comments convey sentiments that have the ability to undermine many integrated communities’ confidence in their own place within Australian society, conveying the suspicion that whatever their contributions to Australia, as ethnic minorities they are answerable and responsible for the actions of other such minorities. Unlike the flag of the Islamic State, which represents not a nation or a people but rather a band of murderers, the ethnic flags of the people who live in Australia form a small component of the broader mosaic of the Australian identity and the control of their display should not even be countenanced, let alone expressed in public. Instead, the requisite inquiries should be made into the reason why the deluded few Australians espouse doctrines of violence, religious repression and brutality in the first place Further, it should be far beyond the Prime Minister ever to seek to equate flag waving by the Greek community with a lack of commitment to ‘Team Australia.’ After all, we built ‘Team Australia,’ sometimes under circumstances of bigotry that we are all too happy to forget.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 30 August 2014

Saturday, August 23, 2014


The recent theft of hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of jewellery and other votive items dedicated to the Panayia from the monastery of Panayia Kamariani has shocked members of the Greek community, not only for the apparent brazenness of the crime, but also the unlikely amount of air time it received in the local media.
«Tάματα» or the dedication of votive offerings to icons, persist in the modern Orthodox tradition. Go to any local church. And chances are, you will find attached to the icon of the church's saint, small metal plaques with ears, legs, or eyes portrayed in bas relief, along with watches. Crosses and various other items of jewellery - offerings to thank the Saint for hearing the prayers of the faithful and interceding for the performance of a miracle. The plaques in particular are interesting, for as can be seen on the left of the picture included herein, they appear to be almost identical in form, to those on the right, which happen to predate them by approximately two thousand years.
Indeed the tradition of votive offerings predates Christianity. In ancient times, a votive offering was considered to be a gift to a god. It was believed that anything dedicated by a mortal became property of a god, which was retained within the god's temenos, this being the sacred wall established around the perimeter of a sanctuary and became a votive offering . This type of giving, particularly in ancient Greek society, was not based completely on private devotion, but was an extremely public act, one that in typically Greek fashion, required some form of public recognition.
In ancient Greece, τάματα were not necessarily small objects, though a plethora of these have been found. Archaeological and literary evidence suggest that even whole ships captured in battle from an enemy fleet were later dedicated by the victors as an offering of thanks to the gods. Treasuries such as the Siphnian treasury at Delphi abounded in such objects.
Since the Archaic period votive offerings were usually inscribed with the dedicator's name - a practice that persists among some Greek offerers of votive objects to the present day. The rationale behind the ancient Greek voting offering was that of a commercial transaction: One prayed to the god for assistance. The consideration for granting such assistance was the votive offering, whereupon, at the granting of the wish, the votive offering became due and payable.
From ancient Greece to Constantine the Great and the beginnings of formal Christianity, it is not difficult to see how the cultural tradition of the votive offering endured and persisted. According to the Sacred Tradition of the Orthodox Church, after Constantine's conversion and subsequent victory at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, he donated one of the crosses he carried into battle to the Church. This cross, is reputed to be preserved on Mount Athos.
Another of the most famous Orthodox votive offerings is that by the great theologian Saint John of Damascus. According to tradition, while he was serving as doctor and prime minister to the Arab Caliph, he was falsely accused of treachery and his hand was cut off. He prayed before an icon of the Panayia and his hand was miraculously restored. In thanksgiving, he had a silver replica of his hand fashioned and attached it to the icon. This icon, which is called the "Three-handed" is preserved at the Hilandarion Monastery on Mount Athos.
As is attested to by the robbery at Panayia Kamariani, Orthodox Christians continue to make votive offerings to this day, hoping to invoke the assistance and mercy of the Saints or Panayia, in order to assuage a multitude of fears and provide solace in a world that is still, despite our level of technological development, full of terror. Doctor Robert Teske, who studied the phenomenon of "tamata," among the Greek-Americans of Philadelphia in 1985, considered that the primary message that the votive contains and transmits would appear to be man's dependence upon and subservience to the will of God, and God's concern for man and occasional susceptibility to his influence. This notion is neatly packaged in the relation of the material or behavioural offering of the individual community member, to the symbolic locus of the offering's presentation, the Orthodox church. The Orthodox church building has long been recognized as a symbolic representation of the Divine Kingdom, and the pattern of its decoration "has the character of a clear and precise theological system." Within the context of such a large-scale, hierarchically arranged, symbolic representation of the Orthodox cosmology, votive offerings - especially those described above as being primarily representations of the individual - acquire a clear and precise significance. They constitute a means by which man is capable of inserting himself symbolically into an equally symbolic representation of the cosmos, a means by which man can express his place in the spiritual world and his relationship to other spiritual beings.
Notwithstanding the fervour of the prayers of the devout, the apparent commercial nature of the transaction has caused some concern to Orthodox hierarchs, who decry the faithful's attempts to purchase favours or merit.
Thus, Metropolitan Germanos of Ilias in Greece states:
"Several people are of the opinion that God and the Saints will grant their petition simply because they make a "tama". This is an error, because the Saints are not in need of our material goods, nor do they require a vow to be made before our prayers are heard by them. The Lord said "...when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words. Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him" (Matthew 6:7-8). It is enough that we have a strong faith and a pure heart and live a Christian life, and that our requests should me made for our spiritual well being." Furthermore, the way that certain vows are made comes across as making a bargain with God. For example, "Saint Paraskevi, please heal me and I will bring you a gold candle", or "God please help me with my exams and I will bring you...". This denigrates God and lessens the personality of man at the same time, while also making manifest our lack of faith."
No less a personage than Elder Paisios of Mount Athos, who is close to being declared a saint of the Orthodox Church, had this to say about the practice of 'tamata:'
"I also see a new craftiness in the devil. He causes people to think that if they make a 'tama' to God and fulfill it, if they go on some pilgrimage, then they are alright spiritually. You see hordes of people going to monasteries and shrines with tall candles and extravagant offerings, ostentatiously making the Sign of the Cross, even weeping a little, and feeling content. They do not repent, do not confess, do not correct or change their way of life ... and this is quite pleasing to the devil. This is why careful attention is required if one is making vows. They should be of a spiritual nature to help with the purity of the soul and the holiness of one's life, because "God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth."
In Doctor. Teske's field study of the Greek-American community of Philadelphia, he observed that:
"The clergymen of the community, who personally demonstrate varying degrees of appreciation for the practice, uniformly allowed that the Orthodox Church, while tolerating the persistence of the tama, does not encourage it, due primarily to the possibility of it being taken for a form of bribery. Such accusations and luke-warm tolerance have had an effect both upon the practice itself and upon the attitudes of those who favor it."
The loss of votive offerings from a church owing to an act of vandalism and desecration offends all of our sensitivities. To consider that there exists a practice whereby hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of these can be amassed to no apparent spiritual (according to the church) or material benefit, is just as disquieting. Perhaps, it is time that the practice of traditions of this nature, while tolerated and respected, be tempered so that the faithful can be more fervently directed towards charity, community assistance and mutual support, all which defy theft, and which are, after all, the non-contractual focus of the Orthodox faith in the first place.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 23 August 2014

Saturday, August 16, 2014


"If her Fruit, Whom none may comprehend, on Whose account she was called a heaven, submitted of His own will to burial as a mortal, how should she, who gave Him birth without knowing a man refuse it?"

St John of Damascus.

Every time we enter the feast preparatory to the celebration of the Dormition of the Theotokos on 15 August, I cannot but help noticing at how reminiscent the traditional iconography of this event is of traditional representations of the Nativity and the preceding quote, by perhaps one of the greatest theologians of all time offers ample explanation of why this is the case. In the Dormition icon, the Most Holy Theotokos is seen lying on her bed, much as in the Nativity icon surrounded by angels, saints, friends, neighbors, and apostles arriving on a cloud, rather than shepherds and magi. This represents one of the more miraculous events surrounding the central miracle itself: The Theotokos prepared for her death, having been advised of this by the Archangel Gabriel who appeared before her, handed her a palm leaf, a symbol of victory, symbolizing, according to St Germanos her overcoming of corruption, while stating: "Thy Son and our God, with the Angels, Archangels, Cherubim and Seraphim and all the heavenly Spirits and the souls of the righteous shall receive thee, His Mother, into the heavenly Kingdom that thou mayest live and reign with Him forever."
Looking closer at the Holy Bier, we see Saint John the Evangelist, who bends his head near to the Theotokos, calling to mind the parallel biblical passage of John 13: 23-25 where the beloved disciple places his head on Jesus at the Last Supper. The bier itself, lined with a brilliant vermillion mat upon which the Theotokos lies is also reminiscent of the Nativity icon. In both icons, we see a parallel motif of life coming into a world of death. Candles burning brightly in front of the bier represent light in a world of darkness, proclaiming the theme of "life" and "light." Christ will give the Theotokos, who sleeps in death, new life which is metaphorically described as "light." Thus, "In Him was life, and the life was the light of men." (John 1:4)
The Theotokos prayed while reclining upon her bier and all of a sudden a thunderclap was heard. Almost immediately, all the apostles that were scattered to the ends of the world, except Thomas, were gathered together on clouds and brought to Jerusalem. This, along with all other events associated with the Dormition are expounded in the hymns sung at this time. The Matin Hymn, written by St Cosmas of Damascus relates: "Carried to Sion as it were upon a swift cloud, the company of the Apostles assembled from the ends of the earth to minister to thee oh Virgin." As his brother, St John of Damascus mentions in his hymn, also sung at this time, this gathering together of her Son's apostles was an event of profound theological significance: "It was right that the eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word should see the Dormition of His Mother according to the flesh, even the final mystery concerning her: hence, they might be witness not only to the Ascension of the Saviour but also to the translation of her who gave Him birth. Assembled from all parts by divine power, they came to Sion, and sped on her way to heaven the Virgin, who is higher than the cherubim."Around the entire icon there is a glow of gold and reds, representing the burst of the new kingdom and the surge of life. It is a scene representing both earthly and heavenly members of creation, coming to see the fulfillment of Christ's word.
The resemblance of this Dormition icon to the Nativity icon is furthered by its background composition. Here, the Nativity background of lofty mountains, representing contact between God and humanity is replaced by a mountainous mandorla, a small one outlining a glow of divinity around Christ connected to the flow of the Spirit indicated by a bright ray and a large mandorla filled with the singing heavenly hosts angels. The larger mandorla encompasses the realm of heaven and the small mandorla the aura of Christ, bearing the soul of his Mother in a depiction reminiscent of the Theotokos' presentation at the temple as a baby and of Christ in swaddling clothes, in the Nativity icon. This records the moment when the Theotokos turned and said to the Apostles: "Cast incense and pray, because Christ is at hand, sitting on the throne of the cherubim." Holy Tradition records that the roof of the room opened and Christ descended from Heaven at the head of a host of angels and called her to him. After worshipping him, proclaiming: "Blessed is Thy name, O Lord of Glory and my God, Who was pleased to choose Thy humble handmaiden for the service of thy mystery," the Theotokos gave up her soul.
At the peak of the larger mandorla the six-winged angel known as the Cherubium predominates, much as angels predominate the Nativity icon. In iconography, angels are predominantly portrayed through the significant profusion of wings. These heavenly hosts represent the guardians of the Holy of Holies, so as to keep the Tree of Life protected until the end of time. This causes us to recall that of the trees in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve ate only of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The gift of true and everlasting life was retained by God, to be fully received only in the end of time, in accordance with the Book of Revelation. Here, in the icon, the Cherubium flutters at the top of the larger mandorla - symbolizing that Christ has brought new life and His Mother is the first to realize the new eschaton, the beginning of humanity's journey in the final days of the Kingdom to the Tree of Life. This is then is the supreme significance of Theotokos' koimisis. As the Vespers stichera marvel, giving voice to the grief of the Apostles who turn to each other in their grief: "O marvelous wonder! The source of life is laid in the tomb, and the tomb itself becomes a ladder to heaven. Thy glory is full of majesty, shining with grace in divine brightness." Thus, at the very center of the top of the icon, we find a time lapse glimpse at the Theotokos being carried into the open gates of Heaven itself by the heavenly hosts, an experience that has become accessible to us by the dignified koimisis of Theotokos and which believers are called upon to emulate.
Underlying her role as intercessor and protector of all humanity, the Υπέρμαχος Στρατηγός of Byzantium and, according to popular belief, the guardian of the Greek nation during such times of tribulation as the German occupation, even as she ascends to heaven, the Theotokos' arms are wide and she bends toward the earth still caring for all those who are now the Mystical Body of Christ in the world. Thus believers comprehend her as the Platytera, one whose body held the God of the universe, wider than the heavens. She prays in early Christian style in the orans position, with arms extended. She is the one who will constantly draw all to her Son and eventually to the realm she now enters.
The Feast of the Dormition does not commemorate the Assumption, as in the Roman Catholic tradition, but rather, the koimisis of the Theotokos and the translation of her sacred body to heaven three days later, upon the arrival of the Apostle Thomas, from India. It was St Juvenal, Patriarch of Jerusalem, in the fifth century, who related to St Pulcheria, the earliest traditions concerning the translation of the Theotokos' relics. At the end of the sixth century, Emperor Maurice established the Feast for 15 August and it has been so celebrated by the Eastern Christians ever since.
Unlike the Resurrection of Christ, the mysterious character of her death, burial and ascension were not the subject of apostolic teachings extant but were preserved in the oral tradition of the Church, giving rise to the Orthodox belief that inaccessible to the view of those outside the Church, the glory of the Theotokos' Dormition can be contemplated only in the inner light of Tradition. The glorification of the Theotokos, Mother of all is a result of the voluntary condescension of the Son who was made incarnate by her and thus, became in his human nature, capable of dying. For believers therefore, the Mother of God is now established beyond the general Resurrection and the Last Judgment, having passed from death to life, from time to eternity, from terrestrial condition to celestial beatitude.
Δεκαπενταύγουστο (15 August) then, is a second mysterious and wondrous Pascha, since the Church celebrates before the end of time, the secret first-fruits of its eschatological consummation. Χρόνια Πολλά to all eortazontes.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 16 August 2014