Monday, February 22, 2010


"Boy, the way you blowin' up my phone /won't make me leave no faster. /Put my coat on faster, leave my girls no faster. /I shoulda left my phone at home, /cuz this is a disaster!" Beyonce/ Lady Gaga

Lady Gaga's recent masterpiece, "Telephone" in which, seeking refuge from the mundaneity of modern existence in the hermitage of the rarified atmosphere of the nightclub, (hence: "Cuz I'm out in the club, /and I'm sippin that bubb, /and you're not gonna reach my telephone,") she abjures repressive urban modes of behaviour that would render her a salve to the whim of an electronic calling device, ("Not that I don't like you, /I'm just at a party. /And I am sick and tired /of my phone ringing"). This remarkable piece best encapsulates the despondency and bankruptcy of urbanites everywhere who labour under the jackboot of technology. Her refusal to countenance her boyfriend's "blowing up" of her phone is the first act of resistance against the tyranny of the techno-terrorists. Her impassioned plea: "Stop callin',/ stop callin', /I don't wanna think anymore!" truly is the liberation cry of the intellectually over-stimulated whose manifesto is the search for a simpler life, where one can, in leaving their head and heart on the dance floor, divest themselves of the fetters of dysfunctional long-distance relationships with unattractive men and seek nirvana in a mindless state of non-being, and what's more, it almost rhymes. According to Lady Gaga, one knows when they have attained such enlightenment when they emit such epiphones of fulfilment as: "Eh, eh, eh, eh, eh, eh, eh, eh, eh/ Stop telephonin' me!"
In many respects, Lady Gaga's hapless boyfriend only has himself to blame. As the august goddess relates, "You shoulda made some plans with me, /You knew that I was free. /And now you won't stop calling me; /I'm kinda busy." This is divine punishment for arbitrary exercise of power. In actual fact, technological liberation also signifies a corollary gender liberation, as symbolized not only by the rejection of the phone/phallus, symbolic of a repressive, patriarchal society, but also by its discrediting. In Lady Gaga's world, the telephone/phallus, is "breaking up" while its corresponding place of reception, is "not in service". Of course, this is a far cry from the unemancipated previous, where hapless damsels lay wait by their device and lamented with ABBA: "Ring, ring,/ I stare at the phone on the wall/ And I sit all alone impatiently /Won't you please understand the need in me/ So, ring, ring, why don't you give me a call."
Telephone," is a most evocative chanson, simply because we have all been there before. The mobile telephone is now an indispensable part of our lives. Many are the enduring friendships I have formed in Greece as a result of the novelty, or lack thereof of my mobile phone. If anything, they fill the pregnant pauses and latent lacunae that crop up occasionally in conversation and threaten to sunder the already strained efforts in civility of persons who have absolutely nothing in common with each other. In such instances, one invariably whips out the mobile phone and scrolls through it, praying desperately that a friend will sms, or call or do something to relieve the tedium of actually having to relate to the person next to you. In the context of a date, it is a surefire signifier of failure, though the incidence of dating couples smsing each other while sitting opposite each other on a table requires much comment. An alternative school of thought holds that the receipt of sms's during a date serves to remind the prospective mate not to take their quarry for granted, as they are also being stalked by other predators. This is the central premise behind Kesha's noteworthy musical masterpiece 'Tick Tock:' "I'm talking - pedicure on our toes, toes/ Trying on all our clothes, clothes/ Boys blowing up our phones, phones." Here repetition serves as a memory aid. The devil finds work for idle hands and in all these instance, the mobile telephone acts very much like a komboloi.
Greek mobile telephony is fascinating in its own right, especially given that it defies linguistic trends. In modern, bankrupt, European Union Greece, the tendency is not to assimilate western loanwords but to reproduce them wholesale, in the Latin alphabet. In the case of the SMS however, we have the surprising addition of the diminutive suffix, denoting a certain affection for the said electronic message, thus: «Στείλε μου ένα Σεμεσάκι,» or, in a tantalising hybrid: «SMSάκι.» While Txtgreek is mystifying, we can be thankful we are not Arabs or Chinese, whose dextrous use of the Latin alphabet to find phonetic equivalents is an art in its own right.
You are judged severely upon your choice of phone in Greece. I remember the look of scorn upon a friend's face when, looking at my phone she inquired: «Είναι τάτς;» It took me several minutes to comprehend that I was being asked whether mine was a touch phone, and my response, that I did not really know, caused her to sigh in disapprobation, upon which time she picked up her own state of the art i-phone and proceeded to text laboriously for the next half hour. Now I don't mind the act of texting, but when the sms tone hits the ear and you see the recipient smirking, one invariably wants to be let in on the joke. Of course, to request this is impolite and a whole labyrinthine world of etiquette has developed to address the privacy implications of mobile phones. It is usually circumvented by over-enthusiastic friends who will snatch the phone out of your hands, in order to be included, with dubious results.
One balmy summer evening, when the moon was so low that it appeared to be dissolving like an aspirin in the lake at Ioannina, conferring panacea upon all, a friend sought assistance in writing a rebetiko song about sms's and the lack of their return. His particular lament is one that touches the hearts of millions: In the beginning of his relationship, he and his sms-mate exchanged thousands of sms's, reducing him to economic penury. As the relationship progressed, however, her sms's became fewer and fewer, as his, in his panic increased, in the hope that the sending of an sms would provoke a response. In the end, he was given to smsing his friends, on the slightest of pretexts, because he missed receiving sms's and further he hoped that in the mass of their bemused replies, one of hers would be caught within the net. It was not, and all he received for his pains was a curt telephone call, asking him never to bother her again, in Greek words similar to those expressed by lady Gaga. His particular despondency came from the fact that as he had lost his telephone and replaced the sim-card, he had not an enduring record of their brief electronic idyll. Whatever happened to the love letter, he asked despairingly. This was the inspiration I needed. The first verse of the song, which requires work, goes as follows: «Σου έστειλα ένα ραβασάκι/ και συ κακούργα, ούτε ένα σεμεσάκι.» Apparently the rap version plays merry havoc with the rhythm.
There is a hierarchy of smsworthy recipients. Singles and unwed couples indulge in the pastime frequently whereas those who live together generally abstain. Schools of thought maintain that it is impolite to sms older generations, even technology literate ones, simply because mobile telephone celebrates the cult of now and of youth and older generations are partakers of this merely out of charity. Yet members of this generation can be particularly techno-savvy. Last week I received an sms from the mobile of no-less an august personage than the Serbian Metropolitan of Australia, Irinej. It read: 'Kali Sarakosti, a blessed Lent!" Brilliant marketing! Not only is one reminded that fasting starts forty days before Easter, but would it not be disrespectful not to make good his wishes?
During this Lent, I am going to attempt the impossible and refrain from sending sms, in order to contemplate the higher things in life. After all, Arcade Fire are probably on to something when they sing: "Since you've gone away/I never know just what to say/ Cause I like cars more than telephones/ Your voice in my ear makes me feel so alone."

First published in NKEE on 22 February 2010

Monday, February 15, 2010


"If you want a symbolic gesture, don't burn the flag, wash it." Norman Thomas

No less august authority than Sam Kekovitch has argued convincingly that the Union Jack on the Australian flag should be replaced by that symbol that unites all Australians in heart; fluttering admiration: the lamb chop. When fully considered, the sensibility of the proposition is axiomatic - not all Australians appreciate Aussie Rules Football, Rugby, or even, (perish the thought) cricket. Some do not even fish or understand "So you think you can dance." Asylum seekers and boat people in particular would see in "The Biggest Loser" a paradigm of Australia as a land of plenty, ("after all, does not our land abound in nature's gifts?) while the meaning of the Southern Cross, would be generally lost on everyone, except for the Greeks. This is because the flag of Byzantine Emperor Romanos III Argyros was eerily akin to that of the symbol of the Eureka protest, it being dissected by a cross and having four stars, though in the Byzantine version, the stars are blue and the background gold. The lamb chop on the other hand is generally of a brown hue, depending on the level of its carbonization and unfortunately this particular prismatic fraction does not lend itself to appealing placement upon one's national flag. Perhaps the fork that holds it into place would be more symbolic, though Edward Hubbel Chapin holds ostentation to be the signal flag of hypocrisy.
The argument that the Australian flag should be changed because the Union Jack does not represent Australians, is a poor one and given the intense flag waving during Australia Day recently, not a particularly popular one. The Union Jack represents the union of the Scottish and English peoples, through the accession of the Scottish king James I to the throne of England and those of Northern Ireland. Wales does not get a mention, which may vex Tom Jones but need not bother us here. These nations account for the origins and cultural identification of the majority of Australian citizens. As for the rest of us, we need to acknowledge that they were here first. After all, it is poor form, having invited by your host to enjoy the accommodation of his home, to, once settled it, demand that the colour scheme be changed. Applying this rationale of course, the national flag of the moon is that of the United States, since they got there first. This can be proven by the fact that there are six US flags on the moon and no one else has disputed their vexillogical claim by supplanting them with any others, probably because they may obscure the bat signal.
Furthermore, the changing of the flag would require such a tremendous capital outlay, that it may just well prove to be the very thing that would tip an Australian economy perched precariously upon the precipice of economic perdition, teetering over the edge. No, these are times of austerity, where we must all tighten our belts and practise restraint. An ideal recession-busting activity could actually be the tearing away of the useless blue section of the Australian flag - the Southern Cross, which also appears on the flags of New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Samoa and Brazil with the salvaged material being applied to resuscitating the moribund domestic lingerie industry. "The less a statesman amounts to, the more he loves the flag," Kin Hubbard once opined. This may be just what Tony Abbott needs to gather the requisite impetus that will propel him high over the heaving mass of Joe Hockey, straight to the office of the Prime Minister.
Then again, maybe if we wait around long enough, the Australian flag in its present form, may become relevant to all. That was certainly the case with the flag of Constantinople. Originally a white crescent moon on a red background, representing the goddess Artemis, a white star was added to it in 330AD, to symbolise the Virgin Mary. It is a flag that endured throughout the Byzantine Empire and was subsequently adopted by the successors, the Ottomans, and flies still, as the national flag of Turkey.
Recently I suggested to a particularly ageing left comrade, who was demanding the replacement of the Australian flag on the grounds that it did not represent him as a non-English speaking Australian of Kalamatan ethnicity, that Greece also consider changing its flag. After all, the over one million people of non-Greek extraction who reside in the country cannot all claim to feel that the Greek flag represents them. Certainly Tzimis Panoussis, the veritable Aristophanes of our times does not have filial feelings towards it, which is why he has replaced its cross with the hammer and sickle. Similarly the hordes of rampaging anarchists and students who burn it during protests every year may just be engaged in a vociferous debate as to aesthetics. Since the European Union seems hell-bent upon removing crucifixes and icons from classrooms, does not the removal of crosses from flags seem like the next logical consequence? In that eventuality, the national flags of such European nations as Slovakia, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Malta would have to be changed and of course, Britain would lose its Union Jack, making Australia and other former Pacific colonies, the final repositories and guardians of a distinguished vexillogical tradition. Would it therefore not be prudent to anticipate such an event rather than react to it once it occurs? For the only people in Greece who perennially seem to fuss over the Greek flag are Albanian over-achieving students, who wish to appropriate one for themselves in time for the traditional Independence Day March, a tendency without historical precedent, since the Albanian captains who fought under a variant of the Greek flag for Greece's liberty were not a few. In fact, I suggested, the best way of accommodating the Albanian minority in Greece would be to add the double-headed eagle, already a prominent feature of their flag, to the Greek cross. However, the end result would be the flag of Autonomous Northern Epirus and that would most likely provoke a diplomatic incident. Conversely, we could do a Cyprus or a Kosovo and make our map our flag, which for Kekovitchian purposes is most instructive, given that the map of Kosovo on that breakaway entity's flag, does in fact look like a lamb chop, albeit with the bone removed. Unsurprisingly, my next suggestion, that the Greeks of Australia adopt as their own flag, one with a blue background and the Souvlaki Hut logo, was also met with the derision that it deserves.
If flags truly do encapsulate the history and aspirations of a people, they cannot be changed lightly. As Greeks, we revere our awe-inspiring flag because the terrible privations endured in order to fly it freely have been drummed into our heads since our infancy. It has the capacity to move us to tears. Though Australians have also fought and died under their flag, it is still a relatively new flag and it is premature for it to be expected to be an icon of the country. For this reason, we would dismiss its historical elements at our peril. The flag of Hawaii still preserves the Union Jack, despite the fact that it belongs to the United States, whose very existence was forged in spite of, or rather as an ancillary to British Imperialism. This is no sop to the British but rather mature historical recognition. At any rate, should the groundswell of consensus demand that the Australian flag be changed, there can only be one other alternative: the Aboriginal flag, for to relegate it as only one of many 'national' flags is to deny the primacy of custodianship of this land to its original inhabitants. That in itself verges upon racism and must be abjured.
Until next week then, keep the flag flying, (whichever one strikes your fancy: I have one of Autonomous Northern Epirus in my living room at the moment and it is causing domestic strain) if possible, to the rhythm of these words, by the immortal Jimi Hendrix: "White collar conservative flashin' down the street, pointing that plastic finger at me, they all assume my kind will die, but I'm gonna wave my freak flag high."


First published in NKEE on 15 February 2010

Monday, February 08, 2010


If Hesiod is to be believed, the farming life is one of ill-rewarded, dreary drudgery. In his "Works and Days," a poem written in 700BC, he describes life in the small, agricultural community of Ascra, a "sorry place...bad in winter, hard in summer, never good." The context for him establishing a precedent that holds farmers to be perennial whingers, was the premise that a gulf exists between man's unending dreams and desires and the existing resources on earth required to make them a reality. The first half of Works and Days is thus devoted to the fundamental economic problem of the scarcity of resources for the pursuit of all human needs and desires. Hesiod characterizes society as one where "men never rest from labor and sorrow by day and from perishing by night." He notes that because of scarcity; time, labour, and production goods must be efficiently allocated, while pointing to basic need, social condemnation of indolence, and rising consumption standards as moving man towards economic development and growth. Fascinatingly, Hesiod mentions a spirit of competition of "good conflict" that tends to reduce the problems of scarcity.
Funnily enough, as a manual on farming, "Works and Days" fails miserably. His selection of tasks is spotty, omitting most of the important tasks on a farm, while emphasizing tasks and seasons of relatively little importance. The advice he does give is often elementary and his organisation is erratic. Yet Hesiod's anomalies each serve a distinct end, contributing in their way, to a dramatic re-enactment of the farmer's year. Examined in this way, the aberrations of Hesiod's account of farming lend Hesiod more, rather than less, credit as a poet.
One of the more dramatic highlights of the Modern Greek farmer's year is the annual blockade of important transport arteries, notably, the «κόμβος» of «Βιοκαρπέτ,» a major crossroads. Given that «κόμβος,» literally means "knot," it could well be said that the strangulation of Greece's transport network by farmers, represents a veritable modern day Gordian knot, the only difference being that the Greek expression «Γόρδιος δεσμός» also carries with it, connotations of bondage.
The reason for thousands of Greek farmers placing the entire country in the thralldom of paralysis with their winter wrath? A demand for compensation for low commodity prices and slashed subsidies. Using tractors and trailers, the farmers have blockade around seventy main roads, cutting Athens off from Thessaloniki and closing border crossings with neighbouring states. Even more alarmingly, they leave tonnes of fruit and meat rotting in trucks.
"Tractors are our weapon and we are determined to use them until our demands are met," Christos Sideropoulos, a farmer and one of the leaders of the protests, stated this week. "Let them say what they like. We are not going to give in." All this comes as Greece faces grave financial challenges, exposing the frustrations of Greece's underdeveloped agricultural regions. Despite EU subsidies, successive governments have failed to modernise a farming industry that remains dependent on state handouts. Dimitris Keridis, a political scientist explained: "It's an industry that depends on government handouts and is incompatible with the demands of modern societies. They produce produce that nobody buys."
Such subsidies are few and far between for other industries. Yet for some reason, farmers have been pampered and pandered to over the last three decades to such an extent that they cannot survive without forcing governments - and the rest of the population - to keep acceding to their demands for assistance. The farmers did not complain when successive governments went to bat for them in Brussels and came back loudly proclaiming victory in achieving high subsidies for their products, or when those same governments neglected to tell them that they should use the subsidies wisely, not as a bonus to be spent in a frenzy but as assistance to become more productive, to adopt new techniques and to make the leap to crops and products that would sell well on the international markets. Even if they did see the clouds on the horizon, farmers, farm unionists and government officials all pretended that farm subsidies were such an important part of the country's political culture that no one would accede to any demands - whether from the EU or the World Trade Association - for their abolition.
The over-indulgence of farmers is not a new phenomenon or indeed one particularly restricted to the Hellenic world. Significant constructs that comprise Australian identity myths continue to emphasise the country's agrarian roots and values. The bush, the harsh climate and their consequences - a tough, adaptable, pioneering, battling people, thoroughly individualistic but also united in adversity - as well as their icons: the swagman, drover, shearer etc attest to the intrinsic importance of the farming life to Australians, regardless of the fact that the majority are totally urbanised. The national poets and authors, such as Henry Lawson and Banjo Patterson all extol rural life. It is for this reason that natural disasters that blight rural regions capture the sympathy of and galvanise the nation. We revere farmers because subconsciously, their bucolic way of life is considered laudable and 'natural,' even when it is considered that the majority of the first transportees to this country were urban petty criminals. Quite simply, the farmers, in the common conscience, have not compromised or surrendered to modernity. Their symbolic presence as the last repository of mankind's innocence, inspires feelings of awe and reverence, along with enormous affection.
Rusticity in Greece is however, more bi-polar. While demotic songs and dances hearken back to a time where most Greeks lived in villages, massive urbanisation only occurred a generation ago. The common memory, (save in the diaspora where the rural lifestyle is idealised by the process of nostalgia for the homeland and lovingly re-created in Greek backyards all around Australia), thus evokes a not so distant time of illiteracy, deprivation, physical hardship and claustrophobic social restriction. As such, it is difficult for Modern Greeks to see them in the same light as Australians. For they safeguard a time and way of life that most Greeks have put behind them or consider quaint. Nonetheless, in a resource poor country where agriculture has only been supplanted as the mainstay of the economy thirty or so years ago, farmers are still a political force to be reckoned with, as the tsiflikades, or large land owners were in the renascent Greek state, and as it turns out, a liability.
It should be obvious to farmers that the Greek government has no more money to give them and that even if it did, at a time when markets and EU officials doubt that it has the political will to curb Greece's deficit and public debt, conceding to any financial demands would prove the cynics right. It is not without irony that the PASOK government, which instituted the mass-subsidy policy for farmers, causing them to become inefficient and non-competitive in an effort to buy votes, now has to deal with their further demands. Perhaps in this doom and gloom time, Hesiod, the archetypal farmer, provides away out for all parties: "Observe due measure, for right timing is in all things the most important factor." For he is right. We all want a piece of the pie but in Greece at the moment, the pie is particularly small. If the livelihood of Greek farmers is to be protected, they need to be guided towards, not shielded from the modern economy. Successive governments have not done this. Farmers in turn are not creating sympathy for their cause by holding the rest of society to ransom. Top of the economic pop charts for this week then: «Μια βοσκοπούλα αγάπησα,» followed by «Μπήκαν ορέ πήκαν, τα γίδια στο μαντρί.» Got to get those farmers moving somehow.


First published in NKEE on 8 February 2010

Monday, February 01, 2010


In his magisterial work: The Balkans: nationalism, war and the great powers 1804-1999, Misha Glenny writes that Greek Jews had never "encountered anything remotely as sinister as north European anti-Semitism. The twentieth century had witnessed the rise of anti-Jewish sentiment among Greeks... but it attracted an insignificant minority". The European Union Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia 2002-2003 report on anti-Semitism in Greece noted that there were no instances of physical or verbal assaults on Jews, along with examples of "good practices" for countering prejudice. The report concluded that " 2003 the Chairman of the Central Jewish Board in Greece stated that he did not consider the any rise in antisemitism to be alarming." On November 21, 2003, Nikos Bistis, the Greek Deputy Minister of the Interior, declared January 27 to be Holocaust Remembrance Day in Greece, and committed to a "coalition of Greek Jews, Greek non-Jews, and Jews worldwide to fight antisemitism in Greece".
Indeed, Jews have had a presence in Greece for aeons and have profoundly influenced and have been influenced in return by Greek culture. Christianity it could be argued, marks a dialectic between Greek and Jewish thought. At a time when Jews were expelled from England (1290) and then Inquisitorial Spain, Greece was a haven of tolerance. This is why the recent arson attack on the Etz Hayyim Synagogue in Hania, Crete, the only remaining synagogue on that island is such a horrifying and uncharacteristic act. Over 2,000 rare books and much of the recently restored building was destroyed. It is gratifying at least that the two Britons and two Americans responsible for this heinous hate crime have been arrested. Unsuprisingly, popular sentiment in Greece is outraged, for despite the odd crackpot historian or populist’s ravings, the Jewish community in Greece is held in high esteem, as is meet for what constitutes undoubtedly, the country’s oldest minority community.
The first recorded mention of Judaism in Greece dates from 300-250BC on the island of Rhodes. In the 2nd century BC, Hyrcanus, a leader in the Jewish community of Athens, was honoured by the raising of a statue in the aogra. According to the Jewish historian Josephus an even earlier mention of a Hellenized Jew by a Greek writer was to be found in the work "De Somno" by the Greek historian Clearchus of Soli, where Clearchus describes the meeting between Aristotle in the 4th century BC and a Jew in Asia Minor, who was fluent in Greek language and thought:
"'Well', said Aristotle, 'the man was a Jew of Coele Syria. Now this man, who entertained a large circle of friends and was on his way from the interior to the coast, not only spoke Greek but had the soul of a Greek. During my stay in Asia, he visited the same places as I did, and came to converse with me and some other scholars, to test our learning. But as one who had been intimate with many cultivated persons, it was rather he who imparted to us something of his own.'"
Archaeologists have also discovered ancient synagogues in Greece, including the Synagogue in the Agora of Athens and the Delos Synagogue, dating to the second century BC.
The ties between Greeks and Jews were further augmented in the aftermath of Alexander's death, as the Seleucid and Ptolemaic kings fought for control of Israel. The Jews of Alexandria created a unique fusion of Greek and Jewish culture,while the Jews of Jerusalem were divided between conservative and pro-Hellene factions. When the High Priest Simon II died in 175 BC, conflict broke out between supporters of his son Onias III (who opposed Hellenization, and favored the Ptolemies) and his son Jason (who favored Hellenization, and favored the Seleucids). A period of political intrigue followed, with priests such as Menelaus bribing the king to win the High Priesthood, and accusations of murder of competing contenders for the title. The result was a brief civil war. The Tobiads, a philo-Hellenistic party, succeeded in placing Jason into the powerful position of High Priest. He established an arena for public games close by the Temple. The high priest Jason went further and converted Jerusalem into a Greek polis replete with gymnasium and ephebeion. Some Jews are known to have engaged in non-surgical foreskin restoration in order to join the dominant cultural practice of socializing naked in the gymnasium, where their circumcision would have been a social stigma. Antiochus IV’s desecration of the Temple and outlawing of Jewish religious observances culminated in the revolt of the Maccabees and the resurgance of the first Jewish state since the time of the Babylonians. In many ways, it was the disassociation with Hellenism that defined the Jewish identity.When Greece fell to the Roman Empire in 146 BC, the Jews living in Roman Greece had a different experience than those of Iudaea Province. The New Testament describes Greek Jews as a separate community from the Jews of Judaea, and the Jews of Greece did not participate in the First Jewish-Roman War or later conflicts. The Jews of Thessaloniki, speaking a dialect of Greek, and living a Hellenized existence, enjoyed relative authority. It is widely held by the Jews of Ioannina, that the Roman emperor Titus, after capturing Jerusalem in September 70, was transporting many Jews to Rome as slaves when his ship was driven by a storm onto the coast of Epirus. Instead of throwing his captives into the sea, he allowed them to disembark, and they eventually made their way to the area in which loannina later was established.
Perhaps the most important Jew to influence Greece at this time, was Saul, the Hellenized Jew from Tarsus, who, as Paul, was instrumental in the founding of many Christian churches throughout Rome, including Asia Minor and Greece. Paul's second missionary journey included proselytizing at Thessaloniki's synagogue until driven out of the city by its Jewish community, and he also preached about the ‘unknown God’ in Athens. In the fervour of his new found, faith, Paul could see no distinction between Greeks and Jews, as he wrote in his epistle to the Galatians: “There can be neither Jew nor Greek, there can be neither bond nor free…for ye all are one man in Christ Jesus.”
During the Byzantine Empire, some Byzantine emperors were anxious to exploit the wealth of the Jews of Greece, and imposed special taxes on them, while others attempted forced conversions to Christianity. The latter pressure met with little success, as it was resisted by both the Jewish community and by the Orthodox church synods.
The community of “Romaniote Jews” speaking a Greek dialect written with Hebrew letters and known as “Yavanic,” was to by augmented in 1376, by an heralding an Ashkenazi immigration from Hungary and Germany to avoid the persecution of Jews throughout the fifteenth century. These communities would be further augmented by the settlement of Sephardic, Ladino-speaking Jews from Spain, who settled primarily in Thessaloniki. These immigrants established the city's first printing press, and the city became known as a centre for commerce and learning. The exile of other Jewish communities swelled Thessaloniki’s Jewish population, until Jews were the majority population in 1519.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, Sephardic domination of Thessaloniki was paramount. According to Misha Glenny, Thessaloniki was the only city in the Empire where some Jews "employed violence against the Christian population as a means of consolidating their political and economic power",as traders from the Jewish population closed their doors to traders from the Greek and Slav populations and physically intimidated their rivals. By the early 1900s Thessaloniki's Jewish community comprised more than half of the city's population. As a result of the Jewish influence on the city, many non-Jewish inhabitants of Thessaloniki spoke Ladino, and the city virtually shut down on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath.
Thessaloniki’s liberation in 1912, was met with scepticism by many in the Jewish community, as they feltBulgarian control would keep the city at the forefront of a national trade network, while Greek control might affect, for those of certain social classes and across ethnic groups, Thessaloniki's position as the destination of Balkan village trading. After liberation, however, the Greek government won the support of the city's Jewish community, and Greece under Eleftherios Venizelos was one of the first countries to accept the Balfour Declaration, 1917.There are few Jews left in Greece today. The Holocaust saw the community’s extirpation, despite efforts by Greeks and especially the clergy to protect them. The 275 Jews of the island of Zakynthos, survived because when the island's mayor, was presented with the German order to hand over a list of Jews, Bishop Chrysostomos returned to the Germans with a list of two names; his and the mayor's. The island's population hid every member of the Jewish community. When the island was almost levelled by the great earthquake of 1953, the first relief came from the state of Israel, with a message that read "The Jews of Zakynthos have never forgotten their Mayor or their beloved Bishop and what they did for us." In Ioannina, a once vibrant community has been reduced to less than twenty elderly members and the Jewish instriptions painted on the facades of houses in the old castle quarter have no faded. Yet the partership, fusion and dialectic of Judaeo-Hellenic thought has determined the course of Western civilization. Faced with that knowledge, petty-minded bigots and racists should feel particularly small. Until next week, this rare Graeco-Jewish joke with a caveat for the cringe factor: “Did you hear about the half Jewish/half Greek owner of a pencil company? No?! His name is Mo Levy.” Oy vey!
First published in NKEE on 1 February 2010