Join The Conversation With Mishpacha's Weekly Newsletter

Greeting the Ghosts of Salonika

Ari Z. Zivotofsky and Ari Greenspan

While Salonika served as a haven for centuries, it couldn’t save itself from the Nazi onslaught. Could this ancient city of refuge come to life again?

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

 Mishpacha image

ACTIVE INVOLVEMENT Yad Lezikaron is Salonika’s only active shul. The community pays people to make sure there’s a minyan. The shul is on the ground floor of an eight-story commercial building owned by the community. Often, there are community-wide Friday night dinners that attract upward of 100 people (Photos by Ari Z. Zivotofsky and Ari Greenspan)

I t was known as “La Madre de Israel” (the Mother of Israel). And probably the only city of this size and importance in the entire Diaspora that had a Jewish majority. A city in which even the non-Jews had to speak Judeo-Spanish Ladino in order to engage in commerce.

Thessaloniki, or Salonika, as many know it, was one of the most important trading ports on the Mediterranean — and by the early 16th century, Jews constituted over 50 percent of the population of this central Greek metropolis. Jews were so dominant that the lifeblood of the city, the large port, was closed on Shabbos and Jewish holidays.

For over 450 years Salonika was the main center of Jewish Sephardic life, and in the early 20th century there were 35 Ladino newspapers in the city. We were told that when the Nazis invaded Greece, they were able to recognize some of the Jews by their inability to speak Greek, despite their families having lived there for centuries.

We were excited to get a chance to see this ancient community — yet ended up saddened by its utter decline.

Men for a Minyan

The week we visited, the local rav, Rabbi Aharon Israel — who had been a big help to us in preparing our itinerary — had gone to the countryside with the Jewish camp. His family stayed behind, though, and when we met his wife and children over Shabbos, there was the mandatory Jewish geography surprise: Her sister was visiting from Israel and it turns out their family lives a block away from Ari Z. in Beit Shemesh.

After davening in Yad Lezikaron, Salonika’s only active shul. The community pays people to make sure there’s a minyan, but they were all on vacation. Together with these men, we were able to cobble together a quorum

A substitute rabbi, the very learned, multilingual Rabbi Yosef Serfaty, was there from Belgium. At first we couldn’t understand why another rabbi was needed. Couldn’t the community manage without a religious leader for a week or two? Well, the answer is no. Simply put, there is nobody who knows the nusach well enough to lead services, or how to read the Torah fluently. The community pays ten men to make the minyan so there should always be davening (reminiscent of the Talmud’s ten “batlanim”), but it was our luck that our visit fell during vacation season, and they were all away. Between the rabbi, ourselves and a few others, we eked by with barely a minyan.

“I tried to get five to stay and five to go this week, and the same for next week. Why must everyone leave on the same week?” says Regina, a vibrant, active community member. She and her husband Ino have moved closer to Torah over the last years. For example, although Ino had limited formal Jewish education, he has taken it upon himself to prepare and lein one aliyah each week. He also serves as the gabbai, and both he and his wife come from old Saloniki families who survived the war.

Their daughter lives in Israel and their son is in the family business, currently in Cyprus and also with plans to move to Israel. They’ve gone the way of most of the young people — for those few who have stayed, it’s hard to find a spouse. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 673)

Related Stories

Endnote: A Kindness Along the Way

Riki Goldstein

Sometimes it’s the unsung, uncelebrated deeds that boost a singer into the limelight. Who helped the...

Noble Footsteps in the Queen City

Yosef Zoimen

While the neighborhoods have changed, old Cincinnati still echoes with the imprint of Rav Eliezer Si...

In the South, the Civil War Still Rages

Binyamin Rose

Southern hospitality from a personal perspective

Share this page with a friend. Fill in the information below, and we'll email your friend a link to this page on your behalf.

Your name
Your email address
You friend's name
Your friend's email address
Please type the characters you see in the image into the box provided.

When Tragedy Strikes
Shoshana Friedman What are we giving and what are we getting?
One Nation, Divisible
Yonoson Rosenblum Israel isn’t yet suffocated by political correctness
What Am I, Chopped Liver?
Eytan Kobre Far more disturbing is the title’s unspoken implication
Not Just Politics
Yisroel Besser We’re fighting over something that means the world to us
Are We There Yet?
Alexandra Fleksher Seeing other models of avodas Hashem enriches our own
Top 5 Yeshivish Business Ventures
Rabbi Dovid Bashevkin Different answers to “So, what is it you do?”
Work/Life Solutions with Mois Navon
Moe Mernick “When you set a goal, it’s going to take lots of effort”
Were They Orthodox Jews?
Rabbi Emanuel Feldman This is why I asked, “What difference does it make?”
You Get What You Pay For
Jacob L. Freedman “Get me a real doctor from Harvard who speaks Persian!”
Tunes That Take Me Back, with Levy Falkowitz
Riki Goldstein “It’s amazing how strong music memories are”
All Rivers Wind Up in the Sea
Riki Goldstein Your heartbeat will slow down listening to the new album
Faigy Peritzman A name symbolizes the essence inherent within
Sarah Chana Radcliffe Inject positivity into your marriage to counter burnout
The Game of Life
Rebbetzin Suri Gibber Use your competitive spirit to score high in life
The Musician Part II
D. Himy, M.S. CCC-SLP and Zivia Reischer “It’s an integrative therapy approach. Not boot camp”