- The Rich Jewish History of Greece
- Athens - Jewish Life Today
- Jewish Tour Sites of Athens - Must See Jewish POI
- Athens Most Popular Tourist Attractions
The old city of Athens (Photo: Salvador Levy)
Athens has a Jewish heritage of at least 2,300 years. In this long history, the Jewish community of the city has been smaller or larger depending on the rulers, the commerce, the wars and various social changes. In any case, the ruins of an ancient Synagogue in the Ancient Agora of Athens are a living proof of such a past.
A glimpse at history…
Ancient Jewish Communities
There are many cities in Greece with considerably large Jewish communities dating back to ancient times, possibly right after the Babylonian Exile in the 6th Century BCE (destruction of the 1st Temple). Most of them got bigger after the destruction of the 2nd Temple (1st Century CE), Athens being one of them with a certified Jewish Community from the 3rd Century BCE or even earlier.
The Romaniotes & the Greco-Jewish Connection
It is important to remember that all the Jews of the world have a unique origin; the kingdoms of Judaea and Israel. From there on, with several “diasporas”, they were spread all over the world forming communities with distinct traditions, languages and customs. The ancient Greek-speaking Jews are called “Romaniotes” and lived all along the eastern Mediterranean in communities in Alexandria, Antioch, Athens, Chalkis, Cyprus, Rhodes and others. While being integrated in the culture of that era they also led a clearly Jewish way of life within their communities. Thus, it may be simpler to perceive the Romaniote Jews as “Jews of the Hellenistic Era”.
The connection between “Greekness” (meaning the Greek culture) and Judaism is enormous. After all, the first translation of the Torah ever (the “Septuagint”, Alexandria, 2nd Century BCE) was into Greek! In the Talmud we read several debates about Greek philosophy and whether it can be combined with Judaism. Let us also not forget about the clash of the two worlds when the Maccabees fought against “Greekness” itself (the story of Hanukkah)! So, the Romaniote Jews are not something unknown. They are the Greek-speaking Jews of the Roman and Byzantine empires that have inhabited Greece continuously carrying their own traditions. The largest communities of Romaniote Jews were in Ioannina and Corfu (pre-WW2) and later on in Athens (post-WW2 until today), Israel and New York.
Interior of the Beth Shalom Synagogue (Photo: Salvador Levy)
The Sephardim & the Ottoman Empire
In the late 15th century, a large number of Sephardic Jews came to the eastern Mediterranean following the great expulsion of the Jews from Spain back in 1492. Greece was under Ottoman rule at the time and the Jews were most welcome in it. They formed numerous communities of their own Sephardic character and sometimes absorbed the local Romaniote communities. Large and important Sephardic communities developed in Thessaloniki (Salonica), Rhodes, Smyrna and Constantinople.
The 1821 Revolution of Independence & the Jews of the New Kingdom
When Greece gained independence from the Ottoman Empire, forming a small kingdom, there were many Muslims and Jews within its limits. The Constitution of 1844 granted freedom of religious beliefs to all Greek citizens. The Jewish communities within the new state embraced that and the new concept of the “Greek-Jew” was born! Before that, the identity of the Greek (meaning exclusively “Greek-speaking Christian”).and that of the Jew had been two separate things for almost 2000 years.
The Present Day
Today there are 5,500 Jews in Greece of either Sephardic or Romaniote origin. There are nine Jewish communities and the largest one of them is in Athens where a little less than 3,000 Jews live. There is an active Synagogue of the Community and a Chabad Synagogue. There is also a Jewish day-school (elementary only), a cemetery, a house for the elderly, a mikveh, a Community center, a summer camp and other facilities. The community stays together, not only because of religious obligations but also due to various other activities like theatrical plays, concerts, excursions and trips that the Jewish Community organizes from time to time.
The Holocaust Memorial in Athens (Photo: Salvador Levy)
Jewish Places of Interest in Athens
For the visitor who is interested in the Jewish heritage of the old Jewish communities of the diaspora, the Jewish Museum of Greece is a “must”. There, the 2,300-year-old Jewish history in Greece is presented via thousands of artifacts from different Greek cities. For an in-depth analysis it is recommended to go through the Museum with a guide. After that, you may be interested in the “Beth Shalom” Synagogue of the Jewish Community of Athens. It is a nice neoclassical building, built in 1935 with a beautiful marble façade, nice stained-glass windows in the sides and an interesting bronze decoration around the Aaron Kodesh. Across the street there is another building that belongs to the Jewish Community. It houses the administration offices on the ground floor and the “Etz Hayim” Synagogue on the 1st floor. This is older and it’s known within the community as “Yaniotiki”. The Holocaust Memorial is a breath away from the Synagogues. The Chabad House is the only kosher restaurant of Athens, called “Gostijo” and not only that but it also has a vibrant little Synagogue on the top floor and a kosher mini market where you will find all kinds of snacks and packed food.
Acropolis Hill (Photo: Shutterstock)
Non-Jewish Attractions of Athens
Athens is a very pleasant city with lots of things to do. It is full of nice cafes and restaurants, with cute corners pretty much everywhere in the city. There are nice shops for all tastes and a very lively atmosphere. However, the main interest remains in tourism. The Acropolis attracts hundreds of thousands of people every year that come to admire the most emblematic monument of classical antiquity. So, that would be the first recommendation. The second one would be to continue to the Acropolis Museum for a little deeper understanding of the Acropolis and its buildings as well as of the general culture of the time. Again, it is recommended to have a guide, but even without one, the Acropolis and the Acropolis Museum are considered “must-sees”.
One should not neglect to take a walk in the old city; the neighborhoods of “Plaka” and “Monastiraki”. While in Plaka, head for Adrianou st. for a walk through the shops and then for the Library of Hadrian and the Roman Agora. Enjoy a cup of coffee in a charming environment at Lysiou st. and if you are a little more “adventurous” explore the higher part of Plaka and “Anafiotika”.
Just across the street from Monastiraki lies Psiri, a hip area and a former industrial neighborhood. Today it is gentrified and has become one of the centers of Athenian nightlife. Also offering a choice for a pleasant afternoon walk.
Other places of tourist interest are the Ancient Agora and the National Archaeological Museum. And for those who prefer parks there is always the choice of the serene National Garden.
Enjoy an unforgettable experience in Athens!
Salvador Levy is a Greek-Jew from a Sephardic mother and a Romaniote father. Born and raised in Athens, Greece, he attended the Jewish school of the Jewish Community of Athens and later on studied Economics at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. He also studied Film Direction at Stavrakos Film School in Athens and Music Composition at Conservatori del Liceu in Barcelona. In 2012, he started the "Jewish Tours Greece", a travel agency that specializes in Jewish Tourism in Greece. Until today the agency provides unique services in the Greek market and has developed indisputable expertise in all Jewish destinations in Greece. For any enquiry please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org