Crete’s extraordinary synagogue

By Antony Lerman

Chania, Crete. The holidaymakers look thinner on the ground this year and the freshly fried calamari are no longer so cheap. But the draw of this old Venetian port city, with its long and visible history which somehow absorbs and Cretanises the kitsch shops and harbourside trinket sellers, remains strong. If you’re interested in seeing antiquities, there’s no shortage in this north-west part of the island. With a still youngish daughter, we tend to use the time for hours of uninterrupted reading on the local beach, a kilometre away in Nea Hora, which never seems to get too crowded. Where we stay we have a stunning view of the sunrise over the harbour and at that hour we can watch one or two patient fishermen casting their lines from the foot of the lighthouse, perhaps hoping for a tsipoura or two.

It’s not an escape. Once we would avoid buying newspapers. Now we switch on the laptop and can’t miss a thing. I gravitate to Middle East news, where “progress” in US-Israel talks is a euphemism for depressing stalemate, to the report about the record rise in antisemitic incidents in the UK in the first six months of 2009, and to the ongoing turmoil in Iran. But if I can’t switch off, one consolation at least is seeing things from a different perspective. This comes from a different pace of life. The ever-present mountains and sea, which can be kind and inviting one minute and cruel and forbidding the next. Just being in the eastern Mediterranean, a short hop to Egypt. And a sobering awareness of the bloody history of the Cretan people.

But it also comes from being connected to Etz Hayyim, a unique little Romaniote synagogue in the old town’s former Jewish quarter, which dates from the 14th century. By the time the 263 members of the Jewish community in Chania were arrested by the Nazis on 29 May 1944, of the two synagogues in the city, only Etz Hayyim remained. While the Jews were still imprisoned nearby in Ayas, the synagogue was already being vandalised, both by the Germans and the locals. They were sent by convoy to Heraklion in the east and herded onto a ship, the Tanais. Early the next morning, 9 June, the ship was hit by torpedoes fired from a British submarine. The ship sank and there were no survivors. The Jews were almost certainly on their way to Auschwitz.

Squatters who entered the Etz Hayyim synagogue after the Jews left badly damaged the fabric of the building. When they were finally forced to leave in 1957, the “abandoned” building became the property of the Central Board of Jewish Communities of Greece. Parts of the small site were then surreptitiously taken over by owners of adjacent properties. While the former Jewish quarter revived with shops, cafes and restaurants, Etz Hayyim became a convenient neighbourhood dumping ground and open air urinal. That could have been the end of more than 2,000 years of Cretan Jewish history.

One remarkable man had a different idea, and in the early 1990s decided that Etz Hayyim had to be reconstructed and renovated to become a living synagogue once again, despite the fact that there were no known Jews living on Crete. Dr Nikos Stavroulakis, a Jewish art historian, museum designer and curator, author, theatrical costume designer, artist, cookery writer and much more besides, who had returned to his late father’s house in Chania, persuaded the World Monuments Fund and some wealthy donors to back a plan to rebuild Etz Hayyim. On 10 October 1999, after five years’ work, 350 people assembled to witness the rededication of the synagogue.

Given the circumstances, this was an astonishing achievement. But Nikos would never have been satisfied with a beautifully restored synagogue that functioned only as an albeit essential memorial to the dead Jews of Crete and a mini-museum devoted to Cretan Jewish history. Yet creating any kind of “community” out of thin air might have seemed a task far harder than masterminding the synagogue’s physical reconstruction. What might trigger such a renewal?

At the synagogue service last Friday night, for the benefit of some American Jews visiting Etz Hayyim, Nikos talked about what came after the reopening. He recalled a line of Kafka’s, “a cage went in search of a bird”, and said this is what happened with the synagogue – and the bird came. Not that he meant Etz Hayyim’s “community” is in any way captive, but the very rebirth of the synagogue opened up the possibility for an incredibly diverse number of people to find some new meaning in their lives through the presence of the synagogue and their various connections with it.

There’s very little that’s conventional about Etz Hayyim. Nikos takes the services or brings in more practised people to do it on some of the festivals, but the life of the “community” includes musical events, lecture courses, communal meals and exhibitions. Jews with family connections to Chania have used the synagogue’s library and resources to trace their family trees. A few have worked on private study projects.

Why do I keep using inverted commas when I write “community”? Most of the people who visit or participate in the life of the synagogue are a transient group. There are Jews of all denominations or none. Some stay for months or longer; some just for a few days or weeks. There are also Christians and Muslims and people of no faith who find comfort in the ways of the synagogue. And there are some Israeli Jews who come and go. Very rarely is there a minyan, the 10 Jewish males required for formal prayer. This fluid, pluralistic, diverse and largely itinerant population makes Nikos hesitate to call what he has attracted a “community”—and the quote marks reflect that. And yet today they are truly unnecessary. Etz Hayyim’s community may be at the outer edge of what constitutes Jewish community wherever Jews live – but as anyone familiar with the Jewish world today knows, pluralism, diversity and fluidity are features of Jewish life found everywhere. Etz Hayyim is a kind of crucible where personal change and transformation can occur in what are both challenging and enriching circumstances. It’s at the frontier of modern Jewish experience.

I’m not an observant or a believing Jew. And there is nothing about Etz Hayyim which makes me want or not want to be one. But it makes me feel that the complexities of my kind of cultural Jewishness, which are replicated in so many Jews today, have their place here, not as nostalgia but as an edgy range of possibilities.

None of this makes antisemitism go away (there’s some of that here too) or generates new optimism about the possibilities of Palestinian-Israeli reconciliation (though dialogue groups have discretely spent time here). But I recommend the Etz Hayyim milieu, the awareness of many centuries of Jewish life on Crete and the resilience and determination of one Jew who revived Jewish life in Chania for helping keep a sense of balance and perspective on such preoccupations. And I know a great beachside restaurant, from where you can look out at the tiny island of Lazaretta, the larger island of Theodhori beyond, where the wild Cretan goat still roams, and, if you stay late enough, you can see the glowing red sunset, and enjoy perfectly fried whitebait.

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Wild and Secret Crete

Skywatch

The tourists are beginning to come now, though not as many as before. Sure there will be more problems as we have already had with the olive harvest. It was a bad year. Excellent Cretan extra virgin olive oil was priced here at Euros 1.70 per kilo, more than a litre.

But the beaches are superb and wild.

rethbeach21

And here is another. Perhaps it helps you see why I love this island.

rethbeach

The ancient village of Argiropoli is nearby, the ancient city here was called Lappa, built by the Mycaneans and the Dorians and even the Romans this place lived on until today based on its wonderful springs and unique location.

rethargi

Here in the foothills of the Lefka Ori (the White Mountains) these villages live on with a deep traditions based on the past but with an acute eye on the future.

The Carnival in Crete – Rethymnon

Today is Monday, Clean Monday (Kathara Defteri in Greek), two days before Ash Wednesday when Lent begins. Today, sitting in a beach cafe in warm gentle weather, watching the Greek tradition of flying kites, and there are many, we think of the day before, Sunday the first of March and the Carnival.

And what a carnival it was. Probably the best Carnival on Crete. I must have taken a hundred pictures, but today I tell the story.

It starts with the first float, just drfting by . . .

The Watchers

The Watchers

But just before it came, I took this quick snap of some of the audience, just to get the feel of the carnival – which is huge – but the watchers are just a part of the celebration and they dress up in local village clothes or even spiderman look-alikes to be a part of it too.

The Start of the Carnival

The Start of the Carnival

So then it began, the old Amstel wagon followed by the incredible ra-ra dancers . . .

The chaos is patrolled by young policemen

The chaos is patrolled by young policemen

Then, of course, the transvestites, or at least the men dressed as women, that for fun stole the policeman’s caps. They seemed to enjoy the moment though.

The Start of the Frog

The Start of the Frog

Of the many floats and hundreds of people that went by, I loved this float. The frog even seemed to breathe, superb.

Fish consuming man

Fish consuming man

Again one of the many fine floats. This was a fish consuming a man. Think what you will.

And LouLou of course, the tinned milk of Greece - better known as Nou Nou . . .

And LouLou of course, the tinned milk of Greece - better known as Nou Nou . . .

But this was fun, especially with a girl at the front drinking fresh milk.

Love the Clothes

Love the Clothes

And so it goes on, not just the floats but the thousands of people having fun. The costumes are really great.

Float after wonderful float

Float after wonderful float

As each float goes by it is accompanied by several hundred of the wonderfully costumed members of the carnival/float club. Each float in the carnival has so many members who work hard each year to produce the float, the costumes and the essence of what their float is based upon as well as doing it in the utmost secrecy that it beggars belief.

Float with barbecue on tap

Float with barbecue on tap

So many floats, but this one was unique. On the back was a real barbecue with pork souflakis available. (Pork Kebabs for the uneducated . . .)

King of the Carnival

King of the Carnival

So who was King of the Carnival? Well it was the one that I liked as well. Our friend the frog. He was elected as the supreme float and pulled down to the beach here on Rethymnon for his fate.

Burn to Glory

Burn to Glory

At just after 6.30 pm, as the sky got dark, following a speech from the master of the frog club, the frog was burned. And so, apart from the continuing discos, it was the end of yet another year of work, but enormous fun.

The Cretan Poppies

ABC Wednesday

One of the finest flowers seen in Crete is the wild Cretan poppy. So many people see so many flowers that the poppy is often ignored in favour of the wonderful orchids and the myriads of stunning flowers that are seen here. But I love the poppy. It is straight, wild and serene. It is absolutely beautiful.

The Magnificent Cretan Poppy

The Magnificent Cretan Poppy

M is for Milking Sheep

ABC Wednesday

On Saint George’s day in the village of Asigonia in Crete, the shepherds bring all of the herds down from the mountains to have them milked.

Shepherds milking their sheep

Shepherds milking their sheep

From the other side, it looks just like this:

Five sheep at a time

Five sheep at a time

Then, of course, the milk has to be pasteurised:

Pasteurisation

Pasteurisation

Then the milk is given freely to anyone who wants some. The village priest then blesses the herd to keep them safe for the coming year.

Village priest blessing the herds of sheep

Village priest blessing the herds of sheep

Of course the herds are milked every day but then the milk goes to the village co-operative cheese making factory right there in the village.

The village cheese making factory

The village cheese making factory

At the back of the factory is the storehouse for the cheese where it is left to mature. The cheese that they make the most of is the delicious Cretan Graviera. Finally here are the great graviera cheeses stacked high.

Cretan Graviera Cheeses

Cretan Graviera Cheeses

Kazantzakis – The Grave

Skywatch Friday

Nicos Kazantzakis was probably the greatest author to be born on the island of Crete. His books included Zorba the Greek to Freedom or Death. His book, The Last Temptation, was banned by the Pope and his writings in general led to him being excommunicated by the Greek Orthodox Church.  He thus was not allowed to be buried in hallowed ground.

He died in 1957 and his grave lies on top of the south bastion of the Venetian wall around the city of Iraklion. This was where he was born and spent a lot of his life.

He wrote the words that appear starkly on his headstone. “I want nothing. I need nothing. I am free.”

The final resting place of Nicos Kazantzakis.

The final resting place of Nicos Kazantzakis.

K is for Kaiki

ABC Wednesday

K is a wonderful letter for anyone who lives in Crete. In Greek the word for Crete is Kphth (pronounced Kriti). There are so many places that begin with the Greek letter Kappa or K that it is unbelievable. But for me one of the most memorable things about Crete, and of course the rest of Greece, is the kaiki. The kaiki is a small boat made of wood that is used in the Ionian, the Aegean and Cretan seas mostly for fishing, but of course today they can be used for trips or whatever.

Here is a photograph of the small fishing port in Rethymno and you can see all the kaikis waiting for the hour when the best fishing begins.

The Old Port of Rethymno Crete

The Old Port of Rethymno Crete

But kaikis are all over the island, wherever there is a port. Large ones and small ones. Some go out every day just to get a catch that will satisfy the taverna owners, others land a catch that will end up in a market such as Iraklion or Hania. Some places on the south coast of Crete have very small harbours. Here is a photograph that I took in the south of Hania province in a tiny village called Frangokastello.

Kaiki by the castle of Frangokastello

Kaiki by the castle of Frangokastello

Frangokastello means Frankish Castle, actually built by the Venetian occupiers of Crete from the 13th to the 17th century when the entire island of Crete was renamed Candia for the period. This castle was built to deal with the south western Cretans, the Sfakians, who never accepted the rule of anyone other than themselves. Yet here in Frangokastello, set by the sea a long way from the high mountain bases of the Sfakians, the Venetians found themselves ignored. The Sfakians continued their turbulent behaviour conveniently bypassing the castle with it’s small troop of Venetian soldiers. It must have been a nice place to spend your time, even in those days.

Who owns the kaiki in the photograph? It is the splendid taverna, right here on the sea front of this exquisite beach.