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.