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Celebrating Hanukkah in Greece

Dec. 20 2017

When Greece annexed Salonica in 1912, it became the Greek city with the largest concentration of Jews. These Jews, who for the most part spoke Judeo-Spanish, made up a plurality of Salonica’s population; only after joining Greece did they begin to think of themselves as Greek Jews and learn to read and write the Greek language. This newfound identity complicated Hanukkah, which commemorates a Jewish victory over the Syrian Greeks. Devin Naar writes:

Continuing to plan for a Jewish future in Greece, even once the country entered the war against Italy in 1940, Jewish leaders in Salonica published a new prayer book, Sha’arey T’filah, in March 1941. . . . [T]he editors of the prayer book—Salonican-born Jews who had been educated in Palestine—dedicated it to a Jewish soldier who had fallen on the battlefield defending “our beloved homeland, Greece.” Written not in Greek, but rather in Judeo-Spanish, the dedication aimed to show to Jews themselves that they ought to think of themselves not only as religiously Jewish and culturally Sephardi, but as Greek patriots, too. They believed that all of these allegiances could be held simultaneously.

But in order to accommodate their Jewish and Greek identities, they made two noteworthy changes to the prayer book. In the Al ha-Nissim prayer added to the liturgy on Hanukkah that refers to the miracles associated with the holiday, the traditional reference to the “wicked Greek government” is quietly changed to the “wicked government.”

More remarkably, in the popular Hanukkah song Maoz Tsur (“Rock of Ages”), the reference to the enemy as Y’vanim (“Greeks”) is replaced by Suriyim (“Syrians”). . . . The Seleucid empire, the Hellenistic state in control of Judea at the time of the Maccabees, was indeed culturally Greek, but was geographically based in Syria. Hence the Salonican Jewish leaders could transform the “Syrians” into the Hanukkah enemies and thereby more easily embrace Greece as their beloved homeland.

Despite this sense of Greek patriotism cultivated by Salonican Jewish leaders, when the deportations to Auschwitz began in March 1943, local Greek officials and Orthodox Christian neighbors neither intervened nor objected. On the contrary, the local population participated in the dispossession of the city’s Jews, taking over thousands of homes and businesses. The university and the municipality—not the Nazis—initiated the destruction of the Jewish cemetery that stretched over a terrain the size of 80 football fields and housed more than 300,000 graves.

Read more at Stroum Center for Jewish Studies

More about: Greece, History & Ideas, Holocaust, Prayer, Sephardim, Thessaloniki

Israel’s Success Has Surprised Everyone

April 20 2018

On the eve of Israel’s decision to declare statehood, 70 years ago, the CIA estimated that a Jewish state couldn’t hold off its Arab enemies for more than two years, while the famed Haganah commander Yigael Yadin told David Ben-Gurion that their chances of victory were fifty-fifty. Daniel Gordis describes just how wildly the country has managed to outpace expectations:

In 1948, there were some 650,000 Jews in Israel, who represented about 5 percent of the world’s Jews. Today, Israel’s Jewish population has grown ten-fold and stands at about 6.8 million people. Some 43 percent of the world’s Jews live in Israel; this population overtook American Jews several years ago and is now the world’s largest Jewish community. . . .

Beyond mere survival, the other challenge that the young Jewish state faced was feeding and housing the hundreds of thousands of Jews who were flocking to its borders. At times, financial collapse seemed imminent. Food was rationed and black markets developed. Israel had virtually no heavy machinery for building the infrastructure that it desperately needed. Until Germany paid Holocaust reparations, the young state’s financial condition was perilous.

Today, that worry also feels like a relic from another time. Israel is not only a significant military power, but also a formidable economic machine. A worldwide center for technology that has more companies listed on the Nasdaq than any country other than the U.S., Israel’s economy barely hiccupped in 2008. The shekel, its currency, is strong. Like other countries, Israel has a worrisome income gap between rich and poor, but fears of an economic collapse have vanished.

Israel has become an important cultural center, vastly disproportionately for a country whose population approximates that of New York City. When the five finalists for the Man Booker literary prize were announced last year, two were Israelis who write in Hebrew: David Grossman and Amos Oz. Grossman won. . . . Today, Americans and Europeans alike wait hungrily for new episodes of Israeli shows like Fauda, while others (like Homeland and The A-Word) have been remade into American and British series.

On the occasion of Independence Day, Israelis are fully conscious—and deeply proud—of the fact that their country has exceeded the ambitions of the men and women who founded it seven decades ago.

Read more at Bloomberg

More about: David Ben-Gurion, Israel & Zionism, Israeli economy, Israeli Independence Day, Israeli literature, Israeli society