As the beautiful island of Rhodes rose from the waters of the Aegean Sea, the Greek sun god Helios chose it for his sacred domain. It became enchanted, always under his tender protection. Helios fell in love with the comely nymph, Rhode, daughter of the sea gods, Poseidon and Amphitrite and named the island in her honor: thus, the Greek origin of the name. Jews trace the name in the lineage from Noah's son Japhet, father of Javan — progenitor of Greece — to Javan's son, Dodanim (Gen. 10:4, but rendered as Rodanim in the Septuagint and 1 Chron. 1:7), who was the progenitor of Rhodes. "From these, the maritime nations branched out" (Gen. 10:5).

Street in the former Jewish quarter. Click to view enlarged

The kehillah, which could trace its origins to the Jewish traders who settled in Rhodes perhaps as early as the second century B.C.E., prospered under tolerant Ottoman rule for nearly 400 years until 1912. Those who had forcibly been converted during the Spanish Inquisition returned openly to Judaism. Sultan Suleiman encouraged exiles from Spain to settle in Rhodes. He awarded them a firman — an edict granting privileges such as autonomy and religious freedom, as well as free housing, a 100-year tax exemption, and guaranteed availability of kosher meat at reasonable prices. Many Sephardim emigrated from other cities in the Ottoman empire. Jews outnumbered the Turks, and created in Rhodes a major Sephardic center. The numerically reinforced Sephardim soon outnumbered the Romaniots and badgered them for changes in the liturgy. Tension between the two communities did not ease until the Romaniots completely assimilated into the Sephardic tradition. Rabbi Moshe de Vushal succeeded in forcing the union in 1668, in view of the messianism that threatened even after the apostasy of Shabbetai Tzvi and his followers. The Romaniots adopted Sephardic customs, the Sephardic mahzor (festival prayer book), and the Judeo-Spanish language, Ladino. The rabbi saved the community, but lost his son Shlomo, who followed the false prophet and converted to Islam.

Suzanne Cohen returns to her childhood synagogue, and finds it in ruins.
Click to view enlarged

Community life centered around the synagogues: the large Romaniot synagogue, Kahal Gadol, dating from the Hospitalers' period in 1480, and the Sephardic Kahal Shalom, built in 1577, renovated in 1593 — the only one still standing. Of the two other smaller synagogues, one was built by the Komondo family in the nineteenth century. The other, formally Tikkun Hazzot, was colloquially called Kahal de los Ricos (Synagogue of the Rich). There were also several batei midrash (houses of study).

The building of Kahal Shalom is hardly distinguished among the other houses on the synagogue street. Just below the high rectangular windows, two stone arches bridge the narrow street to join the opposite buildings for mutual support. An unmarked stone portal affords entrance to an open pebbled corridor, with the synagogue on the left, and stairs to the mehitzah at the end of the corridor. Up a few steps on its right is a small, restful courtyard planted with fruit trees and a grapevine that trails over the trellis shading the corridor. The only synagogue still standing in Rhodes, the Kahal Shalom has the benefit of careful renovations sponsored by Rhodian Jews living abroad, and it functions occasionally when a minyan (quorum of 10) is available.

Interior of the old synagogue in the former Jewish quarter.
Click to view enlarged

A choice example of Balkan synagogue architecture, the interior is sparkling in sharp contrast to an austere facade. Carved multicolored geometric capitals are painted predominantly in dark blue to harmonize with the paler blue walls. Crystal chandeliers are customary in Greek churches and synagogues sparkle between the arches. The rectangular polished wood tevah (ark) is centrally located among rows of chairs facing in on three sides. The wide mehitzah (partition) runs across the western wall. A row of high windows surrounds the prayer room, providing adequate, pleasant illumination. Lively frescoes cover the walls, depicting many symbols — harp, shofar, lulav, and menorah — all amidst a profusion of flowers.

When Rhodes' Jews lived there, the narrow ghetto alleys echoed the sounds of daily activities and residents' greetings. Before sundown on Fridays one heard, "Asinder, mujeres" ("Light up the Sabbath lamp, ladies"), and before Rosh Hashanah, during the month of Elul, the cry was, "A selihot, hermanos" ("To the forgiveness prayers, brothers"). The synagogue street and the surrounding flower-decked Juderia (Jewish quarter) hummed with Jewish life that poured over into the nearby square. There the stalls were astir on market days, with merchants, peddlers, and customers doing business in Turkish, Greek, Italian, Judeo-Spanish, and sometimes French or English. Sounds of the tradesmen and fragrances from the open food stalls mingled in colorful confusion. The crowded taverns offered the ever popular raki, a sweet Turkish liqueur.

The kehillah organized well: a religious council, bet din, and the parnassim governed all aspects of religious, social, and economic life. The chief rabbi, hahambasi, had the power to veto decisions of the council and to pronounce an excommunicating herem. These governing bodies drew up agreements, haskamot, safeguarding all members and binding all to observance. The community received revenues from the tax assessment, arikha, after every Passover, and from taxes on the products Jews produced: meat, wine, cheese, and brandy. Another source of income was the auctioning of mitzvot, ritual synagogue procedures. The proceeds supported Bikkur Holim for the poor and the sick; Hevra de los Kabarim provided funeral services; Ozer Dalim helped the indigent to diminish begging; Sociedad de las Damas assisted pregnant women who were needy; Gioventù Ebràica di Rodi (Rhodes Jewish Youth ) encouraged education, recreation and sport.

The community reveled in the epithet, "Little Jerusalem." Native rabbis officiated along with noteworthy scholars invited from Sephardic centers in Alexandria, Constantinople, Salonika, Jerusalem, and Safed. The rabbis taught in the yeshivot and directed the conduct of the community in more than religion. With the oft-repeated claim that violations of religious law brought on calamities, they scrutinized everything, including the modes of everyday behavior: movement on Shabbat, women's dress — even at home — and how mothers should sing to children in the cradle. The rabbis' erudite Responsa covered solemn religious issues. But some were less serious: the kashrut of swordfish which has scales only when it is young, or of grape leaves to which minute insects may have adhered; the use of a Turkish bath, hamam, as a mikveh; and the ritual permissibility of a Shabbat promenade on ships in the harbor....

Abridged from: Rivka and Ben-Zion Dorfman, Synagogues Without Jews (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2000)

Introduction l Preface l Interview l Dubrovnik l Polná



Subscribe to the JHOM mailing list for updates.

Contact us

Tell a friend