Breathing New Life Into Greece’s Small but Historic Jewish Community
Gabriel Negrin, 25, the new head rabbi of Athens, will soon become the country’s chief rabbi—with an eye on renewing traditions
Sometimes in his zeal for reconstructing the past, he outdoes his elders. His relentless study of local Jewish customs has made him such an expert that when some of the old folks say they don’t remember following a specific custom he’s unearthed, he’s often prepared with a source proving it was once observed: “I tell them, you might not remember doing it, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t done this way,” he said, grinning. In fact, Negrin has become so knowledgeable on all things Greek and Jewish that he can happily expound on topics as diverse as Hellenism in ancient Israel, Alexander the Great’s relationship with the Jews, and the works of Greco-Jewish philosopher Philo. He’s even planning a lecture series on Philo’s Greek-Jewish identity and its applications for a modern blended culture. His broad base of knowledge is also helping cement a growing relationship with the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III, with whom he meets regularly.
But as he takes on his new position, Negrin will be working with other Jewish leaders as well. Chabad’s Handel and his wife Nechama have been popular mainstays in the community for 12 years. They hold regular classes and children’s programming, Shabbat meals for locals and guests, and holiday occasions that accommodate 200 or more people. Two years ago, Chabad expanded and opened Gostijo, a large and elegant kosher restaurant, in a converted nightclub. Although consultants suggested that they’d make more profits with a kosher deli, Handel and the community chose a menu of Greek and Sephardic foods in keeping with the community’s growing pride in its heritage. Today, the restaurant has become a popular destination for diverse types of travelers and is rated fourth among 1,674 Athens restaurants on Trip Advisor. “We get everybody: non-Jewish locals, travelers of every kind, and Jews who keep kosher,” said Handel.
Among the visitors are also a new crop of Orthodox Jewish travelers who no longer want to make do with crackers and vegetables while abroad. To cater to this crowd, the restaurant provides a range of kosher on-the-go options, so people can get kosher food delivered to their hotels. However, according to Handel, the space serves the local community as well, with lots of bar and bat mitzvahs and holiday meals taking place there.
Both Handel and restaurant manager Vidal say that Athens is increasingly on the map as a Jewish travel destination. The country’s well-known economic problems have meant more affordable travel deals to the city, and this has increased its interest for Jewish vacationers as well. On Passover, several hundred visitors, including many Israelis, join Seders both in major cities and on nearby islands.
Vidal, however, is disappointed that while Jewish travelers come to enjoy bouzouki music at all-night tavernas or check in at luxury resorts on nearby islands, they rarely tour Athens, and so they miss out on discovering the area’s Jewish treasures, including ruins of ancient synagogues near the Acropolis and on nearby island Aegina.
“We would love to welcome more Jewish travelers at the local synagogue and Jewish museum,” said Negrin, who is pinning his hopes on more active connections between his community and Jews around the world. “Diaspora is a Greek word, and it means spreading seeds. I don’t believe the Jewish people are in exile anymore. We need a strong center of Judaism in Israel, but we also need to spread Jewish messages throughout the world. That’s my hope for our community’s future—that we can be a part of that effort.”
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