“How could I say no to signing books at a Greek Jewish synagogue in the Lower East Side?” asked Alan Furst, Tablet Magazine contributor and best-selling author of spy novels such as Spies of the Balkans. It was last Thursday at Kehila Kedosha Janina, an 83-year-old synagogue on Broome Street near Allen. The entrance to the New York City landmark sported two flags: Old Glory and the proud blue-white of Greece. That’s because Kehila Kedosha Janina was founded in 1927 by Romaniotes, Jews who according to legend shipwrecked on the Grecian coast after the destruction of the Second Temple. The congregation has maintained close ties to the old country since its founding, and now doubles as a museum devoted to Greek Jewry.
Museum director Marcia Haddad Ikonomopolouos invited Furst to speak because she was impressed by “the picture he painted of Salonika at the time.” Furst, who is known for his fastidious grasp of historical details, demurred, “You can’t get it wrong when you write about historical facts. The idea of getting it wrong is unthinkable.”
The event fell on the 70th anniversary of Ohi Day, when Greeks celebrate the beginning of the successful six-month resistance against invading Italian Fascists. Furst, who is prone to animated historical storytelling, suggested that this little-heralded front was one of the major turning points in the war. “Hitler,” he said, “never wanted to invade Greece.”
The crowd of Greeks, Jews, book-lovers, and various hybrids of same enjoyed quizzing Furst on history and writing. The attraction was mutual. Although the novelist finished his press junket for the book months ago, he felt he couldn’t resist the chance.
The talk itself took place in the women’s section of the synagogue, which is lined with modern art and beautiful historical artifacts from the old country, including fragile and colorful, centuries-old kimono-like wedding gowns. The discussion was broad, broaching topics like European history, being a child on the Upper West Side (“where they grow Jewish writers”), and the Greek national character, which Furst praised—to the general amusement of some of the Greeks in the audience.