When Marion Crespi was a young girl, she had a hard time convincing other Jews that she was Jewish. “My mother’s friends would call me ‘Italianika,’ the Italian girl,” says Crespi, 75. “They thought we were Italian because our names ended in vowels and we didn’t speak Yiddish.”
Crespi’s family was not alone. By 1924, 30,000 Greek Jewish immigrants lived on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
Greek Jews, who spoke Ladino in addition to Greek, left for North America beginning in 1900 mainly because of economics. “They wanted to earn,” Crespi says. “There was no middle class in Greece, but in America the middle class thrived. In Greece you were either poor-poor or rich, and the two groups didn’t associate.”
When they arrived in North America, most Greek Jews learned the needle trade because Kastoria, Greece, was one of the world’s fur capitals.
Today many Greek Jews — significant communities live in the New York area, Seattle! and Los Angeles — are doctors, lawyers and accountants, says Crespi, who lives on Long Island.
Greek Jews — who are called either Romaniote or Sephardi depending on the origins of their families prior to immigrating to Greece — incorporated Greek culture and language into their practice of Judaism.
Romaniote Jews left Israel for Greece at the time of the Romans, while Sephardi Jews living in Spain first immigrated to Greece after they were expelled from Spain during the Inquisition of 1492, according to Randall Belinfante, a librarian and archivist for the American Sephardi Federation in New York.
However, with the large influx of Sephardi Jews to Greece in 1492, Romaniote Jews adopted much of the Sephardi culture.
In their synagogue services, Romaniote Jews pray both in Hebrew and Greek while Sephardi Jews pray in Hebrew and Ladino — a hybrid of Hebrew and Spanish.
“Romaniote Jews absorbed the culture of their Greek Christian neighbors, digested it, acc! ommodated it to their Jewish traditions, then created their unique and distinctive interpretation of it,” said Marcia Haddad Ikonomopoulos, the president of the Association of the Friends of Greek Jewry in New York.
Sephardi synagogues have a distinctive set-up.
“The bimah is placed in the center of the room opposite the pulpit rather than the front,” Belinfante said, referring to the difference from the traditional Ashkenazi placement. “Also Sephardi Jews raise the Torah at the beginning of the reading instead of the end.”
After Shabbat services, Greek Jews eat borekas — phyllo dough-wrapped pastries filled with cheese and spinach or potato — hard-boiled eggs and coffee.
Although in America Greek Jews hold onto their culture, many do not consider themselves religious.
“Many of us don’t observe kashrut laws, but the customs are still the same, they are more or less embedded in us,” Crespi says. “The culture my generation learned from our upbringing, our children observe on certain occasions and they pass it onto their! children. This is why I truly feel the customs will always survive.”
What Greek Jews may lack in religious observance, they make up for in dedication to their Greek roots.
“Greek Jews have pride for the 2004 Olympics in Athens because we are very proud of the country we came from,” Crespi says. “Greek Jews from this country still send money to support the synagogue and museum in Greece and take care of old graves.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.