The Jews of the Ionian Sea



In a remote part of Greece off the Ionian Sea, a small population of Jews–the Romaniotes–have lived for more than 2,300 years.

According to legend, a slave ship carrying hundreds of Jews was sunk in a storm over two millennia ago. The survivors, having reached the shore of Ioannina, were impressed with the land and its beauty, and decided to stay there. Another legend suggests that Alexander the Great, who treated the Jews well, was involved in their choice to settle there.

The Romaniotes are their own distinct Jewish ethnicity;  neither Sephardic nor Ashkenazic. They speak both Greek and their own language, Yevanic (a word that derives from the Hebrew word for Greek). The Romaniote community lived mostly in isolation from other Jewish communities until 1492, when Spanish Jews joined the transport industry following their expulsion from Spain.

After Greece was occupied by Germany in World War II, as much as 86% of Greece’s total Jewish population was exterminated, as well as most Romaniote Jews. When the war ended, the majority of survivors moved to Israel or New York. Today, there are small Romaniote communities in both places, as well as 4,000 Jews–Romaniotes and others–who still live in Greece.

Recommended from JTA