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The Greek Jews in Baltimore By Richard Glaser - 4.01

The Baltimore Jewish community, numbering about 80,000 individuals in 1974, was founded in the early nineteenth century almost exclusively by German Jews who were superseded in the last two decades of the nineteenth century and the first two of the twentieth by a large influx of Russian and Eastern European Jews. There are a few Sephardim in Baltimore. A small number of Greek Jews lives among them, who have no formal organization or synagogue and have had to join the Ashknazi community and adopt many Ashkenzi customs.
Historical background

Jews have been in Greece for over 2,000 years, having first come as traders in the third century BCE. Beginning in the fourteenth century and reaching a peak in the late fifteenth, Greece became the home of many Sephardic Jews who fled Spain and Portugal. Salonika, Larissa, Volos, and Trikala were the main towns that absorbed them. By far the largest Jewish community was in Salonika with about 70,000 Jews in 1913 and about the same number before World War II. Before Greece acquired Salonika and the other Macedonian towns as a result of the Second Balkan War of 1913, the total Jewish population of Greece was only 6,800, with the main concentrations in Corfu, Larissa, Volos, Trikala, and Athens. There were two quite different Jewish communities in Greece. Old Greece compromised the territories held by independent Greece before 1913. The number of Jews who lived there was quite small. New Greece was composed of Salonika and other Macedonian towns, and these Jews were descended directly from the Spanish exiles. Of the approximately 10,000 Jews who had survived World War II, about 5,000 are left in Greece today; the rest have emigrated to America and Israel. The largest community of Greek Jews in America is in New York where there are approximately 10,000 Jews from Janina and abut the same number from Salonika. Most of them came to America in the early part of the twentieth century following the upheavals of the Balkan Wars. A relatively small Number of Greek Jews live among the 3,500 Sephardim of Seattle. In Los Angeles there are about 150 Greek Jewish families, many of whom immigrated in the 1950ís, and about 15 Greek-Jewish families in Washington, D.C. In Atlanta there are about ten families who came in the early 1950ís as did the Greek Jews of Baltimore. In Miami there is a Greek-Jewish community of several dozen families including both recent immigrants who came directly from Greece, and many from Janina who first settled in New York and then moved to Miami.
Description of Greek Jewish Community in Baltimore

There are six families of Greek Jews in Baltimore, comprising 28 individuals at the time this is being written. For the purpose of this study, a Greek Jew is defined as one born within the boundaries of modern Greece, or one born of two Greek-Jewish parents. One of the Baltimore group comes from Salonika, three were born in America of Greek parents, and the remainder from Old Greece, mostly Athens and Patras. Since some of the children have started their own families, there are currently 17 households in which at least one member is a Greek Jew. Of their children, 12 are of "mixed" parentage (one Greek parent). In three instances, children have left Baltimore and married Greek Jews, one in New York and two in Miami. In no instance has a Greek Jew both married a non-Greek and moved out of Baltimore, an indication of the relative solidarity of the Greek Jewish families. The ages of the Greek Jews range from 18 to 65. All families cited economic reasons for migrating to America.
Adaptation to life in Baltimore

Of the six male heads of families in Baltimore, four are retail merchants. One owns his own store while the others are managers; one is a barber, and one is a clerk. (In Greece, the four merchants and the clerk had all been textile merchants.) Two of them were partners in a clothing venture during their first years in America but fell out shortly thereafter, each going his own way. The clerk was offered a place with one of his friends but, having seen the results of the other partnership, preferred to keep friendship and business association separate. The younger generation, raised in America, has tended toward the professions: two are teachers and one is a graduate student in psychology. The women of the older generation are either housewives or factory workers. Whenever their economic situation has permitted, they have given up their jobs to become housewives. Among the younger generation, we see the move toward what Etzioni has called the semi-professions, the skilled manual trades. Among themselves the Greek Jews speak mostly in Greek. This is especially true among the older generation, and to some extent between the older and the younger generation. Among themselves the younger generation usually speaks English.
Synagogue attendance

The concept of synagogue membership as it is known in America was unknown in Greece. The synagogue represented the Jewish community in Greece and everyone in that community was obliged to support the synagogue and its affiliated institutions to the fullest extent possible. The synagogue in America, on the other hand, has a more corporate structure and yet is not the sole institution of the Jewish community with which one can become associated. The Greek Jews, then, have had to adapt to the American concept of Jewish community and association. All see themselves as members of the Jewish community of Baltimore but they have had some hesitancy about formally joining a synagogue because they do not see themselves as real members of such an organization which is essentially Ashkenazi.
The Passover Seder

The hard-boiled egg is a standard, symbolic element on the Seder plate according to all national traditions, even though it is eventually eaten. In Greece, however, the egg also served a utilitarian purpose and a variety of local customs attached themselves to it and lent it an unusual prominence. Because the Greek Jews regarded kosher food as an imperative during the holidays, they made special efforts to obtain kosher wine and meat for Passover. But since the amount and variety of kosher food available for the holiday was limited, and since meat, being both scarce and expensive, could not make a complete meal, eggs appeared in great quantity in the Passover diet. The meal starts with avgolemono with matzah balls. Avgolemono is a traditional Greek soup that is made with lamb broth which has a great deal of lemon juice and an egg stirred in immediately before serving. The Jews substitute chicken for lamb when they prepare it with small noodles for Sabbath. Other special foods eaten at the Seder are spinach balls and potato pancakes. A sweet that is eaten during Passover is an almond paste much like marzipan.
Naming of children

Greek Jews from all parts of the Greek mainland and the islands have followed the Greek Orthodox custom of naming a first child after a paternal grandparent and subsequent children after the maternal grandparents, alive or dead. Thus the first son is named after the father's father, the second son after the mother's father, the first daughter after the father's mother, etc. Later children receive names of relatives who may not have had any children. The Greek Jews believe that the grandparents must be assured during their lifetime that their name will be continued. This custom, followed by Sephardim in general, goes counter to the Ashkenazi custom of naming children only after deceased ancestors or relatives. The Greeks feel that a person will be assured of a long life if he has grandchildren named after him.

Excerpts of article published in Jewish Social Studies, Vol. XXXVIII, Summer-Fall 1976, Nos. 3&4, p. 321-326.

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