For a month, we have been enjoying the warmth and hospitality of Anna's
parents -- Maurice and Toula Franses -- in Volos, Greece, the beautiful
city of our birth, combining vistas of the seashore and nearby Mt. Pelion.
We travel to Macedonia, the
country's northern province, and marvel my mother's (and Alexander the
Great's) birthplace, Salonica, the European Union's 1997 cultural capital.
Its recognizing structure is Lefkos Pyrgos (a white tower, which is
really grey), reminiscent of the city's medieval Venetian past. Salonica
is noted for its brilliant existence during the Ottoman Turkish occupation
(1453-1912), when the sultan gladly welcomed the expelled Sephardic
Jews from Spain in 1492, and with their energy and wisdom fashioned
"the Jerusalem of the Balkans."
In our travels we seek co-religionists, the synagogue, Jewish museum,
or Holocaust monument, even the Jewish cemetery. In Volos I assisted
the resident rabbi / cantor (my father-in-law) in chanting Shabbat worship
services with gusto, employing tunes I learned at home, in America.
Anna was engaged as an interpreter, when a touring group from Afula,
Ramat Zvi, Israel made a scheduled stop in Volos. Jewish community president
Rafael Frezis showed us the artist's depiction of a Holocaust memorial,
soon to be erected in the plaza of Volos City Hall. The cost was assumed
by a native son, now a successful businessman in New York, Victor Politis.
The Jewish population continues to dwindle, even as many in the public
and private sectors of life are voicing regret that this once vibrant
contingent of the body politic is no more. Its demise was heralded in
the Holocaust, with an astounding 95% casualty rate! Today, only 5,000
Jews live in Greece, a bare 100 men, women, and children in Volos, ever-challenged
by assimilation and intermarriage. Last year, the handful that make
up the contemporary Rhodes Jewish community, issued an appeal to their
brethren in America for a Torah scroll. The message was carried by Byzantine
scholar Marcia Haddad- Ikonomopoulos, recently a Queens College honors
graduate. In a telephone call from Hania, Crete, she related the happiness
of the community, and her own joy, when the cousins Reggie Goldberg
and Marion Crespi (with their offspring) hand-delivered this invaluable
parchment containing the Five Books of Moses, a portion of which is
recited every Saturday morning in the synagogue. Bravo! Bravo to all
who participated in this holy mission, making possible hope for this
congregation's continued existence.
May your summer have been as healthy, restful, happy, and eventful (in
that order) as ours has been; and may we all, in the Five Towns, and
everywhere, in the coming religious New Year 5759 strive "to live for
each other ... to live with ourselves."
Sincerely, and with affection,
Asher J. Matathias
Asher J. Matathias is originally from Volos and currently lives
in the United States.