Romaniotes

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The earliest reference to a Greek Jew is an inscription dated c. 300-250 BCE, found in Oropos, a small coastal town between Athens and Boeotia, which refers to "Moschos, son of Moschion the Jew", who may have been a slave [1]. The Romaniotes are Greek Jews, distinct from both Ashkenazim and Sephardim. Jews have lived in Greece possibly since the Babylonian exile. A Romaniote oral tradition tells that the first Jews arrived in Ioannina shortly after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE.

In the 12th century, Benjamin of Tudela recorded details about communities of Jews in Corfu, Arta, Aphilon, Patras, Corinth, Thebes, Chalkis, Thessaloniki and Drama. The largest community in Greece was in Thebes, where he found c. 2000 Jews. They engaged mostly in cloth dyeing, weaving and making silk garments. At the time, they were known as "Romaniotes".

The Romaniotes had distinct customs, very different from those of the Sephardic Jews, and closer to those of the Italian Jews: some of these are thought to be based on the Jerusalem Talmud instead of the Babylonian Talmud. Unlike the Sephardic Jews, they did not speak Ladino, but the Yevanic Greek dialect and Greek. Romaniote scholars translated the Tanakh into Greek. Early printed versions of the Bible in Salonica showed the Hebrew text in the middle of the page, with Ladino (Judaeo-Spanish) translation to one side and the Yevanic translation to the other.

Waves of Sephardic Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492; many settled in Ottoman-ruled Greece. They were richer, and believed themselves more educated and cultivated than the Romaniotes, so they formed separate communities. They also spoke a separate language, Ladino. Thessaloniki, a city in northern Greece, had one of the largest (mostly Sephardic) Jewish communities in the world and a solid rabbinical tradition. On the island of Crete, the Jews historically played an important part in the transport trade. In the centuries following 1492 most of the Romaniote communitities were assimilated by the more numerous Sephardim.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Romaniote community of Ioannina numbered approximately 4000 people, mostly lower-class tradesmen and craftsmen. Economic emigration caused their numbers to dwindle and on the eve of World War II, there were approximately 1950 Romaniotes left in Ioannina. Centered around the old fortified part of the city (or Kastro), where the community had been living for centuries, they maintained two synagogues, one of which, the Kehila Kedosha Yashan Synagogue still remains today.

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