Ioánnina still bears the deep imprint of the long Ottoman presence in Greece. At the heart of the mountainous Epirus region, Ioánnina (280 miles from Athens near the Albanian border, the two city connected by a difficult road) still harbors a small Jewish community.
In the ninth century, and perhaps even earlier, Hellenized Romaniote Jews were already present here; they were later joined by a large contingent of Sephardim a few centuries later. Shut away with their traditions, indifferent to other cultures, according to a seventeenth century Turkish traveler, The Jewish community maintained a poor relationship with the Greek Orthodox majority, a situation the Turkish government did all it could to exploit. In the late eighteenth century, Ioánnina fell into the hands of a tyrant, Ali of Tebelen, an Albanian pasha of the Sublime Porte who, during a forty-year reign, carved for himself his very own fiefdom, with borders stretching as far as Albania and Macedonia. A former Napoleonic officer and Strasbourg Jew Samson Cerf Berr converted to Islam and moved to the court of Ali the Rebel; he was the nephew of Cerf Berr de Mendelsheim, a military supplier to Louis XV and overseer of the Alsatian Jewish community.
Several anti-Jewish riots broke out in Ioánnina in the late nineteenth century on the occasion of the Orthodox Easter, under pretext of accusations of ritualistic crimes. Hundreds of Jews were forced to leave the city, emigrating mostly to Jerusalem or New York. In the early twentieth century, they founded synagogues dedicated to Ioánnina in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda and New York’s Lower East Side that still stand today.
On the eve of the Second World War, Jews in Ioánnina numbered just under 2000; they were all rounded up by the Nazis in March 1944. The community consists of only around fifty people today, many of whom live in a building constructed on the site of the former “new” synagogue at the border of the Kastro district and the Jewish Alliance school. Several Albanian Jews, smuggled out of that country by the Jewish Agency before the fall of the Communist regime, passed through Ioánnina in transit.
In the Kastro citadel, where Jews settled in the early seventeenth century, the old Yashan Synagogue can still be visited, the sole remain of the faded importance of Ioánnina’s Jewish community. An inscription dates the structure back to 1829, but it was most likely built on the site of a much earlier synagogue. In the temple’s courtyard, an ablution fountain reserved for Kohanim is located to the right, beside a well used in the tashlik ceremony; to the left, a frame used during the sukkah leans against the synagogue wall. The main door was reserved for men; a side entrance allowed women access to an upper gallery. The interior architecture, with its arches circling a central dome, reflects Ottoman influence. The synagogue, for a while used as a library, was spared during the war.
In the Its Kale (southeastern) citadel of the castle of Ioánnina is the Byzantine Museum. Here, several relics are on display: a synagogal wall hanging, a Jewish dress, and a ketubah -a calligraphic and illustrated marriage contract.
Outside the citadel, a segment of the Jewish community has regrouped in the neighboring Leonida district, bordering the lake. Stars of David are still visible on the facades of houses and wrought iron gates. On Joseph Elia Street (Elia was a Ioánnina-born Jewish poet who died in 1931 at the age of thirty) once stood the Hadash Synagogue, the new synagogue. Jewish families live here today in a building put up on the site of the former temple, in the middle of a street that, parallel to the citadel’s southwestern wall, leads to the lake.