The 11th Floor

A Perpsective Overlooking Jerusalem, Israeli Life, and Talmud Torah

Thursday, January 04, 2007

The long await post about the trip

Athens- birthplace of democracy!
Athens- center of ancient civilization!
Athens- modern metropolis and embodiment of the New Greece!
Athens- Europe’s greatest treasure trove of archeology!
Athens- the kind of pollution that makes New Jersey seem like a 4-H garden!

There are many different cities named Athens. Each is unique and each is special… they all co-exist in a- in a-
What the hell am I saying? Having spent the first five days of Hanukkah in Greece, I assure you there is only one Athens. And while it is full of culture, history, archeology and ceremony, it is also a city of 4 million chain smoking, scooter riding, fashion conscious Europeans. It can be a noisy, haze-shrouded city. Like other major cities, it is has no small number of fashion stores, tourist traps and some very jumpy antiquities police. Should you go to visit anyway? Absolutely. I was lucky I got to go.

I say this even though the pollution is so bad that there is now acid rain that is eating away the very marble ruins that millions flock to see every year.

I say this even though the Greek Alphabet is a nightmare for many English speakers. Is that a P? Nope, its actually an “R” sound. Y is not a Y, but the I is. Is there an X? Yes. No. Well, it looks like an X, but it makes the same sound that many gentiles have such a hard time saying at the beginning of the word Chanukah. And don’t get me started on B.

I say this even though there are men who try to hustle you into their restaurants. “Good food, eat here, yes?” It was impossible to go through certain streets without being constantly intercepted by men holding a stack of menus and who know only two words in English: “Dinner, yes?”

I say this even though the affluent Athenian Jewish community is assimilating so quickly into oblivion that there will not be a second generation after this one. (photo: Beth Shalom Synagouge in Athens) The day school does not even teach Jewish texts, just a smattering of Hebrew, to which the children all ask “ why should we bother? We wont need this after we turn 13!” (To my fellow professional Jews: sounds familiar, neh?) Heartbreaking to know that this oldest of Diaspora communities is unwilling to save itself. American Jewry- this is your warning.

I say this even though some residents of Athens may explode into furious tirades that have no foundation in reason. Why did we have to leave the playground in the national gardens? I’m not sure, but it took 2 minutes of non-stop yelling in Greek to explain. Why did I have to erase 4 pictures of my family in front of the Parthenon from my camera? Again, I’m not sure, but some antiquities policemen in their 50’s sure didn’t like my camera angles.

I say this even though NOBODY ON THE PLANET EARTH smokes as much as the Greeks. Israeli Jews and Arabs at least stop smoking to eat. Greeks smoke right through the meal, a glass of watered down Ouzo in one hand, a fork in the other, and a unfiltered cigarette in the other. (Yes, I realize that makes three hands. I’m not sure how they do this). The Greeks smoke brands of cigarettes that are so clearly linked with lung caner that they are no longer even sold in the US.

So on the negative side, the city is congested, polluted, full of people who prey on tourists, and everyone smokes in every possible location except the subway and the synagogue. Plus everything is priced in the world’s most annoying currency, the evil Euro.

But on the plus side- There is history- important, palpable and tangible history. There are amazing views from the Lycabetta, a hill that rises more steeply and to a greater height than the Acropolis. Its covered in gardens and trails, and is an amazing green space. Also, as a rule, if someone doesn’t speak English, there is someone they know who does. Athenians really do try and be helpful. The subway is clean, quiet, and wonderful, with everything in English and Greek.

Chabad in Athens is amazing; the Hendels are a remarkable young couple, providing an outpost of Torah and community in Athens. Was there a large portrait of the Rebbe on the living room wall? Naturally. But the Torah at the table was noble and presented without any of the extremist language that has detracted from the great work Chadbad has done over the years. Rabbi Hendel has done amazing work in Athens. He ran a kosher restaurant for the two months of the Olympics; his children are learning Greek as well as French from their mother and English from their father. Hebrew and Torah they learn from both parents. Shabbat with them is a delight.

The Jewish Museum in Athens is beautiful and heartbreaking- an ever ascending spiral of a building which does a great job of explaining the richness of the pre-Holocaust community from antiquity to modernity, and just how remarkable the actions of the Greek clergy and police were in saving Jews during the Nazi occupation. Our tour guide for the day, Chaim, was a source of insight and information on the holocaust and all aspects of the Greco-Jewish community; His father survived Auschwitz, while his mother was saved by the efforts of her fellow Greek citizens. He made the obscure relevant, and even the smallest of details became clear and complete. A tour with him in the Greek countryside should be nothing short of excellent. Because of him, I have new heroes. Here are two examples.

The Archbishop of Athens, Damaskinos, worked with Chief of Police Evert (both righteous among the nations) and Athens’s Chief Rabbi to issue false documents for thousands of Jews. When the Nazis began deportations, Archbishop Damaskinos sent a letter of protest to the Nazis. Jurgen Struup, the monster who had liquidated the Warsaw Ghetto, had been given command in Athens and threatened to have Damaskinos shot by firing squad as a consequence of the letter. “According to the traditions of the Greek Orthodox Church, our prelates are hung and not shot. Please respect our traditions.” Now that’s courage.

On the Island of Zakynthos, Bishop Chrysostomos and Loukas Carrer, mayor of Zakynthos, were ordered at gunpoint to give a list of the Jews. The list was presented to the Nazis by Bishop Chrysostomos contained only two names: Mayor Carrer and Bishop Chrysostomos. He reportedly told the Nazis "Here are your Jews. If you choose to deport the Jews of Zakynthos, you must also take me and I will share their fate." The Jews were safely hidden in the interim, and nobody revealed their whereabouts, All 275 Jews survived. Remarkable.

Often we ask “why did so few survive?” when in reality, the fact that anyone survived the Final Solution is simply astounding. The Nazis had gotten very good at killing Jews by the time they got to Greece; and while more should have helped, the fact that there were 5,000 Jews left after the Holocaust is a tribute to the Greek people. Greece has over 260 people listed as “Righteous Among the Nations” at Yad Vashem.

The history of the Jewish community of Athens and Greece is as long as the exile itself; that history and culture is coming to an end before our very eyes. Brave the smog, congestion, outbursts of antiquities police, the ever-stronger Eruo, and learn what you can before it is but a memory.

It was to our great sadness to learn about the death of Levi Hendel, the 14 year old brother of Rabbi Hendel, who was killed in an auto accident in Israel during the last day of our visit. It was difficult to learn of such sorrow being heaped upon the shoulders of such a generous and God-fearing defender of Torah and his family.


Anonymous stathis said...

You probably think Jewish culture and latin alphabet are the centre of the world, dont you???

Athens is polluted alright, But definately not to the extend yo are suggesting. your mind sounds evenmore polluted by your jewish fundametalism.

7:37 PM  
Blogger ranger said...

oh boy, A comment!
Oh, wait, its a hurt and angry one... sigh. Okay, a few things need to be said:
1) Almost everything I write is satirical, or exagerated- or just plain silly. People who take what I write seriously are usually wasting thier time.

2) If nothing else, it is the weakness of english speakers in dealing with other languages that makes what I said possible- we have trouble with everything. I do not think the latin alphabet is the center of the world; if anything, it's the chinese alphabet, used by one in every five human beings on the planet, despite all those crazy squiggles.

3) Jewish culture as the center of the world? Not a chance. All things Jewish are the focus of this blog, but just because there is a focus on a thing does not mean that the author sees nothing else of worth in the world.

4) The pollution complaints came from Athenians as much as tourists. I did not know about the acid rain until we got to the Acropolis.

5) Jewish fundamentalists don't use the internet.

A reader of the blog chooses to read satire as fact and ignore positive and complementary parts of posts? What a damn shame.

6:22 PM  
Blogger David said...

Methinks "Stathis" has a "Jewish" problem. I did not see a trace of 'jewish fundametalism' or even non-jewish Heavy Metalism. Personally, I think the center of the World is probably a few klicks outside of Guatamala City, but, hell, what do I know?

Great blog, informative and inspirational, Thanks.

4:08 AM  

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