Like Alice in Wonderland, New York photographer Vincent Giordano discovered a very special place right in his own backyard.
During one of his strolls through the Lower East Side in 1999, he was invited into Kehila Kedosha Janina, a little synagogue on Broome Street that had been home to the city’s Greek Romaniote Jewish congregation for over 72 years. From that moment, Giordano was compelled to capture with his camera the rituals, traditions and spirit of the people who worshipped there.
Set apart from Sephardi Jews, the founders of Kehila Kedosha Janina spoke Judeo-Greek, an ancient dialect that incorporates Greek, Hebrew and Turkish words and expressions. While Romaniote religious ritual was carried out in Hebrew, many special prayers, poems and songs were composed and recited in Romaniote. Jews from Ioannina, Greece who immigrated to the United States formed their own congregation in 1906. One of scores of small synagogues that dotted the streets of the Lower East Side in the early decades of the 20th century, their house of worship, built in 1927, still conducts services.
Giordano had studied comparative religion in college, but he did not know any Jews of Greek descent before his visit to the synagogue. The photographer, who had literally found his labor of love, embarked on an odyssey that would take him from Broome Street all the way to the original Romaniote synagogue of the congregation founders, located in the city of Ioannina (Janina), in northwestern Greece. Eventually, his choice and depiction of this subject matter was determined by guidance from scholars in religion, history, anthropology and language. He amassed a body of work that would encompass not just photography, but many hours of audio and video, including interviews conducted with synagogue members. When Giordano tragically died at the age of 58 in 2010, his multimedia legacy was left behind.
The next chapter begins in 2019, when Giordano’s widow donated his work to the Hellenic American Project (HAP), and the Benjamin S. Rosenthal Library’s Special Collections and Archives at Queens College. In January 2021, the Project mounted its first online exhibit of Giordano’s photos, in partnership with the College’s Center for Jewish Studies and the Rosenthal Library, “Romaniote Memories, a Jewish Journey from Ioannina, Greece, to Manhattan: Photographs by Vincent Giordano.” The show was curated by Dr. Samuel Gruber, whose own organization, the International Survey of Jewish Monuments (ISJM), sponsored Giordano’s work while he was engaged with the Romaniote community.
Integral to the exhibits are the educational texts that introduce each part of the show, which comprises over 100 photographs organized by theme and includes pictures of Kehila Kedosha’s own Judaica collection, as well as architecture, religious rites and celebrations such as those shot during the High Holidays in Ioannina, Greece in 2006.
There is much to see and to learn from the show, which many will find helpful for its content on Romaniote Jewish history, synagogue architecture, and the nature and symbolism of Jewish life cycle rites and holidays.
Far from elegiac, the photos reveal the vivacity of the people of all ages whose identities are tied to their religion and traditions. Their personalities are revealed in both photographic portraits and a series of group shots that illustrate the spiritual and familial love marking the celebratory and communal elements of their faith. Channeling Giordano’s own sensibility, the viewer is never detached, but conversely is physically propelled into the center of the action, sharing in its transformative experience.
Even as it exists today, Giordano’s unfinished film, “Before the Flame Goes Out,” is still critical to preserving and studying Romaniote culture. Over 80% of Greece’s Jewish population perished in the Holocaust, which decimated the country’s historic Romaniote communities. Of the 1,960 Jews who were deported to Auschwitz from Ioannina, 110 survived. A small population of Greek Jews live in the country today; a fraction of these people read and speak Romaniote. As the late photographer himself wrote, his unplanned encounter with the congregants of Kehila Kedosha Janina:
“…was transformed into an incredible personal journey of discovery, filled with wonderful people, interesting experiences and fascinating places. As I explored and probed deeper, I discovered this story is much larger than the synagogue on Broome Street, that it reaches far into the past…to the rich history of the Jews in ancient Greece and the Byzantine Empire…and the devastation of the Holocaust.”
For Extra Content: Hear a conversation recorded on Oct. 22, 2020 with B’nai B’rith CEO Daniel S. Mariaschin and curators Dr. Samuel Gruber and Renee Pappas, who outlined the history of the Romaniote Jews in the United States and Greece, and who traced the journey of Giordano’s photos themselves, from his own studio and their display at the Greek Consulate General in New York City and the Embassy of Greece in Washington, D.C. to their present home at Queens College.
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