Vanished Streets: The Lost Jewish Community of Chania

The Venetian Harbour, the Lighthouse, the Firka Fortress are perhaps the first monument a traveller wants to visit as soon as he is the city of Chania. Little does he know about a neighborhood located only a block behind the waterfront which used to be called Ovraiki (the Jewish quarter) for centuries until 1944.

On a modern city map, the Jewsish quarter extends east of the Theotopouloulou until the Chalidon Street and from the seaside in the north until the Portou Street in the south.  Kondylaki Street was the most important road, the commercial center of the neighborhood where the prominent members of the community lived, like the last Rabbi of the community, Elias Osmos whose residence was under the number 39. Families used to walk around the neighborhood, socializing and co-existing harmoniously with their Greek Orthodox neighbors and on Fridays they would attend the two existing Synagogues to pray, the Sephardic Beth Shalom that was destroyed during the bombings of May 1941 and the Romaniote Etz Hayyim.

Up until 100 years ago, the area was full of Jewish shops, restaurants, and small industries. Today there are only a few buildings that can be attributed to their former use. For instance, a soap factory was located at the premises of nowadays “Ela” restaurant and across the street, on the corner with Portou Street, stood the kindergarden. On Parodos Kondylaki (a small side street) one could find the former Talmud Torah School functioning as the community school, while the Jewish cemetery lied west of the quarter in what is presently the Nea Chora district. Remnants of the cemetery can no longer be found but tomb stones are kept at the museum of the Etz Hayyim Synagogue.

The Jewish district’s decline began durning the annexation struggle late in the 19th contury when most of the city’s Jews emigrated and only a few hundreds of them were left when Nazis invaded the island. On May 1944 the remaining 263 members of the cmmunity were arrested  and imprisoned at the nearby Aya area before deported to Heraklion and herded onto the cargo ship Tanais with Greek and Italian prisoners of war. In the early morning of 9 June, the British submarine Vivid sighted the Tanais and two torpeodes sank it, taking with it all prisoners onboard.

Today, the Synagogue of Etz Hayyim (Herbrew for ‘Tree of Life’) is the only Synagogue in Crete and the only testament of the once rich Cretan Jewish heritage. And this is thanks to the effortless pursuits of Nickolas Stavroulakis who managed to include the dormant and desecrated building into the list of endangered monuments of international cultural concern in 1996.

 

The synagogue is active and holds weekly Friday Kabbalat Shabbat services and Shabbat Kiddush; most other holidays are also celebrated according to the Jewish liturgical year, but also includes other cultural programs like concerts, readings, lectures. Available upon request by visitors, there are daily prayer book (siddurim) according to the Sephardic and Mizrahi traditions, festival prayer book (mazhorim), as well as talleths and tephillin. 

 

 

Attendance at a synagogue is central for many Jews on Shabbat and for some others on all days of the week, depending on the level of observance (orthodox, conservative, or of reform congregation). For this reason, the existence of the Etzi Hayyim Synagogue plays a significant role in choosing Chania to spend their vacations. Additionaly, being located in the Old Harbour, the synagogue is within a reasonable walking distance from practically all over the city and the hotel one chooses to stay since driving is prohibited on the Shabbat.

Obtaining kosher food and meals may be slightly more difficult for Jewish visitors especially if they are meat lovers. As already mentioned, the Jewish community of Chania is no longer vibrant and most of them are just transient, staying in the city of a few weeks or months. Therefore, keeping kosher is certainly a challenging task. A quick scan of items in a Cretan supermarket will expose an obvious dearth of kosher-certified products.

It is imperative that visitors prepare and have adequate knowledge about the laws of kashrut. Consulting the 4-page lobg list of kosher products conducted by the Rabbi Mendal Hendel of Athens is essential when browsing the aisles of a supermarket. Even then, they may not find everything they are looking for everywhere they go. So, it is strongly suggested to stock up before visiting Chania or even bring a few, non-perishable products from home.

Kosher restaurant options in Chania are also limited if any. Actually, on the official synagogue site, it is clearly stated that there is no kosher food in Chania. Some restaurants, however, present themselves as serving kosher food, like ‘TO XANI’, ‘Tamam’, and ‘Semiramis’ in the old Jewish quarter, as well as  ‘To stachi slow food’ and ‘Pulse Vegan’, also in the area of the Old Venetian Harbour. If you would decide to try any of these restaurants, you should call beforehand and ask specifically about your kosher preferences. Alternatively, exploring the fresh seafood and the vegetarian dishes of the Cretan garstronomy will most definitely reward you with with exceptional aromas, colors, and flavours.

To aleviate the dietal difficulties an all inclusive hotel with kosher kitchen would be an good choice. Avra Imperial Hotel in Kolymbari is the only hotel in the Chania prefecture that meets this criterion combining an ideal location on an exotic beach with palm trees and landscaped gardens with the classics from the full diversity of the Jewsih kitchen. Additionally, the staff there has a sympathetic ear and assist you with some issues a Jewish traveller might face when attempting to keep Shabbat, like for example checking in and out, candles, elevators etc.

Despite these barriesrs to travelling in Chania as an observant Jew, you need not be daunted or feel as though you should compromise your religious values in order to visit this beautiful and historic city.

 

At Chania Yachting we are aware of the possible difficulties you might face, therefore we are determined to make your vacations as memorable, cherishable and as hassle-free as you expected them to be. Being a Jewish observant friendly organization, we are more than happy to welcome you on a private cruise and embrace your exploration by:

 

  1. Exquisite Kosher Meal

 

Our culinary team might not include a shochet, but we are ready to offer you a great kosher meal of seafood and salads that will satisfy even the most difficult and demanding palate 

 

2. Inspire Creative Jewish Expression

 

The natural beauty of the sites we visit are secluded and isolated, places of relaxation, recollection and reconcililation. We aspire that they inspire you to recite the Shehecheyanu blessing or take them as template to create your own

 

3. Friendly and Efficient Crew

 

We are focused on your needs and will spare no effort in ensuring that you are satisfied.

Attentive and courteous, we pay attention to the little details of your cruise while making sure ti always keep the big picture in mind

 

4. We Make Meaningful Friendships

 

Each kosher cruise is a challenge for us to deliver high-level customer service and traveller satisfaction. Our repeater Jewish clients offer us the incentive to keep kosher fun and exciting

 

5. Expert Local Knowledge

 

Our team knows their whereabouts.

They will let you know about sites worth visiting and walk you through the Cretan Jewish history and heritage in a virtual journey through history that will exc

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