It’s Friday evening in Hania, Crete. Along the old harbor, tourists are taking photos of the sunset and the iconic Venetian lighthouse. A block from the port, on Kondylaki Street, in the area still known as Ovraiki (Jewish quarter), now with its tourist shops, tavernas and boutique hotels, a green sign points the way to Etz Hayyim Synagogue, where Shabbat services have started. Inside, congregants face each other on teakwood benches with Indian embroidered cushions, singing the beautiful prayer Lecha dodi. After the service and blessing over the wine and homemade challah, the congregants get to know each other as the sweet sound of the bouzouki from a nearby restaurant fills the air. Perhaps it’s one’s first time in a synagogue; you might find yourself talking to a student from Moscow, a German backpacker, an Israeli tourist, a curious local. Welcome to Etz Hayyim, a unique synagogue that has become a religious and cultural center in this lovely Cretan town.
This remarkable restoration of a synagogue dating from medieval times, that had been used until the disappearance of the Jews in Crete in 1944, is due to the efforts of Nikos Stavroulakis, who died this past May at the age of 85. Art historian, artist, scholar of Islamic studies, talented chef, as well as executive director of the Jewish Museum in Athens from 1973 to 1993, Stavroulakis first visited Hania in 1957. (His father was Cretan, and he wanted to rediscover his family’s roots.) He learned about the synagogue during the trip, and he began his restoration efforts in the mid-1990s.
The Jewish population on Crete is estimated to go back over 2,000 years. In Byzantine times, the Jews lived outside the walls of Hania and other Cretan towns. Unlike the Jewish population in the rest of Europe, many Cretan Jews were farmers and made high quality wines and cheeses. During the Venetian occupation, the Jews were brought inside the city walls for protection. Evidence shows that Etz Hayyim was originally a church built around the 14th century, but later it was destroyed and then abandoned. In 1645, the Ottomans offered the building to the Romaniote Jewish population (Romaniote refers to Jews who trace their origin back to the Roman empire). Sephardic Jews, who came from Spain and Portugal in the late 1400s, had their own synagogue in Hania, Beth Shalom, adjacent to Etz Hayyim, but it was completely destroyed in the Second World War.
During the mid 19th century, the island’s Jewish population reached 900, but after much emigration, by World War II only around 300 Jews were left, all in Hania. In June 1944, the Nazis took them—with the exception of a handful who managed to hide—to a prison in Heraklion, and along with around 500 Greek and Italian prisoners, they were put on a boat bound for Auschwitz. An Allied submarine sunk the boat on its first night at sea, bringing Crete’s Jewish community to a sorrowful end.
But it was not the end for Stavroulakis. During his first visit, 13 years after World War II, he saw the synagogue in a pitiful state. Parts of it showed signs of bombing. Squatters lived there. The area had been used as a dog kennel, then a chicken coop. Broken furniture lay around the courtyard, full of weeds and garbage. The mikveh, the ritual bath, had been left as a sewer hole.
From that day, he envisioned the restoration as “a victory over the Nazi attempt to destroy the Jewish presence on Crete.” In 1995, an earthquake opened up large cracks in the walls and made the roof start to cave in, a situation that helped him win publicity. He spoke in New York about the synagogue at a conference of the International Survey of Jewish Monuments, and in response to his eloquent plea, Etz Hayyim was placed on the World Watch, along with 99 other monuments. Donations came in and work began. In October 1999, Etz Hayyim was dedicated—or rather rededicated—in a ceremony attended by officials and representatives of different faiths.
When I first met Stavroulakis in the spring of 2001, we sat in the pebbled part of the courtyard (which on the other side contains the mikveh and graves of rabbis). With cats sunning themselves by the red geraniums and the scent of gardenias, it felt truly “a place of peace, prayer, recollection and reconciliation,” as he phrased it. In no way did he want the synagogue to be a mere museum, and from its first day, it was used as a house of prayer, whatever the number of people in attendance. Besides Shabbat services, numerous weddings and bar mitzvahs have been celebrated there. In the summer, most of the congregants are tourists. There are also regulars—15 or 20 at most—though only a handful are Jewish.
Etz Hayyim has also sponsored a rich cultural program over the years, including lectures on different religions, archaeology, classical music, interfaith discussion groups, poetry readings and participation in European Days of Jewish culture. Among other events, this past summer featured two women musicians from a klezmer band in Finland who played with local Roma musicians, noting that traveling klezmer groups often filled in with whatever instruments they could use from local bands.
This diversity exemplifies the Etz Hayyim community. One might ask how a synagogue could exist in a town with virtually no Jewish presence. Only with a group of committed individuals of varied faiths known as the havurah (in Hebrew, haver means friend or circle of friends) has Etz Hayyim thrived. As a havurah member told me, “I really feel part of this community. We all have different ideas and beliefs, but even when we disagree, we still walk away as friends.”
A favorite celebration of the havurah is Passover, which is celebrated in a nearby taverna, perhaps including delicacies like leek pie, grilled red snapper and stamnagathi (cretan wild greens) and ending with raki. Seder attendees have included such guests as the American and Israeli ambassadors, Palestinians and Franciscan monks. Each year, a specially printed Haggadah tries to present the exodus from Egypt meaningfully to the multicultural visitors.
Today, local schools visit to learn about the past Jewish contribution to Crete. “I want them to see that this synagogue is part of their community of Hania and connected with Crete’s history,” Stavroulakis said. However, as everywhere, ignorance and racism can prevail. In 2010, two incidences of arson occurred at the synagogue, destroying thousands of books from Stavroulakis’ personal library, many of which were out of print and therefore irreplaceable. Fortunately, neither fire entered the sanctuary and the structure stayed solid, with donations helping the restoration.
Despite this incident, Etz Hayyim, the Tree of Life, still keeps a “visitors always welcome, open door” policy, which differs from most European synagogues. Next time you find yourself strolling along the beautiful Venetian port, walk up Kondylaki, pass through the Rothschild Gate and enter the synagogue courtyard. The dedicated members of the havurah are continuing Stavroulakis’ mission. At his memorial service, havurah member Natalie Ventura expressed just what an amazing achievement the synagogue renovation has been: “If anyone from the last Cretan-Jewish community could return from their watery grave to see Etz Hayyim today,” she said, “my guess is that they would be astounded. By its existence. By its beauty.”