ATHENS, Greece — On a warm June morning exactly 10 years ago, the tiny Romaniote community in this northwestern city woke up to find its ancient Jewish cemetery vandalized. Again. It was the third such incident in a year, and this time one of the smashed tombs belonged to the mother of Moses Elisaf, president of the city’s small Jewish community.
Flash-forward to June 2, 2019, though, and it is a different story: Elisaf just won Ioannina’s municipal election, making him the first Jewish mayor in Greek history — and that is a lot of history.
If you are expecting to hear dramatic tales about fraught Jewish life in this verdant, picturesque part of Greece — a place where Jews, Christians and Muslims have coexisted and interacted over many centuries (including under Ottoman rule) — well, prepare to be disappointed.
“There was not a single moment in my life in Ioannina or Greece that I felt threatened, living and going around as a Jew with a very evident identity. Never,” says Elisaf, a distinguished pathologist and professor who has spent most of his life in the region (he teaches at the local university and runs the hospital’s pathology department).
“We should make this very clear: Greece’s anti-Semitism is completely different than in other places,” he tells Haaretz. “I would call it ‘verbal anti-Semitism’ — more like a coffee shop-kind of chat between fans of conspiracy theories like ‘The Jews are in control of the world,’ etc. It never turns violent and the farthest it can get is vandalism against synagogues, cemeteries, Holocaust monuments.”
Elisaf believes that voters were not influenced by his religion, but laughs when asked whether he know the city’s 50 or so Jews (in a population of 57,000) all cast their ballot for him. “Well, at least for the first round I know for sure that not everybody did! But what we need to focus on is the clear message that was conveyed by the majority: Despite anti-Semitism and the rise of racism in our times, the citizens have elected a Jew as their mayor, evaluating my personality, our plan for the city’s future, our candidates, our ethos during the election campaign. Apparently, their decision was based on proper criteria and not on what a person’s beliefs or differences are.”
Even so, Elisaf admits that anti-Semitism did rear its head during the campaign. “From time to time, some things were coming up in public — but always by some very specific citizens to whom no one really pays attention.” He cites examples in which rival groups “tried to put pressure on individuals, arguing that ‘We shouldn’t just hand in our city to the Jews’ or claiming that I’m connected to the Mossad or the Israeli Embassy.” Those tactics failed, with Elisaf securing over 50 percent of the vote in the second ballot.
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It helps that he was hardly a stranger to most of the city’s residents. The 65-year-old previously served on the city council and was president of Ioannina’s cultural center. He has also served as president of the city’s Romaniote community for 17 years and was secretary of the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece.
A unique community
Ioannina is the historic capital of Romaniote Judaism, just as Thessaloniki was the center of Sephardi Judaism. It is Greece’s oldest Jewish community, dating back to 300 B.C.E., and is generally regarded as one of the oldest in Europe. Romaniotes historically spoke their own language, Yevanic or Romaniotika — a version of Greek infused with Hebrew, Turkish and some Italian, and written in Hebrew script. You can still find some elderly members of the community, living near the old synagogue, speaking Romaniotika.
Some 4,000 Jews lived in Ioannina at the start of the 20th century. But due to poverty and the turmoil that followed the collapse of the Ottoman empire, many joined their Christian friends and emigrated to the United States. Others headed to British Mandatory Palestine, setting up Romaniote synagogues in Jerusalem and, later, Tel Aviv. (A Romaniote synagogue, Kehila Kedosha Janina, can also be found on New York City’s Lower East Side.)
At the start of World War II, about 2,000 Jews remained in Ioannina, but most of them perished in the Nazi death camps. Elisaf’s parents were among the few that survived the Holocaust. “Merely 60 of our people escaped being sent to camps,” he recounts. “Some had joined the national resistance rebel units and some, like my parents, had taken the escape network to the Middle East, through Athens, Halkida [aka Chalcis] and Izmir [in Turkey]. They ended up in Tel Aviv in 1944, where they stayed for a couple of years and then returned to Ioannina after the war was finally over. All the rest of the community, almost 2,000 people, were put on trains on March 25, 1944. Not more than a hundred of them made it back.”
Elisaf adds that the community suffered a 91 percent fatality rate in the Holocaust — “one of the highest in the whole of Europe,” he says.
Elisaf himself was born in 1954 and recalls that his parents were living under “really awful conditions” when they returned to Greece. “Many members of our community who joined the communist rebel units were exiled to remote islands. Many houses were squatted by locals claiming that rebels had burned their own homes. Many sold their houses and immediately moved to Athens or Israel. That’s how we ended up being just 50 people.”
Wherever its members are in the world, though, the Romaniote community has never lost its uniqueness. Elisaf credits that on the constant historical interaction between Ioannina’s Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities. “If you listen to the melodies of a Romaniote synagogue, you’ll realize that it’s identical to Christian Byzantine music, yet their sound is totally different than the sound of Sephardic chanting. This osmosis proves that they’ve all coexisted peacefully for most of the time, and that’s also evident when you notice that synagogues, churches and mosques are [situated] in the very same area, very close to each other. If you see these monuments as a whole, it perfectly showcases our deep multicultural tradition.”
Calling all Israelis
As a politician, Elisaf has seemingly tapped into that theme of coexistence and harmony. When I ask some of my Christian friends in Ioannina about their new mayor, they highlight three key traits: His honesty, righteousness and industriousness. Elisaf himself says he comes from the center-left politically but nowadays is “more of a centrist — which also makes things easier when it comes to approaching both sides of the spectrum, which is exactly what a mayor should do: bring consensus.”
His plans for his small city echo seemingly those of mayors worldwide. “Our basic aim is to improve the quality of life for all our citizens: Road construction, waste management and cleanness, street lights, public playgrounds and squares. Simultaneously, we need to improve the quality of the municipality’s public services, have them redesigned and finally end ‘clientelism,’ which unfortunately is very popular in Greece — especially on a local government level.”
As a representative of the Jewish community, Elisaf also recognizes the extra importance attached to him succeeding as mayor — not just for fellow Jews but also for other minority groups. “It’s a great responsibility, especially after the severe economic crisis in Greece,” he notes. “We need to prove that what really counts is our mutual interests — and not the individual differences of the people in local governance.”
There is one change locals may notice very soon. Asked if his election is an “open call” for Israelis to visit, Elisaf responds enthusiastically: “Yes indeed! In fact, the citizens of Ioannina are expecting me to invite more Israelis to visit our town and experience the unique tradition of Romaniote Judaism, view the monuments and interact with us,” he says. “It is very important to have more Israeli brothers and sisters over, to support our community and our city.”
In a sense, Israelis will be returning the favor. Elisaf lived in Israel between 1993 and 1994, working at Tel Aviv University’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine. He also has several relatives in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and is a regular visitor to Israel.
As our meeting concludes — clearly a busy man, Elisaf is visiting Athens for the first time since his electoral victory — we follow the mayor outside to Syntagma Square, where a few people recognize and congratulate him.
Asked if he is religious or keeps Shabbat, Elisaf replies that he is secular, explaining that “Shabbat and kashrut are not kept in Ioannina. Still, we do not work on Yom Kippur.”
The final question relates to his name and whether it comes from the Hebrew verb la’asof (to collect). “Yes, it started as ‘Eliasaf,’ but some typo at the birth registry had it cut a bit shorter. In the U.S. it’s Eliasof — which means ‘God will gather.’” Which, when you think about the votes for him, is another way of interpreting Elisaf’s election victory.