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December 1, 2015 / 19 Kislev, 5776
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Before The Deluge: Jews Of The Mediterranean Islands (Part II)


The stories in this column are translations by Mr. Nollet from Die Juden In Der Welt (The Jews in the World) by Mark Wischnitzer, a long out-of-print book published more than seven decades ago in Germany. The book examines Jewish communities, one country at a time, as they existed in 1935 – a time before the Nazis began their extermination campaign against the Jews and before there was a state of Israel.


Jews Of The Mediterranean Islands


In biblical times this island was known as Kaftor. It had close relations with the Philistines, who already swelled in the Land of Canaan when the Jews migrated in, and this Kaftorland is conceivably the Philistine homeland. This cultural connection is confirmed by excavations in Palestine, and not only in Philistine regions either, but also in purely Jewish territories. Objects of the culture of Crete, such as barrels, tools, and jewelry of all kinds have been found.

One of the largest islands of the eastern Mediterranean, Crete became a destination for Jewish migration in Hellenistic times. In the Crete-ish city of Gortyna, there appears to have been a Jewish community as early as 140 BCE. In any event, when the Romans occupied Crete in 67 BCE, they definitely found Jewish settlements. The false messiah Alexander, who pretended to be a son of King Herod, was able to find followers and financial support on Crete. The (Jewish) philosopher Philo mentioned that Crete was heavily populated with Jews.

Under the rule of Venice in the 13th century there was a Jewish rural population and communities in the capital Kandia, and in Retimo, and in the Fortress Bonifazio. The Jews occupied themselves with leatherworking and butchery, and also in the production of very famous clothing and veils. Their occupations were agriculture, trade, and banking.

At the end of the 14th century the indigenous Jewish population received an influx of Jews from Spain (1391) and Venice (1394), followed by another strong wave of Sephardic Jews from Spain in 1492. Jewelry from the synagogues was sold off in order to pay ransom for captive Jews and buy passage on ships to bring them to Crete.

Intellectual thought was influenced by Italy, which was the leader of culture at that time. In the 14th century Crete produced the biblical commentator Schemarja Ikriti, in the 15th century the philosopher Elia del Medigo, in the 16th century the history writer Elia Kapsali, and in the 17th century the philosopher and mathematician Joshua Salomon del Medigo, a remarkable mind from this outstanding family.

As is the case of so many of the other islands of the eastern Mediterranean Sea, the ensuing centuries saw a decline in the Jewish population. In 1897, there was a total of 1,150 Jews on Crete, who lived mainly in Kanea; by 1930 there were scarcely 600.


While Benjamin of Tudela (1170) found scarcely a single Jew on Corfu, this state of affairs changed when rulers of Naples from the House of Anjou brought in Jewish craftsmen from the Byzantine Empire. From this foundation there developed in the 15th and 16th century communities of Spanish, Sicilian, and Apulian Jews, who had to leave their homelands due to persecution. [Translator’s Note: Apulia is halfway up the Italian peninsula on the Adriatic Sea.] To this day they preserve their particular customs and rites.

Concerning how they spoke with each other, the Byzantine Jews quickly enough learned the dialect of the Apulian Jews who, on account of their frequent contact with Venice, took after the Venetian dialect. On Tisha B’Av, the Greek Jews dedicated themselves to reciting Lamentations in the Greek language. Until 1884, on Shavuot, a poem written in Greek, with rhymes, was recited. Famous Greek folk songs with Turkish words were sung on Rosh Chodesh Adar. The first full translation of the Bible into modern Greek was prepared for the Jews on Corfu.

Corfu is one of those lands in which Jews traditionally were known for crafts, trade, and various kinds of heavy manual labor. In the quaint little backstreets from the Middle Ages which were inhabited by Jews, one could find cabinet-makers, locksmiths, cobblers, coopers, blacksmiths, plumbers, and the like. Jewish barge pilots, stevedores and porters complete the picture of the Jewish economic life on Corfu.

There were also great merchants who were involved in export and lending; excellent doctors; and defense attorneys whom one could see practicing in the courts of law of the 17th century. Jewish soldiers fought bravely during the defense of the Turkish siege of 1716.

At the beginning of the 20th century there were 5,000 Jews on Corfu. The deteriorating economy caused a significant exodus in 1901, mainly to Alexandria, Triest, and Milan. In 1933 there were about 1,000 Jews left on Corfu.

The synagogue liturgy of the Jews of Corfu modeled itself after the Roman rite.  Handwritten prayer books can be found in the Bodleiana in Oxford, as well as in various public and private collections. The British Museum possesses handwritten liturgies and poems written in Greek and in the Apulian dialect which were written by the Jews of Corfu.

About the Author: Ezra James Nollet is a retired U.S. government chemist living in Poland where he is officer of the local synagogue in Legnica. Before the Deluge appears the last week of each month.

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