Ionanna Galanaki is completing her PhD at Southampton University, writing about the revival of the Etz Hayyim synagogue and community in the ancient port of Chania, Crete. In this intensely personal essay, she pays homage to the late Nikos Stavroulakis, who was a key figure in her research. Stavroulakis spearheaded the restoration of the synagogue and developed it as a religious and cultural center that is also used for worship by a diverse community that he himself said “accommodates Jews of every variety of self identity as well as non-Jews.” He died in May, 2017; we published other tributes to him at the time.
“Makom” in a revived synagogue in Crete: a Tribute to Nikos Stavroulakis z”l
By Ioanna Galanaki
SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND — According to Jewish tradition, every miracle comes out of ‘something’: out of a small quantity of oil that remains sufficient, out of some simple and supposedly naïve ritual, out of one person performing an act that is seemingly incomprehensible, and sometimes even inconceivable.
And so it was with Nikos Stavroulakis and the revitalization of the Etz Hayyim Synagogue and its community in Chania.
The co-founder and former director of the Jewish Museum of Greece in Athens, Nikos was the driving force behind the restoration of the synagogue in the 1990s. Originally built as a church in the 15th century, it had been converted into a synagogue in the 17th century but had stood empty and desecrated for decades after the Holocaust.
Following the restored synagogue’s rededication in 1999, Nikos became the heart of a havurah-like community there that attracted Jews and non-Jews alike.
“How did you find all these people?” I once asked him. “I didn’t find them,” he replied. ‘They found me!”
He went on to explain that at the very beginning, immediately after its re-opening in 1999, he would go to the synagogue every morning in order to pray, completely alone, even though he was not particularly religious at the time. This simple ritual gradually attracted people and steadily created a diverse community.
It was a community that emerged through one person’s dreams, resourceful thinking, determination, and commitment. All this formed the intangible “cruse of oil” which together with Nikos’s belief in “the impossible” created a new, and what I would call marvelous, reality.
Nikos was much more than merely an empathetic person, however; he was a friend. A friend who was considerate, understanding, sharing, supportive, inspiring – even at a distance. His was a friendship that always communicated a powerful message: you can achieve what you want; do not accept anything less than the truth; keep moving forward and bear in mind that there is no time to delay or to postpone what you can do. Over the years that I knew him he shared with me his knowledge, his experience, his adventures, his passions, his house, his art, his cooking, his pets, his stories, his network of friends, his time, his love; he also dedicated time to introducing my research to others.
Describing Nikos’s capacity for loving, caring and sharing doesn’t do him justice, however, because he was much more. He was a diverse universe in himself, a whole world wherein the moment you thought you had grasped its limits, another completely unknown aspect would unfold.
He shaped the Etz Hayyim community according to his likeness. He managed to bring together such diverse people, inducing among them an appreciative atmosphere of dialogue and an enduring spirit of friendship despite their sometimes conflicting individual backgrounds.
But stating that Nikos brought different people and different cultures closer together, created life friendships, inspired reconciliation, broke conventions, and established a positive precedent in a place and at a time much needed still wouldn’t do justice to him.
Because Nikos was a visionary: I strongly believe that his work regarding the Etz Hayyim Synagogue will have an impact on Jewish heritage and on notions of ‘Jewish space’ on a larger scale. Moreover, his work and his legacy have the potential to empower and reshape Jewish/non-Jewish relations within Greece and beyond.
Nikos dared to dream the impossible and thus he generated profound change.
Non-Jews praying along with Jews at an old traditional Synagogue that just a few decades ago hardly anyone remembered, or, as Nikos himself might have put it, that most people had intentionally chosen to forget all about. This old Greek Synagogue formed part of an unwanted and long-neglected heritage that was excluded from the official national narratives. This unwanted heritage could trigger bad memories and could provoke unsettling or even ‘dangerous’ questions.
The general spirit of oblivion could not make Nikos stop. On the contrary, he was particularly passionate to reveal and expose those invented stories that so often were taken for historical facts. He knew that only if you know the truth concerning the past can you reconcile in the present. Reconciliation cannot be based on lies or on beautified versions of history.
What makes strong communities is awareness. The current Etz Hayyim community is strong and well-connected to the city’s present fabric, and at the same time it is mindful of the past and of the future of Judaism in Greece.
In my view, it is becoming a place with dual attributes according to the meaning of the Hebrew word makom. Makom means both the actual place and also a co-constructed space between people of different backgrounds and faiths.
And is also a place where Nikos’s memory continues to dwell. Throughout his life he inspired and influenced the lives and the work of so many people – including me and my own current academic research on the Etz Hayyim. His wisdom is and will be present, his spiritual youthfulness still blossoming within the dense network of people that he met and brought together; his memory is and shall always be a blessing.
February 16, 2018
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Ionana Galanaki is completing her PhD at Southampton University, writing about the revival of the Etz Chayyim synagogue and community in the ancient port of Chania, Crete. The title of her dissertation is ”The Etz Hayyim Synagogue, from dilapidated building to shared sacred site – A biography of survival.”