Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Inside the Jewish Home of Ioannina : the Multicultural Mirror.

Inside the Jewish Home of Ioannina : the Multicultural Mirror.

Annette B. Fromm, Ph.D.

I would like to offer this paper in loving memory of Mrs. Nina Battinou who passed away gracefully in February 1999. You will hear Mrs. Battinou's voice in some of the sections of the paper. 


Many aspects of the traditional culture of the Jewish community of Ioannina, Greece, reflect the  multicultural nature of Northwestern Greece. After all, the Ottoman Turks governed this provincial capital for over 400 years. Throughout their rule, the Ottomans tolerated minority groups in their midst and allowed them to retain autonomous status. 

The origin of the Jewish community of Ioannina is lost in history. Local legend, still preserved in such places as Manhattan, Jerusalem, and Boynton Beach, recalls origins in ancient Palestine. Written Church documents from the 14th century record a definite Jewish presence in the city at that time. Regardless of their origins, Jews have been a significant element of the population since Byzantine times, hence, the current scholarly label for this community - Romaniote, of Byzantium or Rum. 

Ioannina, a provincial capital and trading entrepot, nestled on a peninsula on Lake Pamvotis and under the 7,000 foot peak Mt. Mitsekelis, drew a diverse mosaic of residents and traders from the region. Christian Greeks, Muslim Ottomans, Albanians, Vlachs, Jews and others lived in the city or did their business there. The city developed initially on a small rounded peninsula or spit of land jutting into the western shores of the lake. The easternmost side of the peninsula is formed into a rise or small acropolis. Preceding the Ottoman rule, the Byzantines had walled this area, thus it's name, the kastro. Here that the 19th century Ottoman despot, Ali Pasha Tepelini, built his mosque, serrai and barracks. 

Historically, the Jewish community of Ioannina lived in several distinct neighbourhoods, one in the kastro close to the main synagogue, the others outside of the kastro but close to its walls. Jews were not the only residents of these neighbourhoods. Muslim Turks also lived in houses lining the winding streets of the fortress. Some Muslims and Christian Greeks lived interspersed among the Jewish families in the other areas. Thus it is only logical that some architectural features of the homes reflected regional styles, while others were specific to the ethnic origins of the family residing there. 

The house in brief.

One of the houses in the kastro in which a Jewish family still lived in 1984 exemplifies many of these features even though it had just been remodelled and modernised. The Pitsirilo house is a modest two-storied stone building flush with the cobblestone street. 
The asymmetrical facade opens to a hallway (diava) leading directly to the garden at the rear of the house. Because there are only two rooms downstairs - the saloni and the kitchen - the broad hallway had been set up as a small sitting room complete with television. 

The well in the entry hall was covered during the renovation. Many houses in Ioannina, Jewish and Christian, had wells for fresh 
water. More often, they were located either in the basement or in the garden rather than in the house itself (see Nahman 1978). In 
the summer they served as natural coolers for fruit and beverages. 

"In the summer, when the men came from work. They had, all the mothers hung baskets and a big metal pitcher with wine in their wells. Then they didn't have freezers with ice or electricity. We pulled out the pitchers and the water was iced. We pulled out the basket and inside was watermelon, cantaloupe, grapes, pears, whatever, seasonal. And it was a pretty sight to see. One would call the other, `Hor, come and eat a melon.' `Samuel, come I'll give you a cucumber which is very tender.' And the others said, `There's lots, let's eat together.' It was very pretty, very nice" (interview, S. Koen, 17 November 1983). 

The formal living or reception room (saloni) was reserved for visits characterised by their brevity and the ritual serving of a sweet and coffee, the symbol of hospitality offered and received. Deep-set windows in the new kitchen of the Pitsirilo home overlook the street. Nahman (1978) described this feature as "Turkish, sticking-out window, something like a closed, small balcony." The deep sill allowed the women, who were often confined, to the home with housework, to sit in the window and gossip with their neighbours or passers-by. Finally, there is a garden behind the house, which until the remodelling had been paved with traditionally used slate paving stones. The toilet and bathing facilities and the kitchen had been located there. 
Traditionally, the cooking facility (magheros) was a separate cooking room in the garden with a wood burning oven (see Nahman 1978). Mrs. Moshe Levy told Joseph Matsas that it was specifically a kitchen separate from the house (personal communication, J. Matsas, 25 April 1984). 

"My house had four rooms ... Outside there was one small room that we called bathroom. There wasn't a bath ... And my mother put charcoal in it to warm up the room. And then put the water above ... and you put a stool there and we washed ourselves there. 

"The kitchen, it wasn't inside the house. It was very pretty to see all the benches, all white ... and all around were containers with flowers. And all of that was very pretty, very pretty. Every Sabbath, every Friday morning [my mother ] put on the [wood- burning] oven. And my mother said to her neighbours, because they didn't have an oven, `I'm going to put on the oven. So do you want me to bake anything for you?' `Yes, we always have.' they told us. It could be a pita; you can bake a chicken pie in the oven 
in the hour you put on the oven because we're making chickpeas. `We're making pastel,' `We're making caltsones, pie, boubanatsa.' According to the season. In the winter we made boubanatsas with raisins and squash, pastella. In the summer we made eggplant with cheese, pilaf, meat"
 (interview, S. Koen, 17 November 1983). 

The older Mrs. Battinou spoke of the magheros in her recollections of the family house in Ioannina. Through all of these narratives by community members about their former homes we catch a glimpse of the retention of archaic language in specialised usage by the Jews of Ioannina such as architectural features. 

"We lived here in the alley ... opposite Makis' [store] ... that house had two big rooms and it had a big one upstairs. In the summer we stayed upstairs ... it had a paved hall and a kitchen and a basement. Inside, all was inside the house. And the basement, bimsa, we called it bimsa ... Like we call the kitchen, the Ioanniotes, `Were is he?' `In the maghero.' We don't say kouzina [Demotic Greek for kitchen], we say maghero. `Where is that thing, what room?' `There, in the maghero you'll find it.' 
They didn't say kitchen ... in Ioannina ... Like we say run, [Demotic Greek, trexi], it's kosha ... like we say the cup with water. We call it siklo. You know how you get water from the well? ... 
[We had] simple [furniture], simple things. First, we had chairs, yes, but there was in the same houses ...basha, basha we called them ... It was in a place. Summer they were white, nice white ..." 
(interview, N. Battinou, July 1982). 

The basement mentioned by Mrs. Battinou was another feature found in the old homes in Ioannina. In the descriptive narrative 
about her home, she refers to it as the bimsa instead of the more standard Greek word, ipogheio. "We called it 
" The basement served a significant role in food storage, especially in the winter. 

"Every week my mother made food and we had a basement and in the basement we had cupboards where we kept the cooking pans. That cupboard had a covering all around. Do you know what's a covering? It's a light plastic that neither ants nor mosquitoes went into. And the basement was cool. And the food there remained fresh. We put our food there. Of course, that was our refrigerator" 

"There were benches like that all around any my mother had in one container, ashes. When you burn charcoal you get ashes. 
These ashes we cleaned in sieves to get all of that out. And the ashes were put in a large pan and inside of that pan they put eggs. 
I asked Mom, `My dear, why do you put the eggs in ashes?' `They don't spoil, the eggs.' And in truth, the eggs in the ashes, in the basement didn't spoil. The eggs stayed even a month. They didn't spoil! Can you believe it? We had beans and lentils. We didn't have nice things to go and buy, small things at the grocer. One time a year, there was the bazaar in September, like a framers market. And you passed by [it]. They had the beans, the lentils, the almonds, the walnuts, the lefto kara [hazelnuts]. 
They sold [all]. The chickpeas. The brooms. We didn't take one. We took ten, ten brooms. The garlic, the onions. They were fixed up [in a string]. And those we hung from a nail ... pomegranates, melons. And we put them in the basement and we had them all winter" 
(interview, S. Koen, 17 November 1983). 

Features of the saloni.

Several other features characterise the more affluent homes. Many of them were retained in another Jewish home still remaining in the kastro. The houses located inside of the fortress tend to be older than those found in the neighbourhoods outside of its walls because they were not damaged by the fires, which periodically destroyed sections of the city. They are more likely to retain the older features although some homes outside are known for their traditionally. The features detailed below mark both the traditional and upper class character of the home. 

First is the fireplace (tzaki) usually found in the saloni and often in the family sitting room. In the Matathias house on Filanthropinon Street, the whitewashed plaster fireplace was decorated with ornate moulded leaf figures. The firegrate was covered in the remodelling because portable gas stoves heated the house. Decorative, souvenir-type objects from Ioannina and other parts of Greece had been placed in the non-functional hearth. 

The second traditional feature of the room are the basha (Turkish), "permanent wooden sofas, usually placed near the fire- places" (Loukakis 1981:20). Basha were deep benches, covered with a variety of textiles, often spreading from corner to corner completely filling a wall. It was the one household feature, which appeared without fail in each personal narrative recalling the home. The fireplace and the basha had gone out of style by the late nineteenth century in favour of coal or wood stoves and European furniture. Nevertheless, they were retained in the Jewish homes, as reflected in the following recollections. 

"In our dining room we had basha ... in the winter we had them with pillows, with cut fabric embroidered by machine. My sister embroidered beautifully. And with very pretty white lace, starched. Below was hand woven and above coverlets. We had beautiful pillows. On the wall we had a large photo of my mother's mother and father. We had a beautiful buffet, a very pretty piece" (interview, S. Koen 17 November 1983). 

Deep-set storage closets with carved doors were set into the walls over the basha and flanked the fireplace. These are the misanderathes [Turkish or Arabic, built in closets], room-sized closets which were usually built in rooms on the upper floors of the houses. When Mary Meier moved to Ioannina from her childhood home of Volos, her new husband took her to live in the family house in Vakoufika. The old house presented her with many new experiences because, according to her, the houses in Volos weren't more than forty years old. 

"When I came here, what did I think of the old houses? Listen, Annetta, I didn't know old houses, Turkish houses, I didn't know. We didn't have attics, with mousanderathes. And they called them strange things. The houses seemed strange to me. I began to learn them. With paving stones. You've seen how the paving stones are? Square. I saw strange things. The toilets, toilets, a hole, horrible things. I suffered many years to learn these things" (interview, M. Meier, 13 November 1983). 

Janet Tsito also spoke of the built-in closets and that they were a feature of the Jewish homes. 

"And the house had closets in the walls, closed ... in the wall. All of the old Jewish houses had that. There was also a clean room ... that was the saloni" (interview, J. Tsito, July 1982). 

The wooden ceilings, tavania, are the fourth feature of all traditional Ioannina houses no matter the ethnicity of the homeowner. 
Lower class homes usually had simple wooden ceilings, board and batten style. The tavania (pl.) in the more elite homes are more elaborate and figurative with roundels in the centre and corner ornamentation, all often painted in gold leaf. 

Jewish features of the traditional houses. The fall festival of Sukkot is celebrated in open air by Jews world-wide. A temporary structure symbolising the booths or huts built by the Hebrews after they left Egypt is constructed of four walls and a loosely covered roof. Here the meals were eaten and family members would sleep for the duration of the holiday. A permanent, metal framework around which the sukkah was constructed was found in many of the gardens of the traditional Jewish house of Ioannina (Nahman 1978). 

""My house was at Kondouriotou 38, I think. You know where Kondouriotou is? ... It was the street next to the Hatzicosta Hospital. You know where the hospital is? ... There was the house of Elda, of the doctor, as they called it, on the corner. And opposite was the Alkalai house, the big building that they took down and built a big apartment building. But our own house is still standing. I have photographs ... Nearly all of the houses had a garden ... where the sukkah was made ... We had a well in the garden. At lots of houses the wells were in the basements. In our house it was in the garden. As I remember, in the winter we filled the basement with water, we filled it, and we put the wine. And in the basement it was, the refrigerator ... " (interview, L. Kambeli, 21 January 1984). 

One specific house in Kondouriotou is of particular historical interest, especially because of the reputation of its original owner. 
The house of David-John Levy was destroyed during the war. David-John Effendi, as he was better known and always referred to, was one of the major figures of the Jewish community of Ioannina in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His title, Effendi, was an honorary distinction awarded him by the Ottoman Sultan for services provided to the government (EE 2 May 1958). 

David-John Effendi's house is also of interest because of its sheer expanse. It was a two-storied stone building facing directly onto the street. Several gateways gave entry to the large walled garden located at the rear of the house. It was one of the few Jewish homes in Ioannina which had a mikvah (Hebrew, ritual bath) (see Levy, IJC 1975, #146; Nahman 1978). According to Dalven (1973:53), private homes did not have mikvahs until the twentieth century; "in olden times, the mikvah was in the synagogue courtyard." The women of Ioannina performed tevilah (Hebrew, ritual immersion) according to Jewish law just before marriage and every month thereafter. Because of their strict adherence to this and other Jewish laws, the Jewish community of Ioannina before the second World War was considered to be one of the most observant in Greece (Dalven 1973:53). 

"Ours, his, the two houses looked alike a lot ... It had a tevilah and a cistern. Ours didn't have that because my father was free, he went out on Shabbat and all. He wasn't religious. David-John Effendi had a tevilah, very nice. No one else had a tevilah. We put water to cool in it then, when there wasn't `frigidaire.' It had everything." (interview, E. Batish, 28 January 1984) 

Late twentieth century homes.

After the cataclysm of the Holocaust and Greek Civil War, the Jewish community of Ioannina was literally decimated. Homes, synagogues and businesses were damaged, destroyed or confiscated. Eventually in the intervening years, new lives and new homes were re-established. Several of the features of domestic architecture discussed above have been retained in a different form in the contemporary Jewish homes. 

The divani, or day bed, in the kitchen provides more comfortable seating for families with elderly members. It also allows more people to sit around the table to eat and visit. In form and function, the divani could be looked at as remnant of the basha found in the older homes. Balconies opening to the street from the kitchen and other rooms have taken the place of the traditional deep-set window. In the evening residents sit outside on their balconies talking with passers-by and neighbours. 

Four particular decorative features in the Jewish homes of the 1980s reveal that they are Jewish. Each home had a mezuzah (Hebrew, doorpost; see EJ 11) attached to the front doorframe and often on other doorways. During the autumn festival of Sukkot, small branches of myrtle were distributed at the end of the synagogue service. In many households, these were placed behind the mezuzah on the front door to bring good luck for the entire year. 

Each Jewish house traditionally had a doulapa ta livra (personal communication, J. Matsas, 27 March 1984), a cabinet of books. Only in this reference to religious books is the Spanish word used for books, livra, instead of the Greek, vivlia. One native of Ioannina who immigrated to Jerusalem in 1935 recalled this particular use of the Spanish word and the implications, which it carried. He was actually rambling about the present-day community and its leaders when he went off on a tangent on the origins and make-up of the community. His memories are interesting because they show the influence or lack of influence of Sephardic Jews in Ioannina from his point of view. The Jewish adherence to the Greek language is further supported in that in his recollection he uses the Greek article to rather than the Spanish El to modify the word, book. 

"Later a few [Jews] came [to Ioannina from Spain]. The difference is that 99% were Jews who were from [Ancient] Israel. 1% came from Spain or Sicily or from Spain straight away. Or others went East to Sicily. Because if you go to Ioannina, it doesn't have any relation, it's impossible [to realise that Sephardim settled there.] The Sephardim that came, went to the cities that were close to the sea, Thessaloniki, Volos, the islands, all over. So, in Ioannina they didn't come. Very few Sephardim 
arrived and we know that from their names - Koffina, Negrin. They however, forgot the Spanish and learned Greek. But some Spanish words stayed in the Jewish vocabulary ... to libro for the books they took to synagogue. Everyone knew to libro. They didn't call it in another language
" (interview, I. Batish, 28 January 1984). 

The bookshelf in the Jewish homes of Ioannina in 1984 held both popular books and Judaica. Some books on Jewish subjects were distributed free by KIS, the Central Jewish Organisation. Others had been purchased or sent from Israel. 

The third distinguishing feature found in Jewish homes was gold-embroidered velvet cushion covers. Framed and hung in the formal saloni, these embroideries were a requisite part of a woman's dowry. In the past they were used in certain life cycle ceremonies, such as the brit millah. They continued to serve the ritual purpose of a dowry item, and were passed on to the daughter of the family or to the daughter-in-law in families with only sons (Nahman 1978). 

Decorative, souvenir items from special occasions and from Israel were the fourth item marking the Jewish home. Souvenirs of special events included family photos and favours from life cycle celebrations. At circumcisions, Bar Mitzvahs, and weddings, guests were given souvenir bonbonnières - a packet of sugarcoated almonds attached to a favour of some sort. At a recent Jewish wedding in Athens, attended by several families from Ioannina, the bonbonnières included a ballpoint pen inscribed with the names of the couple. This innovation caused quite a bit of talk across the mountains in Ioannina. Decorative items from Israel, which were either sent by family members living there or were souvenirs from a trip there, were another marker of identity found in the Jewish homes in Ioannina. 

Another type of object served both in this function and as a decorative souvenir. Upon their return, Jewish survivors of the Holocaust from Ioannina were given flatware and enamelled dishes by the Joint Distribution Committee to help set up a new home. Such plates were displayed in at least one kitchen. 


As the smaller communities throughout Greece dwindle in size and significance, this article serves only as a document of the unique "Greek" expression of Judaism that characterised Ioannina. The Jewish community of Ioannina is one, which was integrated with neighbouring populations who lived in this off-some-beaten track commercial, governmental and military city.
The flavour of the community was uniquely Greek, as seen through the preservation of language to refer to certain features of architecture. It was also a melange as seen in the actual adaptation of specific elements of the house. Throughout, the community remained distinctly Jewish. 

1. This paper was presented at the 5th Annual Wester Jewish Studies Association, Seattle. Washington, U.S.A., March 1999. 

Research for this paper was undertaken during the 1983-84 academic year with funding from the Fulbright Commission in Greece and the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture. It is a portion of the doctoral dissertation, We Are Few: Folklore and Ethnic Identity of the Jewish Community of Ioannina, Greece, Bloomington: Indiana University, 1992. 

Annette B. Fromm is a folklorist and museum specialist. In over 20 years, she has worked in different capacities in museums including the Children's Museum in Indianapolis, the Cleveland Ethnographic Museum, a pioneering museum which emphasised the diversity of the city of Cleveland, Ohio; the Fenster Museum of Jewish Art in Tulsa, where she initiated the Oklahoma Jewish Archives Project; the Creek Council House Museum; and the Oklahoma Museum of Natural History where she developed new anthropology and archaeology exhibits. She taught anthropology and museum studies at the University of Tulsa for over seven years.