Hey it's me, click me to go to the main page, not too hard!
B'siyata d'shmaya - With the help of Heaven

Lamp of the Greek Jews has Dimmed

The Passing of Hy Genee z"l

By Shelomo Alfassa

The Jewish Voice - March 3, 2006

Hy Genee, the spiritual leader and president of Kehila Kedosha Janina, the Romaniote synagogue in New York City, passed away on February 13, 2006 at the age of 83 leaving the 100 year old congregation in tears.

Kehila Kedosha Janina was founded by Greek Jewish immigrants in 1907, and named after the city of Janina (Ioannina), from where they came. The dignified old synagogue built in 1927 at 280 Broome Street remains, it is the only Romaniote synagogue in the Western Hemisphere. In addition, it stands as one of the last old synagogues on the Lower East Side of New York City, still in operation.

Although it is often called Sephardic, the congregation that Hy led for many decades was made up of Romaniote Jews. These are neither Ashkenazic nor Sephardic Jews; they are Jews with their origins in ancient Greece, arriving there after the destruction of the first Beit HaMikdash (Temple) in Jerusalem. They have their own nusah (rite), an orthodox tradition similar but different than the Sephardic tradition. Similarities between the Romaniote and Sephardim indeed exist, because both groups spent hundreds of years together while Greece was under Ottoman Turkish rule. Yet, the Greeks are proud, and rightly so, of their unique traditions.

Hy was born April 27, 1922 on the lower east side of New York to Bechorak (Morris) Genee and Firo (Fani) Genee of 54 Orchard Street. Hy grew up in the center of the world. It was the place where everyone was coming to, it was the place where immigrants flooded in by the tens of thousands. Hy's parents themselves were immigrants from Janina; they had crossed the Mediterranean and Atlantic, like other immigrants, in search of a new life.

When Hy was growing up, the area where he lived was known as the 'east side.' It was a hodgepodge of ethnic groups, living together in general harmony, in basically lousy living conditions. Yet, as difficult as it was, and while just about everyone was poor, everyone did what they had to advance themselves and their families.

In the 1930's, the decade when Hy had his Bar Mitzva at the Janina synagogue, the Sephardic community on the Lower East Side was still thriving. This was the period of Americanization! But while the immigrants were learning English, the "Balkans Record Store" down the street was still selling them records in Ladino, Greek and Arabic. While you could take the Jew out of the old country, you couldn't take the old country out of the Jew. This was a time when there were several Sephardic newspaper still being published, and the Kavanes/Kafenios (coffee houses) on Allen Street were packed late into the evening with men talking, smoking cigars, playing pinochle, dominoes and backgammon, reading the papers, and listening to music-usually just a modest man plucking an ud.

While 25,000-30,000 Greek, Turkish, Syrian and Balkan Jews arrived between 1900-1925; it would only be the Greeks that survived on the Lower East Side with a house of prayer. The Turkish and Balkan Jews moved away from the area and assimilated. The Syrians moved to Brooklyn and continued to maintain their rich culture, even till today. But by the late 1940's, near all Sephardim would be moving out of the area. And even when most of the Greek Jews scattered to Brooklyn, Queens, and elsewhere, there still was enough of a presence at the Janina synagogue that it was able to keep its doors open for many years-as an active synagogue-as it is in our present day.

Back in Europe, the Jewish community of Ioannina had 1,000 families at the turn of the 20th century. It had two synagogues and two private meeting-rooms for prayer, a Talmud Tora, a school (400 boys and 150 girls) where Turkish and Greek were taught in addition to Hebrew. There was said to be at least ten Jewish benevolent societies in the city. At the beginning of World War II, the Jewish community numbered about 2,000. Most were small business owners, many were poor. Families were large and patriarchal, marriages were arranged. The community was conservative in nature and religiously observant. Their daily life revolved around their synagogues.

On March 25, 1944, the Jewish Community of Ioannina was rounded up and deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Of the 1,960 deported, 1,850 would never return. They would suffer and perish in the Nazi death camps. Not only did the souls of the victims get snuffed out, but also a culture that literally went back thousands of years was completely destroyed.

Although not born there, Hy Genee loved his heritage; he did all he could to further the memory and culture of the Jews of Ioannina. A few years ago Hy traveled to Greece where in conjunction with Samuel Koen, a leading member of the remaining Jewish community, prayer services were held-feared to be possibly one of the last Shabbat services to ever be held in Ioannina.

Hy was the president of the synagogue for 30 years. He led services, acted as a guide, and was a time machine for those that would walk in off the street and ask about the area. He knew all the details of the Lower East Side, the old shops, the old people, the old Jewish world, he retained important memories from a time long gone. Today, the area near Kehila Kedosha Janina is a different place then when Hy was growing up. While the gritty ambiance of the inner city remains, things have changed for the better over the decades. The loud and dirty elevated train no longer goes up Allen Street, significant tracts of tenements such as those on Allen, Eldridge and Delancy have been razed by the City of New York to widen the streets and 'bring in fresh air.'

As a child, Hy saw the community and the area when it was healthy and strong. He went off to war with the U.S. Army in Europe and returned in 1945. After the war, most Jews left the lower east side en masse for a change of scenery. Most went to Queens and Brooklyn, some went to upstate New York, many others left for Florida. But Hy remained in New York, in the garment business, for many decades.

Hy witnessed the worst of times for New York when the city was in dire straights, plagued by crime, vandalism and graffiti in the 1970s. When he became president of the synagogue in 1976, crime was at its peak, but that would change over the next decade. The area where the Janina synagogue stands has gone through quite a change for the better. Over the last couple decades, the neighborhood has been cleaned up significantly. Since the unruly days of the 1970s, crime has gone down, and the area, while still very urban, has improved. The synagogue itself had been repaired, several times, and (sadly) had just begun a major restoration, one week before Hy's passing.

Around the corner from Kehila Kedosha Janina weeps an old abandoned synagogue that was originally founded by Sephardic Jews. It once housed a large Sephardic congregation, but today, it has a large cross hanging over the facade of the building, it has become a church. This will never happen with the Janina synagogue. While today there is some sort of construction project on almost every street in the area, it is comforting to recognize that the Kehila Kedosha Janina synagogue is a New York State landmark and will have a lengthy life, long past our lives. Hy Genee's grandchildren will be able to bring their children there, and show them the synagogue that their great-grandfather, a man who was dedicated to his religion and his culture, was so dedicated to over many years.

Kehila Kedosha Janina stands as a symbol of remembrance to the martyrs of Greece, and for every single Jew killed by the Germans during the Holocaust. It doesn't have a 50 million dollar budget like some "museums" do, but it is authentic, and serves a tremendous purpose as a living example of the past. While it also houses a small but important museum, the highest honor of all is that it remains open as a functioning synagogue, in this capacity, it truly honors all Jews. Hy Genee helped keep it open, in his honor, many people now will be gathering the strength to continue this solemn responsibility. The lamp of the Romaniote community in New York has dimmed, but the torch is not out-it has just passed on to a new hand.




© Shelomo Alfassa