This is a piece of writing my mom wrote a few years ago about growing up as a Greek Jew in the East (South) Bronx. She’s turning 70 next week and retiring from her job and I’ve always loved this essay and realized it didn’t exist online. So here it is.
(above: At the Kehilla Kadosha Janina – the Romaniote synagogue turned museum on the Lower East Side with photos of our Greek Jewish immigrant family on the wall.)
(above: me and my mom on the 2 train headed downtown, mom with ever-present New York Times in hand, folded the way they taught her to fold them at Hunter College High School)
I am a modern American Jewish woman, a feminist, an active member of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun on Manhattan’s west side, and a communal professional working at UJA-Federation of new York to help meet the needs of New York’s Jewish and general community. And now at this stage of my life, I am a member of the board of the Kehilla Kadosha Janina (KKJ). My journey has been profoundly shaped by the community and family from which I come, Jews born in Janina, a Romaniote or Greco-Judeo community, who emigrated from the then Ottoman Empire at the turn of the century, seeking a better life in this country.
My grandparents Anna Mazza and Zadick Coffino came to this country separately, my grandfather at about age 16 and my grandmother in 1906 when she was about 10 years of age. They met and married on New York’s Lower East Side in 1909. There, in a community of other Janina Jews, who established the Kehilla, they birthed seven children, 4 girls and 3 boys. My grandmother was 14 years old when she married, and had her first child, Rebecca (Aunt Betty) when she was 16. And like so many of their brethren, began their trek, moving uptown to East Harlem, and then settling in the Hunts Point section of the east Bronx, where I was born.
Within this little stretch of land, running from Leggett to Westchester Avenues, along Southern Boulevard and Fox Street, a new Janina community, which was more like a village with its own synagogue was established in the 1930’s. This community celebrated its culture and traditions, and succeeded in transmitting to its children a profound sense of identity as Greek Jews. We were blessed to be raised with the passion, warmth and earthiness of that culture, a culture which has little trouble in expressing its emotions, affection as well as anger. Greek was the language spoken at home, as was the music played at simchas.
It was a working class community, in which social or economic stratification appeared to be absent. No one seemed to have much money. The Coffino clan were typical, my grandfather and almost all my uncles (sons, as well as in-laws) were in the fruit and vegetable business. My grandfather Zadick had a stall in East Harlem’s public market, La Marqueta where he sold potatos and onions. Others worked in grocery stores, and eventually, my Uncle Sam made it big, and had his own store on the Grand Concourse.
Incomes were supplemented by shoe shining downtown on the weekend or selling ice cream at Rockaway Beach during the summer. Although in retrospect they were always struggling financially, I do not think they ever really considered themselves poor.
My mother Sarah was the middle child. She was different. She was the only daughter to graduate from high school, and because of family illness and the need to work, unable to attend college. In addition, she married out to an Askenazi Jew, my father Jack, who was a plumber. That made
> my brother and me “half-breeds”. In fact, we were called “zgizucksas”, which I believe is in Greco-Judeo for Ashkenazi. As a result of this “mixed” marriage, neither of us learned to understand or speak Greek as did my “full-blood” cousins. Nonetheless, our family remained within the tribe. And it was a tribe. My aunts married into the Eskenazi clan (a common Romaniote last name), two brothers and a cousin, so that my cousins’ grandmother, became my brother’s and mine as well. It seemed as if everyone was in some way related by blood in this community. The intensity of the relationships was profound. Every Sunday we convened at our grandparents’ home, and lined up to get a weekly pinch on the cheek from our grandfather who doled out our Sunday nickel. My parent’s generation formed a “Cousins Club”, which met on Saturday evenings and for annual outings. In the summer, we all decamped from our hot cramped apartments and settled in rented rooms in the Hammel section of Rockaway Beach, Queens where our Greek community was once again re-established.
> Our religious observance was conditioned by our economics. Although fiercely Jewish, economic conditions required that the men had to work on Shabbat. Fridays the women cooked and baked for Shabbat. Friday afternoons the cousins converged at Grandma’s house so that we could consume the wonderful pastries-cludias (cookies), bourekias and bread that she prepared for Shabbat. Pesach meant an ingathering of the clan at our grandparents’ home. It was a raucous affair, with the traditional reading of the Maxwell House Haggadah carried on by our grandfather, while the men of the family swapped stories and jokes, and the women worked in the kitchen preparing to serve the sumptuous traditional meal prepared by our nonna (Grandma). My favorite was pastela, a baked meat and vegetable pie made with matzohs. Keftides, leek and meat croquettes, and a variety of spinach and meat combinations were also served. Before we ate dinner, we engaged in War, were each of us took a roasted egg and vied to break another’s egg. The person with the last intact egg was declared the winner. It was always hotly contested.
Just before Pesach, Grandpa would visit each of his children’s homes for the ridding of hametz. After the cleansing of the home was completed, we would wrap pieces of bread in paper and leave them on the window sill. Grandpa would come, and with a feather brush them into a container to take to the street, where he would say prayers and burn them. In our cleansed stove, my mother would take the nuts-pumpkin seeds, filberts, almonds that we had purchased on our annual visit to the Lower East Side, and roast them. These and dried fruit constituted our noshes during Pesach.
Our synagogue was in rented space on the second floor of an institutional building housing other congregations. Men and women sat separately, although there was no mehitza. Women of this community received no formal Jewish education. My memories of synagogue attendance were times of social gathering. Nonetheless, the melodies of those services and the images of the men in their tallits are seared in my memory.
Our own diaspora took place in the mid-1950’s, as the community around us changed. The youngest and most Americanized of the family, my Uncle Mo moved to a new development in Queens, while the others moved to various points along the Grand Concourse in the west Bronx. Until that time, we had all lived on one block, but now the loss of intensity which came from living in such close proximity began to dissipate the ties. My generation began its own exploration of the larger world into which we were born. Today there are only a handful of us who even live in New York. None of us married other Greeks, although many of us had Greek bands at our weddings. I do not know if any of my cousins belong to Sephardic synagogues (the Kehilla is the only surviving Romaniote synagogue in the western hemisphere). I myself am a member of a synagogue founded by Ashkenazi Jews, although it incorporates melodies from many Jewish communities in our service. I hope one day soon some of our Romaniote melodies will be included. I do know that my cousins and I all shared a special and unique experience.
I have just recently joined the board of the Kehilla synagogue and museum in order to help foster the work of recording and documenting the traditions, melodies, and history of our little-known Greco-Judeo community, not only for ourselves, but so that we can share it with the larger community. I am doing this not only to honor the memory of my beloved grandparents and all of their children who are all gone, including the youngest, Mo, who just died this fall. But also in the hope that my own son, Sascha and those of his generation, who did not have the good fortune to have tasted of this rich tradition, can learn from where they have come and feel pride in it. For although I surely am an American Jew, I know too that I continue to feel deep emotional ties to that Greek land from which my we came.