"New York's Jewish Week" 1/27/06

"When Less Is More"
A short documentary on Romaniote Jews and a pithy drama about a Moroccan Jewish family are among the standouts at Sephardic film festival.
by George Robinson - Special To The Jewish Week

At the risk of repeating myself, lately it seems that the best films in festivals are often the shortest. That seems to be the case again at this year’s NewYork Sephardic Jewish International Film Festival, which begins on Feb. 2.

The film in question, “The Last Greeks on Broome Street,” is a sweet 27-minute tribute to Kehila Kedosha Janina, the only Romaniote Jewish synagogue in the Western Hemisphere. Directed, written and narrated by Ed Askinazi, whose great-grandparents were among the congregation’s founders, “Last Greeks” is a fascinating and highly personal reminder of one of the least-known chapters of Jewish history, the Greek Jewish community that arose when the Byzantine Empire was all that remained of the Roman dominion. In a sense, the Romaniote aren’t even Sephardic Jews; they predate the Sephardic-Ashkenazi geographic division of the Jewish world. But they have persevered and Kehila Kedosha Janina still survives on the Lower East Side, albeit in a vastly reduced form...

From The Rochester Jewish Ledger 7/28/06

By Arlene Hisiger

“Well, if you are a Sephardi how come you have a name like Askinazi?” I get asked that question a lot, says Ed Askinazi, writer, filmmaker and producer for PBS, smiling wryly. “Ashkinazi is the name that they gave to Jewish families who migrated from Northern Europe,” Ed explains.

Thing is, Ed is neither Ashkinazi nor Sephardi – he is Romaniot, a little known and largely misidentified group of Jews. It is this misconception that is at heart of his affectingly well-crafted documentary, recently shown at the Jewish Film Festival, entitled: The Last Greeks on Broome Street. The film’s genesis lies in a New York Times article that Ed read some time back in the late Nineties, he learned of the Kehilla Kedosha Janina synagogue on the Lower East Side of New York City – the only remaining Romaniot synagogue in the Western Hemisphere. It was then that he became a man with a mission.

Romaniot Jews are Jews who trace their origin to the Roman Empire, more specifically Jews who lived in the eastern part of the Roman Empire, Byzantium (also known as the “second Rome”). The film highlights Jews who trace their roots to the inland city of Janina or Ioannina in the Greek province of Epirus. Unlike their Sephardic counterparts these Jews were never exiled from the Iberian Peninsula, nor did they hail from Europe like their Ashkenazic co-religionists, although, Greek Jews suffered some measure of persecution at the hands of the Greeks and Turks, Janina was dealt its’ most devastating blow in World War Two when the Nazis deported the entire community of 1,860 to Auschwitz – only 35 survived.

Caught in a vise-like architectural grip of the two non-descript graffiti-graced buildings flanking it, Kehilla Kedosha Janina Synagogue, an unimposing sliver of a building, appears, at first, to mirror its adjoining neighbors until one notices the two Star of David’s piercing the sky above its’ rooftop.

For seven years, Ed Askinazi focused his trained eye on this synagogue and on a community that was at once fascinatingly exotic and familiar as the blood in his veins. His was a hand-me-down knowledge, passed on to him via his father’s Romaniot reminisces; it had the somewhat unsatisfying quality of a muffled conversation – heard, but not fully experienced.

Ed’s father, Calvin, was born on the Lower East Side to émigré parents from Janina, Greece. Romaniot culture cradled, nourished and informed his life; “old country” ethic indelibly impressed upon his psyche and soul. In his youth, the tenements of the Romaniot ghetto, circumscribed by Broome and Allen streets, teemed with newcomers eager to seize the alluring new lifestyle, beckoning to them just beyond the ghetto’s reach. Together, within the reassuring context of a close-knit community, they set about mastering the challenges and savoring the joys America offered.

Together they celebrated life cycle events – Kehilla Kedosha Janina Synagogue’s modest space miraculously accommodating their abundant number; its walls permanently permeated with the sound of joyous celebrants and the mournfully bereaved. Yet for many, the richness of this shared experience was paltry compensation for the daily deprivation, stifling proximity, and unrelenting poverty that has classically defined the immigrant experience. It was a place, as Ed described, from which “you got out, and you didn’t look back.”

By the time he was twelve years old, Ed’s father successfully put geographic distance between his family and New York’s five boroughs. He took shelter in the quiet and comfort of Long Island and in his ability to provide his family the sort of lifestyle that was far removed from his humble beginnings.

But life has a way of taking you full-circle. At his son’s request, Calvin agreed to assist Ed with his quest to document the history of the Jews of Janina and accompanied Ed back to the old neighborhood – the last repository of Greek Jewish culture in the Western Hemisphere.

In one of the film’s early sequences, Calvin Askinazi, moving with the distracted gait of one attuned to ancient reverberations, surveys his surroundings and somewhat incredulously declares in unmistakable New York cadence: “ I haven’t been down here in a long (lingering on the word for emphasis) time, it’s gotta be almost 40 years that I’ve been down here!” Thus begins a father-son odyssey into an altogether familiar experience: time travel - Jewish style.

The itinerary appears to be the same…communities lovingly built with the sweat and toil of immigrant founders determined to preserve their traditions …fast-forwarded to the same community, now on the verge of extinction. Stories such as these risk the listener’s ennui for we have encountered them so many times before.

But, to dismiss this film as yet another historical documentary would be to neglect the uniqueness of its’ antiquity – an antiquity apparent in the language its members use to greet one another, in the documents with which they celebrate and record births and in the Chazzan’s (Cantor) distinctive melodic chant - a two thousand year old liturgical legacy. With subtle deftness Ed Askinazi draws the viewer into a heretofore-obscure community. A community, like many others, that laments the loss of its sons and daughters yet remains fiercely hopeful its’ remaining members will serve as catalytic spark, sufficient to keep the flame of its traditions alive.

An unexpected benefit for Ed Askinazi in creating this film was something he realized only in retrospect. “I find, he confided, “as I get older, that I am longing for community.” “When I walked into the sanctuary for the first time… there was something so special about being in that space – I don’t know if I can describe it – I felt the very strong sense of family connection. People greeted me with ‘your Calvin’s son, your Eddie’s grandson… it was magical’.”

The Last Greeks on Broome Street affords us an opportunity to embark on a familiar yet sufficiently unique historical road trip whose nostalgic charm and bracing encounter with the unknown conspire to guarantee the viewer a magical experience as well.

Review in “La Lettre Sepharade” by Marcia Haddad Ikonomopoulos

“The Last Greeks on Broome Street” made its United States debut on December 6, 2005 at the Washington DC Jewish Film Festival, and then played to a sold-out, standing room audience at the International Sephardic Film Festival at the Center for Jewish History on February 5, 2006 in New York City. It has delighted its audiences, both of those of Greek Jewish background who are familiar with the subject and those of other backgrounds who are appreciative of the story Ed Askinazi tells so well.

This is a personal story, the story of Askinazi’s community; a community of Greek Jews who settled on the Lower East Side, originally coming from the small city of Ioannina in the northwest of Greece. When asked why he, a professional filmmaker, screenwriter, and editor -- whose work has been screened in international film festivals throughout North America, Europe, and Asia -- chose this subject, he responded, “It was something I had to do.” He worked on the film for over six years, interviewing members of the congregation, filming liturgy, traveling to social events, accessing archival material and personal film footage, lovingly documenting the community. Like many other families in the neighborhood, Askinazi’s family moved away from the Lower East Side and drifted away from the synagogue Kehila Kedosha Janina that served, and still continues to serve, as the lifeline of the community. It might have been a physical move, but the emotional attachment still remained. The film opens with Askinazi returning, with his father, to the “old” neighborhood and to the Kehila.

Built in 1927, the synagogue was once the home to a thriving community of Greek-speaking Jews. Now, the neighborhood has changed. Most of the congregants have moved away, but unlike most other synagogues that once existed on the Lower East Side, Kehila Kedosha Janina is still there, still functioning, still attracting attention, and thanks to Askinazi’s excellent film, enchanting others throughout the world who knew little of its existence.