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Queens College virtual exhibit explores one of the world’s oldest Jewish communities

Brooklyn photographer Vincent Giordano’s efforts to chronicle the Kehila Kedosha Janina community in NYC would prove critical to preserving Romaniote culture, with the synagogue being its only representation in North America. (Courtesy of Queens College)

The new Queens College virtual exhibition, “Romaniote Memories, a Jewish Journey from Ioannina, Greece, to Manhattan: Photographs by Vincent Giordano,” is exploring one of the oldest Jewish communities in existence and its presence in New York City.

The exhibition coincides with International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27 — the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau — in commemoration of these communities. It features over 100 photographs presented in 10 thematic sections, including the synagogue’s art and architecture, religious rites and celebrations, as well as photographs taken during the High Holidays in Ioannina, Greece, in 2006. 

A virtual opening reception, featuring a conversation with the curator, organizers, distinguished guests and friends, is scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 11, at 5 p.m. 

In 1999, Brooklyn-born photographer Vincent Giordano made an unplanned visit to the Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue on New York City’s Lower East Side. Built in 1927, the synagogue housed a congregation (kehila) founded in 1906 by Jewish immigrants from the town of Ioannina (Janina) in northern Greece, who followed the Romaniote rite. 

Unfamiliar with Judaism, let alone Romaniote Jews, Giordano would come to play a significant role in documenting the experiences of this millennia-old population that has maintained traditions dating to ancient Greece and Rome. 

As part of a statement about his work for a 2007 exhibition on the Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue project, Giordano said what he heard and saw at the synagogue made an indelible impression on him. 

“I listened with great interest and sadness to the story of the Romaniote’s forgotten place in Jewish history. I wondered how a community and its culture wither away and vanish … which forces are at work, and which are not?” Giordano said. 

That’s when Giordano began to photograph and document the synagogue and the community. 

“This effort was transformed into an incredible personal journey of discovery, filled with wonderful people, interesting experiences and fascinating places,” Giordano said. 

As he explored and probed deeper, Giordano discovered that the story is much larger than the synagogue on Broome Street, reaching far into the past — the rich history of the Jews in ancient Greece and the Byzantine Empire, and the devastation of the Holocaust.

Launched as the multimedia project “Before the Flame Goes Out,” Giordano’s efforts to chronicle the Kehila Kedosha Janina community would prove critical to preserving Romaniote culture, with the synagogue being its only representation in North America. 

Over 80 percent of Greece’s Jewish population perished in the Holocaust, decimating the country’s historic Romaniote communities. 

Of the 1,960 Jews who were deported to Auschwitz from Ioannina, Greece, 110 survived. The Romaniote language, a Greek dialect that combines words and phrases from Hebrew and Turkish, is endangered, without preservation efforts to maintain or revive it. As of 2019, only a small number of Romaniote Jews remaining in Ioannina, Greece, spoke the language.

Giordano died in 2010. Nine years later, his family donated the archive of his work to the Hellenic American Project (HAP) at Queens College. Founded and directed by Queens College Sociology Professor Nicholas Alexiou, the project — which comprises a research facility, archive, Greek American library and museum — accepted the Romaniote materials in the context of its mission, which is to document the Hellenic American presence in the United States beginning with the mass migration from Greece to America in 1900.

Giordano’s photographs are a permanent exhibition within the HAP museum and maintained by the Benjamin S. Rosenthal Library’s Special Collections and Archives. Giordano’s work is included in numerous private collections. His portraits from Sept. 11, 2001, are in the permanent collection of the New York Historical Society. He was the recipient of several awards including seven Clio Awards for his film work in television commercials.

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