Monday, July 27, 2009

The Rhodes Show

“Peace in the world, let there be peace…May our eyes see the erection of the temple in Jerusalem. With G-d’s coming, salvation abounds. The house was completed, with these words, the house of the ‘Kahal Kadosh Shalom’, it is indeed the house of the Lord. The year (5411) 1651.” (excerpt from the entry plaque)
Let’s begin with a ‘pop’ quiz. If I were to ask you (actually I am asking you) to name the biggest structure with the shortest ‘life-span,’ most of you would take a millisecond and respond, “The World Trade Center.” That was easy. But if I were to ask you (actually I am asking you) to name a structure, not as tall but equally imposing, with the second shortest life-span………… tick, tick, tick…………… Give up? How about the Colossus at Rhodes.
For those of you whose ancient history is a little fuzzy, here’s an excerpt from Daniel Schwartz’ booklet which he prepared for our cruise (edited by yours truly): “The most famous event in Rhodes’ history (is) when it successfully withstood a year-long siege by ‘Demitrius the City-Besieger’ in 305 BCE. In memory of this event, the Rhodians built a monumental ‘Colossus’ of their sun-god, Helios – a statue more than 30 meters-high [on a pedestal half that size] that ancient writers listed [along with the hanging gardens of Babylon, the Great Pyramid, etc.] among the Seven Wonders of the World. It was toppled by an earthquake … less than sixty years after it was completed….” Win some, lose some. (By the way, that’s quite a monicker, ‘Demitrius the City-Besieger.’ Imagine this on a business card: ‘Cities besieged. By appointment only.’)
Twenty seven hours (and two of my articles with about five thousand words) after we left Haifa, we arrived at our first stop, Rhodes, a large island (540 square miles) about eleven miles southwest of Turkey. Our dinner over, we made our way down the gangplank, having our swipe cards processed by the ship’s crew. It took us about ten minutes to leave the port area, at which point we met Eva, our guide for a stroll through the Old City. As we approached the Navarhou gate, my initial reaction was that this looked very familiar, and after some thought, I realized why. Where else can you stand and see the ocean and Crusader walls at the same time? Of course. Acco. The same walls built by the Crusaders. In fact, the same water, the Mediterranean. But once you enter the Old City, it’s not the same. We began standing in a town square, with a church behind us, a posh jewelry store to our left, tastefully lit up, and in front of us the venerable Street of the Knights, with a large cream colored mixed-breed dog hanging out on the corner. Five hundred years ago when Rhodes was governed by Christian warriors, the Order of the Knights of St. John, this street, wide enough for five or six people to walk, was the main thoroughfare. It may have been imposing then, but it is not particularly wide by today’s standards; there are no commercial enterprises of any kind, although back then there were inns all along the street. (Rhodes was always a great spot for tourists.) We began walking up and the sun continued to set, until the only way we could see was with the help of the few street lights the town provided and the illumination from inside the apartments we passed. There are several thousand people currently living in The Old City, and some of them live on this street. I would have loved to go into someone’s apartment, just to see what it would be like to live in a structure that may date from the time of the Crusaders. We were not told how old any of these buildings were and how much restoration has been done, but everything about the street cries out, “I’m ancient. Look at me!” Or don’t look at me; I’ll be around long after you’re gone.
Have you ever passed a house, it could be all alone on top of a mountain overlooking a lake, or on a particular corner in the most charming neighborhood somewhere, or with a façade covered with gargoyles, and perhaps you thought to yourself, “Who gets to live here? Out of all the places in the world, out of all the people in the world, how does someone get to live here? Five hundred years ago, this exact spot was the last bastion of Christianity holding off the Ottoman Turks. Not exactly a spot for a restful, tranquil vacation. Now a group of Anglo-Israeli (Jewish) tourists are being led up this street, and there’s a light on in a kitchen; someone’s motorcycle is stored in an entrance way behind a gate. Who are these residents and how did they get to be here? It’s not that I necessarily want to live here, or in any of the real or imagined places mentioned above, there being little to offer for a Jewish person, but still the question remains.
We continued our way in the night air, under the arches that connect both sides of the street, up to the top. Somewhere in our wanderings we had to have come upon the very imposing Castle of the Grand Master, but I really have no recollection of it. Perhaps if we had been able to go inside…
What I do remember is hanging a couple of lefts and suddenly leaving the meditative medieval atmosphere of the Street of the Knights and environs and entering the very well-lit commercial district of the Old City, replete with stores and places to eat. Well, not for us to eat. For some of us, seeing so many people being well-fed and enjoying themselves revived old memories of cuisines gone by………… So we ignored the restaurants for now, and window-shopped in the stores that offered jewelry or tchatchkeles to tourists. No vulgar t-shirts; no ‘adult’ entertainment anywhere in sight – although we were told that the public beaches in Rhodes are ‘topless.’ Wouldn’t know: when we passed the beaches the next morning at about 8:30, they were not only topless, but people-less. Too early for a tan.
When we had done enough gawking, we were free to walk back to the port area and on to the Golden Iris. Barbara and I chose to walk back part of the way with Eva, a Greek woman, I’m guessing about fifty, old enough to have been around the proverbial block – in her case, around the ramparts – more than a few times. Old enough to have lived through the military coup, old enough to have heard about life in the forties, the Italian occupation, then the German occupation, when there were no more Jews on the island. Savvy enough to know about the inadequacies of the Greek government today: how long it takes to get anything done as far as restoring or preserving their antiquities – the main reason why people come to visit. We said good night to our guide and walked back to our gangplank, going through security, handing our swipe cards to the attendants who are able to verify that we have not changed places with some random Greeks while we were ashore, and return to our cabins for some well-earned zzzzzzzzzz’s.
Next morning we were rarin’ to go. But first things first. Activity number one (besides getting dressed and personal hygiene) would the minyan for shacharit. (Actually, it was shacharit and mussaf, because it was still Rosh Hodesh, the beginning of the Jewish month. I would have to recite the cohanic blessing twice; no rest for the weary.) On land, I am just as happy to daven privately in my living room; but our cabin was a little small to designate any part of as a living room, there being sufficient space to sleep and to breathe. My usual excuse that it would be forty minutes travel time back and forth was taken away. I could get up the stairs and across the ship in three minutes. Plus, I was the only cohen in the group. So I went to the morning minyan every day, which, like Nathan Detroit’s ‘oldest established, permanent floating crap game in New York’ (that’s from Guys and Dolls, but you knew that), moved around until we found a permanent spot in the Paamon Ballroom, a.k.a., the Green Room, one of the several lounges on board, where of an evening, one could, glass in hand, watch the sea and the stars. There was also no permanent time for the minyan to begin; it changed day by day, according to our itinerary. What I will never forget is the expression on the face of the Filippino bar man who was getting his station ready for the early imbibers, when three strange looking dudes (the leviim) came over the bar, took a wine glass, filled it with water, and proceeded to pour the water over the hands of an even stranger looking dude (me).
Next, it was time for breakfast. Unlike lunch and dinner which were fairly orderly, breakfast involved a shipload of sleepy people arriving when they arose, trying to decide which combination of hot cereal, cold cereal, eggs (scrambled, omelets, or hard boiled), salads, fish, cheeses, bourekas, and pancakes to put on their oversized plates to go along with their tea, coffee, and a strange liquid that was meant to resemble orange juice. And to get all of the above into one’s mouth before it was time to disembark, which involved everyone trying to get off the boat at the same time, past the helpful crew who would be swiping your card to make certain that you hadn’t snuck on the boat at night and now wanted to leave.
Our little group, which would be touring separately from the rest of the passengers, assembled on shore and boarded our bus, along with Eva the tour guide for our morning tiyul. (To avoid confusion, let me mention that we would be confining our activities to the area around the city of Rhodes, which is the largest of some forty communities on the island.) We drove out of the Old City, past the topless, bottomless, people-less beaches and the hotels where the tourists, we assume properly attired, were staying, past the homes of the Rhodians, around the outskirts of the city, past the remains of the Temple of Apollo (like most of its counterparts, a series of columns reaching skyward, as if frozen in place in the midst of doing a ‘wave’) until we stopped at an archaeological park, whose main attraction was its ancient athletic stadium. Because of their modest design; i.e., a level field and stone benches, many of these stadia have survived. The one here is relatively small, seating about 8,000 people. This was the home base for a local lad, Diagoras, a boxer, the victor in the 79th Olympiad in 464 BCE. How do we know that? Pindar, one of the great poets of antiquity, tells us so in one of his Olympian odes: (And now, with the music of flute and lyre alike I have come to land with Diagoras, singing the sea-child of Aphrodite and bride of Helios, Rhodes, so that I may praise this straight-fighting, tremendous man who had himself crowned beside the Alpheus and near Castalia, as a recompense for his boxing... Pindar, Olympian 7, lines 13-17.) I’m sure that our guide had much to tell us, but I was off photographing the remains of ancient monuments that were strewn about the site.
Back on the bus. We had to be at the Kahal Shalom synagogue, or to give it it’s proper name, the Kahal Kadosh Shalom synagogue, at 11AM for a talk about the Jewish community in Rhodes. The bus would leave us off at the edge of what was the Jewish quarter, and we would walk through the picturesque narrow streets where – as is often the case – other people now live. The building we arrived at was built sometime around 1577 C.E., when official buildings in general were constructed with a sense of architectural integrity which is, how shall we put it, not as evident in synagogues in today’s New Jersey. For example, the floor was made of black and white round stones placed in an elaborate mosaic pattern. Someone, on hands and knees, had laid each piece in place one by one , intending them to remain there through the ages until the Jews of Greece would be summoned back to the Beit Hamikdash in Jerusalem. If it’s any consolation, the stone floor is holding up remarkably well.
There are a number of literary references to Jews living in Rhodes: the book of Maccabis in the second century B.C.E.; the writings of Josephus at the beginning of the Common Era; and a detailed account by the world-traveling Benjamin of Tudela, on his way to The Holy Land in the twelfth century, C.E, when there were four hundred Jews living in Rhodes. In the year 1500, the Greek-speaking Romaniote Jews were expelled by the Christians. Twenty two years later, the Ottoman ruler Suleiman the Magnificent, whom we have met in earlier articles, (Hey, Suli……..!) decided to re-populate the ‘Jewish section’ of the island and brought in Sephardic Jews who had wound up in the Ottoman Empire after having been expelled from Spain in 1492. (Are you detecting a pattern here?) Things were relatively stable, even after the Italians took control in 1912; the Jewish population reached its maximum of 4,500 in the 1920’s. The unfortunate denouement we all know: in 1944, 1673 Jews were deported to Auschwitz; 151 survived. (The brochure I picked up mentioned that, “Today there are only a handful of Jews living in Rhodes.”)
In addition to the synagogue (which according to the brochure, “…is used for prayer services when visitors or former residents and their families visit the island for Sabbath and High Holiday services and for special occasions.” Sort of like having High Holiday davening in Brownsville.), there is in the adjacent rooms, which used to be the women’s section, a small museum which was established in 1997, “in order to preserve the special heritage of the Jews of Rhodes.”
The museum is filled with local versions of torah scrolls and decorative objects, photographs of Jews long-dead and Jewish life, clothing distinctive to the island, all with appropriate captions. Someone reading this may feel compelled to comment that this sort of describes dozens of Jewish museums which commemorate Jewish life in places where the only Jews today are tourists. That’s because there are lots of communities which fit that description, but every place doesn’t have a museum. Four thousand five hundred Jews? They would have fit into ten blocks along the Grand Concourse in The Bronx.
Back on the bus for our next-to-last stop, the Jewish cemetery. If you want/need to see where every Jew on this island was buried (except the ones murdered by the Nazis), here’s the place to go. They synagogue/museum’s web site has a photograph of the tombs of all the community’s former rabbis, buried in a neat row. This photograph was as close as I was going to get to the real thing. Frankly, I’m more than happy not to have to do cemeteries. I waited by the bus while everyone else went inside to inspect the graves.
Back on the bus for our last stop, the Holocaust memorial, which is located in the Square of the Martyred Jews in the former Jewish quarter, now part of the main tourist area in the center of the Old City. The memorial itself is a six sided column of black granite, with an inscription on each side in Greek, French, Hebrew, English, Italian, or Judeo-Spanish (Ladino). There is no question that for the survivors of Rhodes and the neighboring island of Cos and the families of the survivors, the dedication of this memorial in 2003 was extraordinarily meaningful (check out the Jewish community of Rhodes website, which unfortunately is written in a quasi-English that needn’t be. Please help me with the following: “Friday evening, we will attend the office of Kabbalat Shabbat at the Shalom synagogue which fills the tank.” Any guesses what this could possibly mean?). But after reading the brief inscription in (real) English and then working my way around each side and each language, when I had gone around several times, I wondered what I was supposed to do or supposed to feel? Was I supposed to now have an increased awareness of this tragedy than I had before? Time does not heal all wounds, but it does make us complaisant.
To prove my point, what was the next thing most of us did? Wander through the shops or seek out a café. Barbara and I found a little place where she could get some Greek coffee – which I shared – and I could get a local beer, served in a weird boot-shaped stein. As we were relaxing, we heard a commotion up the street in the direction of a neighboring establishment, which had three parrots perched outside. Barbara, being nosier than I am, went to check it out. It seems that one of the local pigeons had flown onto the parrots’ perch uninvited, and it was definitely not welcome there! If you are wondering whether Joe Biden or Hillary Clinton was dispatched to broker negotiations between these feathered enemies (perhaps the pigeons could get one-quarter of the perch…….) the answer is no; these busy bodies were too busy screwing up elsewhere.
We’re done. Goodbye and thanks to Eva, our guide. Once again back to the port area, past security (emptying out our water bottles because you can take water off the boat, but you can’t bring any liquids back onto the boat). Just in time for lunch. Soon we will be off again. Next stop………Athens.

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