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Crete, Greece

CRETE (Candia), the fourth largest island, 160 mi. (248 km.) long, in the Mediterranean Sea and the largest Greek island, lying 60 mi. (96 km) from the Peloponnesus. Crete is apparently identical with the biblical *Caphtor , the original home of the Philistines (Deut. 2:23; Jer. 47:4; Amos 9:7), who themselves, or certain groups of them, are referred to in the Bible as Cherethites (Ezek. 25:16; Zeph. 2:5; this is also the obvious meaning of I Sam. 30:14, cf. 30:16). David's bodyguard, which the Bible describes as Cherethites and Pelethites (II Sam. 8:18; 15:18; 20:7, 23 (Kere); I Kings 1:38, 44; I Chron. 18:17), was probably composed of Philistines ("Peleti" being a derivation of "Pelishti" analogous to "Kereti") and Cretans who had either recently emigrated from Crete or were already settled in the land of the Philistines but were still named after their place of origin. The Septuagint also translates Cheretim as Κρῆτας (Ezek. 25:16; Zeph. 2:5); the verb כְרִית in Zephaniah 2:6 is translated as Κρήτη; in Ezekiel 30:5 פוּט is also given as Κρῆτες.

The earliest evidence of a Jewish community in Crete is to be found in a circular letter in support of the Jews, sent by the Roman Senate (142 B.C.E.) to various countries at the request of Simeon the Hasmonean. As this was also forwarded to the Cretan city of Gortyna (I Macc. 15:23), it can be assumed that there was a Jewish community in existence there. There is no doubt about the existence of Jewish settlements in Crete after its conquest by the Romans in 68–67 B.C.E. The false Alexander, who after Herod's death claimed to be his son, found ardent supporters and financial help among the Cretan Jews. Philo of Alexandria mentions Crete among the countries with a large Jewish population (Legatione ad Gaium, 282). According to the New Testament (Acts 2:11) there were Cretan Jews living in Jerusalem. Josephus married, in Rome, a woman belonging to a prominent Cretan Jewish family (Jos., Life, 427). After the partition of the Roman Empire in 395, the island remained part of the Eastern Empire. Under the Byzantine emperor Theodosius II (408–50) the Jews of Crete, among others, were severely oppressed. Possibly in consequence of this in 440 they placed their faith in a pseudo-messiah, who claimed to be Moses sent from heaven to lead the Jews of Crete dry shod through the sea back to the Promised Land. Of those who did not drown after jumping from the cliff, most converted to Christianity. The Saracens, who invaded Crete in 823, founded a fortified city surrounded by a khandak ("ditch"), from which the city's present name Candia is derived. In 961 the Byzantines succeeded in reconquering Crete. The situation of the Jews under the Arabs and Byzantines is only vaguely known. In general the Muslim rulers gained the sympathy of the native population, while under the Eastern Empire their position, while not enviable, was probably no worse than elsewhere under Christian Byzantine rule. In the wake of the Fourth Crusade (1204) the island was sold to Venice and became known as Candia. In the period of Venetian rule (1204–1669), a fusion of various Jewish communities took place. The Romaniots formed the upper class. Their Greek vernacular even penetrated the synagogue services. Jews settled on the island from both east and west throughout this period, and contacts with Jewish centers were maintained. In 1228 R. Baruch b. Isaac, on his way to Palestine, found a small Jewish community in Candia, which shocked him because of the laxity in observance of Jewish traditions. A series of ordinances (Takkanot Kandyah; see bibliography) were then established against the abuses. In 1481 Meshullam of Volterra found 600 Jewish families and four synagogues in Candia. The Jewish community of that city accorded a warm welcome to the exiles from Spain in 1492.

Nevertheless, even during the period of their prosperity, Cretan Jews did not number more than 1,160; they lived mainly in the harbor towns of Candia, Canea, and Rethymnon (Retimo). The Jews formed a middle class between the Greek population and the feudal nobility, but they were nevertheless treated as vilani ("serfs") and depended on the favors of Venetian officials. From 1350 they were forced to reside in a specified quarter (Ciudecca), and not only to wear the Jewish *badge on their clothing but also to affix it to their houses. On Epiphany they had to donate a ducat a head to the church for the lighting of candles. There were also protests that the Jews had concentrated the major part of the commerce in their hands. When the Greek population rioted in 1364, the Jews of Castel Nuovo were massacred by the rebels. About a century later, in 1449–50, the Jews were accused of showing contempt for Christianity by crucifying the paschal lamb, an original departure from the *blood libel theme. Two years later, in 1452, an accusation was brought by a nun that the Jews had desecrated the *Host . Nine notables of the Jewish community of Candia were arrested, and tried in Venice, but were set free after two years' imprisonment.

In general the central government attempted to safeguard the Jews and these in turn proved their loyalty. A distasteful burden of the Jewish community was to supply an executioner. During the war with Turkey in 1538 a rumor that the Jews were hiding Turks in their quarter led to an attack by the Greek population. A massacre was averted by the intervention of Venetian troops and the day came to be celebrated as the "Purim of Candia." In 1568 the Greek patriarch in Constantinople dispatched a letter to the Christians of Candia taking them to task for their cruel treatment of Jews. However, when the fanatic Giacomo Foscarini ruled the island (1574–77), harsh anti-Jewish measures were undertaken to isolate the Jews of the island or compel them to convert. The Jewish community was heavily taxed and became the victim of extortions to finance the war against the Turks. Even so, the situation of the Jews was relatively secure. With some exceptions, they were Venetian subjects with the status of citizens. Only a limited number of them, however, were admitted to the wholesale commerce. Nevertheless they dominated the export trade of the island. They traded in sugar, wax, ironware, hides, female finery, indigo, and wine, while a certain group was engaged in moneylending and banking. These aroused considerable hostility, especially among the Greeks on the island. In 1416 Jews were restricted in the purchase of fields out of fear that all the land would come into their possession. In 1423 the Venetian senate forbade all Jews who were Venetian subjects to purchase land. Those who were already in possession of properties were required to transfer them to other owners within two years. Jews were also restricted in the renting of property. In 1433 they were forbidden to act as brokers. However, the majority of the Jewish population in Crete were artisans, such as tailors, shoemakers, bakers, silkweavers, and dyers. Some were lawyers, physicians, and book copyists. The takkanot of Candia (from the 13th century and the end of the 16th century) reveal that the Jews of the island had the right of self-government, especially in religious matters. At the head of the community stood the condostablo and after him the ḥashbanim ("accountants"). The condostablo, who was elected by the notables of the community and its wealthier members, represented the community externally, and was responsible for the efficient organization of communal affairs. He chose the ḥashbanim, who were responsible for financial affairs. The appointment of both the condostablo and the ḥashbanim required the approval of the government. In the city of Candia there were four synagogues: "The Great," "Kohanim," "Ashkenazim," and "The High."

The community produced many talmudic scholars and rabbis, especially of the Delmedigo and Capsali families. Among the famous scholars of Crete were the historian Elijah b. Elkanah Caspali, the philosophers Joseph Solomon Delmedigo , Elijah b. Eliezer , Shemariah b. Elijah Ikriti , and Elijah Cretenses Delmedigo , and the rabbi and poet Michael b. Shabbetai Balbo . The Turkish period (1669–1898) marked a decline in the cultural life of the Jewish communities. In 1873 a blood libel was raised against the Jews and the French consul intervened effectively on their behalf. In 1875, local Jew Abba Delmedigo was elected to the Cretan Ottoman parliament. Abraham Evlagon served as chief rabbi from 1876 to 1934. When Crete became autonomous in 1897, it had a Jewish population of 1,150, with 200 families residing in Canea, 20 in Candia, and five in Rethymnon. In 1900 Canea had 726 Jews, speaking Greek. Crete became part of Greece after the Balkan wars of 1912–13.

Prior to World War II the community had dwindled to about 400. When the Nazis occupied Greece in 1941 many Jews fled to Crete. When Crete fell it came under direct Nazi administration. On May 20, 1944, the Jews of Canea were arrested and taken to Iraklion (Candia). On June 9, 1944, they were forced to board the Danae together with 400 Greek hostages and 800 Italian prisoners of war. The ship was then taken out to sea, identified by the British RAF (Royal Air Force) as a German boat without being aware of its human cargo, and bombed. After being abandoned by its German crew it sank with all on board, with only a few passengers surviving.  

Etz Hayyim synagogue is the only remnant of the pre-World War II Cretan Jewish community, and it has been recently restored after falling into disrepair after the war. The synagogue, located in Crete's second largest city, Chania, was reconstructed beginning in 1996 as the passion project of retired historian Nicholas Stavroulakis. The Jewish community of Athens has lent it's support to Etz Hayyim, with a major Athens synagogue declaring itself Etz Hayyim's sister synagogue. Jewish leaders from mainland Greece frequently travel to the Etz Hayyim synagogue to assist in leading various services.

Sources:M. Steinschneider, in: Mosé, 2 (1879), 411–6; 3 (1880), 53–59, 281–5, 421–6; 4 (1881), 303–8; 5 (1882), 267–70, 401–6; 6 (1883), 15–18; Levi, in: REJ, 26 (1893), 198–208; Schiavi, in: Nuova antologia di scienze, lettere ed arti, 131 (1893), 309–33; Rosenberg, in: Festschrift… David Hoffman (1914), 267–80; S. Krauss, Studien zur byzantinisch-juedischen Geschichte (1914), passim; Finkelstein, Middle Ages, 82–85, 265–80; C. Roth, Venice (1930), 297–304, and passim; B.D. Mazur, Studies on Jewry in Greece (1935); E.S. Artom and U.M.D. Cassuto, Takkanot Kandyah ve-Zikhronoteha (1943); Schwarzfuchs, in: REJ, 111 (1961), 152–8; Marcus, in: Ozar Yehudei Sefarad, 6 (1963), 135–9; 9 (1966), 84–101; idem, in: Sinai, 60 (1967), 63–76; idem, in: Maḥanayim, 86 (1963), 138–43; J. Starr, in: PAAJR, 12 (1942), 59–114; M. Molho and J. Nehama, Sho'at Yehudei Yavan 1941–44 (1965); J. Humphrey, "The Sinking of the Danae off Crete in June 1944," in: Bulletin of Judaeo-Greek Studies, 9 (Winter 1991), 19–34; B. Rivlin, "Khanea," in Pinkas Kehillot Yavan (1999), 155–59.

Lippstone, Laura. “The Lost - and Found - Jews of Crete,” Tablet, (May 9, 2016);

[Simon Marcus]

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