Country of southeastern Europe. The number of its Jews is not more than 9,000, distributed as follows: Corfu, 3,500; Zante, 175; Chalcis, on the island of Eubœa or Negropont, 200; Volo, 1,100; Larissa, 2,500; Trikala, 1,000; Arta, 300; Athens, 300. Besides these Jews of Greece proper—who form the subject of this article—there is also a Jewish population of about 4,000 in Janina and Prevesa in Epirus; these people are really Greeks, for they have lived in the country since a very remote period, and speak only the Greek language. The term "Greek Jews" might also be made to include the Jews of the island of Crete and those of Chios, off Smyrna.
Jews settled in Greek territories in early days, as is proved by numerous anecdotes in the rabbinical literature (see Levy, "Neuhebr. Wörterb." s.v. ). In the Acts of the Apostles it is said that Jews had synagogues at Corinth and Athens, where they lived peaceably and enjoyed social influence. The Greeks seem to have taken great interest in the new religion, brought from Judea, that had made proselytes even on the ancient Areopagus.
The Jews, on their side, held Greek culture in high esteem, and during the pre-Christian time many of their number, including Josephus, Philo, Aristobulus, and Ezekiel the tragedian, enriched classical literature with their works. But there was more than mere social and intellectual intercourse between the two peoples; for, according to Josephus, King Arius of Sparta made an alliance with the high priest Jonathan ("Ant." xiii. 5, § 8; comp. Schürer, "Gesch." 3d ed., i. 236). Alexander the Great, who through his education had thoroughly imbibed the Greek spirit, treated the Jews with great kindness. Under the Roman emperors, too, the Greek Jews enjoyed the same privileges as the other citizens. But their position was not so pleasant under the Byzantine emperors: at first they were even forbidden the free exercise of their religion (723). Many were converted to Christianity, while others left the country. Grätz ("Gesch." v. 228) thinks that the permission for the free exercise of their religion was probably granted to them by the empress Irene (780-797). In 840 the Jews of Greece were very prosperous, and were engaged in rearing silkworms, planting mulberry-trees, and in silk-weaving.
With the exception of their enjoyment of religious liberty, the Greek Jews were always subjected to the same political restrictions as under the first emperors, and were not allowed to hold any positions under the state. Pethahiah of Regensburg, who visited Greece in the twelfth century, relates that there were almost as many Jews there as Palestine could have held. Benjamin of Tudela, on visiting Greece about the same time, also found many Jews there, especially in Arta, Patras, Corinth, Crissa (where they were engaged in farming), and Thebes, whose 2,000 Jews included the best dyers and silk-manufacturers of Greece. The silk industry must have been of great importance, and the Jews engaged in it were very rich; for, according to the Greek historian Nicetas, even the Byzantine emperorshad to buy their costly goods in Athens, Thebes, and Corinth. The downfall of the community at Thebes was due chiefly to King Roger of Sicily, who, after capturing the city (1147), led the best silk-weavers as prisoners to Palermo and probably to the island of Corfu (which he had also conquered), where they taught their art to the Normans.
The Jews of Greece proper, who seem to have enjoyed great tranquillity at all times, cultivated Hebrew study so thoroughly that even before the Spanish emigration several renowned rabbis were designated as Greeks. Among these were: Baruch ha-Yewani ("the Greek"), in the fourteenth century; Zechariah ha-Yewani, author of the "Sefer ha-Yashar" (1340); Dossa ben Rabbi Moses ha-Yewani, in the fifteenth century, author of "Perushe we-Tosafot." Franco, in his "Essai sur l'Histoire des Israélites de l'Empire Ottoman," p. 41, Paris, 1897, says that during the same period the Jews of Thebes were renowned for their Talmudical learning; and he mentions David ben Ḥayyim ha-Kohen, grand rabbi of Patras—originally from Corfu—whose influence extended to Italy and throughout the Orient. Moses Capsali was grand rabbi of Constantinople at the time of the Ottoman conquest (1453); another rabbi of the same period was Eliezer Capsali.
Theodore Reinach, in his "Histoire des Israélites," pp. 225, 226, relates that, beginning with the fifteenth century, there was a revival of Talmudical studies in Turkey, caused by a twofold current coming from Spain and Greece, the communities of which—especially those of the Morea—took on a sudden growth after the conquest of the Morea by the Venetians in 1516. Isaac Abravanel, who visited Corfu toward the end of the fifteenth century, remained there some time in order to complete his commentary on Deuteronomy (see his preface thereto), which proves that he must have found a library and learned men there. Considering, however, that there are now only 5,000 Greek Jews who speak Greek—i.e., those of Janina, Prevesa, Zante, Arta and Chalcis—the question arises what has become of the pre-Spanish Greco-Jewish population. It has evidently been absorbed by the Spanish, which was far more numerous in Thessaly and the Turkish territories, while the Judæo-Greek population of Corfu has been absorbed by the Apulians. Traces of the ancient Greek origin of the Judæo-Greek population still exist. Thus there are Greek synagogues ("ḳehal Gregos" or "de los Javanim") in Corfu, Constantinople, Salonica, and Adrianople; and many Greek words are found in the Spanish language of the Oriental Jews and in the Apulian of the Corfiotes. Many Greek feminine proper names are also used, such as Καλομοῖρα ("Calomira" = "good luck") and Κυρὰ ("Kyra" = "princess"); and there are family names of similar origin, as Politi, Roditi, Mustachi, and Maurogonato. Further, there are still to be found in Corfu songs and elegies in the Greek language which were recited in the synagogue until about thirty years ago.
Up to the time of the Greek insurrection (1821) there were several Jewish congregations in Greece proper, namely, in Vrachori (Agrinion), Patras, Tripolitza, Mistra, Thebes, and Livadia; but most of their members were killed by the insurgents, who thus vented upon these peaceful citizens their inveterate hatred of the tyrant of their fatherland. A few of those who escaped went to Corfu; others to Chalcis, which remained under Turkish dominion until 1832.
Very little is known to-day of these congregations that have disappeared, but there are still some Hebrew epitaphs, which have not yet been collected. Of all these communities Thebes was undoubtedly the most celebrated, owing to its distinguished Talmudic scholars and its extensive silk-manufactories. Dubois, a Frenchman who visited the city in the seventeenth century, praises in a letter to the famous Ménage the beauty of the Jewish women of Thebes (Pougueriche, "Voyage en Grèce," vol. iv., book xi., ch. iii.).
To the history of the Jews of Greece belongs also Don Joseph Nasi (Juan Miques), who was created Duke of Naxos and of the twelve most important Cyclades by Selim II. (1574). It was probably due to his having noted the great success attending the manufacture of silk in Greece, that Nasi, who always had the welfare of his coreligionists at heart, introduced the trade into the city of Tiberias, which had been granted to him and which he raised from its ruins.
The existing Jewish communities of Greece may be divided into five groups: (1) Arta (Epirus); (2) Chalcis (Eubœa); (3) Athens (Attica); (4) Volo, Larissa, and Trikala (Thessaly); (5) Corfu and Zante (Ionian Islands).
The community of Arta is the oldest in Greece. It has a small elementary school and a benevolent society. Children desiring an education attend the Greek higher schools. There are also two synagogues, the older of which is called the Grecian; and a very ancient cemetery, no longer used, called the cemetery of "Rabbanè Arta." See Arta; Athens; Chalcis; Corfu.