An Arch of Titus Moment in Greece

The story is attributed to many people. Could be that all of them are true. Someone gets out of a cab in Rome, walks over to Titus’ Arch, and shakes his fist. “Titus, Titus. I am here! Where are you?” He then returns to the car and drives off.

The last time I was in Rome, the famed arch was fenced off, and I couldn’t get close enough for the spirit of Titus to pay me much notice. Chol Hamoed on Crete, however, provided its own “take that!” moment, although to an earlier adversary.

On one of those family chol hamoed outings with lots of kids, we found ourselves in a pottery store in the hills on the north side of the island. The craftsman does a program for visitors, in which he demonstrates his craft, and then has them make their own. He first provides a good deal of history, including showing of interesting earthenware devices like a miniature jug that whistles like a bird, and an ingenious salt shaker that seems to work better than contemporary ones. Some of these devices go back to Second Temple days.

He showed how period materials were used to decorate the pottery after they were fired. The ancient black stain that was used, he said, was called d’yo. Instantly, a cascade of Greek words from the Talmud poured down my brain. D’yo. Kankantum. Duchsustus. Afikoman. Afiktozen. Apikorus. So many more, as the inside cover of my old Jastrow dictionary will testify. Taped to it is a key to the Greek alphabet, showing upper case and lower case forms of each Greek letter and its pronunciation. That allowed me to understand Jastrow’s etymologies, which I found important because of the sheer number of words in the gemara rooted in – or simply transliterations of – Greek.

What happened to the culture that so impacted the Jewish world in antiquity? (No, it didn’t begin or end with Chanukah.) To be sure, the Greek alphabet is alive and well. But Greece today is a country just a wee bit more populous than Israel, but not exactly one of the global community’s major shakers and movers. The people we met there, without exception, were friendly, laid-back, and musically attuned. They cherished their history (both of pagan times, and the early Christian period), but not for any continuity with the present. They were heritage items, but they spoke in the past tense, and went mute. The eyes of the statues of ancient gods, sightless to begin with, had been endowed by history with cataracts and cobwebs. An empire that once lorded over others, now depended on those others for tourist dollars.

To be sure, the Greeks left a strong, continuing influence on Western ideas. We oversimplify when we believe that the Greek contribution was simply esthetics, or “beauty,” as we tend to translate “Yefes.” That preoccupation went beyond art and drama. It is not coincidental that the Greek gods were more refined, civil and creative than their Roman counterparts, who exuded, used, and misused aggressiveness and power. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote,[1]

It is impossible to overstate the significance of all this for the development of Western civilisation. We owe virtually all our abstract concepts to the Greeks. The Hebrew Bible knows nothing of such ideas. There is a creation narrative — in fact, more than one — but there is no theoretical discussion of what the basic elements of the universe are. There is an enthralling story about the birth of monarchy in Israel, but no discussion, such as is to be found in Plato and Aristotle, about the relative merits of monarchy as opposed to aristocracy or democracy. When the Hebrew Bible wants to explain something, it does not articulate a theory. It tells a story.

And yet, and yet. Philosophy to the Greeks literally meant the love of knowledge. It was the highest pursuit. Who is doing abstract conceptual thinking today? Philosophy, a discipline more or less invented by the Greeks, attracts less attention today than gender studies. The value of logical thought itself is under attack by some in the CRT camp, because placing it on a pedestal invites inequality of outcomes. Where is it hailed? Who does it in spades? Where do people still parse text lovingly? Try the local beis medrash!

Zeus, Zeus. I am here. Where are you?

We encountered no anti-Semitism while we were there. Walking around fully identified as Jews did not make anyone take notice. But looks can be deceiving. The percentage of Greek Jews murdered during the Holocaust was somewhere between 83-87%, one of the highest in Europe. In Salonica, the port that was so Jewish that it ceased operating on Shabbos, 96% of Jews were murdered. Roundups of Jews generally met with no local protests, and were often followed by looting of Jewish property. The Mayor of Corfu applauded the deportations. “Our good friends the Germans have cleansed the island from the Jewish riffraff.”

There were exceptions – but, as in other places in Europe, they were indeed only exceptions. Archbishop Damaskinos, the head of the Church of Greece, was the only European church leader to protest the work of the Nazis. His statements strongly condemned the treatment of the Jewish population, and backed them up by issuing false.  All 275 of the Jews of Zakynthos were spared deportation when the local mayor and the Orthodox Christian prelate offered their own names when ordered to submit a list of their Jews.

Was there, perhaps, a change of heart after the Shoah? Certainly not in the immediate post-War period. The law notwithstanding, returning Jews were not able to reclaim looted property. Known collaborators went unprosecuted. For years, the Greek government refused to ask for the extradiction of top Nazi Alois Brunner, living openly in Syria. Jews who returned to Greece were caught between the ascendancy of the Greek Orthodox Church, and the clinging by many Greeks to the Nazi charge that Jews were communists.

Crete has something to say about all this. The Jewish community of Crete was some 2300 years old, one of the oldest Jewish communities in Europe. It came to an end when its 300 Jews were shipped off to Auschwitz on the tanker Tanais. Mistaken for a German warship, it was torpedoed by an Allied ship. At the beginning of the War, there were two shuls on the island, one in Chania, the other in Heraklion. The latter had been home, centuries before to R. Yosef Shlomo Delmedigo (a corruption of the Latin del medico; he was a physician), known to rabbinic history as the Yashar of Candia. The Heraklion shul was reduced to rubble by the Germans. Parts of Etz Hayim in Chania, survived, in a manner of speaking. With no Jews left, the building and mikvah were filled with garbage and sewage. A single Jew who returned made its restoration his mission, and the shul was rededicated in 1999, with international fanfare, including the presence of the Metropolitan of. Today, there are services in the shul on the Yomim Noraim, as well as meetings at times during the rest of the year, especially during the summer tourist season, although the havura that gathers includes many non-Jews committed to Crete’s history and former diversity, not to Judaism.

So the last quarter century demonstrates that old hatreds can die, right? Looks are deceiving. With all that changed, some things just don’t. When Etz Chaim was preparing to re-open, Ireneus, the above-mentioned Metropolitan of Chania, joined with the head of the local regional government to object to the shul being used for actual religious services. Reintroducing Jewish worship would cause riots and dissension. Besides, there was a 1938 law on the books (put there by a fascist dictator!) that a religious community required at least 50 people, and there were not 50 Jews to be found in Chania!

In other words, probe behind the photo-ops, and the story remains the same. There can be sympathy for dead Jews – but not live ones.

One more reason to be grateful to Hashem for returning us to our own State.

  1. The Great Partnership, Schocken ed., 2011, pg. 44

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33 Responses

  1. mb says:

    Archbishop Maskinos may not have been the only one.
    And Bulgaria was an axis ally! An amazing story.
    In early 1943 the Bulgarian authorities were informed by the Nazis that the deportation of their 50000 Jews was to commence in March.
    Bulgarians both within and without of power were horrified.
    As the date for the deportation and the ugliness of the transports got closer, the agitation got greater. Forty-three ruling party members of Parliament walked out in protest. Newspapers denounced what was about to happen. In addition, the Patriarch of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, Archbishop Kirili, threatened to lie down on the railroad tracks!
    King Boris, at great personal risk, openly forbade the expulsion.
    Finally, the Germans stretched as they were defending a losing war finally gave up the attempt.

    • Bob Miller says:

      About Bulgaria, there’s much more to the story.
      which, in Pages 242-246, notes that many Jews in Bulgarian-occupied areas and later in Bulgaria proper outside of Sofia were handed over to the Germans. Finally, the expulsions from Sofia were prevented as discussed above, once the Germans were seen as headed for defeat.

    • Nachum says:

      There’s an irony that it was davka in countries *allied* to the Germans that Jews were, to one extent or another, spared. They alone had the freedom, or other reasons: Bulgaria was an Axis ally. Technically Greece was under its jurisdiction, but they didn’t really have the power to prevent the deportation of Greek Jews. Their own, they did. Hungary, and Axis member, was very anti-Semitic and the Jews suffered terribly, but the mass deportations and killings began only with the German occupation. Italy passed anti-Jewish legislation only under German pressure and again, deportations and killings began only with German occupation. Albania, occupied by Italy, saved all its Jews. Spain, an ally of Germany, saved any Jew who could make it in. Denmark was technically (granted, *very* technically) a German ally and of course saved all its Jews with the help of Sweden, a neutral country which had an “arrangement” with Germany. And Japan, of course, a full member of the Axis, protected any Jew who could make it there or to Japan-occupied China. Meanwhile, occupied countries like France, Holland, and parts of the Soviet Union, in part or in full, gladly turned over and massacred Jews. History can be funny that way.

  2. D K says:

    We can also go to Hertzel’s grave and shake our fist, “Hertzel, Hertzel, i am here, where are you? Where is Zionism?!” Another of the false gods of yesteryear bites the dust.

    • Actually, I think that Herzl is quite pleased, to put it mildly, with the way his project turned out.

      I do hope, though, that like-minded readers take your words to heart. If they would, we could spare ourselves a good deal of divisiveness.
      They would realize that the old war is over, and move on to build and protect the largest Jewish community (and largest Torah community) in the world.
      We no longer feel the need to agitate against Egypt, Bavel, Paras u-Madai, or Rome. Been there; done that. Time to look ahead

      • dr. bill says:

        This touches on what I believe lies at the center of many hashkafic / halakhic disputes, both those of Hareidi icons (the CI on saving non-believers or the CC ztl on women’s education) and the more liberal poskim like RYYW ztl or the Rav ztl.

        To quote RAL ztl: a distinction without a difference. As taught with hundreds off example by the late Prof. Yaacov Katz, a change in halachic practice is often brought on by a change in circumstance that made a meaningful distinction.

        My favorite example is Rav Dovid (Karliner) Friedman ztl who opposed secular studies in Russia and strongly endorsed secular studies the school in Jerusalem founded by his BIL around the end of the 19th century.

        Today, according to many, the anti-Zionist fury that existed at the time of Ben Gurion, might not apply in the time of Bennet. In retrospect, what was important about Zionism and what was not has now become abundantly clear.

        Pesak and general attitudes must deal with reality as it currently exists as opposed to how it may have previously existed.

      • Bob Miller says:

        Modern Paras and Madai are not being too friendly lately.

      • Chana Siegel says:

        Thank you. We really do have more pressing communal issues

    • Nachum says:

      Only someone who’s never actually set foot in the State of Israel (and even that isn’t necessary) could say something as ridiculous as “Where is Zionism?”

      Where is Zionism? Try seven and a half million Jews living in Israel, for starters. Under their own government.

      By the way, it’s spelled “Herzl.”

      • D K says:

        I actually have been living in Israel for almost 17 years.
        Zionism was a movement created by Herzl to promote a secular state to “save” Jews from pogroms and other forms of anti-Semitism. Herzl proposed many such ideas, such as mass conversion to Christianity and creating a state in Uganda. When the movement realized that they can piggyback on the deep yearning for Eretz Yisroel that the religious Jews had, they changed their strategy into hijacking what movements the religious Jews had.
        Our love for Eretz Yisroel has prevailed as we grow and grow despite the constant attacks, both religious and financially (and physically) from the “Zionist” State, while the state bows to the Arab parties (with connections to terrorist groups) who dictate what to do and what not to.
        Yes, i say again; “Where is Zionism”? The “new” Israeli Jew lives his dream by moving to the US while the Jewish people have never been in such danger from being wiped out…

    • Nachum says:

      I mean, seriously, the only reason you can go to Herzl’s grave at all is because his ideas succeeded spectacularly.

  3. Yoni2 says:

    I don’t know if it is the origin of the Titus Arch story, but interestingly in 1913 Sigmund Freud sent a postcard from Rome to Karl Abraham with the words “The Jew survives it” written at the bottom (in German). You can see the postcard and transcript here:

  4. D K says:

    Amen. Like Hertzl’s Neshama sees the truth, may we all be Zocheh to understand that not through a state but only through Torah study, Tefilla, Gemillas Chasadim, Emuna and Bitachon will the Jewish people thrive and grow. Like we always have throughout our history.

    • Nachum says:

      Considering that Herzl got more and more close to Jewish tradition as his life came to an end, it’s far more appropriate to say that his opponents’ neshamot are now seeing the truth.

      Actual Jewish history, by the way, may have some bones to pick with your rosy assessments of what has kept us going.

    • mb says:

      DK, Herzl again? The State again? You’re a fanatic.
      And a fanatic is one who can’t change his opinion and won’t change the subject.

    • Bob Miller says:

      It would be nicer yet to be able to show those qualities after our complete redemption renews our ability to do all mitzvot optimally.

    • Ben Bradley says:

      You seem to have missed out at least 610 mitzvos from your assessment of what it takes for the Jewish people to thrive, depending on how you count your list amongst the taryag. Did you read about those in your Torah study? I hear a rumour that some may even involve agricultural activity in a small part of the middle East, whose current name temporarily escapes me.
      But seriously, if you can’t see beyond the standard ahistorical rhetoric to realise what you owe to the founders of the state you live in, you need to reflect seriously on the mitzva of hakaras hatov. Fanaticism always blinds to reality.

  5. Raymond says:

    See, this is why I have not felt completely comfortable taking the side of the Ukrainians over Vladimir Putin. Yes, Vladimir Putin is the insane dictator attacking the supposedly democratic Ukraine, but Putin likes us Jews while the Ukrainians are historically one of the cruelest antisemitic nations that our Jewish people have been forced to encounter. Perhaps the Ukrainians are now getting the Divine retribution that they deserve.

    As for Greek antisemitism, that one had me puzzled for some time. After all, the Ancient Greeks along with our Jewish people are the two main creators and builders of Western Civilization. I would think that they would therefore get along with one another. However, I think that they are coming from two very different, and competing, world views. Aristotle’s G-d has basically been asleep since engaging in whatever role He played in forming the universe, while the Jewish G-d is not only the sole creator of all there is, but has been constantly engaged in its affairs ever since, with a special emphasis on caring about the welfare of mankind. The Greek conception of G-d allows one to do whatever one wants, while the Jewish G-d demands our submission to Him at some point. Those who wish to be G-ds themselves, resent us Jews for telling the world that such a scenario simply cannot be so. Nimrod can only go so far until Avraham, as G-d’s Representative, puts a halt to the dreams and schemes of fallible mankind.

    • Nachum says:

      For the record, Greece itself (particularly Sparta) was on the side of the Chashmonaim in their war against the Seleucids, as was Rome.

      Russia wasn’t exactly nice to the Jews for…forever, really. If seventy-plus years of Ukraine being nice to Jews can’t burn off a debt that basically includes a few terrible years in the 1640’s and a few more from about 1900-1945, then kal v’chomer a dozen or so years of Putin can’t burn off a continuous bad Russian record for a thousand years.

      • Bob MIller says:

        In any given decade, antisemitism can erupt somewhere new and subside somewhere old. It’s not as if some nations are forever immune.

      • Raymond says:

        Which is why there is a part of me that contemplates washing my hands of the whole war thing going on in the Ukraine these days. In a way it reminds me of how I felt about the war between Iran and Iraq back in the 1980s. A curse on both of their houses.

        And yet I will admit that every time I hear about more and more Ukrainians being murdered by the Russians for no sane reason whatsoever, that there a part of me that cringes in absolute horror, wondering when it will all end. Plus I do think that Vladimir Putin has completely lost his mind, and should meet his fair fate ASAP.

  6. Nachum says:

    When we visited Rome, the space under the Arch was chained off, but we were still able to get close enough to take the obligatory shot of my wife waving her fist at it.

    Stories differ, but on either November 30, 1947 or on the first Yom HaAtzmaut- perhaps both- the Jewish community of Rome gathered under the Arch (which had been forbidden by Roman minhag- remember that the space under the Arch was a major thoroughfare and required some effort to avoid) and walked under it backwards, towards Israel. There’s video of the event.

  7. Shades of Gray says:

    “That allowed me to understand Jastrow’s etymologies, which I found important because of the sheer number of words in the gemara rooted in – or simply transliterations of – Greek.”

    I am reminded of one of the “Rome Travelogue” posts from a few years ago, where R. Adlerstein discussed how Chazal’s language of “batei teata’os ve-kirkasa’os”, theaters or circuses, was understood better upon seeing Circus Maximus in Rome:

    In this vein, R. Belsky’s Daf Yomi was unique, as described by R. Sholom Smith(author of R. Pam’s shiurim published by Artscroll) in an article in the Flatbush Jewish Journal, linked below, p. 24 of the PDF:

    “When an unfamiliar Gemara word was reached, Rav Belsky often discussed the etymology of it. He showed us how many ancient Greek and Aramaic words were still in usage in the English language, albeit in slightly different format and pronunciation.”

  8. Shades of Gray says:

    On a related note, YU Professor Steven Fine has been involved in the “Arch of Titus Digital Restoration Project” :

    Re. Mediterranean languages and “Take That!” moments, or dialogue in general, Israeli Ambassador to Italy Dror Eydar wrote in his recent travel diary, “A journey through Jewish Sicily,” published in Israel Hayom:

    “In my meetings with the president of Sicily, he commented on the Sicilian language. He told me that it has no future tense and that the future is related in the present. He understands this as a testimony to realism and the desire not to fall prey to illusions. I told him that Hebrew, on the other hand, there is only one past tense: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” and, for example, “He created the vase just a moment ago.”

    Perhaps this is because for us, the past is not in a museum, but something we live with here and now. In any event, I added that if we connected the Hebrew past to the Sicilian present, we might be able to create a better future.”

  9. Mark says:

    The disintegration of secular Jewish nationalism (=Herzl’s Zionism) is in plain sight to anyone with eyes in his head.

    • Raymond says:

      Which is bizarre to me, given the history of antisemitism. Could any Jew be that ignorant of our history across the ages?

      • Mark says:

        In Herzl’s mind, the Jewish homeland was meant to solve antisemitism. Given its failure on that front, there is little moral justification for a Jewish national home in Israel, other than a claim of title stemming from some conception of “truth” which matters little to anyone nowadays, and is being actively eroded by that very same Jewish homeland. Israel is busily and energetically planting the seeds of its own disintegration.

  10. Reuven Ungar says:

    As Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook ztl has taught, it appears quite obvious from the words of the Ramban (additons to Mitzvot Aseh, #4 in reference to the Sefer HaMitzvot of the Rambam) that Mitzvat Yishuv Ha’Aretz includes the obligation of establishing an independent state.
    Thus establishing- and Be’ezrat Hashem maintaining- a state is not designed to eradicate Anti- Semitism but to fulfill a Mitzva of the Torah.

    • Raymond says:

      Maybe there is room for both ideas. We Jews should live in Israel because the Torah instructs us to do so (at least according to the RambaN as well as common sense), and also as a way to at least partially defend ourselves against antisemitism.

  11. Shades of Gray says:

    “When I think of all the Torah books that he could have written had he lived even a dozen years more, my heart breaks.”


    I thought similarly about Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan. 

    On the other hand, I think of the cup as half full: imagine if both had not become rabbis and had not written anything at all — Rabbi Sacks and Rabbi Kaplan both in fact had either started or considered other careers. R. Hillel Goldberg writes in the Spring 2021 Jewish Action, linked below, how the Gerer Rebbe related to the passing of the  Amshinover Rebbe, the latter to whom R. Goldberg had sought advice; he then applied this in the article to R. Sacks as well:

    “I wondered, who would replace this wise, gentle and holy counselor? Shortly thereafter, I had the opportunity to pose this question to the Gerrer Rebbe. He answered: “No one will replace the Amshinover Rebbe.” By implication, he was saying that no one replaces anyone, contrary to the popular saying that no one is irreplaceable. “Rather,” continued the Gerrer Rebbe, “someone else, with different but powerful strengths, will arise in his stead.”

     …Rabbi Sacks arose to etch a different path as the worthy successor of Rabbi Jakobovits, whom Rabbi Sacks greatly admired…

    Who might the next Rabbi Jonathan Sacks be? That, said the Gerrer Rebbe, is an impossibility. Rabbi Sacks was unique. He will not be replaced. Yet, we are consoled not only by his shining memory but by knowing that someone else with powerful but different strengths will arise.”

    Rabbi Sacks’ office  staff mentioned  that R. Sacks himself addressed this in his Covenant & Conversation parsha essay published the week of his passing. See  “It was the honour of our lives to work for Rabbi Lord Sacks,” linked below. You can also hear R. Sacks read that parsha essay, “Beginning the Journey,” in the second link:

     “In an unnerving sense of fate, at the end of this week’s commentary on Chayei Sarah, Rabbi Sacks wrote: “Leaders see the destination, begin the journey, and leave behind them those who will continue it. That is enough to endow a life with immortality.”

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