Vincent Giordano, Untitled.
Rimmonim, delicate, silver decorations on tik cases, Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue, NYC, 2004.
The main entrance to the right and a partial view of the Sukka to the left, Kal Kedosh Yashan Synagogue, Ioannina, Greece, 2006.
Tiks, decorative, cylindrical cases for the Torah Scroll, Kal Kedosh Yanshan Synagogue, Ioannina, Greece, 2003.
Samuel Cohen with prayer shawl (tallis) during the Rosh Hashanah celebration, Kal Kedosh Yashan Synagogue, Ioannina, Greece, 2006.
Haim Ischakis, singing on the final day of the Rosh Hashanah celebration, Kal Kedosh Yashan Synagogue, Ioannina, Greece, 2006.
Man at prayer, during the Rosh Hashanah celebration, Kal Kedosh Yashan Synagogue, Ioannina, Greece, 2006.
Men returning the Torah Scrolls to the Ark after the ceremonial reading during the Rosh Hashanah celebration, Kal Kedosh Yashan Synagogue, Ioannina, Greece, 2006.
A man helping his son with his prayer shawl, Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue, New York City, 2007.
Women at prayer, 2, Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue, New York City, 2007.
Preparing to read from the Torah, Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue, New York City, 2007.
Before the Flame Goes Out
The Romaniote Jews in Ioannina and New York
March 05–July 13, 2008
Vincent Giordano’s photographs celebrate the legacy of the Romaniote Jewish community in Ioannina, Greece, and its sister synagogue on the lower East Side. The members of this community continue their traditional form of Judaism, which has persisted for 2300 years. In Giordano’s compelling images, the Romaniote Jews in Greece and America demonstrate their faith today while looking forward to the future.
*MOBIA is honored that Before the Flame Goes Out has been selected to participate in the City of New York’s Immigrant Heritage Week from April 14-20, 2008.
In 1999, photographer Vincent Giordano made an unplanned visit to the small Kehila Kedosha Janina synagogue on New York’s Lower East Side. Giordano knew little about Judaism or synagogues, and even less about the Romaniote Jewish tradition of which KKJ is the lone North American representative. In this he was not alone. Romaniotes - those Greek Jews who have maintained traditions dating to the days of ancient Greece and Rome are among the least known of Jewish communities. Since the Holocaust, when Romaniote communities in Greece were destroyed, KKJ has struggled to maintain the millennia-old traditions.
Giordano was inspired but what he saw in the small synagogue, which following common Orthodox Jewish practice celebrated the Torah and its teachings through beauty within their sanctuary, not outside. Entering the door of KKJ was for Giordano the entrance into an entirely new and different world.
Guided by members of the KKJ community, Giordano documented the synagogue and its religious art, supported by the International Survey of Jewish Monuments. But what started as a project to document objects became an extended exploration not just of a building, but of a community and individual lives and stories. The project now includes portraiture, oral histories, and documentation of important life cycle, religious and community rituals and events of the congregation on film, video and audio tape. Importantly, Giordano realized the history of KKJ is intimately linked to its mother city of Ioannina, Greece, and the tiny Jewish community there. These photographs, including many taken in Ioannina during the High Holidays in 2006, demonstrate the profound links between these communities.
Since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., the synagogue has been the hub from which the spiritual and cultural life of the Jewish community radiates, serving the needs of prayer, instruction and community. The very word synagogue - from the Greek synagein, “to bring together” - indicates its fundamental purpose. Synagogues are usually designed in local architectural styles, but the interiors must accommodate Jewish liturgy. Traditionally, the interior of synagogues have been richly decorated - especially in those areas that come in contact with the Scroll of Torah (the Pentateuch or Five Books of Moses).
There were two main synagogues in Ioannina, but only one survived the Holocaust. The Kehila Kedosha Yahsan Synagogue was built in 1829 within the Kastro. Typical of Ottoman-style synagogues, there is an interior courtyard with an ablution fountain for washing of hands. The sanctuary is a large, open rectangular structure, rows of wooden benches facing the center with a large area left open for the elaborate movement of the Torah Scrolls involved in a traditional Romaniote service. An impressive bimah (reader’s platform) is on the far western wall. The Echal Kodesh [Ark] is a marble structure adorned with decorative Greek columns. Behind ornate embroidered curtains (parokhet) are the Torah Scrolls, encased in tikkim (silver or wooden cases). The women of Ioannina sat in an upper level gallery behind a wooden lattice screen called a kafash (from the Turkish word for a latticed banister).
Immigrants from Ioannina to New York created a new center for their religious life when they erected the Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue on a small lot on Broome Street. The small, but ornate facade indicates the public and Jewish nature of the building, but the inside is as intimate as a neighborhood clubhouse. In this, the small synagogue resembles in general ways many of the community synagogues that dotted the Lower East Side in the first half of the 20th century, but the synagogue also recalls some aspects of K’ K’ Yashan in Ioannina. The bimah dominates a center space. Long benches line the walls and look inward. Women’s seating is in the balcony. There is no room for columns in this narrow prayer hall, and the great Echal Kodesh appears squeezed by the balcony, as it rises two stories. Given the constraints of the lot, the congregation chose to allow the placement of the Ark on the north wall. As in Greece, the synagogue is illuminated and decorated with hanging lamps. These are a general reminder of Greek Jewry, and many lamps are specific memorials.
The bimah, Ark, lamps and the variously embroidered textiles and other religious and commemorative fittings ultimately overwhelm the architecture. Together, through their intricate beauty, they fulfill the commandment to adorn the Torah extrapolated from Exodus 15:2 which exclaims: “This is my God and I will glorify God.” All these objects knit together the history of the congregation, its memories of Greece, and the life of New York’s Romaniote community.
Seven years ago, I first visited the Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue on Broome Street and what I heard and saw there made an indelible impression upon me. 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?
I 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. As I explored and probed deeper, I discovered this story is much larger than the synagogue on Broome Street, that it reaches far into the past, to the rich history of the Jews in ancient Greece and the Byzantine Empire and the devastation of the Holocaust.
Before the Flame Goes Out will document and preserve this unique chapter in Jewish history. I am thankful and blessed to use my talents and skills in this worthwhile endeavor. We are not often called upon to do work that can make a difference.
Vincent Giordano is a photographer and filmmaker dedicated to finding and recording the unique, collective memories of families and communities. Mr. Giordano possesses a keen eye for subject and detail and his work is known for its artistic sensibility and technical excellence.
Mr. Giordano’s work has been exhibited in many galleries and is included in numerous private collections. remembrance, Mr. Giordano’s collection of portraits from September 11, 2001, is in the permanent collection of the New York Historical Society. He is the recipient of several awards including seven Clio Awards for his film work in television commercials.
In addition to Before the Flame Goes Out, Mr. Giordano has created portfolios including, Casino; The Atlantic City Boardwalk; Peggy’s Cove; The Airport People Mover; Central Park; Grand Central Station; Times Square and The Fulton Fish Market.
Mr. Giordano lives and works with his wife in New York City.
This exhibition includes photographs that are part of the on-going project Before the Flame Goes Out. Before the Flame Goes Out is a project of the International Survey of Jewish Monuments (ISJM), an independent, non-profit, membership based, educational organization dedicated to the documentation, study, care and conservation of historic Jewish sites throughout the world.
Before the Flame Goes Out was conceived and developed by Vincent Giordano with assistance from Dr. Samuel Gruber, president of ISJM and the leadership of congregation of Kehila Kedosha Janina. Mr. Giordano and ISJM are also grateful for the advice, instruction and support of many scholars and activists, including Prof. Jane Gerber, Director of the Sephardic Studies Institute at the Graduate School of CUNY; Prof. Steven Bowman, of the Judaic Studies Department of the University of Cincinnati; Dr. Steven Jaffe, curator of the New York Historical Society; and Zanet Bettinou of the Jewish Museum of Greece. Marcia Haddad Ikonomopoulos, Museum Director, Kehila Kedosha Janina Museum has been a strong supporter of this project.