The Greek Island of Hydra was once home to one of the most famous Jewish poets the world has been blessed with, Leonard Cohen. Brilliant, and missed terribly since his death, Cohen was not the only Jew to grace Greece. A thriving, dynamic Jewish Greek culture existed for thousands of years.
There are few cookbooks devoted to Greek Jewish cooking; however, Nicholas Stavroulakis has written two of them. The Cookbook of the Jews of Greece (Lycabettus Press, 1986) and West Cretan Cooking (Talos Press, 2003) are both excellent. The New Jew Kitchen is hard at work trying out recipes from these books, and so far, so delicious. Watch this space for a selection of the fantastic Greek Jewish recipes from Nicholas’ books. For now, let’s focus on Nicholas himself.
The best cookbooks are anthropological as much as gastronomical, and these two deliver both in spades. Nicholas was an extraordinary person whose contributions to Jewish culture was enormous, as reported in his obituary that ran in the New York Times in 2017, read it in its entirety:
Nicholas Peter Stavroulakis (aka Peter Stavis) was born 20 June, 1932, in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin; his parents Petros and Annie were both immigrants. In 1954, he graduated from the University of Notre Dame with a Bachelor of Arts in European Literature and Philosophy; two years later he earned a Master of Arts degree in Islamic and Near Eastern Studies from the University of Michigan. He then left for England where he began his D. Phil in Islamic Art and Architecture at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) of the University of London under David Rice. Much later he resumed his academic work at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem under Prof. D. Avi Yonah and completed his thesis on “The icons of Mar Saba Monastery in the Wadi Kelt” under Prof. Bezalel Narkiss in 1975.
In 1958, he left England for Athens, Greece, uniting with family there, especially Dori Kanellos, son of his father’s sister Maria. For the next eight years, he taught classes for the Doxiades School of Ekistics and the Anglo-American Academy.
At the same time, he pursued a parallel career as a painter and engraver, with a number of one-man shows, the first at the New Forms Gallery in Athens in 1960, others in Athens, London, Paris, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. His works are included in collections at the New York Museum of Modern Art, the Houston Museum of Modern Art and others worldwide.
Following a visit to Israel in 1966-1967, he moved there in 1969, assuming his Hebrew name Daniel Hannan. Living in Jerusalem he served as director of the excavation of Santa Maria Allemana under the Jerusalem Foundation from 1969 to 1971. From 1972 to 1974 he lectured at the University of Tel Aviv in Byzantine Art and Architecture.
In 1974 he returned to Athens, where he lectured in Byzantine, Islamic and Ottoman history and art for several American study-abroad programs, to include College Year in Athens, St John’s University (Minnesota), and the Athens Centre.
In the 1970s, Nikos co-founded the Jewish Museum of Greece together with Nouli Vital, Eli Almosnino and Ida Mordoh. He served as its director from 1977 to 1993, constantly expanding its collection with rare books and publications, textiles, costumes, jewelry, and domestic and religious artifacts. During these years he wrote a number of books, to include The Jews of Greece, Salonica: Jews and Dervishes and the Cookbook of the Jews of Greece. He also translated the Holocaust memoir of Errikos Sevillias Athens to Auschwitz. Later he also served as consultant for the newly established Jewish museums of Salonika and Rhodes.
In 1994, Nikos moved to Chania, Crete, where he conceived and executed the project of restoring the synagogue of Etz Hayyim, in ruins since World War II. Under his direction, construction began in 1996, and the building was rededicated in 1999. In 2010, the synagogue was officially incorporated as a non-profit organization, while Nikos continued as its spiritual director until his death.
The Eta Hayyim Synagogue
The Eta Hayyim Synagogue is gorgeous, its reconstruction is genuinely remarkable. The website succinctly explains its importance:
Until 1999 Etz Hayyim was a desecrated house of prayer that remained the sole Jewish monument on the Island of Crete after the destruction of our Jewish community in 1944. Essentially it stood as a monument to the success of the Nazis in obliterating 2,300 years of Jewish life on the island of Crete.
Since its re-dedication in 1999 the synagogue has attracted a community of its own making that has evolved into a Havurah or fraternity of persons who share certain common values though perhaps being of different religious affiliation. The term Havurah is derived from the term ‘haver’ or friend in Hebrew. But it also has the meaning of a ‘circle’ or ‘joining’. Hence a Havurah is a circle of friends joined together in a common ideal or search which in our Havurah is considered to be the search for an authentic spiritual life. This type of association is very ancient and may even be what is referred to in Tanah when it speaks of “Samuel and his band of Prophets.”
The members of our Havurah act as caretakers of the synagogue as a place of prayer and convocation. Some are observant, conservative, reform, reconstructionist or secularised Jews; others are Christians and some are Muslims. What binds the members of the Havurah together is a sense of the need for community and sharing of a common pursuit as opposed to the consumer oriented, ecologically indifferent and valueless society that by necessity we are also a part of.
At present we are in the process of defining our Havurah within the tradition of havuroth that we know existed prior to the 1st century CE and which have seen a resurgence of in the 20th and 21st century in Israel, the US, England, France and Germany.
Also we are involved in defining our role and our responsibilities as Jews associated in Etz Hayyim. We feel that what is essential is that we see ourselves as representing Jewish values which, as it happens, are values that not only do we share with other great religions – Christianity, Islam and Buddhism – but which determine civilized life and aspirations.
Nicolas Stavroulakis, alav ha-shalom.