In January 2012 Temple Israel Cantor Wendy Shermet traveled to Greece to research the history of its Jewish population.
“I was chasing down the Jewish life that had been there,” Cantor Shermet said. “Jews used to be an extremely important part of Greece until World War I.”
Jewish people have lived in Greece since before the Common Era and, as Cantor Shermet points out, Greek culture had a huge influence on the creation of Israel. Greeks were also the first people to translate the Torah into a different language: Greek, obviously.
But during World War II, Greek Jews were nearly eradicated.
“Greece was hit harder than any other European country, per capita, in terms of the Jews that were killed,” Cantor Shermet said.
“In Thessaloniki, for example, they used to have 30 synagogues and 90,000 Jews. Now there are 1,500 Jews left and one synagogue, or maybe two sometimes,” the cantor continued. “There are 5,000 Jews in all of Greece because they were devastated after the war.”
In fact, the city of Thessaloniki, also known as Salonica, was once called “the Mother of Israel,” because of its vibrancy of learning and culture. The city was home to the oldest population of Jews, mostly Sephardic, in mainland Europe.
Cantor Shermet traveled all across Greece, from Athens and the Peloponnesian Peninsula in the south to Ioannina, near the Albanian border in the northwest, and as far east as Thessaloniki, which lies across the Aegean Sea from Turkey.
She visited various synagogues and museums, searching for information about the vast history of the Jewish life that had once made up more than half the population of Greece.
“Every tiny town has a museum,” Cantor Shermet said. “The tiniest of towns has a museum of their own artifacts because there’s so much history. You don’t have to go to Athens to go to a museum. Archeological finds are everywhere.”
Cantor Shermet will be discussing her research as part of Temple Israel’s Adult Study with the Clergy program. The classes go from 10 to 11:30 a.m. each Thursday from October 11 through December 20. Classes are open to all in the community and cost $45 for Temple Israel members and $55 for non-members.
The classes will begin with the history of Greece itself before moving on to what Jewish life in Greece was like throughout the ages.
Cantor Shermet has a great love for the topic and is eager to share her findings with the Omaha Jewish community.
“I find history fascinating and not everybody does,” Cantor Shermet said. “But I just happen to find history really fascinating.”