Before the beginning of the Common Era, Jews were known to have lived in Sparta, Sikyon, Delphi, Athens, Patras, Mantineja, Laconia, Corinth, Thessalalonika, Philippi, and Beroa. Due to baptism forced on Jews by some Byzantine emperors, a number of Jews emigrated o southern Italy. Otherwise, there was a line of Jewish communities in the 12th century. By itself Thebes housed 2,000 families, Salonika 500 families, and middle-sized settlements arose in Halmyros, Corinth, Drama, Krisa, Naupactos, Ravnica, Arta, and Lamia.
The Jewish silk weavers of Thebes, the farmers of Krisa, and dyers and leather workers whom one met everywhere, had one calling. Not for nothing did King Roger of Sicily fetch the Jewish silk weavers to southern Sicily. In the 15th century one could encounter Jewish silk weavers in Modon on the Peloponnesos.
Benjamin of Tudela, who traveled through Greece in the 12th century, knew what to tell about the state of learning among the Greek Jews. Certain spiritual streams went forth from them up into the mountains of Albania, which Benjamin observed with admiration. He wrote, “They called themselves ‘Wallachian.’ They are able to race as fast as gazelles down from the mountains, to plunder the land of the Greeks…. they do not confess to the Christian faith, and they give their children Jewish names. Some even claim they descend from Jews. They call Jews their brothers. When they encounter Jews, they rob them but don’t kill them, as they do with the Greeks. They have no beliefs. From there it’s another two days to Gorzy, an abandoned locale with few inhabitants, a few Greeks and a few Jews.”
Gorzy is surely present-day Korica, in southern Albania. Not far from this lay Castoria, a community Benjamin of Tudela also mentioned, which was the eventual home of Tobia ben Eleasar, who had lived through and then reported about the persecutions in Germany during the First Crusade.
There were also communities in Janina, Arta, and Preveza. The Jews here spoke a language which was a mixture of Latin and classical Greek, and had their own unique songs for the Sabbath and Purim liturgies.
In the 14th and beginning of the 15th century, new settlements were built in Modon (Mothoni), in the port city of Coroni, and in Argos, Patras, Lepanto, and Kythera, all on the Peleponesian isthmus. When the Turks conquered this area, they found communities everywhere, and also at Morea, where a section of the city was named “Hebrew Tribe.”
The immigration of Jews from Spain, Sardinia, Sicily, and Apulia created tensions between the newcomers and the established Jewish communities.[Translator’s Note: This would have been primarily the result of the mass expulsions from Spain and Spanish-controlled territories to the east late in the 15th century.] The Sephardic element was in the majority and managed to make its Spaniolisch language [presumably Ladino] a general-purpose and business language, though in the 19th century it was forced out by the Greek language and this situation hasn’t changed into our own time.
Salonika was a center of Sephardic Judaism “in the exile.” Due to the establishment of a textile industry, the city grew increasingly important. The city maintained its economic health via foreign trade in the 17th and 18th centuries despite a steady region-wide impoverishment.
At the end of the 19th century Salonika had a population of 130,000, half of these being Jews, and three-quarters of its commerce lay in Jewish hands. One observer wrote, “The people who worked in the harbor were all Jewish, and on the Sabbath steamers could neither load nor offload their cargoes. Carters, cobblers, masons, and silk-workers are all Jewish.”
In Salonika in 1920, there were about 12,000 Jewish factory workers, mostly in the tobacco industry. All the female home-cleaners and general household helpers of the city were Jewish.
This picture changed in the 1920s when, due to the population exchanges, the Greek element became stronger. [After World War I, which Turkey lost, it expelled tens of thousands of Greeks who lived in Turkey and Greece likewise packed its Turks over to Turkey.] With the immigration of 200,000 Greeks, the Jews were reduced to a quarter of the total population.
In the shipping industry, the competition with the Greeks made itself felt when the imposition of a Sunday day of rest, which disadvantaged the Jews, all of whom observed the Sabbath, since it deprived them of one day of work every week.
During the Greek Revolution of 1821 [when Turkey controlled all of Greece], the Jewish population of the Peleponesos and the middle of Greece was almost entirely wiped out. When Greece gained its independence in 1830, there existed but a single Jewish community on the whole island of Euboia [Negroponte]. Later there arose a community in Athens.
Since 1881 Greece has experienced territorial gains via diplomacy, which meant an increase in its Jewish population. In 1933 the number of Jews in Greece was estimated at 100,000. With 70,000 Jews, Salonika has the biggest community, followed by Janina with 4,000 Jews; Athens, Cavalla, Larissa, and Seres with more than 2,000, and more cities with smaller populations.
Salonika has 30 synagogues, Talmud-Torahs, and yeshivot and a whole array of secular Jewish schools, which were established partially by the Alliance Israélite Universelle, and partially by German Jewish philanthropy. Salonika has been a long-established center of Jewish publishing since the 16th century. Of the previously existing five Spaniolisch [Ladino] language newspapers, only one remains.
The Jews supported the Young Turk movement [which deposed the last Sultan at the end of WWI] that arose in Salonika. Jews now take part in the political and parliamentary life of Greece.
In Salonika lived the sect of the Dönmeh, which after the break-up of Shabbtai Zvi’s messianic movement converted to Islam. When the Turkish population of Salonika had to leave, in the wake of the population exchange between Greece and Turkey after WWI, the Dönmeh left with them and settled in Istanbul and Izmir (Smyrna).
Today Greece offers Jews only limited economic opportunities. A Jewish emigration to France, Italy, Belgium, and England has been noted as well as to Cuba, South America, Egypt, and Palestine. The skilled harbor workers of Salonika now are busily employed in the new port of Haifa.