The Very Greek Greek Jews of Manhattan’s Lower East Side

NEW YORK – As Greek and Jewish-Americans, friends and colleagues for a century, discover how much they have in common in the wake of the deepening of relations between Greece, Israel, and Cyprus, both groups are fascinated to learn about the Romaniote Jews of Ioannina.
The keeper of that historic treasure in New York is Marcia Haddad Ikonomopoulos, Scholar in Residence of the historic Kehila Kedosha Janina synagogue at 280 Broome Street that was built in 1927 in Lower Manhattan and director of its museum.
The most recent of Ikonomopoulos’ stream of presentations focused on the life of the Romaniotes – Jews who unlike the Sephardim, have lived in Greece for more than 2000 years and have a Greek identity – on the Lower East Side in the early 20th century.
Her presentation was enriched by images of ship manifests and historic photos depicting everything from arrivals at Ellis Island to family and business life.
She presented an overview of Greek immigration, which began in large numbers in 1890 and received pushes from the Balkan wars and WW I, and said she looks forward to learning more about the Greek Christians of the nearby parish of St. Barbara.
One major difference between the two groups is that in the first wave, Greek Christians came as single men. “Greek Jews came over as families…but what distinguished Greek-speaking Jews from Jews of other backgrounds is their Greekness,” she said. In photos of joint gatherings, except for the rabbi and clergy like Archbishop Athenagoras, the guests were indistinguishable.
Ikonomopoulos illustrated the community’s story by focusing on a few families, especially the Colchamiro-Kalchimiras clan.
On July 22, 1905, 31 year-old Leon Colchamiro and his wife, Julia, in set foot on the shores of America.
On the ship manifest, his name appeared as Leon Kalchimiras and he is listed as Greek.
She warned researchers that as valuable as the information on ship manifests can be, “many are treasures troves of lies – or misinterpretations.” Leon was listed as not having an occupation and with Piraeus as his last residence – wrong on both counts.
HIs journey began in Ioannina must have been especially difficult for Julia. Although she was accompanied by her two oldest, she left behind her two youngest sons. Ultimately the family had eight children.
“It was her duty to follow her husband and Leon had dreams and ambitions that could not be fulfilled in Ioannina, where antiquated Greek inheritance laws that divided children’s shares impoverished families.
Leon’s younger brother Elias was the first Colchamiro to arrive. He loved playing the bouzouki and was often found in the Greek nightclubs on Manhattan’s West Side, “the Café Amans as they were known.”
Like their fellow Greeks, the Romaniotes took to American entrepreneurship right away. The Jews from Ioannina found a niche in the garment industry making women garments – and as early as 1911 the Colchamiro brothers are listed in a directory as operating a number of businesses.
Greek Christians will find the whole story familiar. Leon brought most of his extended family to New York and helped established the synagogue at 280 Broome Street and the sisterhood of Ioannina, the philanthropic organization that continues to help the community.
Like all first generation Greek-Americans, they made a great effort to preserve the language. “When St. Barbara’s opened in 1927 – interestingly enough in a converted synagogue – it would be the natural place to send their children,” Ikonomopoulos said.
“What is interesting is that Polish, Italian, and Yiddish speaking Jewish immigrants did not send their children to learn those languages, but Greek immigrants, both Jewish and Christian, sent their children to learn Greek,” she added.
The Greek Jews were never comfortable attending the Spanish langue synagogues nearby, just as Greek Orthodox Christians did not worship at non-Greek churches.
Ikonomopoulos showed photos of 14 people living in a 2-bedroom apartment and said, “While their apartments were small their aspirations were not. And they had to appear important. There was a popular shoe shine stand on the corner of Allen and Broome and the women also looked their best when they went out.
“Every occasion became a celebration. A picnic in the park was not complete without the lilting strains of bouzouki music. At night they attended night clubs attended by Greeks – Christians and Jews – Turks and Armenians. Music was the diplomacy that brought them together.”
Like the Greek Christians, Greek Jews “worked hard, but this is why they came to the United States, to make a better life for themselves and their families. Their shops lined Allen Street and their hard toil paid off as their children and grandchildren lived the American dream and became professionals.”
She concluded with a touching story about attending a Colchamiro family reunion. Ikonomopoulos looked out at the 156 attendees, a mix of doctors, lawyers, professors, architects, with tears in her eyes and she said to them “how proud your ancestors would have been!”
The synagogue – its website is – has been beautifully restored and the architect was also named Leon Colchamiro. That is no coincidence. Like Greek Christians, he was named after his grandfather, its founder.