It all began quite innocently, when our 35th wedding anniversary was approaching. Should we go somewhere for a short holiday to celebrate the event? It took sometime to think and plan, and that brought us all the way to the end of August (our anniversary is at the beginning of June).
Fast backward to the 1970’s, when I (Rimona) was studying history of art at Tel Aviv University. One particular culture and artifacts that caught my attention more than any other had been that of the ancient Minoans who resided in the island of Crete centuries before the Greeks. I’ve always wanted to be in the location of Knosos, and see King Minos' palace and the museum where much of what was produced by these ancients is now displayed. So here was an opportunity perhaps to fulfill a very old dream. And so as I am looking into the vacation possibilities, a certain town in Crete comes into view (out of the different reviews and recommendations for travelers). It’s called Chania (or for those whose language does not permit the guttural sound, Hania). “Well, let’s add that to our list of 'things to do' in our potential Cretan vacation”.
And so while all this was going on, I also happened to be tuning into a “bringing in of the Shabbat” radio program on Israel’s national radio, to just miss hearing about the departure of apparently someone very significant in Chania/Hania, who was being mentioned by an Israeli woman living there and interviewed on that program. So I keep turning in, and the name of the person is finally mentioned – Nikkos Stavrolakis! My mouth dropped, and I almost fell off my chair. Nikkos Stavrolakis was my favorite professor at the Tel Aviv University, again, during the year when I had studied about the Minoan culture. He was Greek and taught in English, and no, he was not the one who lectured on Minoan art, but on ancient Christian art. His classes were so fascinating that my friend and I used to go over the materials just for fun (and not only before a test).
At the time I knew nothing about Nikkos Stavrolakis, only that he was Greek, and so I assumed he had been “on loan” at Tel Aviv University from some Greek institute of learning (and never for a minute thought he was Jewish). But now, through the interview with this Israeli woman living in Hania I found out what I did not know. Nikkos was actually Jewish (his mother being a Turkish Jew). His father, a Greek, was from Hania, and about 20 years ago Nikkos (a well known artist, historian, philosopher and much more) decided to make his home there. He actually was born in the States and grew up in London. It was there at Hania that he restored an old and tiny synagogue that lay in ruins, by obtaining UN funds for world heritage treasures (!) Nikkos actually ended up going throughout Greece and restoring synagogues which were in a similar state. Through the years in Hania he went back to his Jewish roots and even when no one frequented the synagogue, he would go there for prayers 3 times a day. Hania’s Jewish population (like all of Crete’s and most of the rest of Greek Jewry) were deported to the camps by the Germans in WW II. For Ahuva, the Israeli woman interviewed, he fulfilled a dream because having been there many years and seeing the state of the ruined synagogue she herself tried to do something about it, but with no success. Hence she became his right hand person, and helped the elderly man in “running” the place and attending to visitors and arranging services whenever possible. By now I was totally intrigued, and felt that Etz Chayim synagogue would certainly be on our list for touring Crete. (Incidentally, that Friday evening we had a guest for dinner, who upon hearing the story told us that he had actually visited this synagogue many years before!)
To make a long story short, the Minoan culture and its “products” that we saw at the archeological museum in Heraklion (Crete’s capital) far outweighed what I or we had ever expected, and the tour in Knosos was fascinating. We’ll get more to the subject of the Minoans further on. The erev Shabbat service at Etz Chayim Synagogue was outstanding. People from all over attended, with various backgrounds and religious beliefs. It seems to be a drawing point for many, as the deceased professor’s gift of bringing people together from different backgrounds still characterizes the place. Having known him and been his student somehow gave me/us an entrance card into the community and we no longer felt like tourists peeking in, but much more connected to the fiber of that part of the city, where we were staying and where the synagogue is also located. What’s more, our hotel just “happened” to be right next door to the Stavrolakis ages old home (of course everyone we talked to in the town had known him). Additionally, Nikkos was born in… Wisconsin in a city very close to Ephraim’s birthplace! So, just to end this portion of the article, we hope that next June, for the one year anniversary of Nikkos’ passing, the Torah scroll that’s now being written in Jerusalem will have been financially covered (as the present two scrolls in the synagogue are highly damaged and therefore not kosher), and will be brought to the synagogue to fulfill his last wish. Ahuva and some others have created a fund for that purpose. We also hope to be able to attned and witness the special event. More on the synagogue for those interested www.etz-hayyim-hania.org/
Before embarking on our trip, the know-it all Misters Google and YouTube had already posted on our computers screens on a variety of interesting YouTubes on the Minoans which Ephraim had started following. That end trail, along with our visit to Crete, began to take him on some revelatory discoveries, which will be shared in another article.