Reb Yakov Leib HaKohain, Founder & Spiritual Director
As Originally Published in
THE CRITIC: A Journal of Contemporary Catholic Culture
Winter 1994 Issue
It begins on August 18, 1988 when I set sail with eight companions and a crew of five on the S.S. Doxa out of Port Piraeus, Greece. Our destination was Izmir, Turkey and the Donmeh -- an ancient sect of Jewish Muslims who secretly revere Sabbatai Zevi, the 17th century Kabbalistic Messiah, as an Incarnation of God. It was the 330th anniversary of his conversion to Islam, and we planned to join them. We never got there. This is the story of what happened instead.
All of us knew the score. It was Tishah B'av, the terrible "Days of Awe," when it's dangerous to travel, particularly off the Coast of Turkey. But Costentinos, our captain, assured us we'd be safe, and we believed him. Partly because Mr. Lefiganos, his boss, had seven thousand dollars of our money; partly because it was too late to turn back; and partly because we were propelled by a sense of destiny. But none of us were prepared for what followed.
* * * *
The sea was calm when we left Piraeus. Some of us got seasick anyway, despite our precautions. That evening we docked at Kea Island, ate dinner on the ship, and retired early. I slept on the rear-deck, hidden in a cocoon of blankets. It was comforting to be like a ghost, to see without being seen, and eavesdrop on the life around me. What I remember best are the men of Kea sitting outdoors, watching TV in their undershirts.
The Wrath of God
An hour out of Kea, on the open ocean with no land in sight, I saw it coming: a force-ten gale bearing down on us. When it hit, our mainsail split from top to bottom. The iron chains that bolted a heavy table to the deck snapped; it caromed from side to side, smashing everything in sight. Portholes exploded. Dishes and cutlery shot in all directions. Books flew through the air. Geysers erupted from the toilets. One of the crew puked on the deck. My companions, huddled together behind me, tried escaping into sleep.
Half naked and drenched with spume, I gripped the gunnels of the ship and shouted the Tishah B'av morning prayer into the storm: "Hear our voice, Lord our God; spare us and have pity on us!" Then I shouted to the others, "Wake up! Sing!" And we did, "Kol oylam kulow, gesher tzar mayod": "All the world is a narrow bridge, but do not be afraid." It was, quite literally, like spitting in the wind.
Meanwhile, Costentinos straddled the deck like a mountain goat, bellowing orders to his crew, a bunch of novices thrown together at the last minute by Lefiganos. They were setting a course for Tinos, the only island within reach of the crippled Doxa. It was also the captain's ancestral home.
Tinos was founded in the 15th century. The Costentinos's were descendants of the original settlers. "Costos" (the captain's nickname) was the first to leave, but his father, a master sailmaker in his seventies, still lived there. Word of our arrival reached him quickly. Within minutes, he roared up on his motor scooter, dismounted, walked to the stern of the Doxa, saluted me, and rode away.
* * * *
Tinos isn't popular with tourists. It's too small and boring. Only a few hundred families live there. But among the Greeks, it's a holy shrine. An icon of the Blessed Virgin, said to have miraculous powers, is housed in its Greek Orthodox cathedral. Once a year, in August, hundreds of pilgrims converge on the island for a novena in her honor.
Tiny stalls line the streets leading to the crest of a hill overlooking the town where the Cathedral of the Icon stands. They sell arms, legs, noses, ears, hands and other body parts cast in metal. The pilgrims buy them to hang from the walls and ceilings of the cathedral, either in gratitude for a healing, or in hopes of one. A few days after our arrival, the venerations began.
Greek Orthodox priests stood in a circle on a raised dais in the port
plaza, intoning prayers over a
* * * *
Every morning Costos went to the Port Authority where a little ritual took place: he asked for permission to leave, and they denied it. Finally, he brought me with him. I wasn't sure why, but I later learned the reason. I was something of a celebrity on the island. Costos had spread the story of my praying and singing during the storm. In retrospect my behavior seemed crazy, but the Greeks admire that kind of thing. The port official, Mr. Popiganos, was Costos's cousin. He greeted us affably, offering me his best chair. At first we exchanged pleasantries over Greek coffee. Costos translated the conversation: Were we enjoying our stay on Tinos Island? "Yes, very much." Had we visited the hillside villages? "No, not yet." Was it true that I was Greek? "Regrettably not, but my grandparents were from Istanbul." Ah, then you're a Turk. (There's bad blood between the Greeks and Turks; but they excused my Turkish ancestry because I was a Jew, which somehow counted in my favor and seemed to have made me an honorary Greek in their minds.)
Finally, Popiganos and Costos got down to business. No, he wouldn't permit the Doxa to weigh anchor. The storm, though it had abated to a force-seven, was still risky. When it fell to six, he'd let us leave. Until then, he was forced to commandeer the captain's papers -- not, mind you, as a rebuke for his "regrettable lack of judgment," but only to protect the American tourists in his charge. I had the uneasy feeling he wanted to keep us there for other reasons, but I couldn't figure out what they were. Perhaps he wanted our tourist dollars. But that didn't seem likely. Whatever the case, we were stuck on Tinos by an act of God. Little did I know where that act would lead us.
Every morning I and the other men in our party wrapped ourselves in prayer shawls and phylacteries to pray the traditional Shachrit service on the deck of the Doxa. During our devotions, the old men of Tinos gathered on the dock to watch us. I was struck by their reverence and asked Costos about it.
"So why not?" he answered. (He spoke English almost perfectly which put me to shame since I couldn't speak Greek.) "Because they're Christians." I said. To which he merely shrugged his shoulders and went about his business. Later he said, "Listen, Mr. Jacob, it's boring you spend all your time in port. Go see villages on the hill. I'll rent Jeeps that take you there. Okay?" Well . . . all right" I said, suspicious that he was conniving to make some extra money on the deal. (As it turned out, he paid for the Jeeps himself.) That afternoon we motored into the hillside villages, using the maps Costos drew for us.
* * * *
My first clue should have been the remoteness of the villages. What cinched it, though, was the architecture of their ancient houses: some were in ruins, others livable. But all of them, to our amazement, had a large opening carved above the door in the shape of a Star of David. (A few days later one of us bought a silver locket from a local artisan, shaped like the Sacred Heart of Jesus and decorated with the same Jewish motif.)
"So, you like our villages?" Costos asked when we got back.
"Yes," I said, "but something puzzles me. All the houses have . . . like this," and I formed two triangles with my fingers. "Do you know why?"
"Sure," he said, "because it's Star of David."
"But why would it be on all the houses?" I asked.
"Because it's nice design," he answered.
"That can't be the only reason," I said. "Look, can you tell me about the history of this Island?"
"Sure," he said. "Tinos founded five hundred years ago by Spaniards and Arab peoples who come with them. That's why we only Greek Island with Catholic church and Arab houses. My family live here from beginning. Others maybe longer. Most make living from sea. You know, sailors. Not many, maybe four, five hundred. Greek church very beautiful. I take you there, okay?"
"That would be nice," I said, "but I'm more interested in something else. Did any Jews ever live on Tinos?"
Costos shook his head emphatically. "No, no," he said, "never Jewish peoples on Tinos Island. Only Spanish and Arab."
"But those houses with the Star of David," I insisted, "couldn't they mean that some of you have Jewish ancestors?" He shrugged his shoulders as he had before. "Maybe," he said, "and maybe not." And that was that.
But something kept nagging at me: Tinos was founded around 1488, approximately
two years after
In an odd way, this also explained the unusual presence of a Roman Catholic Church on a Greek Orthodox island. Historical research suggests that a vast influx of Marrano refugees from the Spanish Inquisition settled along the seaports of Greece at approximately the same time as Tinos was founded. Most of them, even after returning to Judaism, maintained the protective coloration of Christianity. Was it possible that the Spaniards who settled Tinos were actually Jews who had attempted to hide their identity by building a Catholic church?
Then there was that locket. Unlike Corfu, Tinos isn't famous for its ancient Jewish community. Its main claim to fame is a miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary -- hardly something Jews would flock to see. Why, then, did a local artisan create a Sacred Heart of Jesus engraved with a Star of David? For the infrequent Jewish tourists? Not likely. For the more frequent Christian pilgrims? Less likely still.
As I considered these questions, a bigger one came to mind: Could the inhabitants of Tinos be aware of their Jewish origins but prefer to keep them hidden in the closet, so to speak? After all, it's never been too good for the Jews of Greece. As late as 1932, charges of "ritual murder" were being leveled against them; during the Second World War the Greeks collaborated with the Nazis in the extermination of the entire Jewish community of Corfu; and even as we basked in the warmth of our reception on Tinos, gangs of Palestinian terrorists roamed the streets of Athens.
Did the founding Jews of Tinos, if any, come there to escape the Spanish inquisition? Did they influence its Moorish architecture? Were they, at least for me, a substitute for the Donmeh which we had set out to find in Izmir? All of this, of course, was pure speculation. But then, something remarkable happened.
Costos and I had become comrades. We shared a love of good food, good drink, and good companionship. On our last evening together, we were taking an Ouzo at a seaside cafe. He had ordered a plate of tidbits and, in traditional Greek fashion, we were feeding them to each other between drinks. At one point he fell silent. Then, after a few moments he looked away and said, "You know, we all can't be Jews how you are."
The next day I sailed for Athens and my flight back home.
* * * *
Well, that's the story of my journey to the Donmeh of Smyrna on Tishah B'av. I'm not sure what it all amounts to, if anything. Sabbatai Zevi and I had an appointment in Izmir that we kept on Tinos. Why, I don't know. Maybe it doesn't matter. Or maybe it was meant to set the stage for eight years later when, to paraphrase my namesake Yakov Leib, an act of God brought me out of the dark and into the light of Esau and Ishmael . . . Whatever that means.
Like the ancient Kabbalists, I suspect nothing is accidental. Something intangible seems to direct our destiny. Maybe it's God. Why else would a pilgrimage to the home of the Donmeh get knocked off-course and land on an island of Christians descended from Spaniards who may have been Jews? Over the years, I've wondered what brought me to that place, at that moment, to hear those words, "We all can't be Jews how you are."
At such times, and for what it's worth, I remember a passage from the
Zohar: "That hour is a time of grace for all; and the Holy King holds
out to Israel, and all who are with Her, His scepter of the thread of
grace so they all may be wholly united to the Holy King." Maybe that
explains what happened on Tinos and maybe not, but six years later I was
baptized into the Catholic Church.