15 September 2021

The Greeks have a word
for it (26) Synagogue

Etz Hayyim Synagogue stands in a small alley off Kondhilaki Streer in Evraiki or the former Jewish quarter in the old town of Chania (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During these two weeks in Crete, I have been reminding myself of familiar words in the English language that are Greek words, deeply rooted in Greek classics, antiquity and culture.

But the word synagogue is Greek, word, not Hebrew. In Hebrew, a synagogue is called בית כנסת‎ (beit Knesset), which means, a ‘house of gathering.’ The word synagogue comes the classical Greek word συναγωγή (synagogē), meaning assembly.

Ashkenazic Jews in English-speaking countries use the Yiddish word shul (שול) for a synagogue, but many Sephardic and Romaniote Jews use the word esnoga (אשנוגה), from the Ladino (‘bright as fire’) or kahal (קהל).

I am in Crete in the middle of the High Holy Days, with Rosh Hashanah last Monday evening (6 September 2021) marking the beginning of the Jewish New Year, welcoming in the year 5782. Yom Kippur 2021 begins at sunset this evening (15 September), when the evening service begins with Kol Nidre, and ends at nightfall tomorrow (16 September).

I had hoped to travel from Rethymnon to Chania to visit the Etz Hayyim synagogue this evening. But the pandemic restrictions make this difficult if not impossible because only a very small number are being allowed inside.

Etz Hayyim synagogue stands in a small alley off Kondhilaki Streer in Evraiki or the former Jewish quarter in the old town of Chania, where there has been a synagogue since the Middle Ages. It is in the heart of the walled maze of alleyways and narrow streets that spread out from the harbour with its mediaeval lighthouse and the port’s surviving mosque.

There were Romaniote or Greek-speaking Jews in Crete for more than 2,300 years, and they survived wave-after-wave of invaders, including Romans, Byzantines, Saracen pirates, Venetians and Ottomans.

They were strongly influenced by Sephardic intellectual traditions with the arrival of Spanish Jews in Crete in the late 14th century, and the two Jewish communities intermarried and accommodated one another.

At the beginning of the Greek-Turkish war in 1897, there were 225 Jewish families in Crete, or 1,150 people in a total population of 250,000, spread across the three cities in the island: Chania, Iraklion and Rethymnon.

Early on the morning of 9 June 1944, while the 256 remaining Jews of Crete were being sent by the Nazis to Athens for deportation to Auschwitz, the Tanais, the container ship carrying them from Chania to Athens, was torpedoed by a British submarine HMS Vivid off the coast of Santorini. In all, about 1,000 prisoners were on board, including 400 Greek hostages and 300 Italian soldiers. No one survived.

Etz Hayyim synagogue stood empty after World War II. The sleeping building was desecrated. It was used as a dump, a urinal and a kennel, damaged by earthquakes and filled with dead animals and broken glass, its mikvah or ritual bath oozing mud and muck.

The revival of the synagogue is due to the vision and hard work of Nicholas Stavroulakis who grew up in Britain, the son of a Turkish Jewish mother and a Greek Orthodox father from Crete. His family ties inspired many visits to Crete. He returned in 1995, set about restoring the synagogue, and Etz Hayyim reopened in 1999.

Today, barely more than a dozen Jews live in Crete, and Evraiki, the former Jewish quarter, is crammed with tavernas, cafés and souvenir shops. Etz Hayyim holds weekly Shabbat services in Hebrew, Greek, and English, and is home to a research library with 4,000 volumes. Rabbi Gabriel Negrin, who was once a student in Crete, often comes to Chania from Athens to help with the services.

The courtyard of the Etz Hayyim Synagogue in Chania … there have been Jews in Crete for over 2,300 years (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Yom Kippur falls on the Hebrew calendar date of 10 Tishrei. The central themes of this holy day are atonement and repentance, and it is observed with a 25-hour period of fasting and intensive prayer, and many Jews spend most of the day at synagogue services.

According to Jewish tradition, God writes each person’s fate for the coming year into the Book of Life on Rosh Hashanah or New Year and waits until Yom Kippur to seal the verdict. During the intervening Days of Awe, Jews seek to amend their behaviour and seek forgiveness for wrongs done against God and against other people.

The evening and day of Yom Kippur are set aside for public and private prayer and confessions of guilt.

The evening of Yom Kippur is known as Kol Nidrei night because of the Kol Nidre prayer which is charged with so many emotions and so many memories for Jews everywhere. The words are in Aramaic, not Hebrew, and it is sung to a haunting, traditional melody that has inspired many composers and singers.

There is a tradition that during the Spanish Inquisition, when the conversos or Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity under the threat of death, they remained faithful to Judaism at heart, and tried to observe Jewish practices in their homes.

These conversos would gather in the evening shortly before Yom Kippur began in their secret synagogues. Before beginning the Yom Kippur services, they would tearfully and emotionally pray to God, asking for forgiveness for all the public statements they made in the previous year which were contrary to Jewish doctrine.

This is supposedly also the reason why Kol Nidre is prefaced with the statement: ‘… by the authority of the heavenly tribunal and by the authority of the earthly tribunal, we hereby grant permission to pray with those who have transgressed.’

However, the Kol Nidre prayer predates the Inquisition by at least 500 years. It is said with great devotion as the opening prayer of the holiest day of the year and not because of its content.

Kol Nidre is an Aramaic declaration recited in the synagogue before the beginning of the evening service on every Yom Kippur. Although, strictly speaking, Kol Nidre is not a prayer, it has many emotional undertones and creates a dramatic introduction to Yom Kippur. The term Kol Nidre refers not only to the actual declaration but is also used as the name for the entire Yom Kippur service in the evening.

The name ‘Kol Nidre’ comes from the opening words, meaning ‘all vows.’ It is a pledge that annuls any personal or religious oaths or prohibitions made to God by the person for the next year, so as to avoid the sin of breaking vows made to God that cannot be or are not upheld.

Kol Nidre was introduced into the synagogue liturgy despite the opposition of some rabbis, although it was expunged from the prayer book by many communities in western Europe in the 19th century.

Before sunset on the eve of Yom Kippur, the congregation gathers in the synagogue, the Ark is opened and two people take out two or three Torah scrolls. They then take their places, one on each side of the cantor, and the three, forming a symbolic beth din or rabbinical court, recite:

By the authority of the Court on High
and by authority of the court down here,
by the permission of One Who Is Everywhere
and by the permission of this congregation,
we hold it lawful to pray with sinners.

The last word, usually translated as sinners or transgressors, is used in the Talmud (Niddah 13b; Shabbat 40a) for apostates or renegades and in the Talmud of Jerusalem (Ketubot 7, 31c) for someone whose offences are of such magnitude that he is no longer recognised by the Jewish community.

The cantor then chants the passage beginning with the words Kol Nidre with its touching melodic phrases, and, in varying intensities, repeats twice, giving a total of three declarations, these words:

All vows we are likely to make,
all oaths and pledges we are likely to take
between this Yom Kippur and the next Yom Kippur,
we publicly renounce.
Let them all be relinquished and abandoned,
null and void,
neither firm nor established.
Let our vows, pledges and oaths
be considered neither vows nor pledges nor oaths.

The leader and the congregation then say together three times:

May all the people of Israel be forgiven,
including all the strangers who live in their midst,
for all the people are in fault.
(Numbers 15: 26)

The leader then says:

O pardon the iniquities of this people,
according to thy abundant mercy,
just as thou forgave this people
ever since they left Egypt.

The leader and the congregation say together three times:

The Lord said,
‘I pardon them according to your words.’
(Numbers 14: 20)

The Torah scrolls are then placed back in the Ark, and the customary evening service begins.

Kol Nidre is not a prayer; indeed, it makes no requests and it is not addressed to God. Instead, it is a declaration before the Yom Kippur prayers begin. It follows the juridical practice of requiring three men as a tribunal, the procedure beginning before sundown, and of the proclamation being announced three times.

It is believed that Kol Nidre was added to the liturgy of Yom Kippur 10 days after Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, because that service is much more solemn, because the Day of Atonement is attuned to the theme of repentance and remorse and because Yom Kippur services are better attended. Kol Nidre also includes an emotional expression of penitence that sets the theme for the Day of Atonement.

Rabbi Meir ben Samuel made an important change to the wording of Kol Nidre in the early 12th century, changing the original phrase ‘from the last Day of Atonement until this one’ to ‘from this Day of Atonement until the next.’

The older text is usually called the Sephardic version, but the two versions are sometimes found side by side. Because it is traditional to recite Kol Nidrei three times, some Sephardic communities and a small number of Ashkenazic communities recite both versions.

Kol Nidre is performed before Yom Kippur begins, and should be recited before sunset, since dispensation from a vow may not be granted on the Sabbath or on a feast-day, unless the vow refers to one of these days. However, Sephardic communities wait until nightfall, when Yom Kippur officially begins, before reciting Kol Nidre.

There is a tradition that makes Kol Nidre more than a technical vow-annulment procedure. Instead, by releasing these vows God is being asked to reciprocate in kind. In the event that he has pledged not to bring the redemption just yet, in the event that he made an oath to bring harsh judgments on his people in the following year, God is asked to release these vows and instead grant a year of happiness and redemption.

גְּמַר חֲתִימָה טוֹבָה ‎

G’mar Chatima Tovah, May you be sealed for good in the Book of Life.

Kol Nidrei, sung by Rabbi Angela Buchdahl at Central Synagogue, New York

Yesterday: Asthma

Tomorrow: School.

Praying in Ordinary Time 2021:
109, Saint Vedast-alias-Foster, London

Saint Vedast Foster Lane or Saint Vedast-alias-Foster in the City of London has ‘a vibrant schedule of ecclesiastical, musical and social events’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Good morning from Crete, where I am staying on the eastern fringes of Rethymnon.

Before the day begins, I am taking a little time this morning for prayer, reflection and reading. Each morning in the time in the Church Calendar known as Ordinary Time, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, photographs of a church or place of worship;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

My theme for these few weeks is Wren churches in London, and my photographs this morning (15 September 2021) are from Saint Vedast-alias-Foster.

Saint Vedast Foster Lane or Saint Vedast-alias-Foster in the City of London … the new glass doors by Bernard Merry allow the inside of the church to be seen from Foster Lane, even on a cold and dark evening (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Saint Vedast Foster Lane or Saint Vedast-alias-Foster, on Cheapside, stands close to the north-east corner of Saint Paul’s Cathedral. It is noted for its small but lively baroque steeple, its secluded courtyard, its stained glass, and a richly-decorated ceiling.

This is one of only a few city churches that are open seven days a week, and has a dynamic congregation. The church describes itself as ‘an Anglican church in the Catholic tradition … with a vibrant schedule of ecclesiastical, musical and social events.’

Famous figures associated with the church include John Browne, sergeant painter to King Henry VIII, Sir Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of King Henry VIII, who was born in nearby Milk Street, and Robert Herrick the poet. Thomas Rotherham, who was rector of the parish from in 1463-1448, later became Archbishop of York and Lord Chancellor of King Edward IV.

The church is dedicated to Saint Vedast, and the alternative name Foster is simply an Anglicisation of the name Vaast by which the saint is known in continental Europe. This French saint is little known in Britain. He was Bishop of Arras in northern Gaul around the turn of the sixth century. Saint Vedast is known as Vedastus in Latin, Vaast in Norman, Waast in Walloon, and Gaston in French.

In England, his name was corrupted from Vaast, by way of Vastes, Fastes, Faster, Fauster and Forster to Foster, the name of the lane at the front of the church. This explains why the official name of the church is Saint Vedast-alias-Foster.

Augustinians from Arras were probably responsible for the foundation of the few churches in England dedicated to Saint Vedast. The one and only other surviving church in England that is dedicated to him is Saint Vedast in Tathwell, Lincolnshire. A third parish in Norwich is remembered only in a street name. Later, Rathkeale Abbey in Co Limerick was founded in 1280 by Gilbert Hervey for the Augustinian Canons of the Order of Aroasia.

The Rector, the Revd James Batty, petitioned the Archbishop William Laud of Canterbury in 1635 for permission to set up a rail around the communion table as there are many ‘disorders and undecencies’ among the parishioners when they were receiving Holy Communion.

For his loyalty to King Charles I, Batty was ‘sequestered, plundered, forced to flee, and died’ in 1642. How the church may have suffered during the Civil Wars of the mid-17th century is not recorded. But the Cromwellians kept horses stabled in the chancel of Saint Paul’s Cathedral nearby, we can image that it suffered badly. The current Rectors’ Board lists the years between 1643 and 1661 as under Foulke Bellers, a ‘Commonwealth Intruder.’

After the Restoration, the church was restored by 1662. Four years later, the Great Fire reached Saint Vedast on the third day. Afterwards, it was thought that although the roof, pews, pulpit and other fittings had been destroyed, the church could be repaired satisfactorily, and so it was omitted from the original list of 50 churches to be rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren.

However, the structural flaws had become so significant by the 1690s that rebuilding began. It was altered, enlarged and restored by the office of Sir Christopher Wren between 1695 and 1701. Only small parts of the older building that survived were incorporated in the new church. These included parts of the mediaeval fabric in the south wall that were revealed during cleaning in 1992-1993.

Apart from Wren, either Robert Hooke or Nicholas Hawksmoor were involved in this restoration work. The three-tier spire of the church, which is considered one of the most baroque of all the City church spires, was added in 1709-1712 at a cost of £2,958. It may have been designed by Hawksmoor, and correspondence between Hawksmoor and the churchwardens survives.

Saint Vedast was one of 19 City churches selected for demolition in 1919. The plan was to sell off the land and use the money to build churches in the north-west suburbs.

The church was destroyed internally on the night of Sunday 29 December 1940 by firebombs during the London Blitz, and Saint Vedast was left a burnt-out shell.

But the structure of the church and its tower were deemed to be safe, plans to restore the church began in 1947, and restoration work started in 1953.

The post-war restoration was overseen by the Parochial Church Council, whose members included the Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman and the organ builder Noel Mander. The architect was Stephen Dykes Bower (1903-1991).

The priests at Saint Vedast have included Canon Gonville ffrench-Beytagh (1974-1986), former Dean of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Johannesburg, and the Revd Dr Alan McCormack (2007-2015), former chaplain of Trinity College Dublin.

The Saddlers’ Company is associated with Saint Vedast’s, and Saint Vedast’s is also linked with Saint Botolph without Bishopsgate.

The church was designated a Grade I listed building in 1950. The rectory was listed as a Grade II building in 1998.

The three-tier spire of Saint Vedast may have been designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 7: 31-35 (NRSVA)

31 ‘To what then will I compare the people of this generation, and what are they like? 32 They are like children sitting in the market-place and calling to one another,
“We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not weep.”

33 ‘For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, “He has a demon”; 34 the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!” 35 Nevertheless, wisdom is vindicated by all her children.’

The interior of Saint Vedast was reordered in collegiate style by the architect Stephen Dykes Bower (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (15 September 2021, International Day of Democracy) invites us to pray:

Lord, we thank you for the gift of democracy. May we remember the value of democracy and exercise our democratic rights wisely and responsibly. We pray for those who have been stripped of their right to vote by undemocratic regimes.

The Grinling Gibbons font in Saint Vedast-alias-Foster was recovered by Noel Mander from Saint Anne and Saint Agnes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

The reredos in Saint Vedast came from Saint Christopher-le-Stock Parish Church in Threadneedle Street, which was demolished in 1781 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Evening lights in Saint Vedast, which looks like a perfect Cambridge or Oxford college chapel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)