Friday, April 19, 2013

In search of...

A landmark to treasure    On the map of Crete on its north side runs a red line from its east to west coast. That major highway, mostly three-lane with wider than average lanes, enables traffic to flow quickly through Crete’s five prefectures. Small communities dot the map; off ramps to them are well marked.

“To the right, get on the highway. An hour and a half,” said the friendly reservations clerk, dismissing my concern about finding Chania or Hania or Xania and its sole synagogue in Crete. He gently flapped his right hand as if whisking away my worries.

Although I was traveling alone, I relied on his advice, drove leisurely, stopped to take pictures of beautiful beaches no one was visiting. Less than thirty kilometers from my hotel, I exited the highway to visit El Greco’s birthplace (in 1451) in the tiny town of Fodele (please see: interkriti: Fodele, Malevizi, Iraklion, Crete
The village of Fodele, Crete, Greece ... The birthplace of Domenikos Theotokopoulos (EL GRECO) -); I wanted to stay to hike the five k’s to a monastery up a well worn dirt path.

But visions of the synagogue had a greater pull. Confidently, I drove a little longer to another alluring beach at Kalami; lunch stopped me there at a restaurant at the bottom of a hill. From its tiny mountainside patio, I saw the beach below, a steep walk, and, higher up, the ancient walls of a fortress about 200 meters from me.

I was served by the son of the owner (and chef). When I asked for chicken and green vegetables, he told me he didn’t know what greens they had but they’d been handpicked by his Dad that morning. That sufficed; wonderfully spiced and soaked in olive oil, I ate all the stems and leaves on my plate.

What a send off to Hania! In an hour, I was there.

Or so I thought. I stopped at a bar to ask but was turned away by its gruff customers and their cigarette smoke. At another restaurant, I was told to go “that way.”

There was nothing to see but a modern grocery store on one side of the street (it sold Poet’s Coffee!) and a tiny butcher shop run by a lady who smiled when I walked in. I may have been her only customer that day, certainly her only American customer. We chatted with pen and paper; I used it to make myself understood. Eventually, it worked; Chania or Hania that I was looking for was three or four towns from where we were. She didn’t seem to know what a synagogue was.

But that wasn’t important; I’d learned something. Hania was both the name of the prefecture and a city in it. I drove on.

In Hania, the city, I stopped four times to ask before I was guided by a waiter to a man seated at a table of a restaurant of an old and elegant hotel. “Yes, I know about the synagogue,” he said. His directions pointed me further east, a mile or two. “Go to the Old City,” he said.

Of course, to me, everything in Crete was old. What he told me didn’t register as clearly as it would have had I been in downtown Salem, VA. Had someone there told me to go to Old Salem, I would know to look for signs.

But in Hania, there were no signs that pointed me to anything old. So I drove to an area I thought was close to the Old City and parked.

At a restaurant/bar a block away, I asked again.

“Synagogue?” asked the heavyset lady who appeared to own the place. Although she wanted to help, she really didn’t know. We talked a few minutes and got nowhere. “Ah, wait!” she said, pointing at a man on a bicycle. “He’ll know!”

He did. “You’re two hundred meters away,” he said, impatiently. “Down to that white car at the end of the block, and turn that way.” He motioned to the left.

Thanking both he and the woman at the bar, I hurried to the white car, looked left. Nothing was there but a small church on that corner. It appeared that they had just ended a funeral. Reluctantly, I approached three men in suits, the only suits I’d seen in Crete, and asked about the synagogue.

At first, they were puzzled. Then one of them said, “Yes, the Old City.” He aimed his index finger at the walls of another ancient fortress, walls I’d overlooked minutes before. Suddenly they were obvious as thorns on a rose bush.

I asked for the time; my adventure had taken much longer than I’d intended. Chances were that the synagogue had closed. I ran to the fortress and the Old City it enclosed.

What I found was a maze. Fortunately, I made a few turns down streets too narrow for cars and ended up on what looked to be a central shopping area. Lots of little shops and restaurants beckoned. Lavender wisteria graced an arbor than spanned the very narrow street. The ancient city had been restored; at the end of the street I saw the harbor. I was in the heart of the Old City!

But there was no synagogue. I wondered whether I was the only one who cared that it might be there. That’s when I spotted a woman with her daughter; they were reading a map spread out on a table in front of a cozy restaurant.

“Do you speak English?” I asked, trying not to sound desperate.

She did. In fact, she was there, in Crete, to see historical religious sites. I asked if they’d seen the synagogue. They hadn’t known about it, but they wanted to. She looked for it on the map, a detailed map of the Old City. “There it is,” she said, as she looked at street names and called them out.

I noticed that the name of the street we were on led to the street we had to find.

“Looks like twenty feet,” I said, absolutely unsure of my calculations. I walked straight ahead until I saw a tiny alley to my left. At eye level, an arrow above the word ‘Synagogue’ pointed to the next alley it ran into that was only fifteen feet away.

Another sign was there. Its arrow pointed to the doors of the Synagogue, ten feet away.

Although I was much more jubilant than the woman and her daughter, they were also excited to note that the double doors to the Synagogue were open.

“Could we go in?” she asked.

“Of course,” I answered, as if that hard-to-find structure had enabled me, as a Jew, to welcome her.

What we saw inside made my arduous trip worthwhile.

                                                B.Koplen  4/19/13

You, too, may want to see what I saw:  Welcome to Etz Hayyim synagogue
Information about the history of this synagogue, the only surviving Jewish monument on Crete. – 

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