Off the Shelf: A lost community

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

When, in 2015, Michael Frank arrived last minute to a lecture being held at the Casa Italiana, the home of New York University’s Department of Italian Studies, it’s doubtful that he knew how occupying the only available seat remaining would change his life. It was there he met Stella Levi, a Holocaust survivor who would not only introduce him to the customs of the lost Jewish community on the island of Rhodes, but allow him to write “One Hundred Saturdays: In Search of a Lost World” (Avid Reader Press), which won the 2022 Jewish Book Council’s Natan Notable Book Award.

Levi and Frank began talking when Levi was 92. They met on Saturdays, during which time Levi slowly began to feel comfortable enough to tell Frank details about the Jewish community of Rhodes and of her family, including offering glimpses of her personal life (although there were some private parts at which she only hints). Her words offer a glimpse of not only the many cultural changes that were occurring, but how the Jews on the island lived in the years before the Holocaust. 

While the previous generation of Jews identified with Turkish customs since Turkey had formerly controlled the island, Italian customs were a major influence by the time Levi was growing up. Judeo-Spanish was the main language of the older generation, although Hebrew was also used. Even the women, who received less education, could usually speak Turkish and Greek, though. When Italy took control of the island, the younger generation learned Italian, but were also taught French at school. However, even then the population of the Jewish community was decreasing as sons and daughters were sent overseas for better opportunities in the United States and Africa. This included several siblings of Levi whom she barely knew since they left the island when she was young. 

The most interesting section of the work speaks to the culture of Jewish Rhodes. For example, Levi discusses the customs her family observed before they became acculturated to European life as exemplified by the Italians. Franks writes that “meant, if you were a woman of an earlier generation, like Stella’s grandmother Mazaltov, never venturing out of the neighborhood. It meant taking off your shoes before you walked into a room where there were rugs and sitting, often, on the floor with cushions; or fitting out your living room with a sofa built into three walls and upholstered, as the Levis’ was, and instead sitting there. It meant wearing a fez to work (Stella’s father – until his children made him stop) or a djellaba in the house and, if you were elderly, staying home and brewing and drinking chai (her grandmother Mazaltov again). It meant (if you were a woman of a certain age, or sometimes also a man of that age) never bathing in the sea. To the young people living a la turka was shorthand for being behind the times.”

Levi talks about dressing up for Purim; about how the women of her class never shopped for food, although they did cook; the custom of bringing “sweet water” to the synagogue so that people could drink it to break the fast on Yom Kippur; and the women called enserradura who served as healers at a time when many people didn’t go to doctors. However, Levi always knew there was a world beyond her island and planned for more advanced schooling than many women her age. She was interested in ideas, and several male friends and teachers who encouraged her learning. Unfortunately, World War II started before she could pursue that goal.

At first, Rhodes’ Jews were not much affected by the war, at least compared to Jews in Germany or Eastern Europe. However, when Italy surrendered to the Allies, Germany took over the island and things changed radically. Except for a few who were rescued due to being citizens of Turkey, the rest of the Jewish population – 1,650 Jews – were collected and taken on a boat whose final destination was a concentration camp. When Frank pushes Levi as to why they didn’t realize what was happening and try to escape, her answer shows the difference between living through an experience and hindsight. Frank writes, “Calmly Stella answers: ‘Michael, you are looking back from a point of knowing. You must remember that. We did not know. Even as we were boarding the boats that took us away from Rhodes, we thought, oh, we’re going to another island. We’re going to a work camp. All this is temporary. We’ll be back, of course we will.’”

The after-affects of that experience remained with Levi for the rest of her life. Levi tells Frank that “quite honestly, I am what I am from the racial laws. Being kicked out of school was the greatest possible humiliation, as I’ve told you. This experience formed me, you might say malformed me.” Frank noted that “she goes on to explain that she still, to this day, feels inferior to most people she knows. Even when she worked, she struggled to assert herself, to advocate for her rights. She helped other people make money but, for a long time, didn’t do as much for herself in that regard as she might have. She failed to see projects, plans, ambitions through.”

After the war, Levi moved to the United States and was reunited with some of her siblings, although she eventually went her own way. Her older age is rich, filled with volunteering and friends, although she is not immune to loneliness. Frank notes that it took decades for Levi to feel ready to visit Rhodes, a trip he took with her. None of the surviving Jewish community who were expelled returned to the island permanently: nothing of interest remained for them.

The chapters of “One Hundred Saturdays” are generally short and the prose is easy to read. Frank records snatches of their conversations, including stories told in Levi’s own voice. Toward the end of the book, Frank questions Levi about being Jewish. Although she declares herself a non-believer, she offers her thoughts about religion in general: “You don’t need to believe to be a Jew. You are a Jew because you are born into a tradition. But whether you believe in God, it’s important to remember a simple thing: no one idea about God is better than another. In the end we are all similar, everyone with differences and defects. What’s essential is to value humanity.” The stories Frank tells about her life not only offer a look at a lost community, but the important lessons Levi learned during her long life.