Soul-Searching in Salonika

Imposing clouds descend upon Salonika.
Imposing clouds descend upon Salonika.

הַמָּקוֹם יְרַחֵם עֲלֵיהֶם, וְיוֹצִיאֵם מִצָּרָה לִרְוָחָה, וּמֵאֲפֵלָה לְאוֹרָה, וּמִשִּׁעְבּוּד לִגְאֻלָּה.

(May the All-present have mercy upon them, and bring them forth from trouble to enlargement, from darkness to light, and from subjection to redemption)

This year’s Thanksgiving was the first on which I was truly thankful—for my mother surviving a recent car crash, for the Jews of Belmonte, Portugal, for moments of awe and self-discovery, and, in Greece especially, for the existence of Israel.

In Veroia, where a synagogue has stood for over 2000 years, one Jew now lives. Mr. Nikos, a Christian, built his church where a Jew once recited the Amidah; in Hebrew, he recites a litany of Jewish kings of Israel, and Jay offers a blessing for his ill father. But this connection is soon subdued when we enter the Jewish cemetery of Veroia. At first, I don’t know where we are when the bus stops next to a basketball court. But the clouds are dark, and I realize that the ground on which I stand is holy ground.

Thanksgiving dinner that night began unusually quiet, but we soon forgot the tragedy we witnessed in Veroia; I was with true friends, embarking on a year dedicated to soul searching. That night, we walked through the main square of Salonika, we laughed and danced until all night.

On my morning run the next day, I passed Thessaloniki’s Holocaust memorial, which stands next to a parking lot, its plaque too distant for passersby to notice. The people of Thessaloniki, whose population was over half Jewish, whose ports were closed on Shabbat, and which was once affectionately referred to as “Madre d’Yisrael,” stood aside as 96% of the Jewish population was humiliated in the main square on Black Sabbath and ultimately sent to their demise in Auschwitz.

On this Black Friday, I stand at a lookout over Salonika, City of Ghosts. Beyond is the city and the sea, but I perceive no beauty. I feel no comfort in the expansiveness of the waters, only a resounding absence. Where the city now stands, with a university at its center, once lay the largest Jewish cemetery in the world; when the Nazis conquered, the Greek authorities gave the Jews six days notice before almost all of the more than 350,000 graves were bulldozed, the headstones soon sold and used in buildings and streets. Yesterday, there was much to be thankful for, but, today, all fulfillment and thanks are suspended. Though it rains, I remove my hood and place my kippah on my head, as I gaze at my brethren’s final resting place.

I feel alone here; in Thessaloniki, my chest always will be constricted, my heart always heavy. I cannot imagine how anyone can ever smile again, how anyone could ever make smalltalk when the world is in such disrepair. This must have been of equal magnitude to what led Kohelet to declare the world meaningless. I likewise question: Why am I here? There cannot be any purpose, for memory must eventually be lost, and within three generations, not even my own descendants will know my name. In the end, all is paved over with basketball courts and bulldozed for glass buildings and green lawns. And the world remains apathetic.

הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים הַכֹּל הָבֶל
(“Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!”) – Ecclesiastes 1:2
And in my sorrow and solitude, I pray, I beg, for reciprocation:

בְּשֵׁם הַשֵּם אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, מִימִינִי מִיכָאֵל, וּמִשְּׂמֹאלִי גַּבְרִיאֵל, וּמִלְּפָנַי אוּרִיאֵל, וּמֵאֲחוֹרַי רְפָאֵל, וְעַל רֹאשִׁי שְׁכִינַת אֵ-ל
(In the name of God, the God of Israel. On my right, Michael, on my left, Gabriel. In front of me, Uriel, behind me, Raphael. And above my head, the presence of the Divine).

And I pray that God remember them, and I pray that history and man remember them:

A basketball court and a university campus:

ברוך דיין האמת

(Blessed is the True Judge)

Four hundred thousand souls cast into oblivion. Fifty thousand souls cast from Salonika into Auschwitz’s pyres:

ברוך דיין האמת

(Blessed is the True Judge)

We spent Shabbat in one of the two synagogues that remain from more than 35 that once stood here in Thessaloniki. Jewish life still exists here, and the Rabbi who hosted us compared Germany’s death camps to life-restoring refugee camps that he recently visited. If an Orthodox rabbi living in one of the cities most devastated by the Holocaust can find it within his heart to even consider reconciliation, there must be a way to see beyond the inundating darkness of Thessaloniki’s recent history, to resurrect the glory of Madre d’Yisrael.

The final night of our stay in Thessaloniki, my program director provides us with an intention for the evening: we are here to restore the Jewish soul to the city, to give expression to the will of the forgotten to live with fervor, to celebrate the majesty that constituted Jewish life in this city of ghosts and memory. But as my friend and I walk to a dance club, we pass by the run-down train station from which Jews were dispatched to Auschwitz, and I am haunted by the phantoms of my brothers and sisters crammed into the cars and sent to their cessation. And yet, I have never felt my identity so defined, my soul so alive.

As we leave Thessaloniki, I finally exhale, and my chest is somewhat lighter. And as we drive through the peaks of Meteora, resembling scenery from Avatar, I once again am capable of seeing beauty in this world, and I believe that despite whatever hatred and ignorance mankind harbors, the world moves along an arc of beauty and benevolence. On the balcony of a monastery along the ridge of one of Meteora’s mountains, I enter the monastic realm, and I see only the wonder of nature, and I know God must still exist.

Arriving in Delphi, I feel alive again. This is where thousands of godly statues once stood, where the world’s poets gathered. And there is a stillness beyond any quietude I have known.

I walk slowly.

The words spoken in the Temple of Apollo altered the course of history. With each half step, I trace those of kings and supposed gods who made pilgrimage to their center of the world, seeking answers to their hearts’ incertitudes. Upon the entrance to the Temple was inscribed:

γνῶθι σεαυτόν. Know thyself. This warning to all who approached the pythia of the oracle cautioned against allowing one’s heart and ego to overwhelm one’s senses and sensibility. It is a call for understanding of one’s heart, of its yearnings, for the pythia neither answers nor hides the answer from the questioner; rather, she hints at a truth that must be interpreted by its seeker, whose heart, if spurned, deceives its owner—a misinterpretation as a result of ego or desire results in misfortune.

Check your ego, commands Delphi. As I stand beneath this great rock, surrounded by peaks, I am nothing.

Be still and know your heart.

My heart is not my own heart; it belongs to a higher being—this world belongs not to man’s cruelty and contrived power but to Nature and Eternity, the Name of Existence, the Ein Sof, transcending the physical reality. After passing through the valley of death in Thessaloniki, as I run my hands through the palpable stillness of Delphi, I sing:

הַמָּקוֹם יְרַחֵם עֲלֵיהֶם, וְיוֹצִיאֵם מִצָּרָה לִרְוָחָה, וּמֵאֲפֵלָה לְאוֹרָה, וּמִשִּׁעְבּוּד לִגְאֻלָּה.
(May the All-present have mercy upon them, and bring them forth from trouble to enlargement, from darkness to light, and from subjection to redemption)

“Every day I walk out into the world
to be dazzled, then to be reflective”
—Mary Oliver, “Long Afternoon at the Edge of Little Sister Pond”

Atop Athens’ Acropolis, I feel a similar stillness. Athens is the home of the intellect, realm of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, Speusippus, who all stood upon the same hilltop and viewed the same expanse of sky and sea as do I. “The unexamined life is not worth living.” And, today, I know it to be true.

הַמָּקוֹם יְרַחֵם עֲלֵיהֶם, וְיוֹצִיאֵם מִצָּרָה לִרְוָחָה, וּמֵאֲפֵלָה לְאוֹרָה, וּמִשִּׁעְבּוּד לִגְאֻלָּה.
(May the All-present have mercy upon them, and bring them forth from trouble to enlargement, from darkness to light, and from subjection to redemption)

And I feel like dancing; there can be no other way to sufficiently praise God for these moments of awe, for these moments of redemption and realization and fullness. And so I stand on the highest rock of the Acropolis, gaze at the sea, and pop the earbuds in. Slowly, my knees begin to move in rhythm with the vibrations of the past that surge through my veins. I am at home in the intellectual world of Athens, I know that Socrates hears my existential doubts, that Sophocles hears my heart’s poetry. And I throw my hands in the air.

“I don’t know where prayers go,
or what they do.
Do cats pray, while they sleep
half-asleep in the sun?
Does the opossum pray as it
crosses the street?
The sunflowers? The old black oak
growing older every year?
I know I can walk through the world,
along the shore or under the trees,
with my mind filled with things
of little importance, in full
self-attendance. A condition I can’t really
call being alive.
Is a prayer a gift, or a petition,
or does it matter?
The sunflowers blaze, maybe that’s their way.
Maybe the cats are sound asleep. Maybe not.
Then a wren in the privet began to sing.
He was positively drenched in enthusiasm,
I don’t know why. And yet, why not.
I wouldn’t persuade you from whatever you believe
or whatever you don’t. That’s your business.
But I thought,of the wren’s singing, what could this be
if it isn’t a prayer?”
— Mary Oliver, “I Happened to be Standing”

I know that my Koheletian questions have an answer, waiting to be found.

And I think back to Delphi’s warning: γνῶθι σεαυτόν. Know thyself.
In Athens, I know my mind.
In Delphi, I know my heart.
In Salonika, I know my soul.

“Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?
—Mary Oliver, “Have You Ever Tried to Enter the Long Black Branches”

About the Author
Jonah Glick-Unterman is a KIVUNIM gap year student living in Jerusalem and traveling the world while learning about Jewish history and identity. Originally from Evanston, Illinois, next year, he will enter Stanford University possibly studying either aerospace engineering or international relations.
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