Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Remembering Nikos Stavroulakis (1932-2017)

Nicholas (Nikos Stavroulakis at the Future of Jewish Monuments Conference, New York, Nov. 1990 (Photo from video, ISJM).
Nikos Stavroulakis at Etz Hayyim Synagogue Re-dedication after Arson. Photo: Etz Hayyim Synagogue, 2010.
Remembering Nikos Stavroulakis (1932-2017)

Today would have been the 85th birthday of Nicholas (Nikos) Stavroulakis, the grand man of Greek Jewish history and culture, who died on May 19, 2017.  Instead of a birthday party, there is a memorial gathering for Nikos in Hania, Crete, where he made his permanent home for the past quarter century, and where he fulfilled his lifelong dream of restoring and re-animating the derelict Etz Hayyim Synagogue, which had been devastated during the Holocaust and neglected in subsequent decades.

Sadly, I cannot be in Crete today, so I write this as the memorial service is getting underway. 

Nikos was a great teacher and inspiration to me, and I was privileged to work with him (mostly by email and telephone) on the Hania synagogue restoration in the 1990s.  In truth, despite the success of that project, it did strain our relationship at times as Nikos's passion for the project often outran the paperwork required for the project by the World Monuments Fund. Though I was in direct contact with Nikos only sporadically in the past decade, I was able to follow the growth and success of the Etz Hayyim Synagogue and Center via social media and the internet, and to hear the accounts of visitors to Crete, always delivered with wide-eyed enthusiasm both for the experience and especially for Nikos himself. 

You can read how he influenced others here

Nicholas Stavroulakis. Woodcut from the Book of Jeremiah (Philadelphia: JPS, 1973)
Nicholas Stavroulakis. Woodcut from the Book of Jeremiah (Philadelphia: JPS, 1973)
Nikos has a magnetic personality, based on his mix of intellectual brilliance, creative vision, puckish charm, righteous indignation, deep kindness and compassion, and a hypnotically mellifluous voice. I fell under Nikos's spell in the late 1980s when we began to correspond after I assumed the Directorship of the new Jewish Heritage Council of the World Monuments Fund. He was then Director of the Jewish Museum in Athens, which he had helped found in 1977. We finally met in New York when he participated in the Future of Jewish Monuments Conference in New York in November, 1990, and it was then that he began to speak on the international stage about the need to protect and preserve the post-antique synagogue of Greece. As director of the Jewish Museum he and Tim DeVinney had been documenting these far flung buildings, and they published their illustrated history and guidebook Jewish Sites and Synagogues of Greece  (Athens: Talos Press, 1992), one of the very first published surveys of Jewish monuments for any country of the world. In this, as in so many things, Nikos was ahead of the curve.

Nikos was an iconoclast in many ways. He was an historian of cultural traditional, but he hated bureaucracy and the institutional mindset that things should be done one one because they had always been done that way. He bucked against the formalities and prejudices of cultural gatekeepers - universities, religious orders, and governments. But unlike many brilliant disrupters, Nikos had the imagination and tenacity to create new communities and structures to replace those he found lacking. His own career was nomadic and erratic and yet it did lead - seemingly inevitably - to his work and leadership in Hania which brought together so many threads of his intellectual, creative, spiritual and social self. 

 Hania, Crete. Etz Hayyim Synagogue restoration. Photo: N. Stavroulakis 1998

He was a leader and a trend sender. There was something of the prophet in Nikos.  One can see him in the images he made of Jeremiah when he illustrated that Bible book with woodcuts, published in 1973.  Before Etz Hayyim, Nikos was a founder and leader of museums in Athens and Thessaloniki. All these efforts become models for efforts by others in other countries.  Nikos was also was a talented artist (see his woodcuts that illustrate the Book of Jeremiah), and he was reputed to be a great cook, and he wrote a cookbook. 

Nikos was one a handful of first generation pioneers who took on the task to document, remember, protect and present the heritage of Jewish places and communities in the decades after the Holocaust. Because he worked in Greece, he was not as widely known as some of his Eastern European colleagues. And because he also colored outside the lines, working across national, ethnic and religious boundaries he was not always embraced as closely as others by the mainstream Jewish community - in Greece or in America. But it his his example of active love and truth-seeking curiosity that the world and world religious need today more than ever.  Nikos will be missed terribly by the thousands he knew and inspired - even during short often short interactions.

Donations in Nikos's memory can be made to Etz Hayyim. See the Etz Hayyim website here:

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