The island of Corfu, situated at the borders of the Agean and Ionian Seas, is not known today for its Jewish community. 250 years ago, however, Jews accounted for nearly 10% of its population. As early as the 14th century, when the state of Venice assumed jurisdiction of the island, the Jewish community of Corfu was already important enough that a Jew named David Sem was part of a six-person delegation sent from the island to Venice to swear fealty to the new rulers. The 12th century traveler Benjamin of Tudela noted a single Jew in Corfu when he arrived there in the 1160s, but within a few hundred years, that number would grow to the hundreds, reaching its peak in the mid-19th century at around 6000 people.
There were two main Jewish communities in Corfu. The Romaniote (Greek-speaking) community was the smaller and more insular of the two, dating to the Second Temple period. The Italian community arose in Corfu following Venetian occupation of the island, and welcomed Sephardic and Ashkenazic refugees fleeing eastward to the relatively tolerant Ottoman Empire.
The exhibit features prayer books, communal and legislative documents, and ketubbot. Among the stories featured include an an international dispute in Jewish law regarding the acceptability of a musical rendition of the Shema prayer in the Italian synagogue; varied legislation about the Corfu Jews’ requirement to wear the yellow badge (as had been mandated in Venice); prayers for varied holidays, penance, a property dispute, a synagogue theft; and documents relating Jewish doctors and education in Corfu.
Unfortunately, the community of Corfu was almost entirely decimated by the Nazis and so few people know about the long and creative history of the Jews on this island. It is our hope that this exhibition, featuring materials from Columbia University Libraries at both Columbia (noted with "CUL") and the Jewish Theological Seminary (noted with "JTS"), will bring more attention to this unique and understudied community.
For more on the Jews of Corfu, especially in the modern era, take a look at an online exhibition by The Jewish Museum of Greece.
Cover image from Ketubbah Corfu, CUL MS X893 K51991 (1820)
Co-Curators: Michelle Margolis, Sharon Liberman Mintz