The Greek Jews of Australia, a friendship with Hellenic roots that carried on in the Antipodes

When I drove over to 91-year-old Elayne Hoffman’s Caulfield house in June 2021, she had heard that I was seeking to interview Jewish Australians with Greek heritage. Alert, hospitable and very thoughtful, Hoffmann was generous with her time and was happy to tell me about her family history.

“My parents were both born in Salonika in Greece,” she said, “but they left Greece and took me with as a 6-month-old baby to Paris in search of better opportunities in 1927.”

When the Hoffmann family immigrated from Greece, they left behind a country that had been the ancestral home for hundreds of years. “My family had been in Greece since the time of the Spanish inquisition in 1492, when the Jews were expelled from Spain and Portugal,” she said. “My father’s family was involved in building the port in Salonika and many generations of her family had prospered in Greece.”

For hundreds of years, Greece had vibrant Jewish communities in many of its cities, with well-established communities in Athens and Salonika; even today there is a small Jewish community numbering about 5,000 people. In Australia, where the Jewish community numbers around 100,000, there is small but not insignificant number of Jews which link their family history back to Greece.

Philip Dalidakis, the son of a Jewish Australian mother and a Greek Orthodox father is one of these Jews. A former minister in the Victorian Parliament, Mr Dalidakis was invited to speak at an Orthodox Jewish Synagogue in honour of the festival of Hannukah. Recalling the festival, which tells the story of the rededication of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem under the ruling Greeks, Mr Dalidakis opened his speech by quipping, “Hannukah is my favourite festival, because it doesn’t matter how the story ends, I’m going to be on the right side of history.”

Identifying with multiple identities has been useful for Mr Dalidakis. “When I would speak about my background: I used to start by quoting Winston Churchill: no two civilisations have given more to the world than the Greeks and the Jews,” he said. As a person who identifies strongly with his Greek and Jewish identities, Mr Dalidakis feels qualified to note the resemblances between both noting, “the similarities between the cultures are very strong; there is a shared culture around family, food and a desire to be there and support as you need, when you need,” he remarked.

READ MORE: Greeks and Jews: a shared history

Former Victorian trade minister Philip Dalidakis. Photo: AAP/Daniel Pockett

Echoing this sentiment is Maria Tovel, a Caulfield resident who grew up in a Greek Orthodox family in St Kilda. When she got married to an Israeli living in Australia, she decided to convert to Judaism. After a 7-year process, she joined the Jewish people in 2002.

“I grew up in a typical Australian Greek family,” she said. “My father worked in building and construction and my mum was a factory worker.”

When she converted to Judaism, she found that many aspects of the culture were similar to her Greek upbringing and culture.

“When I grew up, we had to be home for dinner each night at 6.30pm, we all had to eat together as a family,” she said. “In Jewish culture, there is the same family focus, except it is centered around the weekly Sabbath, everyone has to eat together on a Friday night each week.”

Although Ms Tovel converted to Judaism about 20 years, her Greek background and upbringing are still close to her heart. She likes to cook Greek food (spanakopita, lemon Greek meat balls and baklava amongst others) and she still speaks Greek. “If I listen to a Greek song, something stirs inside me; I lived in Greece for a year and even now, I’ll put on Greek music and dance, and it just takes me away,” she said.

Maria Tovel and family. Photo: Supplied

Another Greek Jew is Ilia Benattar who grew up with a Jewish mother and Greek father. Ms Benattar’s Greek grandmother, Zeffie Kathreptis, was well known in the Adelaide Greek community for her famous restaurant called “Mezes” on Rundle St. “All the prime ministers, celebrities and even U2 came to her restaurant,” Ms Benattar said. “She passed away this past February and Maggie Beer came to her funeral.”

In Ms Benattar’s mind there is no doubt where her love of Mediterranean food came from “my yiayia [grandmother] won a lot of awards for her cooking,” she said. “From her I learnt to love to cook Greek food, I even wrote down some of her recipes and I love cooking yemista,” referring to the popular stuffed vegetable dish popular in Greek culture.

For Ariella Hoffmann, who coincidentally married Elayne Hoffmann’s grandson, her Greek identity plays an important role in shaping her character. Born to Greek-Orthodox parents in Victoria, she was adopted by Australian Jewish parents when she was a few months old. “When parents are giving up their child for adoption, they are presented with 3 profiles,” said Hoffmann. “My birth parents were Greek Orthodox. They saw my adoptive parents were Orthodox Jews and thought it was a good match,” she said.

READ MORE: State of Israel awards three Greeks who helped Jews during WWII

While Hoffmann was raised Jewish, this does not negate her strong feelings that she feels towards her Greek heritage. “I look very Greek and sometimes I wonder if it’s something given from my birth parents, as Greek Orthodox Christians, that drew me to become an orthodox Jew,” she remarked thoughtfully. Hoffmann notes that she “definitely has an awareness of my Greek background, whenever there is something happening in Greece or I see Greek food, I hear a Greek name or a Greek song, I am drawn to it,” she said.

While researching the many Greek and Jewish connections in Australia, I also spoke on the phone to Carol Freeman Gordon, a Jewish woman living in Melbourne who visited Greece for the first time 38 years ago. Although she does not personally have any Greek heritage, the stories of Greek Jews intrigued her.

“I was in the film industry and became fascinated with the fact that no one knew much about the history of Greek Jews; my inner filmmaker and storyteller told me there were stories to uncover,” she said.

Her fascination with Greek Jews led her to create a documentary film, write a book and coordinate an exhibition at the Jewish Museum of Australia, all of which were dedicated to retelling the history and story of Greek Jews.

“It was a really beautiful exhibition that went around Australia,” she said.

Freeman Gordon is still fascinated by the history of Greek Jews and is continuing to use the information she gleaned from her years of research towards educating others about the remarkable pre-Holocaust community that lived there.

“I am busy working on the remaining 40 hours of film and putting them into an educational package for schools and other institutions and communities,” she said.

READ MORE: Comparing genocides: Jews and Ottoman Greeks

“I think it’s important to spread the word and include some of the really rare and valuable interviews with Holocaust survivors from Greece and let the world know about this amazing community.”

In this vein, it is not surprising that a new organization has recently been founded to celebrate the rich Jewish and Greek cultures together. David Solomon, a Melbourne Jewish scholar, is on the board of the newly established Jewish-Hellenic Association of Victoria. As he recently told me, “The Greek and Jewish communities are two of Melbourne’s most established ethnic-minority populations; both maintain strong identities, proud histories, rich traditions of civic contribution and established infrastructure.” The newly formed organisation is hoping to create further opportunities for collaboration between the communities.

“Until now, there has been no formal conduit for the promotion and sharing of many mutual interests between two such vibrant and fascinating communities that have so much in common,” he said.

Nomi Kaltmann is an Australian lawyer and freelance journalist. Her articles most often appear in Tablet Mag and other publications.