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Minyan stories from: Lucca, India and now... Jerusalem

Updated: Jul 18, 2023

This has been a crazy week.

Each day’s additional restrictions have made it “easier” to relate, in some way, to the challenges of our people in terrible times. I am NOT saying that our suffering compares AT ALL, but there are moments…..

For example, take the Inquisition:

On the Naomi Boutique Kosher Tours to Spain and Portugal, before Kiddush on Friday evening, it has become our minhag to recite a passage from a book called “The Last Jew” by Noah Gordon. If you can get a copy, it’s a must.


It’s a historical novel which illustrates the lengths people went to: on the one hand to hide their Judaism and on the other to observe the rituals. I never manage to finish the recital without a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes.

It describes the dilemma of the protagonist, a young lad who believes he is the Last Jew in Spain.

He befriends a young girl in the market. He receives an invitation to her family dinner on a Friday evening. His hosts are suspicious and nervous. He believes they are Jews; he desperately wants to know and to let them know that he too is Jewish. But what if he is mistaken? The consequences ……

The girl’s father asks him to lead the “grace before meals”. He could say the Latin benediction…or make Kiddush. He trembles as he utters...ויהי ערב ויהי בוקר יום השישי

On our tours we have amazing minyan stories. You can read (and for those who were there, recall) some of them below.

But back to this week and the Inquisition.

THIS WEEK’S DIARY


Sunday: Morning, life was normal…ish.

Afternoon, the “authorities” announced “no gatherings” and the shuls went into “almost lock-down” with a couple of tiny minyanim limited to 10 participants.

Mincha/Ma’ariv: our friend Neil (a master of pop-up minyanim) hosted 20 “brave souls” in the courtyard of his building. (Only 10 were invited but Jews WANT to daven beTzibbur!! B”H and the word got out).

We davened to the sounds of a tiny impromptu wedding taking place in a garden 50 meters away!!

Surreal...

BUT… there was a feeling that we were being “watched” by potential "מלשינים" neighbours. So no more courtyard minyanim…


Monday:

Shacharit, I took the Naomi Tours travelling Sefer Torah to Neil’s porch. Strictly private, totally secret off-the-radar minyan limited to 12 men (ie 10 plus margin of error safely net). Beautiful, but ….. the media bombardment was taking hold.

Mincha/Ma’ariv: another friend had yahrzeit so we were on Neil’s porch again, but as we finished Neil announced the cancellation….. of all further secret minyanim.


Tuesday:

Jerusalem awoke to a beautiful blue sky with all local shuls now fully closed and secret minyanim remaining….. secret. But we have something NO-ONE else has. We have the Kotel!! Decision….


Much to the pleasure/concern of their mother, a couple of grandsons decided to walk with me, as we often do, to my favourite place of prayer ANYWHERE. It wasn’t empty, but nothing was normal as we were counted into “pens” like cattle, 10 per pen!!



Wednesday:

Yesterday’s rains continued through the night so this morning it was the shtiblach in Katamon “prayer factory” which are used to seeing minyanim running at least 18 hours per day.

No longer….

We had a minyan at the beginning, for barchu, for kedusha and for kaddish for the avelim at the end BUT they were different people each time. Yes. People run in, “chap” a kaddish or a “kedusha” and run home.

I want to cry. This is the Yerushalayim of the destruction. Only Rabbi Akiva laughed… he understood…

The Lucca minyan stories can fill a book, not just a blog.


Here’s one which features the aforementioned gelateria.

I tell this story in memory of our recently departed friend Marc Moshe Hermelinז"ל who is the star of this story.

The Hermelin family were the first family tour we arranged to Tuscany, 12 years ago. As we remembered it at Marc’s shiva recently, it seems to have left a huge impression on all: those who were then kids, now all grown-up…. young marrieds, soldiers and students. It was Rosh Chodesh Ellul when the Hermelin family were gathered at the gelateria after their cycling circuit on the walls.


The announcement was made:

“People!! we have a concert of arias by Puccini and Mozart at 19.25 in the deconsecrated San Giovanni church one minute walk from here so we’ll meet for Mincha here in the square by the gelateria at 19.05 and then head to the concert.

Until then, you’re free for shopping, coffee, gelato or passeggiata.. as you wish.”

(Here you can see the living representative of Puccini on planet earth, Andrea Colombini, conductor, bon vivant, failed candidate to be mayor of Lucca and a true Ohev Yisrael who greets me any day of the week with a melodious “Shabbat Shalom!!” That’s another story…..)

So everyone goes off. Marc, with his long flowing white beard and big black Kippa, was spotted by 3 yeshiva bochrim in full black garb enjoying the last days of their “bein HaZmanim” vacation in Tuscany. They approached him. “Tell me” they said “do you know where we can find a minyan for mincha? It’s Rosh Chodesh Ellul you know!!”



I’ll never know what answer they expected … unless they’re reading this or someone who knows them is reading it. I can only imagine their utter incredulity when he replied, without hesitation, “Yes there’s a minyan in Piazza Napoleone at 7.05 outside the gelateria.”

And yes… they showed up. Incredulous. Incredible. Lucca. Piazza Napoleone. Mincha. Punktlich 19.05. With a water fountain to wash before davening too!!

How many of you recognize that מקום קבוע for pre-concert Mincha or pre-Havdala Maariv!!



India

Sometimes we are short for a minyan on our tours to India and other places around the globe. On a Kosher to tour, the Minyan is almost as important as the food. ALMOST!! We have developed a system for “catching” the 10th man…. the “tzenter” when we are one short.

He usually tries to avoid the 9 obvious Jews, but his “pintele yid” antenna gives him away.

This is how it went…..



In India we once had 9 men at a certain stage in the tour… I think the Mashgiach had gone ahead to the next stop. Our minyan was so near and yet so far.

We are visiting a famous stupa near Varanasi on the Ganges where Buddha had enlightenment.

The place is teeming with groups of monks, men and women, shaved heads, dressed in saffron and crimson robes, sitting on the grass swaying and singing gently in tones melodic even to western ears.

It’s beautiful, it’s relaxing, it’s colorful and it’s peaceful.

Tourists are circulating in the large park where the stupa sands, watching the various groups of monks. Most westerners rarely see spirituality and here they are mesmerized.

All eyes are on the chanting, swaying circles.

My mind is elsewhere.

I’m on a mission and I know what I’m looking for.

I spot a couple walking towards us with their guide and, instead of being focused on the monks, they’re looking at….. US!! He is whispering something to his wife. (You need to know that on a Naomi tour we encourage you to wear your Jewish badges of honor visibly. Only great things have ever come from this: no baseball hats please!!)

My attack mechanism is “locked and loaded”.

It’s always the same.

“Shalom, shalom” I mutter at an audible level.

“Shalom” comes back the reply.

GOTCHA!!!

And from there to a dinner invitation, mincha & ma’ariv is a mere trifle.

But at the end of the dinner, the Jew from Buenos Aires surprises us. “What will you do in the morning?” he asks, you are only 9.

“True” I said “but I couldn’t ask you to do that. Your hotel is several miles from ours and it was fantastic that you came over this evening.” “It’s no problem” he reassures me. “What time will you pray? My wife and I will be there.”

And next morning, on cue, they arrive. At the appropriate moment we offer him and help him put on tefillin.

His wife calls me over and asks if she can take a photo, tears rolling down her cheeks. Over a breakfast we’ll never forget she tells us their story. The husband is from an assimilated Ashkenazi family from Buenos Aires; Rubinstein? Rosenberg? I can’t remember. She is from a traditional Sephardi Egyptian Jewish family. They have been married for about 30 years and she has never seen him wearing tefillin. He tells us that since his Bar Mitzvah this is a first…



They came to Varanasi to watch others celebrate their spirituality. They left Varanasi having experienced it for themselves.

Jewish life in India is in its last throws. I just came across an article about one of the last Jews of Kochi (Cochin) Sara Cohen who passed away recently. Click here to read it.

You’ll love India – everything is SOOOO different but the stories of the Jews who live there and the Jews you meet passing through will live forever. And wherever we go, let’s be proud to tell people who we are. Share the values we represent and maybe, if we do it right, the world will be a better place for us having passed through...


And you never know what stories you might collect to tell your children and grandchildren when you get home!!


Meanwhile, back to Lucca, for a happy ending. A story with gelato, Minyan and, we hope, memories.


Many of you know our Shul, Nitzanim, in Baka in Jerusalem.

Every so often we run a tour with a special emphasis on our community, inviting our friends to join us so that they can appreciate the stories we are always telling of our adventures. Community, especially for those of us who made Aliya, is everything – father, mother, brother, sister, Shabbat, Chagim, s’machot and, lo aleinu…..


So one year we went with our chevre to Lucca.

Our Minhag, then and now, is to walk from our villa to the centre of Lucca after Seuda Shlishit. It’s a comfortable one-hour walk. Not too fast, not too slow. Not too hot, not too cold. Just right…. and just what we need after a day of gastronomic and oenological indulgence as befits Tuscany, the culinary centre of the world (or one of them).



The idea is to reach Lucca before the sun starts setting, to stroll arm-in-arm around the walls of the city as the sun begins to set behind the hills to the West. At the same time, as we explain, Lucca “gets dressed” for dinner. The lights come on in the restaurants. The people go from casual to elegant, the wine glasses clink and the smell of a thousand restaurants excite our nostrils.


As the sun finally disappears and the stars replace it in the firmament, we descend to the gelateria. Since the day before, we have prepared there a bottle of wine, sachets of cloves, a plaited candle and a dozen or more Ma’ariv booklets.


We took a table to lay out all the “equipment” and just then an Italian family passes by. “Shabbat shalom” they call out. We correct them – it’s now “Shavua Tov”. We tell them we’re about to daven “Arvit” and make Havdala. They are SOOOOO excited. A non-Shabbat-observant Jewish family out for the day from nearby Livorno can’t believe it. They grab napkins from the dispensers on the gelateria table and fashion them into kippot, pick up the Maariv books…. and we’re off.Yes, by the water fountain!


Ma’ariv first, a long tuneful Havdala led by our charismatic Rabbi there in the square as a crowd gathers. We all dance together: Jews who observe, Jews who want to connect, non-Jews who want to dance…. all together. In the main square of Lucca.


A few of our guests slip away to enjoy the real reason for our visit: that first Motzaei Shabbat fresh ground espresso/macchiato/cappuccino and a BIG celebratory tub of gelato. We joined them soon enough.

H.E.A.V.E.N!!

Sitting quietly at a table in the gelateria watching all of this is a small group of teen kids. They never expected a show like this tonight. People praying. Singing. Fire. Smelling salts. Dancing.

“Chi siete” they asked the Rabbi who was with us and leading the festivities. “Who are you people?” I had the pleasure of explaining in my broken Italian. Jews. Shabbat. Havdala. And then it struck me. How easy it is to do a Kiddush Hashem!! We invited all the kids to go get another gelato… on our cheshbon. It’s that easy.


We imagined them running home; “Mamma, Papa, you won’t believe what happened at the gelateria this evening……” Perhaps they still remember today……


May we all be merited with good health in these complicated times, beautiful minyanim, wonderful friends and incredible memories to carry us through.


אבינו מלכנו.......אין לנו מלך אלא אתה

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