Tbilisi: An Accident?
October 1, 2012
Dear Rabbi Kantor,
cc: Family and Friends
What happened today, was it an accident?
After yesterday's tiring journey from Bangkok to Tbilisi, after a late breakfast today, after several telephone conversations with two hotels, after a period of indecision and finally a decision, after waiting for an appointment who never showed up, finally, at about 11:30 in the morning, I began my stroll in Tbilisi.
I walked down a hill high above the Mtkvari River, crossed the river on a modern footbridge, and made a left turn up a cobbled street lined with restaurants and souvenir shops. Then I chose a right turn up a main thoroughfare. I stopped to buy a hat. I continued my stroll while looking for a "second cup of coffee."
The sign said "Electric Cafe" so I took a right turn down a narrow side street. The cafe was there of course but just opposite the cafe was a large building. A synagogue!
The gate was open! A group of young girls and boys were chatting on the grounds. They were visiting from Israel. They informed me that today is "Yom Tov" - a special holiday. I guessed immediately it was Sukkoth – the Biblical fall harvest and pilgrimage festival.
I wandered into the synagogue. Services for the holiday had just ended. A young boy approached me and offered a kippa – a skullcap. "Yehudi?" he asked. (“Are you Jewish?”) I smiled. I lingered for a short time in the shul (synagogue).
Outside the synagogue, a group of men was assembling at a long table set for a lunch meal. High above the table was the roof of the sukkah (fragile dwelling).
Since I didn't know anyone and since I don't speak a word of Georgian, I quietly left the synagogue. I walked up the side street past the cafe and returned to the main road. Just then a Chasid (Orthodox Jew with distinctive black clothing) walked in my direction. I wanted to ask him about the neighborhood but he spoke no English. Then another young man approached. As it turned out, he was a Rabbi and spoke perfect English. He invited me back to the shul to join the congregation for lunch.
At the luncheon table the young Rabbi coached me through the ritual and prayers of the lulav (frond of a date palm) and etrog (citron). At that moment, I admit that I was feeling a bit emotional. Here I am, on my very first day in a new country. I am celebrating an important Jewish festival with men I did not know, but who, of course, I knew very well.
The meal was familiar: flat bread, beet salad, beet and potato salad, roasted peppers and eggplant, beef and boiled potato stew (cholent?), fresh cherries, grapes, and pears, red wine and mineral water. And a shot or two of rich, smooth, satisfying local vodka!
One of the men spoke good English. He informed me that they have a special custom for today. One by one, around the table, each man stands and shares his thoughts about the holiday.
When it was my turn to speak, the young man provided simultaneous translation:
Thank you for inviting me to your holiday meal.
My name is Jan Polatschek. My Hebrew name is Moshe ben Chaim ha Levi. I am from New York City. I live in Bangkok.
I am here by accident. I did not know that today is Sukkot. I did not know that there is a synagogue on this street. I met the Rabbi by accident. I was wandering in the city, and here I am! Just by accident!
But I am wondering, is it really an accident? Is it an accident I made a left turn instead of a right turn? Is it an accident I stopped to buy a hat? Is it an accident I made a right turn down a narrow street? Is it an accident I met the Rabbi? I don't think it is an accident. I don't think any of this is "an accident."
Baruch ha Shem. I believe I was led here to celebrate Sukkot with you today. G-d remembered my "minimalist" observance of the High Holy Days last month. G-d wanted me back. I am thankful and blessed by His perseverance.
Thank you for the delicious meal. Thank you for your generous hospitality.
Chag Sameach. (Happy Holiday.)
I think the men of the congregation agreed with me that today we had witnessed and experienced something special. After my little talk, a few of the men broke with tradition and applauded.
They were not applauding me, of course. They were acknowledging the eternal presence of our Patient Teacher and our Alert Travel Guide.
PS When I first told the Rabbi in Tbilisi that I live in Bangkok and I am a member of Beth Elisheva Synagogue, he interrupted me in mid sentence and exclaimed "Rabbi Kantor!"
So, Rabbi, I am happy to send you "warm greetings" from Rabbi Meir Kozlovsky, the Director of Chabad Lubavith in Tbilisi.
For all my Am Yisrael Travel Letters and photos: