Tbilisi: An Accident?



October 1, 2012


Dear Rabbi Kantor, My Family and My 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 begin my stroll in Tbilisi.

I walk down a hill high above the Mtkvari River, cross the river on a modern footbridge, and make a left turn up a cobbled street lined with restaurants and souvenir shops.  Then I choose a right turn up a main thoroughfare.  I stop to buy a hat.  I continue my stroll while looking for a "second cup of coffee."  

The sign says "Electric Cafe" so I take a right turn down a narrow side street.  The cafe is there but just opposite the cafe is a large building.  A synagogue! 

The gate is open!  A group of young girls and boys are chatting on the grounds.  They are visiting from Israel. They inform me that today is "Yom Tov" - a special holiday.  I guess immediately it was Sukkot – the Biblical fall harvest and pilgrimage festival. 

I wander into the synagogue.  Services for the holiday have ended.  A young boy approaches me and offers a kippa – a skullcap.  "Yehudi?" he asks. (β€œAre you Jewish?”)  I smile. I linger for a short time in the shul (synagogue).  

Outside the synagogue, a group of men are assembling at a long table set for a lunch meal.  High above the table is the roof of the sukkah (fragile dwelling).

Since I don't know anyone and since I don't speak a word of Georgian, I quietly leave the synagogue.  I walk up the side street past the cafe and return to the main road.  Just then a Chasid (Orthodox Jew with distinctive black clothing) walks in my direction.  I want to ask him about the neighborhood but he speaks no English. Then another young man approachs.  As it turns out, he is a Rabbi and speaks perfect English.  He invites me back to the shul to join the congregation for lunch.

At the luncheon table the young Rabbi coaches me through the ritual and prayers of the lulav (frond of a date palm) and etrog (citron).  At that moment, I admit that I am 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 do not know, but who, of course, I know very well.

The meal is 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 speaks good English.  He informs 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 is my turn to speak, the young man provides simultaneous translation:


Dear Friends,

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 agree with me that today we have witnessed and experienced  something special.  After my little talk, a few of the men break with tradition and gently applaud.

They are not applauding me, of course.  They are acknowledging the eternal presence of our Patient Teacher and our Alert Travel Guide.

Chag Sameach. 

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 photographs: 





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