CANTOR’S BLOG: CRUISING THROUGH IBERIA
Hello to everyone at Kol HaLev! As I write this blog entry, we have completed our brief run through Portugal and the Canary Islands, and we are on our way back to Southampton, England. The port cities that we’ve visited— Madeira; Gran Canaria and Tenerife in the Canary Islands; and Lisbon---have been enjoyable, but with little active Jewish life to speak of. One exception: as we were walking back to the ship in Tenerife, we heard an accordion player playing “Tum Balalaika.” Wonder where that came from. . . It’s striking to think of the dynamic Jewish populations of Spain and Portugal prior to their expulsion in 1492, and then to look at their absence today, so we arranged for a special tour in Lisbon. Ricki and I and our new friend, Mitch (one of our regular Chanukah attendees) had a personal Jewish tour of Lisbon. Our guide informed us that there were about 50 Jewish families there, and that if someone asked them if they were Jewish, they would not admit to it---until they found out that you were Jewish yourself, in which case they would connect with you.
Our guide in Lisbon took us to where the Inquisition courts had been—there is now a theater on that spot, and Portuguese Jews never enter that building out of respect for those who died there. She shared lots of history with us (too much to share here) and took us to where there had been a massacre of all Jews in 1509, to the chagrin of the King who was out of the country at the time. The King then ordered those who perpetrated that massacre to be put to death. We visited places where, in the 1930’s and 1940’s, Jews who had managed to escape the Nazis stayed and waited for exit visas—one Portuguese man was responsible for 30,000 visas for Jews (more than Schindler!). We visited the synagogue, Shaarei Tikvah (Gates of Hope), a beautiful building located behind a nondescript street façade that gave no hint of any kind of a religious presence. The congregation is active---several Chanukah oil menorahs were clearly being used, and the schedule of services was posted. The building was in the Sephardic style, with the Ark at the front and the Torah reading table in the middle of the congregation. And yes, as with so many synagogues, there was a women’s gallery up above. Not exactly our style of services at Kol HaLev. We also saw a statue of Vasco Da Gama (a “New Christian” whose family was Jewish) and sculptures that reflected Portugal’s amazing sailing/exploring history. We also went to a bakery that was started in 1873 by a monk who obviously needed a new line of work when the King at the time decided to ban all churches and all religions.
Before we had the opportunity to light the first Chanukah candle, I had the pleasure of leading a Friday evening service to usher in Shabbat. I had no idea how many folks would show up, but was pleased to end up with a congregation of nearly two dozen---split pretty evenly between “Yanks” and “Brits,” with a couple from New Zealand and other locales. As you can imagine, planning a Shabbat service can be challenging when you don’t know who will be attending, what their level of observance or knowledge may be, and what they are expecting out of the service. Add to these uncertainties the timing of the service: as with virtually everything on a cruise ship, times are rather rigidly adhered to, and this service was scheduled to start at 5:15 pm and end at 6 pm. And it was the first “Formal” night of the cruise—Cunard is very big on Formal nights—so men were wearing tuxedos or dark suits, and women wore evening gowns. Needless to say, it made for a very spiffy looking congregation! I led a service not unlike those we have at Kol HaLev, and it turned out to be just what many of the attendees wanted and they said they would return again for the following Shabbat…as Chanukah services are not what attract them.
So for Chanukah we have had a smaller group, which not what I expected but with so few kids on board, not that surprising. We have had some non-Jewish guests some evenings who want to learn more, which has also been fun. Each night we sing Chanukah songs, share Chanukah gelt, spin some dreidels, and talk about different aspects of Chanukah. We then get to enjoy wine and latkes, and the wine is always two new bottles of excellent Carmel wine, one red and one white. (Perhaps Cunard is too high-class for Manischewitz?) The first night they forgot the latkes, but they have made up for that ever since. Ah, the joys of cruising.
So tonight, we’ll light the sixth Chanukah candle and as all of you do much of the same thing back in Baltimore, I hope you will give some thought, as we will, to the lights on the menorah---and think of people who have added light to your life. Take an extra few seconds or more to bring those people into your Chanukah celebrations in some way—talk about them, think about them, make a phone call or visit…just “invite” those who gave you light to your Chanukah. Ricki and I wish you a happy Chanukah party at Kol HaLev, and we’ll look forward to seeing you soon.