My Big Fat Greek Yom Kippur, Part II

If you missed Part 1 of my Greek adventures, check it out here.  An abbreviated version is cross-posted on the Times of Israel here (so much for getting a “Species II” reference in there.)

And now, without further ado, here’s a list of unrelated thoughts at being a Jew and traveler in Greece:

  • I celebrated a minor victory when coming across other Israelis.  The few times I heard Hebrew, I approached them and said something to the effect of “shamati Ivrit? (did I hear Hebrew?)”, a conversation starter which was good enough to convince them to engage with me.  Clearly that was a better line than my lame English pre-aliyah opener:  “Hey guys!!!  So, uh, are you Israelis?!?!”


How I appeared to Israelis, pre-2006

  • After seeing the unknown word several times on clothing, I finally asked a shopkeeper, “excuse me but what is ‘Hellas’?”  The answer?  “Greece.”  How embarrassing.  Can you imagine walking up to someone in Times Square and asking, “pardon me but what the hell is ‘United States of America’?”
  • Having experienced the same thing in Romania a few years back, I have to ask:  What is up with these countries’ obsession with 80s and 90s music?   Much like Galgalatz, their varied and format-less playlists are similar to that of the American Jack-FM, just without any sense of irony or self-awareness.  Not that I was complaining.  Coolio, Falco, and Patrick Swayze?  Yes, please!  If anyone lacks internet access and is dying to hear “Lady in Red”, Athens is the place for you.
  • And if outdated, cheesy music doesn’t float your (Greek ferry) boat, then perhaps the ancient history will.  Americans are always blown away by how old everything in Israel is, coming from a country where the late 19th century Washington Monument is considered an antique.  Everything is relative.  And if you don’t believe that, you might take a visit to the Parthenon which was completed in 432 BCE.  “I see your Kotel, Jews, and raise you a freaking Acropolis.  BAM!  I scoff at your post-Jesus wall.”  I feel like there should be a painting like the dogs playing poker, except with Greek goddess Athena and Herod the Great smoking cigars.
  • The t-shirts on sale in Athens are sadly no less ridiculous than in Israel.  I can never decide which is more embarrassing, that vendors think anyone would want to buy clothing with those inappropriate or juvenile messages, or that anyone out there is actually willing to do so?  I’ll just leave it as this.

Ok, so I’ll admit, that one at least made me smile.

  • If you ever have the opportunity to visit the beautiful island of Santorini, I’d recommend it.  The island is the result of a volcanic explosion and sits atop a caldera, basically a large cliff.  Homes and buildings are built into the side of the cliff, overlooking the Aegean Sea and every evening, a stunning sunset.  As I overlooked what may or may not have been paradise, it reminded me of the Old City of Jerusalem in that I CANNOT BELIEVE PEOPLE ACTUALLY LIVE THERE.  When I walk through the Jewish Quarter or even atop the Temple Mount as I did once, I think, “do both Jewish and Muslim kids have any inkling at all of how lucky they are and HOW COMPLETELY UNNORMAL it is to live here?”  Probably none at all.
  • I observed on several occasions how the Greeks and Israelis are not entirely dissimilar.  We share the Mediterranean between us so it’s not so surprising that we’re culturally related.  We love stong coffee….they love strong coffee.  We eat shawarma….they eat gyros.  We drive like total maniacs with reckless abandon.  Yes, they do too.  I couldn’t help thinking though, “Greeks:  with your country’s economy on the verge of complete implosion, have you not thought of putting the meat inside the pita bread?  Instead of on?”  Just spitballing here.  And if your GDP triples, just throw a few euros my way.  Or a chicken gyro with extra tzaktziki (chumus’s  1st cousin).

One day after I arrived in Greece, I made my way to the Chabad of Athens for the pre-fast meal.  As I mentioned, I was hoping for a real experience, along with, if not hundreds or thousands, then at least some number of fellow Jewish travelers from Israel and around the world brought together to create, at least for one night, a warm community celebrating together.  When I walked into the building, I could count the number of people on my fingers.  (For the record, I only have two hands.)  Apparently everybody else went to India this year.  Looking around the room, I surveyed my surroundings.  One table of two eighteen year-old South African boys, one table of a South African couple in their 60s (Steve and Sharon) who spent almost thirty years in the States and recently moved to Australia, and one table with three Israelis.  I chose the Israeli table.  Across from me sat a father-son combo who had lived in Greece for over 20 years and next to me, a chazan from the Golan who had traveled to Athens to help lead High Holiday services.  During my initial conversation with the father, I asked him, “so do you think you’ll ever return?”  His answer?

“Laaaaaa, la’beit meshugaim?”   (Noooooooooooo, to the insane asylum???)

I think we just found our next Minister of Tourism.

Israel, apparently.

Before I even left Israel, I called Chabad to get directions to the building.  Another Israeli woman who long ago left for Greece explained how to get there although it wasn’t completely clear to me when I hung up.  You see, we all have our limitations.  Some people can’t rub their stomach and pat their head at the same time.  Some people have trouble doing the math required to divide up the check at dinner.  Me?  I I have trouble deciphering Hebrew while speaking on the phone.  When the woman approached me in Chabad, she asked, “so did you find it ok?”  I replied, “thanks to Google Maps, I did.”  She said, “You were supposed to say yes because of my directions.”  Considering that the Greeks ruled over the Jewish people until the Maccabean revolt, are you really surprised to find Jewish guilt there?

I asked the woman, “In such a small community, who pays for such a beautiful building?”  She looked at the Israeli father across the table and said, “Someone with a gentle heart.”  When she walked away the chazan said to me, “There are some things you don’t ask.”

Are you freaking kidding me?  He’s telling me there are things you don’t ask?  Back at home, if a cab driver didn’t ask me if I wanted to date his daughter, I’d have him arrested on charges of impersonating an Israeli.

Despite the small crowd, the food was incredible.  Soup, chicken, potatoes, green beans, salads and wait for it….chumus.  The meal almost made up for fact that one euro is equal to approximately 457 shekels.

And by the way, for all the people who are pissed off about Israel’s changing of the clocks before chag, the Greek clock was the same as ours before the time change, bringing the fast in one hour later.  If you hate Eli Yishai, perhaps Athens is the place for you.

Eventually it was time to walk to shul although as my new friend Steve pointed out, Sephardim don’t call it “shul” and as I discovered upon arriving to synagogue, Greek Jews are Sephardic Jews.  (Can I call it “shul” anyway?  Synagogue is too long of a word.  How about “Sephardic shul”?  Or “sephul”?)  It took me a few extra minutes to arrive to sepul as, not so surprisingly, there was security set up in the neighborhood.  As I entered the street, blocked off to cars, a guard stopped me to ask questions.  Unable to answer in Greek, I figured I’d assure him that I was ok by showing my Israeli drivers license.  Not satisfied, he then began to speak to me in Hebrew.

 “Ayfo ata lan?”


“AYFO ATA LAN?  Where do you sleep?”


“Lan?!”  As in “lalun”, to “sleep overnight” or “lodge” which I learned only when coordinating Birthright trips at the Israel Experience?  When I looked it up in Ben-Yehuda’s dictionary, the definition was “anyone who uses this word is an idiot.”


“Sorry, I have no freaking idea what that means and, you know, I made up the language.”

So speaking Hebrew and showing an Israeli drivers license wasn’t enough?  What was my terrorist plan?  As if a bald Ashkenazi-looking non-Jew would learn Hebrew and get an Israeli license in order to commit an attack?  Who would do that?  I AM a bald Ashkenazi Jew and I can barely speak Hebrew.

Anyway, the guy let me pass and two minutes later, I walked in the synagogue.  It’s incredible how the moment you step into a shul, you feel at home.  There’s a sense of familiarity from seeing a group of old Jewish men all wearing a kipah and tallis that whisks you back to whatever synagogue you’re used to.  Costaki Jewpopolis from Athens just doesn’t look so different from Shmuli Goldfish from Dallas, Texas.  You could throw a kipah and tallis on a chicken pot pie and I’d instinctively wish it a gmar chatima tova.

The shul was pretty empty with barely a minyan present for the beginning.  The good news was that my new South African friend Steve (of the couple mentioned above) invited me to sit by him which reinforced feeling at home.  Little did he know at the time that he had sentenced himself to two hours of comments being whispered into his ear.  For reasons which are about to become clear, he wouldn’t complain.

Unfortunately, I quickly learned that Greek Jews are Sephardic.  Being an Ashkenazi Jew in Sephardic shul is hell.  It’s as if you’ve tried to enter some secret society except instead of thirty levels which you slowly pass, there’s only one stage which involves a lack of melodic tunes and skipping around the siddur to the point that the Ashkenazis can be easily identified as the ones flipping pages and looking like lost dogs.  Fortunately my Hebrew is good enough where once in a while, I’d manage to find the place, providing a few moments of sanity while we held on for dear life like a cowboy riding a bucking bronco at a rode.  Because once you fall off the right page, you know you’re not getting back on for at least twenty minutes.  An average exchange:

Ashkenazi:  “Are we still on page 64?” 

Sephardi:  “We’re on page 423.”

Ashkenazi:  “Mine doesn’t have a 423.”

Sephardi:  “You’re in the wrong book.”


If I fall off, it’s all over until Musaf.

Perhaps you could say this about any Orthodox shul but would it kill them to announce the page numbers?  Maybe this is why shul attendance is down across America.  Nobody can follow along.  Ech omrim “membership drive” b’Greek?  See you at “Shiur and Souvlaki” this Thursday night.

Within approximately 2.5 seconds of the service beginning, Steve and I were completely lost.  Let the fun begin!  Steve whispered into my ear “not that it would help us, but if they announced the page numbers, it would be in Greek.”  I think about responding, “so they could say ‘please turn to page XLVII’ ” before coming to my senses.  (You may have to use your brain a bit for that one.

Five minutes later, having decided that the time was right, I leaned over to Steve to deliver the line I had been waiting all week to deliver:  “I don’t know WHERE we are (dramatic pause)….it’s all Greek to me.”  (Stop judging, you all would have said it too.)  Without missing a beat, he smiled and whisphered to me, “You should definitely add that in your Al Chet prayer.”  Good one!

Fast-forward an hour when someone stood up to makes some announcements in Greek.  As the congregation began to make noise, the Israeli chazan stuck his hand out and gave a nice, powerful rega.  All I could think was that there was an 37.5% chance that he just told everyone to go eff themselves.  I love cultural differences.

Pretending to translate from Greek, I whispered to Steve, “if you have yet to buy your raffle tickets, this is the time to do it.”  Steve:  “1st prize:  one week in Athens.  2nd prize:  three weeks in Athens!”  Me:  “Grand prize?  Two tickets to an Ashkenazi shul.”

Hey, whatever it takes to get through the service.  Ohhhh, the High Holidays.  Security outside protecting us from anti-Semites….congregants schmoozing too loudly before eventually going outside to talk…IT’S JUST LIKE HOME!  Jewish peoplehood is amazing.

And sorry, but to the old guy sitting in the back and to clueless people in synagogues around the world:  If your cell phone rings during Kol Nidre, you are definitely getting inscribed in the Book of Major Douchebags.

It’s not that difficult. 


For reasons which are somewhat unclear, I decided to return the next night for Neilah.  Ok, they weren’t unclear.  They may just not have been good.  My reasons (as one might expect) included wanting to be part of the community at the conclusion of this holy day, wanting to pray a bit more, and wanting to torture my Ashkenazi self for two more hours.

Why did I return?  Again, no offense, Sephardim, but our services are just so completely different.  It was like watching “Species”, suffering thru it and it’s 36% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, then renting “Species 2” because I thought this time it might be different.  Puh-leeze, G-d, promise me you’ll find Ashkenazi shul next year and I promise I’ll never sin again.

It was impossible to not keep flipping pages to the end of the machzor.  And asking the person next to you “how many more pages?” is the Yom Kippur equivalent of “are we there yet?”  It never makes the person you’re asking want to poke their eye out with a sharp object.

Eventually, services came to a conclusion and I returned to Chabad along with Steve and Sharon to scarf down the equivalent of three Greek cows.  As opposed to the previous night, there were around 25 people there.  The three of us grabbed our own table and enjoyed what was possibly the most fulfilling meal we’ll have all year.  Over the course of two hours, we discussed our Jewish communities, life in Israel, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Alan Dershowitz, and the chemistry between Bruce Willis and Cybil Shepherd on “Moonlighting”.  (Ok, I made that one up.)

We laughed, we shared our Jewish experiences, we had stimulating conversation, and we enjoyed a meaningful time.  For those two hours, I forgot that I didn’t have such a positive spiritual experience in shul or that I wasn’t breaking the fast with friends back at home.  In our new three-person community which may have only existed for a few hours, it felt like home for that short time.  And isn’t that what the Jewish holidays are all about?


Steve and Sharon, if you see this, be in touch!

If you ever have the chance to travel during the chagim, I wouldn’t talk you out of it.  Because wherever you find yourself in any corner of the world, as long as you’re not alone, you might just be reminded of how special Jewish community can be.

And that’s not Greek to me.

EPILOGUE: Thanks to the magic of the internet, I tracked down Steve and Sharon online and was introduced to their son David who I of course share a bunch of friends with. Jewish geography is amazing.

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