Every Jew is the holy of Holies

A story from my family

My elderly father (may he live to 120) went in the late 1980s to Tbilisi, Georgia. I'm not referring to the state of Georgia here in the southern U.S., but rather the country of Georgia which is located in Eurasia sandwiched right between between Russia, Turkey and Armenia. He went there to help a jewish woman get divorced, so that she would be able to remarry.

While in Tbilisi, my father asked the local jewish man who was assigned to help him translate for the couple getting divorced if there was a synagogue that he could go to, to pray for Mincha, the afternoon prayer service. The man said of course, and he was happy to take my father to the large synagogue in Tbilisi. My father told me that he wanted to go to the synagogue really for two reasons. He obviously wanted to pray there but he also wanted to go there because he wanted to find out what the jewish community in Tbilisi looked like. He knew it was a very old Sephardic jewish community that to a certain extent had been isolated from much of the jewish world for many years. In addition, the spread of communism in the Soviet Union had isolated the jewish community even further and made it very difficult for them to practice their jewish faith. So he wasn't really sure what to expect.

My father arrived at the big synagogue in Tbilisi and expected that there would be maybe another ten or fifteen men to show up to pray in the middle of the afternoon on a weekday, when most men are busy working. He was astounded when hundreds of men came through the front doors of the synagogue. When it came time to pray my father noticed almost all of the men whispering to each other while gazing in his direction. It made him a little nervous realizing he was probably the main topic of discussion, particulary considering that the local jewish community probably didn't take well to a stranger in their midsts. Meanwhile a man approached my father and said the word "chazzan" (cantor) to him and pointed to the front of the synagogue where the cantor probably would lead the service. My father understood that he was being invited by the community to lead the Mincha service. He was happy to oblige and relieved that they trusted him to lead the service. As he prayed and lead the service, he noticed that it was remarkably quiet in the synagogue, way too quiet, in fact.

After the prayer service all of the men in the synagogue lined up in front of my father and he didn't know what they wanted. As he started to leave the first man in line stretched out his hand to my father and of course my father extended his hand to greet him. Instead of the usual hand shake though, the local man grasped my father's hand and kissed it and said loudly "chacham" (wise man). My father had no idea why he did this, and then the next man did the same thing, kissing his hand and declaring "chacham". After receiving a few hundred kisses my father found his friend, his local translator and asked him to explain what was going on and why the community was kissing him.

The man explained that most of the jews that came to pray that day couldn't read hebrew and never received a Torah education. Because they couldn't read hebrew the custom in that synagogue was that one of the few older men who could read hebrew would normally be the "chazzan" and lead the service and he would recite slowly a few words of the prayers at a time, and then all of the men would repeat out loud after him the exact same words; and then the next words and so on.This is how they prayed every day, even though it took a very long time for them to pray this way. My father who was invited to lead the service was not aware of this, so he prayed at his normal fast pace and no one could follow or keep up with him so the men were mostly silent during the prayer service. The translator further explained that the Jewish community had never seen a Jew pray the Mincha prayer service from beginning to end by heart. From this they deduced that he must have been a big scholar and therefore they waited in line to show their respect and love for a Torah scholar.

My father was dumbfounded. He had never encountered a community like this. My father somewhat naively then made a comment about how religious the Jewish community must be to come pray at a synagogue everyday even though they couldn't read hebrew. The translator responded that my father was very mistaken and that most of the community that he had seen that day was not religious and not sabbath observant, but rather they were simple jews who were very proud and respectful of their Jewish tradition and they valued prayer and cherished their synagogue. My father was shocked. He said that to him it seemed like a miracle that hundreds of people who weren't religious would take time out from work every single day to come to a synagogue to pray. The translator corrected my father again saying "Rabbi, you don't know what a miracle is, let me explain to you what a real miracle is in Tbilisi" and this is where the remarkable story really begins.

He said that for many years the Jewish community had been suffering from the anti-semitic communists. They had tried for years to close the big synagogue in Tbilisi. My father responded that this was standard communist practice in all of the communities under their influence, but he was suprised that it was such a serious problem because the community with the right amount of money should probably be able to bribe the local communist officials and avoid any serious problems. The translator responded that normally that would be true if the communists were not Jewish, then it would be easy to bribe them to look the other way. But now that a few members of the Jewish community had joined the communist movement, these "new" communists were dead set on closing the synagogue and there was no amount of money that could distract them from their goal.

After years of trying, laws were passed and they finally succeeded in setting a date for the big synagogue to be demolished. Notices were placed for Jews to be out of the synagogue and for the streets to be cleared to make way for the bulldozers that were to level it to the ground. The night before the scheduled demolition, the Jewish community gathered and decided on a course of action.

Before sunrise the next morning, one by one almost all of the members of the Jewish community of Tbilisi gathered at a very narrow street a block or two in front of the synagogue where the bulldozers were to pass on their way to the synagogue. One by one members of the community laid down on the street. After a while, a wall of Jewish bodies three layers deep formed, blocking the way for any vehicle that tried to use the street. The demolition was scheduled for noon time and at nine o'clock bulldozers turned the corner on to the narrow street and halted at the site of a wall of bodies piled up across the street for the length of the street.

After a half hour of deliberations one of the drivers of the bulldozers got hold of a bull horn and announced very loudly that he was going to plow through the wall regardless of how many people got hurt or killed, because he had his orders and a job to do. He turned on the engine and picked up speed to ramm through the wall. And no one budged. He put on the brakes maybe 5 feet from the first row of people lying down. He picked up the bull horn again and loudly threatened that this was their last chance to clear out. People in the surrounding homes heard the commotion and started to come out to see what was going on. Again, no one in the Jewish wall of resistance moved. Another loud threat and more people gathered to watch the confrontation. The standoff went on for hours. Hundreds of Georgian gentiles gathered along the sides of the street. By 4 pm, no one knows what happened or why, the bulldozers turned around and started to leave. The Jewish community stayed on the road until the evening suspecting the bulldozers withdrawal was a trick. But they never returned. No one knows if it was the fact that there were hundreds of witnesses watching the standoff that created political pressure to call off the demolition or if the drivers simply got too tired or just didn't have the nerve, but they never returned. The big synagogue is still standing to this day and there has never been another law passed to close it down.

"This Rabbi, is a miracle in Tiblisi." My father started crying when he heard the story. Where do jews get the courage and strength, he wondered. (This story was never written up because the communists did not want it published anywhere)

When I heard my father tell this story, I told him that I once heard Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach share the following idea when someone asked him to explain who the Jewish people were.

In the Jewish Temple thousands of years ago, there was an area called the "Holy", where only the priests, the Kohanim, could enter. They would go there daily to light the Menorah. Beyond that was an area called the "Holy of Holies" where not even a Kohen could enter. That was the area where the Holy Ark and the tablets containing the Ten Commandments were placed. According to our tradition that is where G-d's actual presence resided. On Yom Kippur when the lives of all of Israel were in jeopardy, the High Priest while fasting would risk his life to enter the Holy of Holies in an attempt to gain atonement and grant the Jewish people another year of life.

According to Rabbi Carlebach, "Now days, maybe its possible that not every Jew is holy, but every Jew is the holy of holies. Every Jew at some point in his life reaches a moment when he is ready to lay down his life."