One of the most memorable and exciting trips I experienced took place a few years ago on the special AACI Black Sea cruise. It was special in many ways. First of all, it turned out to have been the last AACI cruise of its kind – the last with a Black Sea ports destination, due to the decline in Israeli – Turkish relations.
Secondly, the content: the choice of stopover cities could not have been more exciting. Each visit was accompanied by an excellent explanation and presented not only new vistas, but also added new facts and impressions to our store of human history and geography.
After a brief stay in Frankfurt, our first stop, we flew to Mamaia in Romania. Here we could get our feet wet in the Black Sea, the “inhospitable” sea so difficult for ancient mariners to navigate. (In order to placate and appease their gods, the ancient Greeks renamed the “inhospitable” sea “Euxine”- “Good Sea,” believing this would help bring their sea-going men home safely. If I could, I would tell the ancient Greeks that their sea is now far from inhospitable.)
We left Mamaia with its narrow streets and its tourist appeal and flew to Thessaloniki, a city with so many Jewish memories. We witnessed magnificent town houses which had been residences of its Jewish citizens, now housing foreign embassies and Greek government offices. We saw statues of heroes sitting on horses and were enlightened about the meaning of the position of the horses’ legs: if both front legs are in the air, the rider died in battle; one front leg up means the rider was wounded in battle; and if all four hooves are on the ground, the rider died outside battle.
We walked on top of the hill – the local acropolis – and later wandered among the stalls of the picturesque outdoor market daring ourselves into basic Greek-cum-body language conversations with the friendly stall keepers.
In Istanbul the full day of activities was repeated in a program which included sightseeing coupled with amazement at the surviving intricacies of both vehicular and pedestrian traffic. The time of the year was the Moslem fast of Ramadan, and at sundown we saw people lined up in front of clubs where, we were told, anyone who entered would get a free meal. Words fail at describing the beauty of the handcrafted walls, scimitars, glass and ceramic painted objects which dazzled our eyes in Istanbul’s mosques and museums. We stood on European soil in Istanbul and were only a few steps away from Anatolia, Turlish Asia. It was awesome.
Several times during the cruise passengers, including myself, gathered to watch the incredible “equalization” process: how a lock was being used to raise and lower the water between stretches of different levels on our waterway, seeming to lower and raise our boat as well..
In Yalta I sat breathless when I learned that here, in the same hall, in February 1945, actually sat the Big Three – Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin. Here they literally delineated postwar Europe, agreeing that after Germany’s unconditional surrender, the continent would be divided into four post-war occupation zones, controlled by U.S., British, French and Soviet military forces. The city of Berlin was to be divided into similar occupation zones.
When we docked in Odessa, we had the opportunity to walk the streets of the Ukrainian city that had been the birthplace of many a Zionist pioneer, among them Zionist philosopher Achad Ha’am; national poet of Israel Chaim Nachman Bialik; Shaul Tchernikovsly, whose poetry was the first in modern Hebrew, revisionist Ze’ev Jabotinsky, as well as the first mayor of Tel Aviv, Meir Dizengoff.
We climbed the famous Potemkin Stairs and heard words about its historical significance. A cruise friend and I even managed to see a performance of Madame Butterfly (sung in perfect Ukrainian!) on the stage of the beautiful Odessa Opera House (built by the same architect and on the same model as the opera house in Vienna.)
During the hours of relaxing sailings, we listened to various lectures by interesting lecturers on topical themes that brought alive the history of the places we were about to visit.
In short, the cruise was packed with drama, novelty and excitement.
The food on board was always, fresh, tasty and plentiful, the waiters always helpful and pleasant. As was the entire staff- whether at the desk, room service, in the spa area or, as I mentioned, in the dining room.
Not only were both the voyage and the dramatic stopovers fascinating,
The intimate atmosphere of a smaller ship was conducive to forming friendships. We were seven “girls” at Table 19. We would meet two or three times at table during meals and often at activities. We told each other tales, including our personal stories; laughed together..
We are fast friends to this day.
AACI Kosher Tour of Majestic Japan, May 29 – June 13, 2018
The following article was written by Pauline Symons who participated in our trip to Japan, May 29 – June 12, 2018.
Japan is an extraordinary country, where I was privileged to visit in June of this year. I flew into Tokyo from Auckland, New Zealand, where I had spent a few weeks visiting my brother and his family and my hordes of other relatives who live in best place on the planet (well, I think it is!).
At Tokyo airport I met up with a group of 38 people, some of whom had flown in from America, Canada and Switzerland, but mainly from Israel. Yes, I was going to spend a couple of weeks on an AACI Kosher Tour of Majestic Japan with a group of English speaking religious Jews, escorted by my cousin Carole who works for AACI in Jerusalem (www.aaci.org.il ) together with Michael Tuchfeld who is an extremely competent and knowledgeable tour guide who specializes in conducting kosher tours all over the globe.
Our jam-packed itinerary was going to take us to Tokyo, Hakone, Matsumoto, Takayama, Kyoto, Nara, Himeji, Kobe, Hiroshima and Osaka, including 3 journeys on the world famous Shinkansen (bullet) trains. You can imagine that we visited more than a few temples, shrines and castles, which were all magnificent, but some did stand out such as the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto which would definitely have looked even more beautiful had there not been torrential rain,
Himeji Castle which also known as White Heron Castle as it looks like a white Heron in flight and yes, I managed to climb not only to the main Keep but inside to the top of the 6th floor, and the Itsukushima Shrine with its Tori gate which is surrounded by the sea when the tide is in.
Our meals were mainly provided by Chabad in Tokyo and Kobe (except on our overnight in Hiroshima where we ate at a Vegan restaurant)
Here’s a potted history about Jews in Japan: The earliest known Jews in Japan, came from Song Dynasty. There were 5 merchant communities, scattered on Honshu and Shikoku. By 1600, through displacement and assimilation, there were only 2 main communities that were identifiable as Jewish, in Kansai.
In 1572, Spanish Neapolitan Jews who had converted to Christianity to escape, entered Nagasaki on Black Ships from Portuguese Macau. Remaining in Nagasaki, some of them reverted to Judaism, even reclaiming their family names (notably a Levite).
In 1586, the community then consisting of at least 3 permanent families, was displaced by the Shimazu forces. The Jews of Settsu absorbed some of them into its own community (at the time, a population of over 130 Jews), while a minority left or died.
Between 1848 – 1854, in Naha, Satsuma province, Bernard Jean Bettelheim (physician), a Jewish British national resided with his family.
In 1861, Pogrom refugees from Russia and Poland moved to the port of Nagasaki; these were the first Jews in Nagasaki since around 1584.
Towards the end of the Edo period, with the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry following the Convention of Kanagawa and the end of Japan’s “closed-door” foreign policy, Jewish families again began to settle in Japan. The first recorded Jewish settlers arrived at Yokohama in 1861. By 1895, this community, which by then consisted of about 50 families, established the first synagogue in Meiji Japan. Part of this community would later move to Kobe after the great Kanto earthquake of 1923.
Another early Jewish settlement was one established in the 1880s in Nagasaki, a large Japanese port city opened to foreign trade by the Portuguese. This community was larger than the one in Yokohama, consisting of more than 100 families. It was here that the Beth Israel Synagogue was created in 1894. The settlement would continually grow and remain active until it eventually declined by the Russo-Japanese War in the early 20th century. The community’s Torah scroll would eventually be passed down to the Jews of Kobe, a group formed of freed Russian Jewish war prisoners that had participated in the Czar’s army and the Russian Revolution of 1905.
From the mid-1920s until the 1950s, the Kobe Jewish community was the largest Jewish community in Japan, formed by hundreds of Jews arriving from Russia, the Middle East (mainly from Iraq and Syria), as well as from Central and Eastern European countries (primarily Germany). It had both an Ashkenazi and a Sephardic synagogue. During this time, Tokyo’s Jewish community (now Japan’s largest) was slowly growing with the arrival of Jews from the USA, Western Europe, and Russia.
Some Japanese leaders came to believe that Jewish economic and political power could be harnessed by Japan through controlled immigration, and that such a policy would also ensure favour from the USA through the influence of American Jewry. Although efforts were made to attract Jewish investment and immigrants, the plan was limited by the government’s desire not to interfere with its alliance with Nazi Germany. Ultimately, it was left up to the world Jewish community to fund the settlements and to supply settlers and the plan failed to attract a significant long-term population or create the strategic benefits for Japan that had been expected by its originators.
In December 1938, five ministers council, which was the highest decision-making council, made a decision of prohibiting the expulsion of the Jews in Japan. During WWII Japan was regarded as a safe refuge from the Holocaust, despite being a part of the Axis and an ally of Germany. Jews trying to escape German-occupied Poland could not pass the blockades near the Soviet Union and the Mediterranean Sea and were forced to go through the neutral country of Lithuania. Of those who arrived, many (around 6,000) were sent to the Dutch West Indies with Japanese visas issued by Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul to Lithuania. Sugihara ignored his orders and gave thousands of Jews entry visas to Japan, risking his career and saving more than 6,000 lives. Sugihara is said to have cooperated with Polish Intelligence, as part of a bigger Japanese-Polish cooperative plan. They managed to flee across the vast territory of Russia by train to Vladivostok and then by boat to Kobe in Japan.
Our AACI Group visited the Chiune Sugihara Museum and Memorial Hall. Here is a photo of the men davening outside the Memorial Wall – a very poignant moment and a wonderful tribute to this remarkable person.
Throughout the war, the Japanese government continually rejected requests from the German government to establish anti-Semitic policies. After World War II, a large portion of the few Jews that were in Japan left, many going to what would become Israel. Some of those who remained married locals and were assimilated into Japanese society.
Presently, there are several hundred Jewish families living in Tokyo, and a small number of Jewish families in and around Kobe. A small number of Jewish expatriates of other countries live throughout Japan, temporarily, for business, research, a gap year, or a variety of other purposes. There are always Jewish members of the United States Armed Forces serving on Okinawa and in the other American military bases throughout Japan.
There are community centres serving Jewish communities in Tokyo and Kobe. The Chabad organization has two official centres in Tokyo and in Kobe, where we ate most of our meals.
Whilst in Kyoto we visited Beit Shalom Japan, which is the church of the Japan Christian Friends of Israel (JCFI) founded by the late Rev. Takeji Otsuki
It was an extraordinary evening where we welcomed by church dignitaries who spoke in Hebrew and we were entertained by the Shachar Choir (The Dawn Choir), a mixed-voice choir singing in Hebrew
There are so many wonderful things to remember about Japan – the politeness of the people (so much bowing going on), the elegance of the ladies in their kimonos (but here’s the exception to that rule – I’m the short one and let me tell you, this is the first country I’ve visited where I didn’t feel small) the lushness of the countryside, the tidiness of the streets (everyone takes their rubbish home), the punctuality of the trains and especially the magnificent bullet trains, and the beautiful public gardens filled with hydrangeas, roses, topiary and Japanese maple trees but sadly we weren’t there for the cherry blossom time. Remarkably, most Japanese homes that we saw, whether in the big city suburbs or the countryside, had beautifully presented front gardens but their back gardens were either rice paddies or vegetable plots! It was extraordinary to see a block of apartments in the suburbs of Osaka that, instead of what would be a car park in any other country, was a rice paddy! Of course, I have to mention Hiroshima, which was a very sobering experience. Our Japanese guide, when asked by an American in our group if America had ever apologised to Japan for dropping the bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, replied “there is nothing for them to apologise for – we were wrong to wish to dominate other countries and to believe that we are a superior race, so it is us who have to be forgiven”.
Japan is an extraordinary country – and I recommend a visit.
AACI Vietnam & Cambodia, 2017
“Lenny and I had the most spectacular time. I’ve already called a few friends to recommend AACI! We really have only the highest praises and thanks to you for arranging this fantastic trip to Vietnam and Cambodia. It was so nice being with you and the whole great group.” We can hardly wait to join you again.
With appreciation and thanks” BF.
” Israeli guide was first class!” IG.
“Will travel with AACI any time.” EK.
AACI New Zealand & Australia, 2017
“The trip was 4 weeks, but not once did I say, I wish it would end. We were sad it ended. We loved the plane to the volcanos, the helicopter to the glacier, and most of all snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef. We really had so many rich experiences!” SM
“An overwhelming once in a lifetime experience” SK.
“A very successful and well-balanced itinerary with lots of perks. There is an enormous amount of good will on the part of the staff and the participants” TI
AACI’s 11 Day Norwegian Fjords Cruise & Amsterdam City Adventure, 2017
The following article ‘A Jewish glance at Amsterdam and the Fjord towns of Norway’ by Marion Reiss, AACI member and cruise participant was published in the Jerusalem Post, July 9th full of thought and highlights of another, AACI successful cruise: http://www.jpost.com/Diaspora/Where-Jews-once-flourished-in-Amsterdam-and-Norway-499150
AACI South Africa & Victoria Falls, 2017
“We had an amazing lifetime experience – it will be with us for a very long time” RF
“Many thanks again for making our trip to South Africa such a success from all points of view” AF
“This was for most of us a trip of a lifetime – something we dreamed about. Thank you AACI for making our dream come true” SB
Photos by David Zlatin, trip participant
AACI China 2016
“What an amazing trip with had. We couldn’t have wished for better. From beginning to the end. It was most memorable. Thanking your organization. We couldn’t have done such a trip without you.” ER.
“I cannot begin to tell you how much we enjoyed the trip. We always felt we were in good hands and that we were taken care of very well and in all aspects. We would use AACI tours again and will recommend it to all our friends.” EA.
“So many varied and wonderful experiences, not enough superlatives to do it justice. Could not fault any part of the holiday and would most certainly love to travel with AACI again.” DS.
Videos: Huangluo ( “Long Hair Village”) Excerpt from Golden Mask Show
AACI’s Marvelous Kosher Cruise, September 2016
“We love traveling with AACI” LG
“I take my hat off to you guys. You were excellent” AM
“I have been most impressed with AACI’s organization which could not have been better. Overall, the cruise has been first class. My only criticism is that at times if has been too strenuous” JF
Video: AACI Fun at the Japanese restaurant, Costa Diademia part 1 AACI Fun at the Japanese restaurant, Costa Diademia part 2