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Follow. Like. Friend. Share. Repeat.
It is the best of times — to stay in touch.
It is possibly the worst of times — to develop authentic relationships.
Rabbi Akiva said that “Love your fellow as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) “is a great principle in the Torah.”
The sage Hillel took this one step further and said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. This is all of Torah in entirety; the rest is commentary.”
Is loving another a commandment? Can an emotion be forced? Wasn’t the Torah given to help us be successful? Is this a realistic expectation, or the principle by which we all fail at the whole Jewish thing in one fell swoop?
Hasidic philosophy comments that if one knows how to love “yourself,” you can then love another the same. Self-love is indeed a modern expression of self-esteem, but what the Hasidic masters are referring to is the focus on soul.
When you strip away all the externalities, culture, skin color, talent, beauty and economics, at the core we are an equal piece of the divine. What is not to love?
But sometimes it takes a faraway trip with spotty Internet connection to truly connect to another.
Our two eldest children are spending their year abroad in Australia. Our son is studying and working in Sydney, and our daughter is studying in Melbourne. Down Under and halfway across the world, we Facetime, WhatsApp and talk on the phone.
With today’s technology, they are practically in our living room on a daily basis. Minus the hugs and kisses.
When our daughter Rachel (aka Shelbelle) told us of her plans to travel to Florence, Italy, for a Passover job, then finish her trip in Venice for the weekend post-holiday, we mused about meeting her in Venice. When considering a 25-hour trip to Australia, a 10-hour flight to Europe sounds like a breeze.
We booked tickets. Buon viaggio!
We just got back from our trip, which was five days of connecting on a deep level. Modern conveniences like Facetime are incredible, but there is nothing like spending the days walking and talking, holding hands, and giving hugs.
We spent Shabbat with Rachel, her two friends and newfound blood relatives in the Jewish Ghetto. As the sun dropped behind the apartment buildings and into the canal, Jews from all walks of life and every corner of the world converged in the center of the Venetian Jewish Ghetto. We prayed (or just showed up for dinner), ate and sang together.
As Rabbi Tzvi Freeman says, “We are not a religion; we are a soul.” The conversations were an intermix of Italian, Hebrew, English and French, as far as I could tell. The peals of laughter were universally joyous. The customs were as varied as the colors, shapes and sizes of people around the long tables, but we celebrated Shabbat together as a big, vibrant family.
On Sunday morning we said our goodbyes, Rachel off to Melbourne, and my husband and I on a train to Florence. We had a day and a half to tour all the sights that our girl insisted were unmissable.
We walked a lot. We talked, caught up on life and toured the ancient sights: the Uffizi, David (someone tell Michelangelo that our people are circumcised), the Ponte Vecchio, the Arno and the Piazzale Michelangelo. We downloaded a tour-guide app and toured the city offline.
Aside from dinner at the local Chabad rabbi’s home, we were alone and serene in a bustling and crowded city.
Our last few hours, before our early morning flight, we booked a tour through the hills of Tuscany on vintage Vespas. When we arrived for our scheduled Vespa driving “refresher,” we met our tour guide, Fabio, and the four other couples who would be riding with us.
Fabio called us “Mom” and “Dad” the entire trip because, well, he met our daughter and her friends first.
As we were adjusting our helmets with the option of placing a clean beanie-type hat underneath the unwashed helmet, one of the guys in our group casually mentioned how much the beanie looks like a yarmulke. (Did he drop a bagel?)
There were subsequent handshakes, hellos and where-are-you-froms. The group included a couple from Australia, two Britons, a Ukrainian and this dude from Weehawken, N.J., with his Russian wife. My husband and she exchanged some words in Russian.
After our driving lesson, we were off into the hills of Tuscany. We made a few stops on the way, each time taking pictures of the glorious views and hearing more about the area’s history, the olives and grapes, and UNESCO’s rules for paint colors.
Our final stop was a private estate where you are served local wine and cheese and can walk the gardens. We had kosher snacks and did our own thing. The gardens and views were magnificent. It was a perfect way to end our trip.
As we were ready to head back for the ride back into Florence, our new friend from New Jersey said, “You know my best friend’s daughter is at Emory.”
Us: “Cool. Is she Jewish?”
Us: “Wonder if she goes to any of the Chabad at Emory Shabbat dinners.”
We talked some more. My husband got a ping on his phone, and his WhatsApp was working. He was starting to answer messages. He was walking away from the group.
Our friend from New Jersey came back toward us: “Hey, my best friend wants to know if you know Rabbi Lipskier?”
My husband looked up from his phone: “Yeah! We are in the middle of texting about the kids and carpool!”
Here we were in the faraway hills of Tuscany. I was reminded once again of how strong is the urge to connect and how natural is the bond. No matter where you find yourself, no matter how far from your home, the human and Jewish connections are magnetic.
How can you not make eye contact and give a wink — “Reminds me of a yarmulke” — when you encounter a fellow who is part of your own divine core?
Our trip was fantastic, besides the physical beauty, and getting a break from all our small kids — the enduring memories will be about the relationships, the ones we strengthened and the new ones we made. That to me is the undisputable best of times.
(Based on the Rosh Chodesh Society’s series “Small Truths”)