by Ronnie Landau
Gershon Coren is a modest, intensely private man, but one possessed of an inner life, full of feeling and emotion, that seldom expresses itself outwardly. Tall, imposing and with blue-eyed good looks, the outrageous blond curls of his youth (best described in former days as a ‘girl magnet’) now given over to a receding hairline that, these days, is generally hidden beneath an exotic Imam-style north African kippah-cum-hat; a mighty head covering that, in a European country flirting with Islamophobia, could get him, mistakenly, into quite serious difficulties with the natives!
Gershon is originally from the seaside town of Sunderland – he now resides in the rather different seaside town of Herzliya Pituach (by way of New York) – and he had a quite remarkable and unforgettable experience last Yom Kippur.
He and his delightful wife, Josanne (formerly of Hendon, NW London), regularly spend the month of August on their favourite island of Crete – ‘to get away from all those Israeli flies’, says an uncharacteristically breathless and garrulous Gershon, normally seen by his friends as a kind of Yiddisher Clint Eastwood, ie a strong man of very few words. And Crete it was that witnessed this remarkable story, related to me by the man himself in a fashionable coffee house near Binyamina in northern Israel.
Gershon, I must stress, is a devout and spiritually committed Jew: he ‘learns’ Talmud every week and regularly leads the services in his local Israeli shul – as, indeed, he did in his previous incarnations in both Sunderland and New York – and, on the short winter days, when Shabbat goes out early enough for him to watch, on his home computer, the far-distant antics of his beloved but ever beleaguered football team (ie Sunderland AFC), it is not unknown for him to make an especially elaborate havdalah in the forlorn hope that it will bring divine aid to the underachieving club he supports with unbridled, not to say desperate, passion!
But I digress. To return to Crete and the heart of this story: in August 2011 Gershon and Josanne had paid their first visit to Etz Chayyim, a small but charming synagogue in Chania, which had served the last surviving Jewish community in Crete.
Today the Holocaust-ravaged Jewish population of the island has dwindled to such an insignificant handful that a minyan is something of a rarity, pretty much reliant on Israeli and European tourists stumbling upon this outpost of Greece’s Romaniote community.
Until 1999 Etz Hayyim was a desecrated house of prayer that remained the sole Jewish monument on the Island of Crete after the destruction of the Jewish community in 1944. Essentially it stood as a testament to the horrific success of the Nazis in obliterating 2,300 years of Jewish life on the island.
From 1996 until the year of its re-dedication in 1999, the structure was painstakingly and lovingly restored. The philosophy that directed this work is summed up in the Hebrew ‘Am Yisrael Chai’ – ‘The nation of Israel lives’. In 1996, the synagogue was mentioned on the World Monument Fund’s list of most endangered sites, but today it stands as a vibrant statement of Jewish life, vitality and values.
During this initial tour of the synagogue, Gershon and Josanne were told the horrific story of the destruction and slaughter of the entire Jewish community of Crete by the Nazis towards the end of the Second World War, and the recent rebuilding of the synagogue under the direction of Nicholas Stavroulakis, Emeritus Director of the Jewish Museum of Greece. At the end of the tour, Gershon recited Mincha (the afternoon service) and, during a conversation with the tour guide, happened to mention that, if they ever needed somebody to conduct the High Holy Days services, he would be honoured to do so.
Upon his return to Israel, Gershon received a schedule of the times of services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but realised that the very abbreviated times were not exactly what he was used to, and didn’t pursue the idea further. Then, four years later, in August 2015, during another stay on the island and subsequent visit to Etz Hayyim, he met Anja, the synagogue’s administrator.
During their conversation, she mentioned that in the previous couple of years, a young man from Tel Aviv had conducted the services, but this year he could only come for Rosh Hashanah, but would be unable to return for Yom Kippur. Once again, Gershon was shown the timetable but, this time, to his delight, he saw that they were planning to have a full rosta of services.
“I’m your man” Gershon said to Anja and, after some soul searching and a lengthy meeting with Nicholas Stavroulakis – for Anja was unable to guarantee a minyan – he decided to return to Crete from Israel the following month to conduct all the services on Yom Kippur.
So it was that several weeks later, Gershon and Josanne returned to Chania a few hours before start of the Fast. At 6.15pm they entered the Synagogue to get ready for the service that was scheduled to start 15 minutes later. There was scarcely a soul there. A couple of women came forward to light the candles and then Gershon began the famous chant of Kol Nidrei. During the entire service , his back was turned to the congregation and he had no idea how many people had actually turned up. So you can imagine his delight when, turning round at the end of the service, he was confronted with a ’standing room only’ sanctuary! He thanked everybody for coming and announced the times of the following morning’s service.
With some trepidation he came back in the morning but, once again, the faithful had returned. And Gershon, as if going for entry into the Guinness Book of Jewish Records, proceeded to lead the entire day’s service – that’s shacharit, the reading of the Torah, Musaph, Minchah and Neilah. There were several memorable incidents during the morning services.
During the reading of the Torah a young lady asked to be called up to read the blessings – Gershon, it has to be said, was quite unused to the egalitarian approach! – and was so overcome with emotion that not only she but Gershon and many of the congregation started slowly weeping. A short time later, when the memorial prayer for the victims of the Holocaust was read out, many congregants were suddenly overwhelmed by an extraordinary empathy with the doomed Jewish Community of Crete who, 73 years before in the very place where they were now standing, had prayed on Yom Kippur – and they burst quite openly into tears.
At the final Neilah service, once again there was a full house of worshippers, and during the singing of Hatikva following the blowing of the shofar, there wasn’t, to quote Gershon, ‘a dry eye in the house’.
Gershon records that he has never before felt such sensations as he felt that Yom Kippur day at Etz Hayyim in Chania, Crete. His adrenalin carried him through the day – indeed, he eventually had to be carried out, his herculean physical efforts finally catching up with him.
Back in Herzliya Pituach, on recalling that unforgettable day, he now just wants to extend his gratitude to that entire congregation (from wherever they came) for helping him and Josanne reach such emotional and spiritual heights.
To those, like me, who tend to regard going to shul as a bit of a ‘drag’, it was – to put it mildly – rather humbling to listen to Gershon tell his amazing Cretan story.