Celebrating Sukkot in Tuscany

An experience going to a Sukkot program in Tuscany, a five-star hotel turned kosher for the whole “chag” right in the most stylish and most gorgeous little town in the world.

 THE WRITER celebrates Sukkot in her corner of  paradise.  (photo credit: HADASSAH CHEN)
THE WRITER celebrates Sukkot in her corner of paradise.
(photo credit: HADASSAH CHEN)

If you follow my column nicely and attentively (LOL) you might remember that the last time I went with the whole family at the airport to fly to Italy, we were gently turned back and sent home – for it seemed I could not enter my country with my whole family, with no Italian passports and in the middle of a second corona crisis there. 

It was right before Passover and I was told the only way for me to get to Italy was to leave my dear husband and children and to travel solo to my mum waiting for me in Milan, my birth town. 

Of course I chose to stay put in Israel with my kiddies and husband and looked with tears in my eyes as they closed the gate in front of my nose.

Arrivederci, signora.

Italy would have to wait until my whole family could travel with me, when the world would go back to normal I thought – free from corona, no masks and no anxiety for trying to get on a flight.

Two weeks ago I did it again. 

A few months have gone by since my last attempt to travel as a family and the world has changed its rules a few times already.

A new reality. The rule now is that there are no rules, or maybe there are but no one seems to know exactly what they are. But as humans we figured out that life goes on and we need to move, to go back to traveling, to work, to have fun and to live.

So off we went. Italy is open to tourists and Israel is letting us out with no questions. The new reality of planet Earth: everywhere we go now we need permissions to get in and get out.

With lots of preparation and a few silent prayers we managed to check in without any major drama, as all the million papers we had to fill in, print, download, figure out, agree to and sign were done.

 FORTE DEI MARMI,  Tuscany, 1954. (credit: Wikimedia Commons) FORTE DEI MARMI, Tuscany, 1954. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The moment we went through the long ramp at Ben-Gurion Airport and were finally free as birds ready to run into the duty-free area, we were almost crying from happiness.

After three long years we were finally going back all together to Italy to my family, as a family. I was going to my parents, my friends, my city, my stores, my Sunday markets, my little cafes, my shopping and my restaurants.

WE WERE also going to a Sukkot program in Tuscany, a five-star hotel turned kosher for the whole “chag” right in the most stylish and most gorgeous little town in the world where I spent all my childhood summers; Forte dei Marmi.

Write it down.

A driver came to pick us up at the Malpensa airport in Milan – an older man, sweet and gentle. He had prepared pillows for the kids to rest their heads for the three-hour drive from Lombardy where we landed to Tuscany where we were booked. He had fresh water bottles and kosher biscuits for all of us.

Just like drivers in Israel.

Not.

Just kidding. I love Israel and Israelis, just sometimes they can be slightly rough, or maybe too blunt.

We wake up in the car and we are in a sunny Tuscan day; we traveled through the night all the way from our Holy Land.

We feel like we are on a different planet.

And just like that I am back in my childhood, the scent of the trees, the air, the way the sun rises, the birds. 

I see myself as a chubby 10-year-old riding my bike with a little pouch in the front where my sandwiches with tomatoes and mayonnaise are packed for the long beach day. The beach looks the same: little houses lined up, you buy your space with two chaise lounges on the beach and you get the keys of the little house where to place all your things, change of bathing suit, towels, toys, bags. That smell of sand mixed with salty water and sun cream is so strong in my memory and it’s still the same now.

I wake up from my daydream and I see my kids all excited about the breakfast at the hotel. It’s kosher, they scream!

How weird it is to see the little town of Forte dei Marmi invaded by Jews from all over the world who have come to spend Sukkot in this corner of paradise. What do they know about my beach house, my sunsets and my sea? It’s mine! How dare they step into my past with such chutzpah as if they own the place.

They pronounce all the name of the streets and beaches with their strong foreign accents and to hear it its torture for my ears. They want to shop in all the stores and spend all their money somehow. 

Forte has changed since I used to come here as a child, it became a “fancy-shmancy” town with VIPs and celebs. There are all the most luxurious brands to buy and the boutiques make the street look like a Beverly Hills road. 

In “my day,” the stores were all run by locals, real Italian artisans with their stunning hand-made merchandise.

THE SUKKAH looks beautiful and there is everything you can think of at the breakfast buffet, with sweet Italian waiters trying to please all your wishes.

I’ll have a cappuccino, I whisper to one of them, this is long time away from my days when we would have to bring with us from Milan 30 cartons of Chalav Yisrael milk long life to last for about a month, for there was no kosher milk in Forte, and corn flakes with milk was allowed by us only once a day. 

The quantity of food I see here is embarrassing. As I try to find my perfect balance in my seat with my cappuccino in one hand, fresh croissant in the other and staring into the sun through the leaves covering the sukkah I am met by a gorgeous dynamic woman with black long hair, high heels at 9:30 in the morning and a stunning smile. 

“Welcome darling, how was your trip? Do you need anything? Are the kids ok? Let me know what I can do for you.”

What more can you do for me? I feel I am in paradise, the sun is shining, my breakfast is served and my kids are all over the place having fun.

I wonder what the locals must be thinking of this large group of wealthy Jews coming to invade their town, yet I am sure they will not mind the tons of cash they will spend in their stores.

As I make my way to my room, I see a tent in the huge garden. There are tallitot, lulavim, sidurim and a Sefer Torah. Heartwarming.

The main hotel building has no more than 35 rooms; it used to be the house of the Agnelli family, the Kennedys of Italy. They own the Fiat brand of cars. 

Their beach house has become what is now called “the Lido,” a gorgeous place with romantic rooms, classic furniture and a feel as if you are in one of those old Italian movies.

The idea of starting a kosher hotel for Sukkot or Passover in a beautiful Italian town was started around 25 years ago by a man called Mr. Izak Minkowitz. He had this dream of renting a fancy hotel and turning it kosher for a Jewish festivity and have Jews from all over the world come and enjoy. The first year he took a little but gorgeous hotel in Capri and made it kosher for Passover. It turned out to be incredibly successful and since then he hasn’t stopped. He has taken hotels in the most stunning places in Italy, every year to a different location. 

Sardinia, Venice, Sorrento, Rome and now Tuscany. Minkowitz and a partner in America called Leisure Time Tours have been partnering together for more than 20 years welcoming guests from all walks of life, countries and traditions.

This concept has been imitated and adopted by many others, and as of today you can find probably 20 different kosher hotel programs in Italy alone.

AS I make my way to lunch I spy in the corner of my eye the big tent specially built where a kosher kitchen has been created from scratch for the whole duration of the program. The gorgeous woman in spiked heels who welcomed me at breakfast is now standing in front of a huge staff of waiters, chefs and maitre d, giving the final directions before Shabbat begins. 

Her voice is strong but at the same time reassuring; she is short but gives the feeling of towering them all. They all listen to her like little children. She seems to know every name of every waiter, their strengths and their flaws. Nothing seems to escape from her view. 

She seems the type to be ready to put on an apron and start serving herself in her gold Jimmy Choo’s if needed. I am fascinated by this woman.

As the sun sets and the women come down to light candles, a fashion show of the latest fashion trends is displayed in front of my eyes.

I light candles with my girls and pray for peace and justice in the world.

It is easy to see God in these surroundings. I make my way to the synagogue and cross the sukkah where we will soon be eating, the head waiter is reminding the staff of the last-minute changes and then I hear him say that there is a dish called “gefilte fish” that looks like a big sausage with little carrots on top and all the waiters with their strong Tuscan accent repeat after him: ge fil te fish.

I want to film them and sell it to Netflix, how good this scene is. Oscar worthy.

Later in the evening when everything has been served and eaten and drunk and we’re all half-drunk from wine and joy, we all sing together. “Yerushalayim... Yerushalayim...”

What an insane nation we are. Sitting in a Tuscan villa feasting on amazing food and singing about our longing to be in our real land in Jerusalem.

“I wonder how my home is,” I think. Our waiter Emanuele, who has become our friend, comes over to me and asks, “What are they singing?” 

I explain to him that we are longing to be in Jerusalem and he answers me, puzzled. “I don’t know about Jerusalem but here in Tuscany it’s really not that bad.”

It’s not bad at all.

SUKKOT IS over and we are preparing to leave this little dream place. The kids are sad and not excited at all to go back to school and routine life in Israel.

The super glossy lady comes over to me and gives me a tight hug. Her perfume is rich and her hands are warm. Everyone seems to be looking for her as we leave, her name can be heard in the air a million times. 

“Ruth, Ruth, Ruth...” 

Everyone seems to want to say goodbye to Ruth who took care of each guest as if those guests were close relatives of hers and the hotel was her own house.

“Lucky me,” I think to myself. “I can have Ruth whenever I want.”

She happens to be my sister.

May we all have a great winter, may our next chag be celebrated in Jerusalem with Jews from all over the world with Moshiach. Amen.