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Thursday, October 23, 2008

My Grandfather From Izmir

This is a story about my mothers father Eliyahu Canyaz that I heard as a child. It was recently beautifully written by Pesi Dinnerstein and published in Small Miracles of the Holocaust: Extraordinary Coincidences of Faith, Hope, and Survival. I would like to share it with you.

“Bonjour, Monsieur Canyaz. Running a little late today, aren’t you?”

“Bonjour, mon ami. Yes, running a little late, as usual.”

Eliyahu Canyaz was a familiar figure on the streets of Marseilles, traveling from home to home, a bit behind schedule most days, delivering fresh eggs to his Jewish and non-Jewish neighbors. An exceptionally tall and stately man, clean-shaven, with his beret tipped slightly to one side, he looked as if he could have fit comfortably in either world.

But any Jew living in France in 1942 knew exactly which world he belonged to. Hitler and his steadily advancing army made certain of that.
Eliyahu, however, needed no reminding.

An Orthodox Jew whose life was totally immersed in his religion, he never forgot for a moment who he was or why he was here. Even in these difficult times, his commitment remained unshaken.

Originally from Turkey, Eliyahu and his family found a warm and welcoming community of Sephardic Jews in Marseilles. Here, he also found the most beautiful synagogue he had ever seen in his life. And seeing was not something that Eliyahu Canyaz took lightly.

Even with his bottle-thick glasses, he could barely recognize a figure two feet in front of him. Nevertheless, within his limited circle of vision, he managed to engage in most of the meaningful activities of his daily life. With a considerable amount of squinting and repositioning, he was usually able to see his family and friends, the customers to whom he sold his eggs, and the holy books with which he studied and prayed every day.

Beyond that point, however, the rest of his world seemed to be enveloped in a shadowy cloud of haze, a sad fact of life which Eliyahu endured with relative equanimity. Except, that is, when it came to his synagogue. Not being able to experience the full richness of its beauty was profoundly disturbing to him.

He knew that the synagogue was magnificent, embodying the simple elegance and fine craftsmanship of another age, an edifice worthy of the spiritual treasures it contained. And he appreciated the special beauty of each element--the delicately arched windows, the hand-carved wood, the translucent tiles of polished marble, even the graceful chandelier spiraling down from the cathedral ceiling, far beyond the reach of his sight.

But, more than anything, he longed to see the majesty of his synagogue in one grand, expansive sweep; a never-experienced panoramic view. Instead, he had to settle for a series of individual close-ups, each frame disconnected from the next, as he drew near enough to bring the scenes, one by one, into his narrow sphere of vision. Only in his mind’s eye did all the fragments converge into a single breathtaking picture.

Although Eliyahu would never be able to see the synagogue as others did, he dedicated his life to caring for it and preserving its sanctity. Eventually, he became the official shamesh, the person who enables the synagogue to function spiritually by attending to all of its physical needs. In the Sephardic community of Marseilles, this was a position second in importance and holiness only to that of the rabbi; and Eliyahu took the responsibility very much to heart.

Orthodox Jews meet three times a day in the synagogue for prayer, and Eliyahu--although not generally known for his punctuality--made certain that whenever the congregatlon arrived, the large wooden door was unlocked, the tea kettle was boiling, the chairs were neatly arranged, and the service was ready to begin. Even as Hitler’s troops marched steadily through France, Eliyahu saw to it that the synagogue offered comfort and refuge to the Jews of Marseilles.

But by 1942, there was little left for Jews anywhere to call their own. And, so, it should have come as no surprise that one day, as the men of Marseilles approached their synagogue, they were greeted by a large sign announcing that the building had been officially confiscated by the Nazis and would henceforth be used as a clubhouse. Expected or not, the news came as a crushing blow.

However, a curious thing happened. Several weeks passed, and the Nazis never returned. Whenever members of the community walked by, they saw that the building was obviously not in use. But, still, to risk their lives and go in....No one was ready to do that just yet. Until, one day, Eliyahu couldn’t bear it any longer.

Determined to reclaim his synagogue at any cost, he showed up early one morning, as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred, and started to prepare for services. Little by little, inspired by his courage, the members gradually came back. The Nazis, it seemed, had forgotten all about this building and gone on to bigger conquests. Before long, the men were once again assembling for prayer three times a day, and Eliyahu was busy attending to their needs. Many months passed with no disruption. Life seemed to have returned to normal.

But, as history has since taught us, for the Jews of Europe in the 1940’s, life would never return to anything even remotely resembling normal.

The day that would forever be remembered by the Jews of Marseilles began, as any other, with the men walking together to the synagogue and chatting pleasantly along the way.

“Spring is in the air this morning, Avraham, don’t you think?”

“Oui, Binyomin. Any day now, I’ll be planting my garden. I can already taste the tomatoes. An early spring this year, for sure, wouldn’t you say, Yaacov?”

“Non, non, mes amis, not just yet. Winter, I’m afraid, will return once more.”

Slowly, the men walked into the synagogue, stopping, as Orthodox Jews traditionally do, to raise their right arm toward the ark that holds the sacred Torah scrolls and, then, to touch their fingers to their lips, signifying their love of G-d’s holy words. Each man then donned his tallit (prayer shawl) and tefillin (phylacteries), opened his siddur (prayer book), and began to recite the morning blessings, the sweet harmony of their voices echoing gently throughout the room.

Suddenly, without a second’s warning, the heavy wooden door crashed open. Before anyone had time to react, a group of enraged Nazis in full uniform burst into the sanctuary, with rifles raised and ready to fire.

“Jewish cockroaches!” they screamed. “How dare you defy our orders and trespass upon our property?!”

The Jews of Marseilles immediately found themselves surrounded, with no chance of escape. Shouting at the terrified men in French and German, the Nazis tore the prayer shawls from their shoulders and pushed them to the back of the synagogue.

At that moment, the large wooden door began to open once again, but this time the movement was extremely slow and deliberate. A tense silence filled the room, as all eyes turned toward the entrance. No one knew whether the door was being pushed by Nazi sympathizers, armed Partisans, or more unsuspecting Jews. Whoever walked in, however, would surely see a sight never to be forgotten--a historical synagogue of legendary beauty about to become a blood-stained dot on Hitler’s map.

Finally, the door opened all the way, and in stepped the one person incapable of beholding such a sight.

Eliyahu Canyaz, totally oblivious to what was transpiring, did what he usually did when he arrived a bit late. He stood quietly in the doorway, gently placed his boxes of eggs on the floor, and raised his right arm toward the Torah scrolls. In that moment, two antithetical realities collided, and an unexpected miracle was produced.

In Eliyahu’s reality, he was entering the synagogue that he loved and that he risked his life three times a day to care for and pray in. And, as he always did, he lifted his arm in the direction of the ark to bring his mind and body closer to the Torah, to link heaven and earth in the service of G-d.

But the Nazis existed in a separate reality. When they looked at Eliyahu stepping through the door, they saw a tall, beret-clad Frenchman, whose only purpose in coming to the synagogue was obviously to deliver eggs to the Jews. And in his arm-raising gesture of connection to a higher world, the Nazis saw an unmistakable salute to their Fuhrer.

“Heil Hitler!,” they shouted to a startled Eliyahu, as they raised their arms and sharply clicked their heels in response.

Before Eliyahu could fully grasp what was happening so far beyond the range of his vision, one of the Nazis called out to him in French, “Leave immediately, Monsieur! You have no reason to be here.”
Without a word, Eliyahu Canyaz turned and walked away. As he stumbled toward the street, he began to pray intensely for all of his friends trapped inside. Then, with tears streaming down his face, he thanked G-d for helping him to escape--and, in the process, for answering the one question that had haunted him for as long as he could remember.

Now, at last, he understood that, rather than being a curse, his poor eyesight was, in fact, a very special blessing. It was, after all, only because of his virtual blindness, coupled with the distorted vision of the Nazis, that he was still alive. And it was also, perhaps, only because of his selfless devotion to a synagogue he could never fully see, that G-d chose to make it the site of the miracle through which his life was spared.

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Meet Rabbi Yaacov Haber

Rabbi Yaacov HaberRabbi Haber has been a leading force in Jewish Outreach for the past 25 years. A founding trustee of AJOP, the Association of Jewish Outreach Professionals, he was the founder and director of the Torah Center of Buffalo from 1980-1990 while serving as a community rabbi in Buffalo. From Buffalo he and his family traveled to Melbourne, Australia where as a project of Kollel Bais HaTalmud he founded the Australian Institute of Torah, a national outreach and adult education program. He directed that program from 1990-1995, at which time he was sought out as National Director of Jewish Education for the Orthodox Union in the United States where he created the Internationally acclaimed and highly successful "Pardes Project."

In addition to his duties at the OU, in 1996 he replaced Rabbi Berel Wein as the spiritual leader of Congregation Bais Torah in Monsey, NY. In keeping with the position of Congregation Bais Torah in the Monsey community, Rabbi Haber was involved in issues involving the greater Monsey community, and counseled hundreds of individuals in the surrounding area.

Rabbi Yaacov Haber is the founder and driving force behind TorahLab. Through TorahLab, Rabbi Haber is bringing together educational and media specialists to create dynamic learning experiences which will be accessible to adults of all backgrounds and levels. Rabbi Haber has published numerous articles and books and is a sought after international lecturer.

Rabbi Haber and his family are presently living in Ramat Beit Shemesh where he is the Rabbi of Kehillas Shivtei Yeshurun.

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