by Rabbi Mendel Schwartz
As my plane entered its final approach over Nice Airport, all I could see was spectacular, crystal turquoise water. Further along the horizon were the beautiful mountains and the glistening French Riviera.
I was off grabbing a cab from the airport to the center of Cannes: The Palais des Festivals on esplanade Georges Pompidou, where the 62nd annual festival was to breakdown the following night.
My buddy, Scott Einbinder, came up with a wild idea: to host a Friday night Shabbat dinner under the stars at the International Cannes Film Festival (known in the biz as “Cannes”). It seemed like a wild idea, and at best, somewhat obnoxious. Is Cannes the place where secular Jews from around the world would care to be invited for Shabbat dinner? Maybe they do Shabbat at home? Maybe a Passover with their folks in Brooklyn? But Dinner with a Rabbi at Cannes? After all, Friday night is a working night at the festival. These people, who pay on average $10K for their trip, would rather be working that night (they need to be working to clock their hours). The notion was absurd! Scott assured me he knew tens of people in the biz and they were sure to come if we marketed the evening correctly, so I said “I’m in!”
The Chai Center supported this evening with all of its resources, secured sponsors and processed reservations with credit cards, etc…My good friend, Max Gottleib, handled logistics, such as wire transfers to the caterer in France, centerpieces, security, photographers, etc…
Food was a tough issue, as we were marketing to Jews from all over the world. Will we serve gefilte fish for the Ashkenazim, or should it be Moroccan fish for the Sephardim? French dry or white zin? Chicken soup or lentil? Should we do the abridged version of Shalom Aleichem and Kidush or should we do the whole nine yards? As a Rabbi, I had no manual to look up these questions!
My taxi pulls up in Cannes, now my fifth year returning for my greatest Rabbinical gig! It’s Thursday evening and I’m ready to hit town! I have on my Chai cap, tzitzit hanging to the sides, beard in full exposure and I head to the Carlton Hotel, where many Jews in the biz conduct business. Armed only with a pocket full of business cards, I begin my walk up the Boulevard de la Croisette, heading to the hotel. I pass club after club overflowing with people in their twenties spilling from the sidewalk onto the street clutching cameras and hoping for a glimpse of a celebrity entering or exiting one of the clubs. I continue my walk and see thousands of men in their finest tuxedos and ladies in their gowns, all leaving a premiere at the main palace of the festival. The looks I was receiving as I continued my trek made it uneasy for me during my first year at Cannes. As this was my fifth year, I felt like a pro and I belonged there! I would tell everybody I’m part of the festival program. We even had the Deputy Mayor join us! I climbed the steps to the Carlton Hotel terrace and notice 300 people sitting around small French tables, 20 waiters noisily serving glass bottles of Coca cola, Cigars, snacks, etc… the noise is deafening. Security asks for my film badge or press pass and I respond “I’m with the festival as the Jewish Rabbi from Los Angeles!” It works! After passing through security and feeling all eyes upon me, I’m wondering if I should just dodge and exit? I really have no business there! Or should I pretend I’m waiting for a meeting and sit at one of those tables and start ordering drinks at roughly $19 for a Perrier? Thankfully, someone screams from across the terrace “Koom Aher” – “come here!” I sit down at his table and thus found my first Jewish contact: a 55 year old German Jew who buys two films per festival, then distributes them locally. He tells me he’s a Reform Jew who is involved in his community in Berlin, goes to a monthly Yiddish speaking club, and swore to me his kids will only marry Jewish! He then starts to grill me. Un ver Bist Du? - And who are you? He really could not quite understand why I was there, even after I explained I was involved in “outreach.” I explained I was Hassidik-Reform and he agreed to come to the Shabbat dinner!
(After his fourth year attending, he is now one of our six sponsors).
The dinner was once again a big hit, with the women commencing the evening lighting traditional Shabbat candles, followed by the singing of Shalom Aleichem. We sang and danced under the twinkling stars as millions of Angels looked down upon a small family keeping alive a 4,000 year old tradition.
This Shabbat was made possible through our generous sponsors Alex Barder, Scott Einbinder, Craig Emanuel, Max Gottlieb, Michael Helfant, Steve Kaplan, Robby Rajber, Lawrence Silverstein, Gadi Wildstrom, The Chai Center & Lubavitch Of Cannes.
Special thanks to Max Gottleib for making this evening possible.