What do a history savant and a wine lover have in common? Not much – aside from an appreciation of things aged. But this summer, enthusiasts of these different pursuits have a rendezvous scheduled in Normandy, France, hosted by Yaya Tours.
Uniting disparate interests is not new to tour organizers Isaac and Aya Massias. He’s an eighth-generation Gibraltarian and a chef by trade. She’s an Israeli with a penchant for history, whose father served in the elite Israeli Palmach unit during the British Mandate. Coupling their interests spawned a travel company with a bifurcated focus on sumptuous kosher dining and on immersive engagement with Jewish heritage.
The duo are no strangers to the epicurean. Isaac and Aya are previous restaurateurs, having owned fine dining establishments in Israel and in America. (Jerusalemites may get hungry at the mention of Montefiore Restaurant, while those from Brooklyn might smile wistfully at the memory of Primavera.) Those who join the couple’s tours benefit from their appreciation of truly superior cooking. When Isaac and Aya plan a tour, kosher kitchens spring up in such far-off places as Lisbon, Marrakesh, Tuscany, and Marseille. Yaya Tours’s payroll includes several Michelin Star chefs – often locals who present regional specialties.
The drive behind it all, however, is the Massiases’ goal of exposing the lay-Jew to his sometimes painful, never boring, always meaningful past. Particularly, Yaya Tours focuses on the post-Inquisition heritage of Sephardic Jewry, so most of their expeditions are concentrated in Southern Europe and North Africa. Participants have had their passports stamped in Sicily, Madrid, and Morocco, where Jewish communities in the diaspora have left stamps of their own. Too many Jews today are unaware that these locales once pulsed with Jewish life. Isaac and Aya are on a mission to change that.
Want to stir your inner wanderlust? Read on.
Morocco: the word itself is assonant, lyrical. Marrakesh, Casablanca: the names are lilting, beckoning you to enter a magical realm. Morocco does not disappoint. It is a kingdom of rich color, of souks with hand-woven rugs and aromatic spices, of Saharan dust glowing under a North African sun. With Yaya Tours, travelers visit ancient fortified walls and architectural marvels. They stand in Marrakesh’s city center, where musicians and storytellers entertain spectators. There is camel-riding, sunrise hikes, and visits to places of Jewish interest. Shabbos is spent in the company of one of Marrakesh’s remaining Jewish families.
Historically, the constant shift of power in Morocco led to much cultural exchange, and so the country’s fare is a jumbled smorgasbord of cuisines. Traveling with Yaya Tours is sure to expand one’s palate: there are dishes that hearken back to the Berbers who first inhabited Morocco; Arabic spices, nuts, and dried fruit; olives and preserved lemons, courtesy of the Moors; Ottoman-inspired kebabs and grilled meats; and even croissants and fine wines thanks to twentieth-century French colonization.
Let your mind drift northward now to France itself. The Provence was a welcoming harbor for Jews since the fall of Masada. Its sloping hills and fields of wildflowers were fertile ground for Torah growth: the sages of Provence included eminent scholars such as Rashi. Isaac and Aya are intimately familiar with sites of Jewish heritage throughout the region, and they cherry-pick the best to create an exciting itinerary. The charming little villages dotting the landscape are home to open air markets, vineyards, and ancient Roman-era amphitheaters and aqueducts. Yaya Tours partakes in it all – especially in the traditional savory bouillabaisse.
Recently, a client approached the Massiases with a question: Could Yaya Tours plan a trip to Normandy? A relative of his had fought in the Allied offensive on D-Day – the seaborne invasion of Normandy, France that was the beginning of the end of World War II. Isaac and Aya are always game for adventure, but this was uncharted territory. A pilot trip to the region had them standing on the hushed, sandy beaches where thousands had perished within hours. They were sold.
Guests on their June tour to Normandy for the 75th anniversary of the invasion will lodge in an upscale chateau and savor the French creations of a Michelin Star chef. They will pay homage to the sacrifices of the fallen by visiting Normandy’s sprawling war-era cemeteries. Scattered amid the crosses are Jewish stars, marking the interment sites of 4,000 Jewish soldiers. Also on the agenda: a visit to the home of Claude Monet, a tour of the Jewish quarter of Rouen, and an expedition to Mount St. Michael (a UNESCO site famous for its spectacular abbey and medieval ramparts).
Following will be a four-day jaunt to Bordeaux, France’s wine production powerhouse. Bon vivants will revel in the wine-tasting opportunities afforded by Yaya Tours. On Shabbos, the group will join the prayers at the grand Bordeaux synagogue, and later enjoy a walking tour of the city.
Travelers on Yaya Tours hail from America, Israel, Australia, and England. Most are retired professionals, but Isaac and Aya also organize student trips in conjunction with Jewish organizations. Group tours have a 25 slot maximum in order to keep an intimate feel: Yaya Tours is the kind of program that has ample snacks and schmoozing on the bus for everyone.
History savant? Wine lover? Globetrotter wannabe? Isaac and Aya have the tour for you.