Tomas Simcha Jelinek

From puppet master in Prague to mashgiach of food in Florence

Joelle Edwards
March 1, 2012

Tomas Simcha Jelinek has many stories to tell. He has been living in Tuscany for the past 30 years, both in Florence and in the Chianti hamlet of Lamole, and he is currently the manager of Ruth's kosher and vegetarian restaurant (www.kosheruth.com), next to Florence's Synagogue on via Luigi Carlo Farini. A professional puppeteer, caterer, award-winning writer and father of three, he has journeyed across Europe, has been married twice (to the same woman!), and his life in Tuscany has included cutting grass for Prince Charles and catering for the former mayor of Florence in the Sala dei Cinquecento. TF's Joëlle Edwards followed Jelinek on his routine morning trip to the Sant'Ambrogio market, where he selects produce and cuts of meat for the local Jewish community, as emissary to the rabbi of Florence.

 

 

Born in post-war Czechoslovakia in the town of Sudet, where his mother had taken refuge following deportation from the Jewish area of Munkatch, Tomas Jelinek grew up during the communist rule of the Eastern Bloc. After a valiant effort to follow in his grandfather's footsteps as a railroader by studying national rail security at college, he was encouraged (for the safety of the nation!) to try an alternative path. Embracing his maternal genes this time, he entered the world of theatre, a subject that his mother taught and his sister had already studied.

 

Following a four-year course in theatre studies at the Prague Academy of Performing Arts, during which he specialized in the art of puppetry, he graduated as a master puppeteer or burattinaio, with a particular interest in puppetry as a means of communication. He travelled and performed around the country with fellow artists, and it was during a show for recovering patients in a rehabilitation centre that he found himself entertaining his future wife, Gloria Satti from Sesto Fiorentino. Gloria had accompanied her niece to Prague for treatment after a road accident, returning for three-month periods to supervise her progress. Tomas and Gloria were married in a civil ceremony in Prague in February 1981, and for political reasons moved to Italy to start their life together in December that same year.

 

With burattinaio-a profession not fully recognized in the Italian theatrical community-on his ID card, Jelinek had a hard time finding work, and through connections in Prague, the couple moved to Panzano in Chianti, to work at the residence of psychoanalyst and writer Gianfranco Draghi, where Tomas worked on the grounds and Gloria worked in the kitchen, following macrobiotic principles. They lived self-sufficiently off the seasonal produce, and also met English royalty among the splendid rural Tuscan villas so loved by the Brits.

 

The social circle of Draghi's household was extensive, and in the evenings, Tomas began to entertain the guests with his puppet shows. One night, his work caught the eye of puppeteer Amy Luckenbach (wife of artist Swietlan Kraczyna), who later created the theatre company Burattini a Spasso, kick-starting Tomas to tour Italy for almost 20 years on the theatre circuit with the support of his wife, who had also learned to make the puppets. At the World Theatre Festival in Zagreb in the 1990s, Tomas, together with two other puppet artists, delivered an award-winning performance of Pinocchio in the constructed international language of Esperanto, communicating the ideal of a politically neutral language and an apolitical society. Tomas's own theatre company was named TINDIPIC, which means theatre of a small deer, from the word 'Jelinek' (small deer in Czech).

 

After a time in Italy, Tomas began to follow Jewish traditions more closely. By observing the rest day, Shabbat, from sunset on Friday to dusk on Saturday, hence refraining from certain activities that range from cooking to performing, he had to sacrifice one of the only two days of the week-the weekend-when he could earn money as a performing artist. In 1999, to supplement his income and further his spiritual journey with Judaism, he left for New York to study the Yiddissket (Yiddish Guide) at the Orthodox Union headquarters, staying in his cousin's apartment on a corner of Fifth Avenue, near Union Square, where he would walk the city at night in admiration.

 

With his practical experience and interest in food, he qualified as a mashgiach (Kosher food inspector) and returned to Tuscany, where he was asked to guarantee the Kosher food both for Ruth's and the Jewish community in Florence, which counts approximately 1,000 members. Ten years on, he now runs the restaurant and manages the catering for Jewish weddings and numerous other important events in the city.

 

Asked what is involved in Kashering, (making Kosher) a non-Kosher kitchen in order to prepare a Jewish reception or dinner, he explains that of the 72 hours required to ensure the total purification (or purging) of the environment, the first 24 involves leaving the kitchen empty, then follows 24 hours of various methods of cleaning and heating implements, stoves, sinks, dishes and surfaces, performed by a Rabbi, then the food preparation and cooking begins. 'Imagine what that meant for me in New York's Hyatt Hotel kitchens ahead of a Jewish feast!' he chuckles.

 

Jelinek celebrated his own Jewish wedding in 2004 in the synagogue of Florence, marrying Gloria, who converted to Judaism, for the second time, some 20 years after their first wedding, with their three adult children among the numerous guests. These days the comments spilling from Ruth's guest books are testament to his generous hospitality and natural talent to entertain.

 

 

FLORENCE QUICKFIRE

 

Where would you take a guest who doesn't like art?

 

To the Arco di San Pierino (the covered walkway between piazza San Pier Maggiore and via dell'Oriuolo) and along Borgo Albizi. There's a real energy of life there.

 

 

Best bar for cappuccino and brioche?

 

Although I don't take breakfast out (where Kosher food is not available), one of my favourite bars is Café Cibreo. It has a lovely, open atmosphere, where you can simply relax, whilst feeling at the very heart of the local community.

 

 

Best kids' activity?

 

The playground in piazza D'Azeglio, partly because I helped create it, as part of the Gruppo Genitori di piazza D'Azeglio. The Oblate library also offers some interesting options for children and youth.

 

 

One place in the city that inspires you?

 

I would have to say again, piazza D'Azeglio. I've seen it develop and become an important part of the local community for so many. I love watching people congregate there and enjoy the space. I am also fascinated by the inside of the post office on via Pietrapiana. Such an ugly building on the outside but inside there is an incredible filtering of light through the building, which is quite mesmerizing!

 

Famous monument or tourist attraction that you still haven't visited?

 

The Uffizi! I have to admit that I would be a little overwhelmed to be surrounded by so much Christian art.

 

 

Favourite artwork in Florence?

 

Folòn's Man with Umbrella fountain on the island roundabout opposite the Obihall.  I like the paradox of the sculpture made with water of the concept of protection from water.

 

Favourite Florentinism?

 

The word bischero (‘fool'). And the use of the word punto to mean ‘hardly'; it has a similar use to the Yiddish work pintele.

 

Favourite Florentine or Tuscan, past or present?

 

Galileo Galilei, because of his very strong, challenging and controversial theories.  I am also a great admirer of the late writer and journalist Tiziano Terzani.

 

What would you ask Mayor Renzi over a coffee?

 

I would thank him for finally lighting the beautiful synagogue at night, and I would also ask if he has considered keeping a calendar of all religious festivals in the office to make sure that all the citizens of Florence can enjoy and partake in the events organized in the city, that they don't clash with important religious festival dates.

 

 

 

 

Can't get enough of Florence and looking for a place to stay long-term? Or are you an expat searching for a place to house all those extra guests flocking to the Renaissance city? There are many long-term and short-term holiday apartment rentals in Florence waiting for you!

more articles

Comments