By Marion Fischel
On June 6, 1944, the Allied Forces of the United States, Great Britain, and Canada landed on the beaches of Normandy, France, in an operation that signaled the start of the liberation of Europe from Nazi occupation, in what has become known as D-Day.
Tragically, countless young men lost their lives that day, among them a high percentage of Jewish soldiers.
This summer, Aya and Isaac Massias, from the Yaya Food and Travel Group, together with an exclusive group of guests, will be traveling to Normandy to commemorate the anniversary and the lives of the brave fallen soldiers (June 24–July 2).
“We visited the area in order to scout out the potential for providing the best food and lodging for the tour, and we were touched and saddened beyond anything we could have imagined to see the military cemeteries filled with rows upon rows of graves, many marked by Stars of David,” Isaac explains.
All of their tours mix guided trips to local tourist destinations and special activities, with visits to areas of Jewish interest. Both members of the couple are knowledgeable in Jewish history, and never cease to be impacted by places where remnants testify to the tenacity of the Jewish spirit, often moving tour members to tears.
Yaya Tours was founded in 2008 by the husband-and-wife team who have been working together in the hospitality business since they met at Mamma Mia — Jerusalem’s best Italian restaurant in the 1980s — where he was the chef and she a part-time waitress about to join the Israel Defense Forces.
Isaac had made aliyah after graduating from the exclusive Savoy Hotel’s School of Hotel Management in London, England. Aya, a sabra, went on to become a commander in the IDF. After her honorable discharge, they decided to commit to a lifelong partnership both in and out of the kitchen. Their wedding was a perfect blend of romance and culinary delights, held on a green hilltop overlooking the Dead Sea.
Together, they opened and ran the award-winning Montefiore Restaurant in Jerusalem’s Mishkenot Sheananim neighborhood, an exclusive cultural and literary hub — originally built in the 18th century with funds provided by philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore to relocate Jews living in unsanitary conditions within the walls of the Old City.
That venture was followed by their taking over the large Taverna restaurant on the Sherover Promenade, with extensive views of the entire city of Jerusalem—among whose clients were the political and cultural elite of the country. Taverna also received culinary awards under their management.
In the late 1980s, Isaac opened two branches of the Primavera restaurant in New York City with a partner, and worked as a consultant for other international restaurant franchises while Aya indulged her passion for photography as assistant to the famous Chester Higgins Jr.
Born in Gibraltar, a British colony on Spain’s southernmost tip, Isaac is an eighth-generation native of the area, member of a Sephardi family originally from Toledo, Spain, who fled to Livorno, Italy, when the Jews were exiled in 1492—and from there on to Tetuan, Morocco, before settling in Gibraltar.
“We can trace our direct line back to our ancestor Solomon Massias, a merchant who ran a fleet of ships and had many dealings with pirates,” Isaac says.
Today, Isaac and Aya live in Gibraltar and Southern Spain, from where they run Yaya Tours. Isaac has also been a cooking columnist for the Jerusalem Post in recent years.
“We are not like other tour companies that create tours simply as a business,” Aya, managing director and tour leader, explains. “Our thing is to educate, to allow people to experience. We give our hearts and souls, our Jewish neshamos.”
They specialize in Europe, Morocco, and Israel, because, as she said, “We want to help people get in touch with their heritage, to travel the routes of their ancestors, to revisit their heritage, to taste history.”
And tasting is what they do. Isaac has thrown himself into something that, until Yaya Tours, had been unheard of: authentic, local, gourmet fare, blending the finest locally available ingredients with London Beit Din-certified kosher meats — the best combination of quality and high-level kashrut certification — flown in by a mashgiach with impeccable credentials.
Isaac works with Michelin-star chefs, many of whom have become personal friends over the past decade, at all the Yaya Tour destinations, designing and creating delightful kosher menus together. Sometimes, laughs Isaac, the guests find the food so superb that they actually ask him if he is sure it is kosher.
Asked what drives him to go to such trouble, Isaac has no hesitation in answering: “Obviously, my love of food and my desire to create the best food. This is my way of being able to offer amazing dishes to the Jewish kosher public, who, outside the U.S., have trouble not only finding places to have a decent kosher meal, but have never been able to access really high-level gourmet cuisine on their travels.”
Their tours tend to be made up of some 20 to 30 members only, so that Aya can give every single one her personal attention.
She describes Yaya’s clientele as “established, highly educated, and discerning.”
“We have come up with the catchphrase ‘luxury carefree tours,’ and I believe that is the perfect way to describe what we offer. We want Jewish travelers to feel like any other traveler as far as delicious food is concerned. Our tours offer kosher, gourmet, on-site cuisine, using only the finest of ingredients.”
She loves the opportunity her business affords her “to meet such special people every time, and to see how these strangers come together, and after just a few hours on a tour, it is as if they have known each other all their lives.”
Yaya Tours has permanent, year-round kosher kitchens in Sicily and Tuscany, Italy, as well as in Lisbon and Porto, Portugal, and can set up others wherever they choose. They work exclusively with 5-star hotels, such as the Intercontinental in Marseilles and Bordeaux, France.
As far as wines are concerned, Isaac says that these days it is usually easy to access quality kosher wines wherever they travel, and if it isn’t, they have them shipped.
In addition to Normandy, where Yaya Tours guests will be accommodated in an authentic 5-star chateau, other destinations planned for later this year include a trip to Sicily, Milan, Northern Italy, and the Swiss Alps (9–18 July); and Israel (October 23–November 2). Yaya Tours also specializes in bespoke tours.