Ger Tzadik (Sorta)

Thursday, March 09, 2006

The Marvels of Jewish Geography

After a couple of years as an observer of the machinations of Jewish Geography, I had my first personal encounter with it yesterday. It came quite out of the blue and still seems hard to believe. It’s a shame that this blog is anonymous, since the details are almost too splendid to leave out. Needless to say, I am thrilled to have a new friend who unexpectedly has more in common with me than any normal person would have thought plausible, given the circumstances. Unfortunately dear readers, the details of this unlikely story will remain a mystery for the time being.

There is no better way to really understand both how small, how interwoven, how borderline incestuous, the Orthodox Jewish world is than to watch Jewish Geography in action. For those without a background, Jewish Geography is the dance two (usually observant) Jews engage in to discover how much (not “if”) they share in common. Slight non-sequitur: This is probably the only time mixed dancing in any form is ever allowed. Don’t tell the rabbis though. They might ban it because it could lead to…uhh…mixed dancing? Nevermind.

It’s an awesome sight to watch the no-nonsense exchange of information that takes place when playing the game: family members, friends, neighbors, rabbis, homes, schools, camps, ad infinitum. Inevitably you end up at one degree of separation. The system seems so infallible that when you end up at two degrees of separation it feels like an aberration. You must have screwed up somewhere and forgot a critical person or piece of information. If you ever manage to pull off a clean miss, it would probably call into question your Jewishness!

It’s easy to describe with words, but none of them does justice to the disturbing reality that your world shrinks when you become an observant Jew. The visceral reaction you feel when it happens repeatedly, even when only an observer, is hard to describe. “It’s a small world” is a platitude for the non-Jewish world. Once you’re a Jew, it becomes an everyday reality. (Mercifully, without the song.) It’s easy to see why so many roll their eyes and throw up their hands when looking for their bashert. How simple it must be to cycle through the same crowd over and over again, never feeling like you’ll meet someone truly new and unique.

For a convert on the other hand, it’s an invigorating experience. It’s hard to imagine any other context where you could travel almost anywhere in the world and really *experience* what it means to be part of a family in the larger sense. Even if you have a strong national identity, a strong familial identity, or a strong olfactory identity, not much compares with the look of recognition when two people discover they share something so important as 3,000 years of history. (Trick statement. Strong olfactory identity is something all nations, races, and religions share. Just making sure you’re paying attention here.)

A personal anecdote: On my trip to Israel, while walking through Meah Sharim on Shabbat, we met 3 different people who the rabbi knew from various parts of his life. This was a pattern that repeated itself for much of the trip. Students, old buddies, acquaintances, you name it, he ran into easily a dozen-plus people he knew. Even the old Israeli man at his favorite yeshiva bochur haunt nonchalantly asked where he had been recently. This despite the fact that he hadn’t been there in at least 12 years! The whole thing still boggles the mind to this day.

The fact that I’ve had my first real experience in this area (and wow, is it a doozy!) has had me laughing out loud all night. I said at the time that it feels like another checkmark on the list of required Jewish experiences. Here’s hoping for more of them, and that they never become old.

If any of my readers has their own borderline unbelievable Jewish Geography experiences, please feel free to share them in the comments section. I could read them all day, it’s such a fun topic.

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