Jewish Geography - Meeting Jewish Friends Around the World
Where You Least Expect It…The art of Jewish geography
By Rahel Lerner
You’re in a marketplace in the middle of Europe, or crossing the street in Times Square, N.Y. Suddenly, you look up and someone is shouting your name. Surprised, you see a former friend from high school.
Or, you’re on a tour bus on your way to see the Mexican ruins.You strike up a conversation with the person sitting next to you. One thing leads to another and you find out that you are exchanging pleasantries with your cousin from Philadelphia’s best friend.
There is something to be said for Jewish geography. It seems as if wherever we go, we bump into someone we know—or someone who knows someone we know.
It doesn’t take long to hear the stories. Take, for example, an experience Michael Chapper and Sara Zager of Chevy Chase had while vacationing last March. The couple, Baltimore natives, had gone to Florida for Orioles’ spring training.
They had arrived at the stadium just as a rain cancellation was announced. Making the best of it, they stopped by the souvenir shop when Chapper felt a tap on his shoulder. Turning around, he was surprised to see Ricky and Sarah Gratz of Pikesville.
Chapper had known Ricky since USY and their childhoods at Chizuk Amuno Congregation; Zager had been a few years behind Ricky at Krieger Schechter Day School. “It was almost embarrassing,” Chapper explains. “I felt like, we’re friends, how did we not know we were both going to be here?” They decided to spend the day together.
Chapper, who usually expects travel to be “an anonymous activity,” says that the meeting turned out to be “totally fortuitous. We ended up going to a restaurant to watch the Maryland game and then went out to dinner. We had a good time,” he recalls.
Zager agrees, although she was perhaps less surprised by the coincidence. Her mother’s parents, she says, “always ran into people they know, even in Europe.”
Perhaps it isn’t so astonishing after all. “It was an Orioles game and we are from Baltimore,” says Chapper.
What about finding exactly the person you are looking for in a city of millions? Rebecca Shualy of Pikesville spent last year studying for her master’s degree at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. While there, she became friendly with some German students.
After her German friends returned to Berlin, she was accepted to an American Jewish Committee-sponsored trip to Germany. She e-mailed her friends in hopes of meeting up, but once in Germany had little e-mail access and no cell phone numbers.
So it came as a wonderful surprise for Shualy that on her first day in Berlin, in the middle of a walking tour of the Mitte area, she ran into one of her German friends.
“We went to a crowded shopping area and I saw my friend Isabel Schlerkmann ride by on a bike,” she recalls. The two made plans for a mini-reunion with other friends a few days later in Berlin.
Sometimes strangers one meets while traveling can turn into friends. Deborah Steinig and Jason Eisner of Guilford were on their honeymoon in Rome when Steinig happened to strike up a conversation with a young American couple from Washington, D.C. whom she met at the synagogue there.
“We clicked,” she says, “so I invited them ‘home’ to our hotel for lunch.” The other couple, Fred and Minna, had lived in Philadelphia, where Steinig and Eisner had gone to graduate school. As they talked, the four discovered they had “an extraordinary number of connections,” through mutual friends and even family. “In the six-degrees-of-separation chart,” Steinig jokes, “(Fred) seems to be one of those hubs who knows everyone.”
The couples also found that their touring styles matched well, with Eisner and Minna content to play things by ear while Fred and Steinig preferred to go by the tour books. They had an enjoyable afternoon together and even kept up the friendship back in the States, meeting up in Baltimore.
Alas, not all encounters while traveling are quite so pleasant. Other surprises run the gamut from awkward to making one give up travel altogether.
Dr. Ari Yares of Pikesville was in Cambridge, Mass. last summer when he heard his name called on the street. “I’m looking around,” Yares recalls, “and there is no one I know. Then this guy comes over and starts talking to me like he’s my brother.”
Yares eventually picked up enough clues from the man’s monologue to figure out who he was—someone who had worked at the same camp with him ten years earlier. “He’s telling me everything he’s done in the last ten years,” Yares remembers, “and I’m just thinking, ‘How do I escape?’”
For Matt Freedman of Reisterstown, there was no escape when he ran into an ex-girlfriend in an airport. “I was in the terminal,” he recalls, “and I hear a woman saying my name. I turned around and immediately recognized my college girlfriend, whom I hadn’t seen in almost fifteen years.”
The two chatted while waiting for their redeye flight from Los Angeles to Baltimore to be called. When it came time to board, they realized that, against all odds, their seats were next to each other.
Once the plane was in the air, Freedman says, his ex continued to talk to him. “I felt like she was trying to show off her success,” he says. “I just had to remind myself I had nothing to prove and hear her out.” Eventually he managed to get some sleep and although his ex suggested that they exchange numbers, neither one ever tried to renew the connection after their surprise cross-country journey.
So wherever you are traveling this summer, be ready to have familiar faces pop up when you least expect it—and maybe be ready to tip a flight attendant to change your seat!