Sunday, February 28, 2010

Butterfly in the sky... I can fly twice as high*

I am happy to report that I have successfully left for Mexico. I know that doesn't seem like an accomplishment, but it surely is. First of all, I had a towering pre-departure to-do list, but an inveterate procrastinator such as myself has no problem polishing off one of those.

No, the problem came yesterday. After an only slightly rushed arrival and check-in process, I had some time to wander around the terminal before my flight to Atlanta (with continuing service to Guadalajara) boarded. About 10 minutes before boarding time I eased my way over to the gate, only to find a giant red CANCELED sign and a mob of angry travelers trying desperately to rebook on a day following some of the worst weather of the entire winter.

Here is where I did something smart and also stupid. The line for rebooking was miles long, and a woman came on the PA to announce another place where those of us unfortunate enough to be in the back of the line could also rebook. Of course, since this was a standard airport PA system, it came out as "Those passengers waiting in the back of the line sldkfjsldkfjslkdfjowiejfwoiejflskcm might consider slkdfjslkdfjslkdfjosidjfslkdfj sguy clop."

Come to find out that she had directed the hapless hoards to a travel center down the hall (called the "something drop"). But it sounded an awful lot to me like she had said "Sky Club," which is the Delta first class lounge. Everyone else was heading in a different direction, but I accidentally-on-purpose ended up in Sky Club asking if I could be rebooked there, and they were very kind and helpful. The woman sat with me for a full 45 minutes looking for any city in the whole US through which I might be able to travel to Mexico that day. But in vain. The nationwide snowpocalypes (as the cool kids apparently call it) had snarled traffic even into a decent late winter day that would normally be free of trouble.

And so I went home, frustrated and exhausted, only to have to get up obscenely early this morning to catch a 6:50 AM flight. That I did successfully. A layover in Atlanta brought me southern-style breakfast (eggs and toast! grits!) courtesy of Delta's meal voucher ("sorry we ruined your day/all your plans!") And now as I type I am 30,000 feet over the bayous of Louisiana. I splurged on in-flight internet and am enjoying high-altitude blogging and the prospect of landing in yet another undiscovered country. I should be in Guadalajara by dinnertime (Mashallah, as the Turks say-- something like "knock on wood.")

*I am neither rich nor is this blog prestigious, but I promise some sort of prize or at least an internet hug to any reader who can tell me the source of this post's title

Saturday, February 27, 2010


I have some exciting blog-related news! I decided, as of about a week ago, to take a risk and have an adventure: I will be spending the next 6 weeks in Mexico. The first four of these weeks will be spent in Guadalajara, Mexico's second biggest city, taking a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) course earning a certificate that will help me get a job teaching English worldwide. The second two weeks will be comprised of a short beach holiday in nearby Puerto Vallarta and some Mexican exploration whose destination is thus far undecided. This decision is based on the fact that TEFL courses are fabulously expensive in the States: so expensive, in fact, that for the same amount of money I would have spent on just program tuition here in Boston I will be paying my program tuition AND for four weeks of a homestay AND for my round-trip ticket. So-- why not?

That means that although there may be some last-year hijinks dotted in here and there, you can expect the next 6 weeks of WIWW to be largely focused south of the border. There will be Spanish street wandering, market exploring, and weather adoring. There will be taco eating and mariachi listening, tequila drinking and salsa dancing, Spanish learning, and a whole lotta homework. Get excited! I definitely am.

Friday, February 26, 2010

An American Jew At Large in the World, Part 2: Climbing the family tree

(Part 2 out of 2, continuing a piece on my experiences exploring my Jewish heritage and identity in the Middle East and Europe)

I didn't intend to go to Antwerp at all, actually. I was in Normandy with a terrible cold considering heading south to somewhere warm, preferably where I could find the vitamin C I so desperately needed growing on a tree in citrus form. But before I could reserve my ticket, I got a surprising response to an e-mail I had sent several weeks before

I had met Matthieu and Kersan in China, several months back. They were the owners of the guesthouse I stayed in on the Tibet/Yunnan border. Matthieu was a fellow travel originally from Belgium: he had met Kersan while on a trip in Asia, and they had fallen in love. Kersan was from a little village just over the border in Tibet, but she had overcome her circumstances to study in big-city Xi'an and later . They had decided to buy a beautiful old traditional Tibetan monstrosity, restore it into a guesthouse, and turn it over to a manager before moving to Belgium. I stayed at their guesthouse for 4 nights and greatly enjoyed drinking and talking with them about their interesting lives.

When I got to Europe, I wrote to them to ask if they had completed the expected move but heard back nothing for almost a month. As I prepared for the shift to Italy, however, a message from Matthieu arrived. They had, indeed, moved back to Antwerp, to his childhood home: they had a free bedroom and Kersan wasn't working yet. Would I like to come and stay for a few days? I embraced the spontaneous opportunity and wrote back, "Absolutely!"

There are a lot of reasons to love Antwerp. It has some great museums, amazing beer, interesting architecture, and of course fabulous chocolate. But for me Antwerp had a special draw. My mother had told me the story of being contacted when she was young by an Orthodox Rabbi from Belgium named Chaim Kreiswerth who said he was a long-lost relative from the shtetls of Poland. He had come to see her multiple times in the States. My mother knew he would be an old man now, but she encouraged me to seek him out. Antwerp has one of the largest orthodox Jewish communities in all of Europe, and this man had been an important, beloved leader. Wouldn't they love to meet another member of the family? she asked. Wouldn't it be interesting to learn something about our collective history?

Given my own drive to uncover details about my family's past, I decided to take the initiative. On a Friday around noon, I walked down to Hoffy's Restaurant, arguably the best Jewish restaurant in Antwerp, located in the "Jewish quarter" directly adjacent to the diamond district. The deli was filled with Orthodox men in dark coats, with long beards, and sidecurls. Nobody looked twice at me, and I ordered a very expensive but delicious plate of traditional goodies, from kugel to latkes. I read my book and watched the men talk amongst themselves, some coming in to buy challah or other food for the sabbath celebration in a few hours. I was feeling very much "with my people," eating beloved dishes even in a far away country. The warm feeling became confidence, and I stopped the waiter and asked if anyone here knew Rabbi Kreiswirth. His face immediately creased into a smile. "I'll get the manager," he said.

My confidence increased. Mr. Hoffy himself arrived, doffing his stiff black cap. When I asked after Rabbi Kreiswirth and told him I was a distant relative, he was thrilled. "We're always glad to meet someone connected to his family. That man was a great friend and leader to all of us," he told me. He wrote a name and phone number on a slip of paper for me. "This man, H, was the Rabbi's best friend," he said, "call him and arrange to meet him." He offered me the deli's phone to use.

The old man on the phone was happy to hear from me and said he would be glad to meet. When was I available? Could I meet after Shabbat?

I hesitated. "Well, I said, I was thinking of take the train tomorrow." There was a quick silence I didn't register at the time. "That's fine," he told me, "You can come tonight before sundown. Better make it quick, it gets dark fast here in the winter." He didn't have a car and instructed me give the phone to Mr. Hoffy, who could perhaps give me a ride. There was some discussion in Dutch. Mr. Hoffy gave me back the phone, "They won't drive you over," H said. "You're leaving on Shabbat. To them, you're already finished. You're going to hell. You aren't one of them, so they won't help you." Indeed, when I hung up the phone there was no one around. Mr. Hoffy walked past and gave me a chilly glance. He did not return my smile or word of thanks. I walked out of the deli, and no one watched me go.

The transformation was so quick that it was still sinking in as I took the tram downtown to H's apartment. He greeted me at the door-- no sidecurls or dark coat, just a hint of a beard and a bright-colored tracksuit like a retiree in Boca Raton. He welcomed me into his sparse apartment and sat with me for an hour telling stories of his friend, my cousin several times removed: of the Rabbi's childhood studying Torah in rural Poland and Lithuania; of his miraculous escape during World War II when a Nazi soldier found him in hiding and told him to run while the soldier shot in the air; of a man he saved from a false charge of prostitution. He said he could remember the Rabbi mentioning that he had some "non-practicing" relatives in the United States. And he apologized for the behavior of the men in Hoffy's. "The Rabbi was my best friend and my teacher," he said. "He never cared how people observed, if they wore sidecurls or how they kept the Sabbath. He didn't judge people: he thought that was God's job. His job was to protect and to help. Since he passed, the communities here fight amongst themselves and they don't think as he did. It's as I said. They don't see you as a Jew so you aren't worth their time. I think it's a shame. I take the Rabbi's teaching. It is not ours to judge."

After my powerful experiences in Slovenia and in Prague and Terezin in the Czech Republic this was a totally unexpected development. I had felt like I was finding my spot in the enormous quilt of Jewish culture and history, with threads leading back to Europe and ahead to a life in the United states. I was glad to have those threads: they may not have represented a whole family history, but by almost literally walking in the footsteps of my ancestors I had felt more complete, connected. And yet here were these people who had welcomed me, however briefly, who were at least in some ways "my people," and they had rejected me. I was stunned, saddened, even a little angered. After a few more minutes of interesting conversation-- H challenged me to consider what I would do and where my allegiance would lie if a Holocaust situation arose in America, a situation he considered inevitable-- I bid H goodbye and thanked him, walking bewildered onto the street.

The feeling of rejection stuck with me for several days. It had really started to undermine my sense of self until I started to focus more on what H had said about Rabbi Kreiswirth. Of all of the Jews I'd met in Antwerp, it was Rabbi Kreiswirth I agreed with and respected the most, even if we'd never actually spoken. He had been a world-renowned scholar; he had brought together several feuding communities of Jews and been a beloved leader; he had championed tolerance and aid to the needy over religious dogma. And so I realized: I may not keep kosher; I may not rest on Shabbat; I may not even celebrate with a sabbath meal. But Judaism has a part in my life and myself, and the drive to do good and respect others has a part, as well. I may not be following the tradition of the Jews of Antwerp as a whole, but I am following the tradition of one in particular. And for now I am happy to be a credit to his legacy and to the family tree we share.

Friday, February 19, 2010

An American Jew at large in the world, Part 1: In Search of the Old Country

I don't know much about my family history past a few generations ago. I was raised in a rather relaxed reform Jewish setting, and when I received a set of heirloom candlesticks for my Bat Mitzvah, my mother only told me they were from "the old country." The Old Country was that mythic place our family had come from in the equally ambiguous Way Back When, but no one ever specified where exactly that was. I didn't know that my family on my mother's side came from Belarus until well into college. And I always knew my father's side came from somewhere in Poland/Lithuania, but things never got particularly specific. There was a vague date-- the late 19th/early 20th century-- and some historical events that lend clues (that area of the world was not a happy place for Jews during that time, as violence swept through rural northern Europe, leaving thousands dead.) But no one had anything concrete answers for me.

As I've grown older I've become more curious about this history. When did my ancestors leave, and why? How were they able to afford the trip over? There's not much more I can know about this. There are some records but not many. Names were changed at Ellis Island, and I don't know of any resources that would help me figure out areas of origin, let alone home villages.

As I traveled this year, through the Middle East and then eastern/central Europe, I discovered that there's a certain amount that can be learned through personal experience, through learning about myself. Even if there are no faces on my ancestors, the book is never closed on personal history. Sometimes all it takes is an unexpected reaction to a new situation to understand more about your identity; sometimes just walking in the places that your ancestors walked can make you feel more connected to what can seem like a remote, distant past.

It started in Jordan and Syria. I was told, when I left for Damascus, not to tell people I was Jewish. And so I didn't, an easy lie of omission. I've never been particularly observant, although the traditions (such as learning to read the Torah) have been meaningful to me because my family and others like me have been doing the same for thousands of years. But, to my surprise, I found that when directly questioned I couldn't bring myself to lie. This didn't happen often in the three weeks I spent in the Middle East-- in Syria it was only twice. And both times the response was the same: "That's okay, we worship the same God." But I was surprised to learn this about myself, the impossibility of denying my background, even in the face of potential consequences.

Traveling through eastern and central Europe in the fall was equally educational. In Slovenia, I stayed with a lovely family who served me traditional dishes in the warm late-summer air of their backyard. As we drank wine and talked, my host mother suddenly jumped up, yelping, and ran into the kitchen. Veronika, who was about my age, leaned over to me and said slyly, "She forgot the potatoes. Again." I didn't think any more of it until 10 minutes later, when her mother returned with a steaming pot, and to my surprise I found myself looking at a dish I hadn't seen since my maternal grandmother's death 10 years ago. I had grieved for those roasted potatoes, which I associated strongly with family holiday parties and whose recipe had seemed lost after my grandmother passed. I never expected to recover them, and yet there were again, a reminder of the things I had in common with these people and this country.

A couple of weeks later I picked my way through early-morning Prague to the Alt-Neu, or Old-New, Synagogue, the oldest functional synagogue in Europe at a whopping 800 years, to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. There, an old lady next to me showed me the song book she had brought with her as a child when she was deported to a concentration camp from her native Hungary. I recited familiar prayers along with a congregation whose Rabbi was orating in a language I didn't understand. I broke bread with them in the traditional post-service snack, wandered the ancient cemetery in Prague's Jewish quarter, and thought about all the people who had done the same. For Jews growing up in the States, it's easy to feel rootless. We are new arrivals by almost all time scales (except, perhaps, the still-young USA.) But walking the streets of Prague, and, a few months later, reflecting in the mazelike recesses of the Berlin Holocaust monument, the layers of memory, power, and history were almost palpable. Running my fingers over the worn tombstones, I savored that feeling of connection to my surroundings.

That connection grew yet more powerful a few weeks later. I was couchsurfing in the charming town of Litomerice, near the German and Polish borders. I had come here for a reason: my great uncle was deported from his village in Slovakia to the Nazi concentration camp Terezin (German: Theresienstadt) during the Holocaust. He was later moved to Auschwitz, but was one of the few lucky survivors. Before his death he had asked that someone from our family return to pay tribute to the horrors he lived through. Litomerice, one of the oldest towns in all of the Czech Republic, has the dubious honor of being directly adjacent to what used to be Terezin.

It was entirely coincidental that my visit to the former camp grounds fell on the most important and solemn Jewish holiday, Yom Kippur, but it certainly added to the weight of the visit. My couchsurfing host, who worked in the camp historical office as a kind of educational liaison for visiting German and Austrian schools, walked me around the village (which, disturbingly enough, was resettled by unknowing Czechs at the behest of the new government after the war, before the details of what had happened emerged) and narrated its history. As we visited the secret synagogue, the barracks, school, and other trappings of "community" that made this place perfect for pro-Nazi propaganda, he told me about the horrendous conditions that caused disease and starvation, the fear, the anger, the stench of the hungry and sick. At the cemetery I stopped and said the mourner's Kaddish (a Jewish prayer for the departed) for the buried dead and for those who were never buried, with my eyes resting on the crematorium in the middle of the field. On the one day out of all the year when one is called to reflect on one's sins and think of one's ancestors, I was glad I was there to honor those who could not honor themselves.

The cemetery, although fairly sizable, struck me as paltry and out of scale. Terezin was a major transportation hub for deported Jews, Gypsies, and Catholics in central Europe. Out of the masses who had arrived here, the vast majority died in death camps in the east or, if they were lucky, of disease and hunger in the horrific conditions hidden behind Terezin's quaint streets. I never knew my great uncle, as he died when I was still a toddler. But that day I felt I understood something essential about him, and about the nameless, faceless family in the Old Country, who, whether they fled the atrocities of the 19th century or simply suffered a difficult, hungry existence, looked to better life across the ocean. After a few minutes I left the field, but that feeling of intimacy stayed with me for many weeks. Somehow, just standing where so many had stood and suffered helped me take another step to understanding both where I came from and where I'm headed.

That may seem like a fitting end to a geographical search for identity, but it wasn't. A few months later I found myself in Antwerp, Belgium, and all of the neatly tied-up lessons I thought I had learned about my Jewish identity started to unravel.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Happy everything!

Tis the season, I guess! This year, Chinese New Year, Losar (Tibetan New Year), Tet (Vietnamese New Year), and American/Hallmarkian Valentine's Day all fall together. So people the world over are watching fireworks, eating delicious things, and generally celebrating happiness, love, and in the United States' case, craven commercialism.

Happy everything, from WEWW!

Monday, February 1, 2010

Rabbit, rabbit

February first. I might not be the superstitious "rabbit rabbit" type, but it does seem to me that the first of any month is the good time for new beginnings or for starting again.

I arrived back in the States a month ago today, on January 1 (talk about auspicious days for a new beginning...) I gave myself the month to adjust before returning to blogging duties. And now I have good news! Well... kind of. Due to a complicated travel-related health problem (which will merit its very own entry) I may well have lots of time to blog all about my adventures in the coming weeks and months. So don't worry, just because I'm home doesn't mean we're done here! We have lots of exciting stuff to cover. I promise.