I sat at the nicely decorated table and waited for the newly married couple to come out, seated around the circular table were a random assortment of complete strangers tapping each other on the shoulder every time they wanted someone to pass them the pickle tray, but other then hungry men vying for the last half sour pickle not much conversation was going on. At any other event, there would have been some small talk, maybe the classic conversations about weather to break the ice, or how nice of the job they did with the sanctuary to prepare it for the wedding, but in this case the silence was pervasive. I turned my attention to the appetizer that lay before, a piece of salmon on wilted spinach leaves with a side of some yellowish dressing, or was it sauce? No matter, I was hungry.
Then it started, I guess I may have been the most unassuming fellow at the table, or maybe because I was one of the only ones not pecking away text messages on my blackberry to fend of the awkward boredom. A hand was flung towards my direction with a first and last name, and the first question which always signals the direction the conversation will take, “where ya from?” Dropping my fork in a fluid motion and lifting my hand to meet his I said, “hey I’m Heshy from Albany” and I made sure to say New York a little loudly so he would understand it wasn’t an avenue in Brooklyn or a street in some other tightly packed Jewish Neighborhood.
I watched as the excitement in his face, turned to disappointment as he searched his brain for some people he may have known in Albany. He didn’t seem to have any, he was wondering what to do next, I had just ruined all of his Jewish Geography potential. What would he talk about with me now? Politics, food, weddings, even the weather- but you could see it in his face, he only wanted to find some connection and I am sure he had hundreds. I felt bad for him and I then mentioned that I had grown up in Manhattan on the Upper West Side, the frown on his face turned into a smile and like all Jewish Geography conversationalist he rattled off 20 names of people he knew one way or another that I knew as well. Each acknowledgement came with a knowing nod and a little tidbit about the person, positive or negative, or neutral facts like I went to yeshiva with him or his son teaches my cousin.
Jewish Geography takes many forms, most commonly it is used as a tool to start conversations and gain connections within the Jewish community. It is unique because it spans across every Jewish sect and local, whether you are a member of JTS or Satmar, you are likely to engage in this amazingly Jewish practice that always starts with the question “so where are you from?” and always ends with smiles of completeness as you speak of your mutual friends and find out that the person eating next to you is not going to smother you in kugel to make a fast getaway with your purse.
I am sure making connections through mutual friends and acquaintances is not unique to Judaism, but I am also sure that no other community can play it on such a large scale, that may be because we are scattered about the globe, but we have relatives and colleagues everywhere. Jewish Geography spans many divides, socioeconomic status, political affiliations, observance levels and location are never taken into affect. As anyone in the Jewish community will say, everyone knows everyone, and it’s true. Pick any Jew off the street and I guarantee you can find a connection.
You can see Jewish Geography played on line at the pizza store, in the synagogue during a long sermon by the Rabbi and in the middle of the street between two drivers stuck in traffic. It is played between little kids and old ladies in velour jumpsuits at your local JCC, it brings people together, and is one more way in which the Jewish community is united.