Close encounters of the Jewish kind

Close encounters of the Jewish kind

My husband and I were in the Ghetto of Rome, enjoying a meal in a kosher restaurant when a woman who looked strikingly like a friend of mine from bygone days walked in. So I stared.

I could see that she sensed it and I rushed to apologize. “I am truly sorry to be so rude, but you look so much like my old friend, Sheila W.”

“I am Sheila W.” was the instant response. “And you are Rosanne and Alvin Skopp.”

We hadn’t seen each other in at least 30 years — and certainly not in Rome. We did lots of catching up. Call it serendipity; travel weaves strange webs.

We don’t often find old friends when we travel. But we are always in search of other Jews, and usually we find them. We ourselves are always identifiable as Jews; I wear a magen David and my husband, a kipa.

But many Jews are not so recognizable.

Years ago we were in a bookshop in Istanbul. The proprietor did not raise an eyebrow when I told him we were looking for books about Turkish Jews in English or Hebrew, or even in Turkish if there were ample photos. He was very helpful, and I purchased a Passover Haggadah in Hebrew and Turkish. As we were leaving the little shop he uttered the simple word, “Shalom.”

We responded in kind and left the store. Who knew?

On July 4, 1976, the day the IDF staged a dramatic rescue of a planeload of Jewish hostages being held in the airport in Entebbe, Uganda, my family, two adults and four young kids, was traveling cross-country. We were in the Black Hills of South Dakota, with nary a Jew in sight with whom to share this wonderful “Shehecheyanu” moment. We pulled over at a scenic spot to enjoy the view and breathe in the mountain air, when we heard the sound of fervent davening in joyful voices. We followed the celebratory sounds and found the young members of a United Synagogue Youth-On-Wheels tour assembled at a lookout doing a Shacharit service. We joined their prayers and sang our hearts out. A miraculous encounter!

The best place to find Jews, of course, is in synagogues. Among the many we’ve visited were the destroyed synagogues of Eastern Europe, a heart-wrenching experience.

I recall most vividly going to a synagogue in a small town in Romania that had no roof and was home to flocks of pigeons. But we also had a remarkable experience at a shul in Krakow, Poland, that was still functioning.

We were heading to the shul on a Shabbat morning and got lost. Hearing other English speakers close by, we asked them if they knew the way. They did, and so we walked with them, quickly discovering, through that familiar practice called “Jewish geography,” that they were close friends of our in-laws in London.

When we had arrived, my husband sat with the men. I was surprised to see him a bit later, at the door to the women’s section, gesticulating wildly at me, and mouthing some words. What he was saying was, “Connie is here”; Connie is one of my sister’s oldest friends, and, unbeknownst to us, she and her husband had moved to Krakow.

I found her after the service and we were invited to their apartment for a delicious cholent lunch along with one of Krakow’s most prominent Jewish authors. A truly memorable day.

Wherever we go, we always try to locate ourselves within walking distance of a shul. Meeting local Jews is so easy if you’re in the right place. We’ve had kiddush in some of the most hospitable places in the world.

The synagogues in Bangkok and Hong Kong were warm and wonderful, the one in Beijing was fascinating, and in Maui we found an incredible blend of traditions.

But sometimes extraordinary incidents happen right here at home. We were at a bar mitzvah at our own shul in West Orange and it dawned on my husband that the family celebrating the simcha had the same name as a very old friend of his from junior high school. It turned out that that friend was in the sanctuary. Kissing, hugging, and a shared lunch were the prelude to a renewal of friendship after 75 years. You just never know where you’re going to have memorable encounters with Jews. Maybe in your own home space.

Rosanne Skopp is a frequent blogger for the Times of Israel. She lives in West Orange and Herzliya, Israel.

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