I started a tradition a while back – one that does not involve screaming “tradition!” at that. The tradition started innocently enough, as I’m sure many traditions do before morphing into religions and really messing up the way people think and act.
I was in Paris with a couple of friends – Stephen Fischer and Jon Lim – and Jon’s cousin. (Pro-tip: the best way to make someone uncomfortable is to say that you’re “gonna be all over” their cousin.) After the previous couple of days being spent being ripped off by Kenyans and rushing illegally across giant roundabouts, we felt more than comfortable being led around the city by someone who’d been studying there for a year or two.
The thing I’ve noticed about being led around by people in a city is that, well, there are many things I’ve noticed. First off, you can be fairly certain that you’re going to go to places you would not normally think about. The non-touristy places, in other words. Secondly, you might be saving a bit of money – chances are your friend will know some cheap places to eat/drink. Thirdly, you probably won’t be going to any museums or cultural attractions. This is because your friend, like all people who have lived in a city instead of visited it, does not go to cultural attractions. They go to bars.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. Sure, you won’t be able to say that you’ve been to every major museum in the States, but you will be able to say that you’ve been to bars in every major city in the U.S., which, in many ways, is better.
Anyway. We spent a day wandering by various tourist attractions, pointing at them, taking a few pictures, and moving on. Most of the time was spent comparing Paris to Canada, since Jon and his cousin are dirty, conniving, cunning, super nice Canadians. We’d wandered a fair ways, to the point where I had no idea where we were aside from far away from the Eiffel Tower, and then, right in front of us, was the first kosher restaurant I’d seen since Noshville.
As proof, there’s the menu. And, as you can clearly see, there’s French in there.
And from that spawned The Jew Hunt. I made it a point to find the Jewish part of a city wherever I went, like some religio-centric Man Vs. Food. Generally, this involved wandering blindly for a few hours before I glimpsed a black hat and a beard, at which point my mind would enter Mission Impossible mode. I’d start following the black hat and beard, to the point where it bordered on stalking. And, more often than not, it would result in my stumbling upon the Jewish section in the city.
The best example of this I can think of is during a trip to Newcastle where Jon and I wandered over to Gateshead, the rumored JewTown of Newcastle. Now, if you ask me about England, one of the things I’ll probably say is that England is Dr. Seuss Land, a place where people still wear tweed and put flowers in their lapels on special occasions. Violence, I would go on to say, is completely unheard-of in that far-off place, and it is virtually a Utopia, if it weren’t for the incessant rain and wind.
Of course, that’s not the case. Every city in England, like every city in the U.S. and, indeed, every city in the world, has its parts to which one does not want to travel. Generally, these are marked by the presence of the chavs. (chav [n. singular]: An individual, generally of English nationality, who frequently listens to contemporary hip-hop and rap, is known to be “stabby,” and wears track suits for all occasions.)
Further, these areas are typically outer rings, away from the city centers of English cities. They are marked by the presence of three kebab shops for every person, a number of shuttered pubs, and off-license beer and liquor shops. They’re not quite the equivalent of the U.S. ghetto, since they’re more civilized and one won’t get shot, but stabbed, but they’re somewhat similar.
Gateshead, as Jon and I found out, was chav central. “Huh,” Jon said as we left the Metro out of the relatively safe- and not terrifying-looking city center. “Now I see why everyone stays out of Gateshead.” In front of us was an amalgamation of kebaberies, off-licenses touting specials of six Carlsbergs for three pounds, and shops selling track suits on the cheap.
This was going against every stereotype I held dear about my people. Why, I thought – and said – would my people move to such a terrifying area where they’d definitely looked upon as oddities. (If you’re not aware, the Chasidic mode of dress is a nice, tailored suit, white shirt, and a black hat of one sort or another. Not to mention the beards. This, as you no doubt are seeing in your mind’s eye, is the polar opposite of the chav.) Then, on a lighter note, there weren’t any Chinese restaurants.
But we were not to be discouraged by the lack of New York-style delis and Chinese restaurants. We continued on and then, a spark of hope. We happened upon a Certified Public Accountant and, I shit you not, my reaction was, “Come Watson, the game’s afoot!” You might laugh, you might think that I’m more messed up than a lot of the people I complain about, but at the end of the street corner, an Orthodox Jew walked up to us and asked if we knew where the Metro was.
Aaron: 1; World: 91,201. (Keeping count from high school onwards, of course.)
And so, we presumed the direction from whence he came, walked that way, and, once again, I was incredibly disappointed.
See, when I was younger, about fifteen or so, I went to New York on a confirmation class trip. Most of the stops in our trip were centered around Judaism (we were, after all, led around by our rabbi), both fun and boring. Meaning, we went from everywhere to Crown Heights (where a Chasid talked at me for several tens of minutes about the concept of Messiah in Judaism) to the Carnegie Deli. So, basically, I went there and was hit with the illusion that every Orthodox Jewish area would consist of delis, Chinese food, and knishes.
And then, when I went to London for the first time, this translated to trying to find a good deli in London. What I found was a bakery billing itself as a deli, where the soup of the day was broccoli swimming in hot water.
It was disappointing, yes. More disappointing, however, was the pub I went to afterwards – which is a story for another time. But that day in Newcastle, a couple of years after that horrible London excursion, was slightly worse. On the stretch of commercial property on which we found ourselves surrounded by Chasdic Jews looking at Jon, the Nord, and myself, the diminutive cap-covered Jew, we saw only a small convenience mart and a kebab shop opposite it, as if the two businesses were dueling. “They’re watching me,” Jon whispered.
“You’re being paranoid,” I said.
They actually were watching him – both of us, really, since we wore clothes in colors other than black and white – but I figured it would be best to not acknowledge this.
So we dashed into the market, bought a jug of kosher wine, a huge loaf of challah, and went up to the previously chatty cashier. He looked up, saw the two of us, and shut up. I got a vibe of, “You aren’t from around here,” and realized just how insular the community was. (Of course, I got strange looks when I went through Golder’s Green, but these guys had Geordie accents, which just made it that much more weird.)
I paid, exchanged a cool nod with the guy. We walked out, “Get the fuck out,” we both said, and beelined out of the neighborhood straight for a fish and chips shop.
So, the moral of the lesson, boys and girls, is that there are some times you can go hunting for your heritage and be welcomed with open arms. Other times, they’ll realize that you don’t actually follow anything about the religion, and are just in it for the bread and wine.