I Keep Bumping Into Jews, On A Journey Of Return, Whenever I Travel

Airline travel in the U.S. this week was shockingly out of sorts. I was supposed to be in LA on Tuesday, at the Television Academy DEIA Summit, but on Sunday afternoon, I got an email from United that due to storms in the Midwest, travel was getting complicated. I tried to change my ticket to earlier in the day on Monday, but nothing was available, so I kept my Monday evening flight. On the way to the airport, the flight got pushed back one hour. United then strung along the delays for over seven hours, until canceling the flight at almost 1:30AM. Our gates were changed three times.

As I made my way to the third gate, I saw then longest line I’ve ever seen, snaking through hallway, after hallway. I couldn’t imagine why an airport would have a line. I later learned it was for customer service! When I got to the third gate, at 11PM, we were sitting feet away from constant jackhammering. United is building a new VIP lounge, and whoever was running the show, thought that jackhammering in the middle of the night, next to bunch of frazzled, hopeful passengers, was a smart move.

The new delays coming every 45 minutes, coupled with the intense drilling was so awful it was almost comical. But my respite was sitting across from a woman, who I began to schmooze with about the psychological torture we were experiencing. She gave me Jew vibes. I don’t know why. She did not have “typical” Jewish features and yet the Ashkenazi gene pool is so small, so often, when I meet an Ashkenazi Jew, they remind me of someone I already know or once met.

The woman had an accent, which I thought was Russian. She asked what I did, and I said “nonprofit.” She explained what she did and I thought she said “Soviet.” But I misheard, because, the jackhammering was slowly destroying my ears. She worked in staffing events and clarified that she is Italian. I thought my Jewdar was wrong at this point. Russian Jews are pretty common. Italian less so.

I explained in more detail what I do and invoked antisemitism. She explained that she was Jewish, but had been raised Catholic. Her grandparents were Holocaust survivors and after the war, they moved to Italy and converted to Catholicism. Neither her mother nor she ever liked being Catholic. So this woman started learning as an adult and reclaimed her Judaism. Her story touched me deeply and while the events that evening had been exhausting and aggravating, I was glad to have met this woman and felt that it was meant to be.

A couple weeks before that, I was on a train to D.C. I was seated next to a woman, who also gave me Jew vibes, but also not necessarily the typical Jewish look. As we began schmoozing and she heard what I do, she told me she is Jewish. As we discussed rising antisemitism, we heard a voice in the seat behind us mutter, “You’re scaring me.” I turned around and saw a couple, who were a few decades my seniors. They too were Jewish and joined our conversation about how Antisemitism is reaching terrifying levels. We discussed if we’ll have to run one day. It’s an odd thing to talk about with total strangers and yet, to be a Jew is to be part of a family, with a shared history and identity and shared anxiety for the future.

Two weeks before that, I was in a cab to the airport. This time to Chicago. The cab driver was giving me major Israeli vibes. His name was Benjamin. Jewish name. I asked where he was from. He said “Peru.” Once again, I thought my Jewdar was wrong. He asked where I like to travel. I named a few places and took a risk. I invoked “Israel,” which can be a controversial topic.

He told me, “I want to go to Israel. His grandmother was Jewish. Which one? His mother’s mother. She left Spain after the Holocaust and settled in Peru. He knows nothing about being Jewish, but just got a Torah book for his home. He asked where he could learn and I messaged him, in the Uber app info on his local Chabad and a great site called JewintheCity.com.

A few years before that, we were in Panama. Our cab driver was wearing a Jewish star and said “Shalom.” He began to tell me his story. His ancestors were conversos in Spain and fled to South America and adopted Christianity. But he was now learning for conversion, to reclaim what had been stolen from his family. “Learning Torah has added tremendous meaning to my life,” he told me in broken English. “Mine too,” I concurred.


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