Traveling While Jewish

Young woman with suitcase walking at the street in Barcelona

OVER THE LAST few years I have had the great fortune of traveling to countries with rich Jewish histories. Israel, the birthplace and homeland of the Jewish people. Spain, where Maimonides both practiced medicine and served as a great Jewish philosopher and leader. Italy, where life was nearly always horrible for the Jews, but where important communities flourished nonetheless.

Then there’s Cabo.

My history-eschewing) travel companion Keren got a case of itchy feet recently and suggested a girls’ trip. Would we be exploring the burgeoning Jewish community of Botswana? The synagogues of Kobe, Japan?

No, Keren informed me. We were heading to Cabo San Lucas. There’s nothing old or Jewish there. Just sun-drenched beaches during the day and alcohol-fueled clubs at night.

While it was not my kind of vacation, I was game. I knew I’d be thinking about how cool it would be to explore the 16th century Crypto-Jewish community of Mexico City, just a short flight away. But a frivolous, Disneyland-for-quasi-adults locale sounded like a nice reprieve from what had been a very serious few months.

I was right. I have heard more Spanish spoken in Los Angeles than I heard that entire weekend in Cabo. We used only American dollars, we spent what felt like an entire day getting ready to go out at night and we ate almost nothing except sushi (you know, traditional Mexican fare). It was carefree, and it was fun.

However, by the second night of dancing, drinking and side-stepping eager troops of bachelor parties, I did start to tire of the whole thing. It’s like when you drive to Vegas thinking it’s going to be this amazing Hunter Thompson-esque adventure of debauchery and mayhem, but then you get there and it’s, you know, Vegas.

Everybody looked the same. Every restaurant looked the same. Every bar looked the same (except Vaquita, which had a giant, obscene plaster cow hanging above an outdoor dance floor – like the Book of Exodus reimagined by Baz Luhrmann.) For a city built on the principle that no American should spend a second feeling bored, the entire place was weirdly boring.

There was the bar playing music videos that haven’t been popular in 25 years. Another bar that pushed Jell-O shots like they were going out of style (probably because they’ve long ago gone out of style). At one point, Keren and I peered through the floor-to-ceiling glass window of one bar and spied someone in a teddy bear costume dancing suggestively with a middle-aged woman. Not our scene, and again, weirdly boring.

But then Keren stopped at a street corner to adjust her shoe strap, and …

“Oh. My. God.”

Keren looked up to see what I was looking at. There on a crumbly wall, was the faintest palimpsest of Hebrew letters that had once been etched in stone: “Bruchim HaBabim.” Welcome.

I would later learn that it was the remains of a not-ancient-by-a-long-shot Mediterranean restaurant. But in that moment, it felt like a beacon telling us we were in the right place, on the right path. My spirit instantly lifted.

Why do I need to witness Jewish cultures, past and present when I travel? I guess it makes me feel as though my life is part of some greater story. Connecting through the many miles and centuries with Jews who consciously – and sometimes perilously –maintained and continue to maintain our shared faith is deeply meaningful to me.

“There,” she said, sensing my restored energy. “We saw something old and Jewish.” And with tipsy laughter we melted into the next nightclub.

Mayrav Saar is a writer based in Los Angeles.



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