We love Jewish geography.
When Mikhail Gorbachev visited Ronald Reagan in 1987 to sign a missile treaty, 200,000 Jews from all over the US gathered in Washington to protest Russian policy toward Soviet Jews. I met a lot of folks in the throngs near the Capitol, people I knew or people who knew people I knew. You know how it goes. “You’re from Detroit? So do you know….?”
When I got home, non-Jewish colleagues were astonished. “What do you mean you went to Washington and just ran into people from all over? How is that possible?”
Well, how is it not possible? We Jews are a small group, so do the math. Since few haredim were at the demonstration, any man with a kippah or woman with a skirt was likely to be Modern Orthodox. The current estimate for all Modern Orthodox people in the whole US of A is 200,000. Each city has a day school, a few shuls. You’re bound to know someone, or someone who knows someone. Two degrees of separation, max.
We all know this, of course. We may be less aware of how similar our experience is to that of members of other small, isolated groups. Consider Rahim, who came to my office last month.
Because of where I work, I meet people from all over, including the far-flung outposts of the former Soviet Union: Latvia, Ukraine (west and east), Moldova, Dagestan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Siberia, even Birobidzhan, the former Yiddish-speaking republic hard by the Sea of Japan.
Then Rahim came by, Muslim first name, Slavic surname. “Where are you from?” I asked.
“Turkmenistan,” he said.
“No kidding. I’ve only had one other patient from Turkmenistan.”
“Really?” said Rahim, brightening. “What was his name?”
I told him I didn’t remember, but was struck by the assumption behind his question: that if I knew anyone from his home country, he would know who it was.
You see? Turkmeni geography.
Which brings me to Salma, a dentist from Iceland. Having just finished her postgraduate training, she was headed back home with her husband and infant daughter. “My daughter was born very premature,” she said. “She spent three months in the newborn ICU.
“I have a job waiting where I did some of my dental training,” Salma said. “In the Westland Islands. Do you know those?” I’d never heard of them.
“They’re a short plane ride from the mainland. Fishermen live there. Mostly Polish.”
“A little hard to take care of,” Salma said, “since they speak neither English nor Icelandic. Do you know anybody from Iceland?”
“This may be a long shot,” I said, “but forty years ago, when I was still a pediatrician in Hartford, Connecticut, one of my students was Petur Ludvigsson. I think he went back home to practice.”
“Sure,” Salma said. “I know him.”
Well, of course she knew him. With a total population of 330,000, Iceland is not much bigger than Modern Orthodoxy. The whole country has one Children’s Hospital, in Reykjavik, where Salma spent three months with her daughter. How could she not know him?
When it comes to playing Jewish geography—or Turkmeni, or Icelandic—it’s not hard to answer how it works. But why do people play it in the first place?
A witty friend of mine likes to poke fun at social conventions. I ran into him a few years ago in Jerusalem—where you meet everybody. “I was in a hotel,” he said, “and I talked to this guy who said he was from Denver. ‘Do you know Eric Eisenberg?’ I asked him. He said he didn’t.
“’Oh, come on and say you know him,’ I told him. ‘It’s important!’”
Sure it’s important. Being part of a small group, isolated by language and culture, is like being a Pole marooned on a flyspeck in the North Atlantic, surrounded by millions of waves who don’t know who you are, where you’re from, or what you’re about. They just slosh around, busy with their own concerns and indifferent to yours. It’s lonely. If a homeboy parachuted in from the old Polish hood, you’d greet him with gusto.
“Karol! Hey, do you know Krzysztof? He sells kielbasa in Krakow!”
As would a Turkmeni in Boston. Or an Icelander in Hartford.
Or a Jew. Most anywhere.