How It All Began, or: An American-Israeli Jew and a Catalan Christian Walk into a Bar…

Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain. October, 2006. I stepped out of the airport shuttle at Plaça de Catalunya and looked around to get my bearings, dragging a wheeled suitcase behind me. This was not my first trip to Europe, nor was it my first time traveling internationally without my parents; but this was my first time traveling to a foreign country completely on my own. I was 19 years old, in my second year of national service (an alternative to compulsory military service for religious women). A writer since I figured out how to hold a pen, I’d been part of an online community of teen writers for a while, and the friend who ran that community invited me to join the press team she was heading for an international youth conference in Barcelona. I was delighted to accept.

Now at this point there are a few important things you should know about me. One: I am not the “reporter” type. Shy, introspective, and quiet, I am the last person you would expect to burst into a room full of people and start interviewing somebody. Two: I am an observant Jew. That means that I adhere strictly to Jewish law in every aspect of life, from keeping kosher to abstaining from all work and “acts of creation” on the Sabbath. Before my trip, the editor-in-chief had assured me that my religious needs would be accommodated, specifically, that kosher food would be available, that our room at the youth hostel would be girls-only, and that no work would be required of me on Saturday. Still, I am not ashamed to admit that I grew up in a bubble. A warm, lovely, fulfilling bubble, but a bubble nonetheless.

In short, I was roughly 2,000 miles from my comfort zone.

One more important thing you need to know about me before we proceed is that ever since reading Naomi Ragen’s “The Ghost of Hannah Mendes” as a young teen, I have had an inexplicable obsession with the Spanish Inquisition and the concept of crypto-Judaism. I had, in fact, made friends with someone in the US who believed that she was descended from crypto-Jews. I was very involved in her exploration of Judaism and her journey to pursue her Jewish heritage. This gave traveling to Barcelona another level of meaning for me.

That first day I found my room at the hostel and as soon as I’d settled in, I headed right back out to search for the old Jewish Quarter, the “Call”. I found it and poked around the ancient synagogue, and then headed in the other direction to find the only kosher store in the city, hoping to find some options for food for the Sabbath. It was Wednesday, and I didn’t know if I’d have access to a refrigerator. I was told that the following day there were challahs and other Shabbat necessities sold, so I resolved to come back then. In the meantime, I bought a bottle of grape juice and headed back to the hostel.

The editor-in-chief and graphic designer, both from America, were waiting there for me. Towards evening, we went down to the sidewalk in front of the hostel, where we were introduced to the rest of the press team. They were all locals, some of whom had been recruited at the last minute due to budget cuts that had forced some of the other international members of the press team to cancel. When I was introduced to the group as “Daniella, from Israel”, one of these last-minute local recruitees looked at me with wide eyes.

“You are from Israel?” he asked.

I sized him up apprehensively. Europe in general is known for being hostile towards Israel, and Barcelona has at times been considered one of the most anti-Semitic cities in Europe. I had been warned not to wear anything outwardly Jewish and to keep my nationality discreet. Heart pounding a little, I answered that yes, I was.

“I was supposed to be there this summer!” he exclaimed. “The trip was canceled at the last minute. I even had the tickets…”

Well, that didn’t sound like the beginning of an anti-Israel tirade.

Relieved, I laughed and said, “Well, I can understand why you didn’t end up coming…” (The Second Lebanon War was in July of that year. You’d be surprised how many trips to Israel have ended up under the category of Canceled on Account of Rockets.)

I squinted at him questioningly. “Why… what’s your connection to Israel?” I ventured.

He answered that he was Roman Catholic but had always been fascinated with Israel and Judaism, and as the group began moving down the sidewalk, we found ourselves deep in conversation. As it turned out, he was a die-hard fan of Israel–certainly an odd bird for a secular, liberal, intellectual European–but had never actually met an Israeli before. He had also always wanted to learn about Judaism, but he had never met a real Jew before. And to seal our mutual delight at meeting one another, about fifteen minutes into the conversation, he said, “You know, my last name is considered to be a converso surname.”

This so-called Christian shall henceforth be known as Josep. (This is not his real name.)

Over the next few days, it became apparent that the Powers That Be had not, in fact, provided for my religious needs. There were no kosher meals available, and I shared the room at the hostel with about 6 girls and 2 guys. Of course, I wasn’t going to sleep on the street, so I had to make do; but when it came to food, I was stuck with raw vegetables and the crackers and instant noodle soups I had brought with me. I had tried to locate the list indicating what items at the grocery stores were kosher, but failed. I don’t remember why, but somehow I didn’t make it to the kosher store on Thursday, and on Friday morning I found myself facing an entire Sabbath–usually celebrated with two large, festive meals–with nothing but a bottle of grape juice, a loaf of so-healthy-it-tastes-like-cardboard vegan bread, and a carton of Ben & Jerry’s chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream (imported from the USA, of course, where it is certified kosher). I went to the synagogue that evening to peddle myself off as a needy Sabbath guest; a valuable commodity in any self-respecting Jewish community. Except the one in Barcelona, apparently. I couldn’t even manage to make eye contact with anyone. I left the synagogue, defeated, to eat my ice cream.

When Josep learned of my plight, he was appalled. “There has to be a kosher restaurant somewhere,” he insisted, and went off on a crusade, if you’ll pardon the expression, to find me kosher food. He searched on Google and the Yellow Pages, and called a bunch of friends. I told him it was hopeless and that I’d done the research, but he would hear none of it. At lunch that day, while I picked at my sliced cucumbers, he asked me, “What if we went to my house and I bought kosher ingredients and cooked for you?”

I looked over at this person who had literally just offered to bring home a random girl from another country, whom he had known for a grand total of 72 hours, and cook her a meal. I shook my head. “No… all the pots and pans would have to be kosher…”

“What if I bought a new pan?”

He couldn’t be serious.

“That’s very nice of you to offer… but it’s not just the pans… it’s all the utensils and the oven and everything…”

“Is there a way to make them kosher?” he insisted.

I smiled ironically. “Uh… yeah…. but trust me, that’s not going to happen.”

“Why not? What would I need to do?”

“Just trust me. You don’t wanna know.”

“Tell me. I want to know.”

I eyed him skeptically, eyebrows raised. “You really want to know?”

“Yes.”

I shrugged. “Okay… you asked.” Thereupon I launched into a long, rambling explanation of how one kashers a kitchen, which for the uninformed among you, is a long, painstaking, arduous process that involves a lot of scrubbing, boiling water, and otherwise heat-treating everything. The goal of this tirade was to illustrate just how crazy an idea this was, and I assumed that after a few sentences his eyes would glaze over in boredom and that would be that. As predicted, everyone else who had been listening quickly lost interest and began chatting among themselves as I rambled on. But when I glanced at him somewhere in the middle of expounding upon mugs and soapy water in the microwave, he was still watching me as though I was giving him a thrilling play-by-play of the latest Barcelona vs. Madrid soccer game. I skidded to a stop and exclaimed, “Why are you even still listening to me?”

(To this day he claims that he couldn’t do it just because it wasn’t his own kitchen, and that if and when I come back to Barcelona he will, in fact, kasher his kitchen. To this day I claim that he’s nuts.)

Ironically, it was someone else who managed to locate a restaurant that was “kosher enough”–a vegan restaurant run by a Moroccan Israeli that at least had had kosher certification up until a few months before. I figured that under the circumstances, this would be acceptable, and we all enjoyed a wonderful meal there. Josep sat next to me, and during that conversation it became clear to me that he was interested in researching his possibly Jewish heritage and learning more about my faith. We parted, promising to stay in touch. And so began an enthusiastic correspondence through which a deep friendship emerged. The combination of my passion for writing and for Judaism and such an appreciative audience resulted in my writing long, rambling e-mails explaining Jewish concepts, holidays, and traditions.

And that, dear readers, is how this blog came to be. The entries will be letters to Josep about various topics relating to Judaism and Israel. Most will be new, but some will be dug up from the dusty depths of my Gmail history. Personal details will be left out, but the nature of our friendship–which is, I think, what gives these letters their unique appeal–will be reflected in them. I hope you find them entertaining and informative.

(And for the nitpickers who are wondering about the title of this post, no, we have never actually walked into a bar. We did, however, walk into a pub on La Rambla, along with the rest of our motley ensemble of junior journalists. 10 points to whoever can come up with the funniest ending for the joke.)

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