When I first moved abroad, I was giddy to leave my inner American at Logan Airport (I’m from Boston, and always damn proud of it), never to rinse my brain out with thoughts of steaks and bacon again. Spain (for that was my destination) would be, for me, a new beginning, a new culture, and a new set of rules to live by and subsequently break. As it turns out, almost four years into my experience, it’s not the bacon I miss, but the bagels.
As a child, I went to Hebrew school like a good little boy of Jewish origin, but my family never forced any doctrine down my throat. Every other child in the neighborhood was doing it, so I had to as well. My mother was, and still is, a brilliant guilt-machine and socialite of the highest order, but never taught us to subscribe to any of the faith’s teachings. And my father is a Buddhist. So growing up Jewish didn’t mean anything more than being the best of folk, and being as generous as humanly possible. I was taught to be a mensch, but not in any strictly religious way. Yes, I had a Bar Mitzvah, but only because everyone in the family had also done it and I was 13 so what choice did I have?
Before I came to Europe, I didn’t really give being Jewish that much thought. Massachusetts has a decent number of our kind, so I guess I took my identity for granted. Once I made landfall in Spain, though, I realized how unique I never knew I was.
My first year in Granada (that small city in the south of Spain that gives free food with every beer), I enjoyed the identity of many people’s first Jewish person (that they’d met, sadly no booty conquests to speak of–refer to my other pieces). Some English dude said I was the first Jewish human he’d ever hugged, and almost every Spanish person stared at me perplexed when I asked if they knew where to find Challah. After Granada, I came to Barcelona (my current stomping ground), and it took over two years to find a relatively small Jewish community (although the oldest synagogue around is here).
If you are Jewish and thinking about coming to southern Europe (or, really, many parts of the world that haven’t encountered Judaism like, say, Brooklyn has), there are some things you are going to miss. First off, you will find it hard to be kosher, especially in the parts of the world, like here, that value piggies and shellfish (for eatin’). And don’t get me started on kosher salt. I’ve wanted to cook with that for many a weary year, and nothin’ doin’. There are a few stores that must have it, but they are few and far between, and the price will likely turn you away from that particular craving.
Also, many of the greatest of foods we grew up with are hard to find, sometimes nonexistent. For instance, bagels aren’t recognized as a thing where I currently live, apart from one cafe that tries to serve up decent simulacra of our beloved bread, and one delivery service that was started by an American (post a comment if you’d like the name of the place, you hungry Internet surfers). And in the three years I’ve lived here, I’ve spotted a maximum of four challahs, and that was all in one very tiny kosher stand in the Boquería (Google that and be jealous of Barna living). One time, I really wanted to cook a brisket, but had to literally identify to a butcher the exact place a brisket comes from on a cow. This was on half a cow carcass hanging in a walk-in fridge below a public market. It was awesome, but a little beyond what the normal person would do in search of the perfect brisket (it wasn’t even perfect, said my mother in my mind’s eye).
The high holidays are completely unheard of in some parts of the world, and that can be the toughest thing. I’m an English teacher, and I’m a little tired of explaining how Hanukkah is not the Jewish equivalent of Christmas. That, I guess, also happens in many parts of the states, but, again, I grew up in a region where there are more Menorahs than Christmas trees. If you find at least one Jewish friend, keep at least the social traditions alive if abroad, and enjoy showing the locals how awesome latkes and Matzoh ball soup are (ever see an English dude celebrate his first Passover? It was pretty sweet).
Really, anyone who grew up in a predominantly Jewish environment should take stock of what they experienced and learned, and of all the knishes and deli sandwiches they ate. Because a good portion of the world is not equipped to cleverly guilt you the same way, to offer the same rye (get it?) sense of humor, and to serve you a bagel with lox and schmear. So do the right thing and open up a deli, because any place on this earth that hasn’t experienced something akin to Katz’s is a place that needs some learnin’. Mazel Tov, Earth, Mazel Tov.