You can’t really spot them — they look like everyone else.
Their demeanor, amiability, and snorkeling skills do not differ markedly from those of other passengers, and while some of them speak with a certain recognizable nasality, others sport exotic accents.
Yet somehow you know. And when a chance word or fleeting look of recognition gives it away, the floodgates open and the commonalities come pouring out — some subtle, some more effusive.
So I learned on my recent Caribbean cruise, where Jews appeared to my right and to my left, forward and aft. Not on the islands themselves, of course, but among fellow passengers. (I, for one, could never live on an island. Far too quiet for my liking. Just how much idyllic beauty can you take? )
With the posh British couple sitting at the next table, the “tell” was my inadvertent use, and subsequent explanation, of the word “ema” for mother, and the immediate (almost whispered) “I know” from the BBC-voiced woman sitting across from me. When I later told that same woman that I hadn’t yet gotten my sea legs and didn’t think I could eat, she said “bubbelah, you have to eat,” never once losing her vocal elegance.
Of course, the Bronx-turned-Long-Island couple — well-traveled, athletic, and irrepressibly friendly — were a bit easier to spot, with accents betraying their origin and the word “Israel” slipping more than once into their animated conversation.
The New Jersey contingent — as different from one another as the towns they live in — were delightful company, though our conversations never once touched on the word “Jewish.” So how did I know? Ready warmth, wry sense of humor, intellectual curiosity. (I recognize that I sound like a Jewish chauvinist, but there it is. The only downside I could discern was, perhaps, a bit too much focus on name brands.)
As a group, I think, we bore out the findings of the 2013 Pew Research Center’s study on Jewish Americans. I have no doubt that had I steered the conversation to “being Jewish,” these fellow passengers would have declared their pride in our religion, and in the words of the study, “have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.”
Of course, as the study also suggests, this may be due to the generally older nature of our cohort.
In addition, I would suggest (as the study found) that most of my fellow Jewish passengers would describe their Judaism as a matter of ancestry and culture, rather than religion. In some cases, couples were clearly intermarried, as were their children.
One woman told me that her daughter blamed her own intermarriage on her mother, saying that had she been sent to a Jewish school, she likely would have made a different choice. “It’s your fault,” the daughter said.
Another traveler told me how much his son had enjoyed Camp Ramah, attending the Berkshires camp from an early age and making his first visit to Israel with them. (I don’t recall whether or not the father, or son, was intermarried.)
While I traveled as a vegetarian, it would appear my fellow Israelites did not, although at least one couple hastened to assure me that their house was strictly kosher. A delightful (non-Jewish) Norwegian-born woman — who was drawn to me because she had a friend named Lois back home — was especially intrigued by my being Jewish. I don’t think she has encountered many Jews, and she kept wondering at my good nature. If I were paranoid, I might think she expected Jews to be somewhat different.
The chef and wait staff were extremely solicitous, once I got them to understand that while I would eat salmon, I wouldn’t eat soup with a seafood base. I was directed to the vegetarian offerings every day, and the special island barbecues always included plain roasted potatoes and salads.
The barbecues — on a white beach, fronting turquoise waters, enhanced by the tropical rhythms of a steel drum band — smelled especially delicious.
“Aren’t you tempted?” asked one new friend. “Of course,” I mumbled, going off in search of another potato.