I bet that when you saw the words,” zero degrees,” you thought I was going to write about what is on everybody’s mind here in Yerushalayim – the snowstorm of the century. Wrong! I am going to let everyone else write about that. Why compete when I can dodge comparisons? Let them write about the general feeling of dread that this year will be a repeat of last year’s storm (of the century). Let them bemoan the panicked grocery shopping, the unforgivingly cold stone floors, the slippery sidewalks, the pinpricks of little hail pellets that get their own name (graupel). I leave to others the rhapsodizing over gishmei brachah that come in the form of child-friendly sled slopes and elderly-unfriendly frozen patches.
No, I have something else in mind. I want to express my astonishment at The Jerusalem Syndrome. Not the one where a person comes to Israel and starts preaching in the Old City about Gog and Magog, dressed in white robes and carrying a David’s harp. No, I mean the syndrome where, within five minutes maximum, of conversing with a stranger, you find out you are third cousins and know all the same people.
Either there are only 650 observant Jews in the world, all of whom have acquaintances in common, or…I don’t know…or there are 750 observant Jews in the world, all of whom have acquaintances in common. It is positively spooky.
Here is a typical exchange. I am at The Jerusalem Theater for an Etnachta concert. (The series is free, so I go. They generally play baroque or chamber pieces, which I don’t enjoy, but I love telling people I went to the symphony last night and aren’t I the sophisticate, dahling?) I stay afterward for coffee in their café with a friend. She spots someone she knows and invites her to join us. So begins The Inquisition. I start by asking the newbie the usual first gambit.
“Hi. Where did you come from in the Old Country?”
“Silver Spring, Maryland.”
“Get out! Me, too! My maiden name is Baras.”
“Oh, you’re Ronnie’s sister? My daughter is his good friend.”
“That’s a riot. So how long are you living in Yerushalayim?”
“Actually, I’ve been coming here for five years now, but I just sold my house in Florida, where I moved after Silver Spring.”
“No kidding. Hey, maybe you sold your house to my machatonim?” (This is a JOKE, for Gds sake. I’m just kidding around. There are a zillion home sales a day now in Florida.)
“What’s their name?”
"Well, yes, they bought my house."
"Well, yes, they bought my house."
I mean, what are the chances? But in Jerusalem, there are not six degrees of separation and not one degree of separation. There is no separation at all, not even a molecule.
And this is not a new phenomenon. My late Uncle Jack, a’h, took a trip to Israel in 1956. As his tour group wound its way through the streets of Meah Shearim, there was an older, bewigged, floral apron-wearing woman (think Mollie Goldberg) leaning out a window. She called to my uncle, “Einshuldig mir(Excuse me). Efsher kimst di fin America?” (Maybe you’re from America?) “Yuh.” “Efsher fin New York?” “Yuh.” “Efsher fin Brooklyn?” “Yuh.” “Efsher di veist Yankel Baras?” (Maybe you know Jack Baras?) “I AM Jack Baras!!!”
I mean, what are the chances? Turns out, she was a distant cousin who had learned he was coming to Israel that May, and she was stopping every passing tour group, asking if they knew Jack Baras.
I don’t want to belabor the point but I just have to add that I was in a conversation with a woman in a shiur I attended at the OU Center, and every single person I mentioned in the space of thirty minutes, and there must have been dozens, was either a friend or a relative of hers. It got to the point where I said, “I think we should stop talking now because I am getting really freaked out here. I get the impression that any minute you will turn out to be me, and that is just weird.”
I suppose it’s not all that surprising. The people I cross paths with are people who share my values. These are people who love Israel enough to have moved here, people who are drawn to the spirituality of Yerushalayim, people who go to shiurim and museums. I guess that is a significantly overlapping Venn Diagram as far as common interest groups go.
So, now that we’re on the topic, any chance you knew my uncle Jack?