On the small urban playground where my daughter, Zelda, frolics after school, families chatter in a half-dozen languages. Women sport a variety of head coverings, from kerchiefs to hijabs; Jewish and Muslim parents share the tiny benches and look out for each other’s children, ready with a snack, a crayon or a Band-Aid.
After 20 years of near constant travel, I cherish my adopted neighborhood. It is a relaxed, caring and convivial refuge from the socially divisive outrage on my Twitter feed. In a society where people move far and frequently amid a landscape that can be alienating in its very expansiveness, such communities cannot be taken for granted.
And as a traveler, it is precisely this kind of community we ought to seek out, both for genuine local connection and for a glimpse into what makes another place tick. I am convinced that especially in the current sociopolitical climate — where so many of us are reduced, and reduce each other, to stereotypes — genuine understanding, and appreciation, is more often experienced at the neighborhood level.
I saw this dynamic anew last weekend, when one of the themes that emerged after the gut-wrenching massacre of 11 Pittsburgh Jews at worship was the notable closeness of their Squirrel Hill community.
As in so many Jewish communities around the world, that closeness is at once social and geographical. In my travels I am often struck by the way Jewish families tend to live near one another, even if, as is often the case, many are not Shabbat observant.
Paradoxically, this closeness is what makes Jewish neighborhoods alike — and also unique, distintct from one another and from the larger society. From the etchings on an ancient wall to the vibe over kiddush, uncovering that street-level, humane-scale particularity is one of the great joys of travel.
A stroll through the verdant parks and kosher Asian eateries of Golders Green, the longtime heart of Jewish London, can be just as culturally enlightening as a day at the Tate Modern (though really, why choose?). The conversations you’ll have wandering around St. Kilda, the historically Jewish waterfront enclave in Melbourne, Australia, or during tightly-secured holiday festivities in Djerba, Tunisia, can give you an entirely new perspective on the meaning of Jewish community.
The most obvious Jewish sites for travelers abroad are frequently grand, historic temples with architectural significance and distinctive aesthetic signifiers. Of course, such synagogues are important landmarks well worth viewing, and supporting with one’s visit.
But the more valuable cultural insights are often the intangible ones I’ve stumbled across while spending time at the Jewish community center — often a neighboring building where clubs organize meetings, and kids hang out after school — and touring the modest chapels where those smaller, postwar communities actually worship.
As Squirrel Hill has reminded us, not every attractive community of historic Jewish significance is touristy in the conventional sense, though many are.
Modern travelers are increasingly seeking out immersive experiences — that so-called authenticity factor that has made Cuba, for example, such a hit with Jewish vacationers. But you don’t have to go nearly that far. Last year, researching Brooklyn’s Jewish heritage for a magazine series, I was astonished by the richness, singularity and diversity of tight-knit communities in a borough I thought I knew.
Join the multigenerational families, right after services, enjoying Emmons Avenue on a sunny weekend afternoon. See who pauses at Sheepshead Bay Holocaust Memorial Garden. And just try to sit on a bench outside the Shorefront Y, watching the Atlantic surf and the Russian-speaking boardwalk crowds, without having a conversation; it’s impossible.
Such communities are the foundations of our future heritage, the places our own grandchildren will come back to and visit. And they will endure.
On many occasions during the past several years — usually after a spate of mass shootings or a flare-up of anti-Semitic violence — people who know that my husband and I have the legal right to live and work in more than 30 countries ask me if we’re thinking of decamping overseas.
Of course I have thought about it. But even after a week like last week, when Jews were murdered during Shabbat worship and the mail was full of partisan bombs, my answer is still no. And that is precisely because of what makes Squirrel Hill — and Brighton Beach and Brookline, and so many Jewish places around America — so special: As oases of connection, they are natural bulwarks against hate.