This piece is by Education Fellow Amanda Winer.
As I was flying home from a recent trip to one of the amazing communities I get to visit as an ISJL Education Fellow, a hilarious thought came to my mind: sometimes, the only DOWN time I get is when I’m UP in the air.
That seemed meaningful – and made me think of what other meaning I might find if I put my mind to it. So I grabbed my pencil and started jotting down a list of all of the trips I had been on. And I feverishly tabulated. That’s when I realized that since beginning my fellowship in June 2012, I’d been on 88 individual airplanes.
88 apple juices with no ice in 88 tiny plastic cups. 88 pretzels or peanuts, though I usually choose the latter. 88 take offs and 88 landings. 88 times the flight attendant asked to turn off all electronics because the door was closed.
Since I was suspended 10,000 feet about the air with no cell phone reception to distract me, I kept just thinking. 88 is a pretty significant number in my life. First, there’s the fact that I love music, and there are 88 keys on the standard piano keyboard. Then, as is typical, I turned to my Jewish educator roots.
One of the many tools Judaism gives us to find meaning is gematria, a sort of “Jewish numerology,” which explores the significance of numbers and uses that to find meaning in the seemingly mundane. Now, seven is an important number in Judaism and gematria. It is a number that signifies perfection, wholeness. God created the world in an order of seven days. We rest on the seventh day. The omer, or the counting of days between Passover and Shavuot, is seven weeks.
So, what about eight?
Eight is a number that symbolizes what is beyond whole; something amazing and miraculous. Hanukkah, the holiday in which we celebrate miracles, lasts eight days. There’s the tradition of performing b’rit milah when a baby reaches eight days old – to celebrate the miracle of life. Eight is a miracle-number, and I like to think that miracles serve as a device, to remind us not to take life too seriously. Miracles are something to remind us how special and holy our lives are, and sometimes to distract us. Like magic! Therefore 88, two of these “magic” numbers side by side, must be significant.
The reality is, numerology is the same as anything: if you make the time to find the Jewish connection – it’s there! And as I continue traveling, the number of planes and visits will continue to grow and change, but the trips will all be meaningful… as will the numbers surrounding the journeys.
What do you think about gematria/numerology? Are there any numbers that have particular significance to you?
Whenever I get ready to go on a long research trip, I put together a detailed itinerary, listing each library, synagogue, and cemetery I plan to visit, as well as the people I will interview or with whom I plan to meet. I make sure to add addresses, contact numbers, and hotel and rental car confirmation numbers. Once all this information is compiled, I start working on my favorite part of the trip: figuring out where I am going to eat each day.
It’s not unusual for me to spend twice as much time combing through reviews on Urbanspoon or Roadfood.com than reading through libraries’ online catalogs. Of course, I spend far more time in the archives than in restaurants, but one of the perks of my job is the chance to become an expert on regional southern cuisine. For me, this opportunity has become a serious responsibility!
Whenever I’m on the road, I try to find out about the unique regional specialties, from hot tamales in the Mississippi Delta or dry rubbed beef brisket in central Texas, to burgoo in western Kentucky. Once, when I was visiting Laredo and other Jewish communities along the Texas-Mexico border, I spent hours figuring out precisely which Mexican restaurants offered the most authentic and tastiest version of the local cuisine. I would hate to visit a town and miss the best place to eat.
But sometimes, I must take into account other considerations. When I recently traveled to western Kentucky, I was faced with the prospect of eating mutton barbecue for three days straight. Since I’ve entered my 40s, I knew that such a schedule would wreak havoc on my archive productivity (not to mention my digestive system!). So I mixed in an occasional salad and bought fruit at a local grocery store for healthy snacks. Finding green things to eat can be a challenge on the road.
One of the effects of the Immigration Act of 1965 – the most underrated federal law of the past 50 years, if you ask me – is the spread of Asian immigrants to cities and towns around the country. I have learned to scout out Asian restaurants in unusual places. I have had amazing Vietnamese pho in Oklahoma City and great pad thai in Paducah, Kentucky.
In preparation for a trip to Virginia two weeks ago, I was most excited to eat at Peter Chang’s, a new restaurant recently opened by the famous peripatetic master of Chinese cuisine, whose sudden disappearances and movements have been tracked by foodies across the country, including Calvin Trillin in the New Yorker magazine. Chang has recently opened restaurants in Charlottesville, Richmond, and Williamsburg – three cities I just happened to be visiting.
While I can assure you this was a coincidence, I’ll happily admit that his restaurants graced my itinerary three times over a four day stretch.
What are your favorite Southern specialties? What about out-of-region surprises?
On a recent pit stop I made in a rural part of Tennessee, I found an unexpected statement. There, in the “middle-of-somewhere,” I came across a plastic toilet-paper dispenser with the words “The Jew Was Here” scrawled across it. Seeing this scrawl, a question barked at me.
But “ Why in the world…?!” was not the question I heard.
After all, when you see a simple message like that, why ask why? It seems human enough to want to leave a lasting mark on this world, so that when our finite lives come to their inescapable end, something of us will remain, something that says: “I was here. I mattered.”
However, a statement like “The Jew Was Here,” left on a roadside toilet-paper dispenser may not be the lasting message we desire. Those who come later will undoubtedly question: “What does it say about the person who was here, some person now gone?”
Does it say that his/her life was as fragile as single-ply or simply went round and round until it finally went down?
Clearly, not! And the reason I’m dead certain of this is because the entirety of anyone’s life cannot be captured in such a quick scribble as “I was here.” Rather, to adequately gain a glimpse of our existence, one must look to things more lasting. We must look to the children we teach, and the love we share, and the lessons we impart. We must look to our communities strengthened and our contributions made. Those places are where the impression of us remains, and will – God willing – continue to be seen for generations to come.
So, in the public restroom in Tennessee, the question I walked out of the stall with was not “why” but “what?”
What shall be the mark we will leave? Shall it be a scrawled graffiti scar, which time (and a little elbow-grease) will eventually erase? Or, will it be a work of art, celebrated throughout the ages?
That is up to you. After all, your life is a pen, moving over the living, breathing text known as the world. So, please, step right up and leave your mark, because you are here… and you matter!