Edinburgh, view from the castle
It rains on our first day of vacationing in Scotland in August. After spending weeks in Israel where afternoon temperatures measured 105F in the shade on our Jerusalem patio, the drizzle is welcome. That first day we plan to tour the old castle of Edinburgh, which means being outside for hours. I put on the touristy bucket hat I bought in Tiberias to shield my face from the brutal sun. Here, I figure, its modest brim will protect me from the rain, plus a hat provides better line of vision than the hood of my rain jacket.
“You’re really going to wear that?” asks my husband. “Israel” and the Israeli flag are stitched into the thick black canvas hat band.
“Yep,” I say, pulling on the hat so the Israeli emblem displays on the back of my head. I did consider that it might not be de rigueur to take an Israeli flag for a walk in Scotland, in all of Europe actually, where “anti-Zionist” agitation runs high, but I decided not to give in to that queasiness. If I’m a proud Zionist, I better be able to proudly wear my Israel hat in the streets of Edinburgh.
Off we go. Closer to the centre of town, it gets crowded as The Fringe is on, Edinburgh’s popular theatre festival. Tour buses are set up as impromptu mini stages, wrought-iron fences are plastered with posters, brightly costumed performers hand out flyers. At one busy intersection we wait for the light to change. A group of clown-clad youths passes behind me before my family joins up.
“Did you hear that?” my husband says as he catches up with me crossing the cobblestoned street.
“That was the first open street anti-Semitism I’ve ever encountered,” he continues.
“What?” I ask again as we reach the other side.
“That group looked at your hat and one of them called out, ‘You’re the devil!’” he explains.
“What a welcome!” adds my daughter.
I turn around to look at the perpetrators, but the crowd has jostled on. My family is pointing at too many people at once.
I pull my hat on tighter. “That’s the point, isn’t it?” I say, “to wear the hat of the land of the Jews, no matter what.”
Driving through the Highlands on the way to the Isle of Skye
After Edinburgh, we went on a three-day mini bus tour to the Isle of Skye and the Highlands. My hat came along, but I didn’t need it. When it rained, the wind blew so fiercely that I had to tighten my hood. Our fellow travelers were Chinese, along with a Canadian couple and an American girl. Our first evening on Skye, the tour bus let us off in Portree’s town square with instructions on where to find a good meal.
Portree, Isle of Skye
We ended up taking the American girl along to dinner. Over island-brewed beer the conversation circled around the usual introductory remarks, where are you from, why are you on this trip, what do you do in your regular life? Our daughter was careful not to mention that she was on vacation from serving in the IDF.
Of course my ever inquisitive husband asked this personable young woman whether she had a significant other waiting for her when she wrapped up her travels.
“I do,” she said, “but he’s in the Israeli army so we hardly see each other.”
That was the last thing we expected her to say, particularly because she didn’t seem Jewish, which she later confirmed as part of the “problem” with her relationship. But here we were, in a little restaurant on the Isle of Skye, and she and my daughter were comparing notes to figure out if they knew the same people. Later we all talked about experiencing the War with Gaza in 2014.
“Wow,” my husband said when we retired to our B&B after walking half the way with our new acquaintance, “you never know, do you?”
My daughter braves the wind at Neist Point, Isle of Skye
When I checked in online the night before our return flight from Edinburgh to Chicago, I switched my Economy Plus middle seat to an aisle seat in regular Economy. My travel agent meant well, but that middle seat wasn’t next to my husband or my kids, and I prefer an aisle seat no matter what.
A young couple took the two seats next to me. I got my crocheting out and set about my needlework. Shortly after take-off, the young woman tapped my shoulder.
“Excuse me, do you go to Loop?”
Over the drone of the plane I wasn’t sure I’d heard her correctly. “Pardon me?”
“Do you go to Loop Synagogue?”
“Yes, I do,” I replied, stunned. “Why?”
“We’ve seen you there.”
“Yes, you sit in the front left row.”
“Yes, for High Holiday services. You go there too?”
“We sit a few rows behind you. You have a tall son, don’t you?”
That was the beginning of a conversation that went on for a good part of the eight-hour flight, my husband joining in at times. We had more in common than attending the same synagogue, such as being University of Chicago alumni. When we exchanged contact information upon landing, I told the young woman, “You know, our meeting must have been divine providence.”
“I changed my seat the night before. Otherwise, we would not have met.”
“Amazing,” she said with a smile.
They have since been to our house twice for Shabbat meals, and it is always an animated evening.
Amazing, indeed, to have made this Jewish connection on the flight home from an otherwise un-Jewish vacation. In Scotland, there had been no old Jewish quarters to visit. Unlike Middle Europe where you find traces of Jewish life in pretty much every town—if there is no Jewish community per se, there will be a “rue des Juifs” or a “Judengasse” (a street where Jews were allowed to live during the Middle Ages), abandoned ancient Jewish cemeteries, vacant or repurposed synagogues—in Scotland there is no such thing beyond the big cities. In Glasgow a Jewish community of a few thousand, mainly merchants, did spring up during the Industrial Revolution and flourished all the way through World War II, but it has now dwindled significantly as the younger generation has moved on. An even smaller Jewish community hangs on in Edinburgh, mainly around the university.
After our foray into the Scottish Highlands we were happy to find some Yiddishkeit at the Shabbat meals hosted by the always hospitable Chabad in Edinburgh. Other than that, Scotland felt like Jewish no-man’s land. But maybe it wasn’t that non-Jewish after all, based on our encounters. I simply needed to shift my perspective: Jewish life was to be found in the travelers, alive and well, even if an Israeli hat prompted an anti-Semitic encounter.