The wondering Jews

  • GillianWanderingJews
Epitomising what it means to be wandering Jews, intrepid traveller Karen Kallman, her husband Evan and their five children, have travelled around the world meeting Jewish communities in the unlikely places, sharing Shabbats, Yomtovs and making memories.
by GILLIAN KLAWANSKY | Sep 14, 2017

Having travelled to almost 50 countries to date, Kallman shared some of her most memorable trips in a talk at the recent Limmud conference, examining her “Jewish Jet-Setting”.

From finding mikvehs in Casablanca and Iran, to chasing a man in a kippah in St Petersburg in Russia to find the Chabad, Kallman and her steadily growing family have had unimaginable travel experiences.

Through it all, the connections they’ve forged with mainly Jewish communities around the world, have been truly enlightening.

Kallman’s always had an insatiable appetite for travel. Having gone on Rotary Exchange to Turkey as a student, she’s also learned to be open-minded. “My host family was Muslim. They were overwhelmed that I was white and Jewish! They only saw our similarities though and it was a positive experience.”

Decades later, Kallman returned with her family to Turkey, after reconnecting with her Turkish host brother on Facebook. Aside from revisiting her host family, Kallman and her family also spent Rosh Hashanah in Istanbul.

“This really connected us with the uncertainty of Jews there,” she said. “We went to a very small shul near the train station and we were allowed in even though we hadn’t given advance notice. There’s always the threat of anti-Semitic attacks and there have been bombings in shuls, so there’s a double layer of thick metal doors as you enter. Under all the shul seats were helmets in case of an attack.”

The family combined their Turkish trip with a journey to Iran – somewhere not many Jews would consider going. “We wrote to the Iran Jewish Committee who advised us not to come!” laughed Kallman. This only made her more eager to take the trip, though, and so she and her family found themselves travelling through Tehran.

While they didn’t find the shul they were looking for on one of the longest streets in the city on the eve of Yom Kippur, they managed to do so with assistance the next day and were immediately absorbed into the city’s incredibly warm and friendly Jewish community who have deep roots in Iran.

“They don’t get Jewish visitors so they were so excited to have us there and we shared Sukkot with them as well.”

Before Kallman and her husband had children, they travelled to Hong Kong over Rosh Hashanah as it coincided with a six-week trip through China. There were various mishaps along the way.

“We’d tried to contact the Hong Kong Jewish community numerous times without any luck so we took a packed train ride to Guangzhou where we thought we could get a ferry to Hong Kong, only to find out that that ferry ride no longer operated,” explained Kallman.

“So we caught a bus, which actually got hijacked – a man got on the bus and tried to exhort more money from the passengers to stay onboard. So, even though my husband and another woman tried to stand up to him, we all needed to eventually get off the bus.

“Fortunately, another bus came along and we eventually arrived at the correct ferry port. We finally reached Hong Kong on the afternoon of erev Rosh Hashanah and the tourist office had direct lines to numerous organisations, including, amazingly, Chabad. But they needed verification from a Chabad rabbi in South Africa confirming that we were Jewish and upstanding citizens.”

Not being associated with Chabad, the couple wracked their brains for contacts and managed to get a good report from a Chabad rabbi. They were then allocated a family with whom to spend Rosh Hashanah and they raced to get there in time.

“The Jews in Hong Kong are quite wealthy and we came to this amazing apartment block and just saw cars like Porches and Ferraris in the parking lot,” she said.

“We stayed with a couple who were American and Israeli and went to services at the Chabad Shul which was on the seventh floor of a hotel building. There’s an incredible Jewish Community Centre in Hong Kong with a library, swimming pool, gym and restaurant. The centre also has a massive community

“We returned to Hong Kong for breaking of the Fast. We also had one of our Rosh Hashanah meals at an expat South African family who introduced us to all new fruits – one of their traditions was to taste new fruits for the new year – and because we were in Asia, there were all these exotic, incredible fruits that we got exposed to. We just felt very welcome and at home.”

On another trip, this time to Djerba Island in Tunisia, Kallman encountered Jews with a very strong sense of community. “They use a communal fire to prepare for Shabbat with various levels of success – if one has a bad cholent, they all have a bad cholent!”

Along their travels, the family has also visited Ethiopia, where they were inspired by the Jewish community’s commitment to Judaism and Zionism.

“The people in Gandor were very proud to show us their two kosher community kitchens. Our kids really connected with the Ethiopian children who knew some Hebrew songs better than they did, despite the fact that they go to Jewish day schools!”

The family also had an amazing Pesach experience closer to home in the Karoo. “We love the AfrikaBurn Festival in the Karoo and when it was scheduled on Pesach, I thought what better way to spend Pesach than in the desert!”

And so, the family packed their trailer with enough Pesach food for a week – and set up seders, one of which served almost 120 people. Hosting seders or Shabbat meals at the festival is fast becoming a tradition.

Asked how the travels have affected her children, Kallman said that they’re less prejudiced and more open than other children.

“They’ve also learnt to be very flexible as we’re very spontaneous travellers,” she said. “For me, developing countries are the best to travel in, especially with children as people are just so welcoming.”



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