We sat at a table by the water in Venice, Italy, enjoying gourmet pasta and the serenade of two accordion players nearby. A waiter brought dessert menus, and we struggled to speak to him in very Americanized and pathetic Italian. Like thousands of others college-age Americans, my three friends and I were backpacking through Europe. We came straight from our year of study at yeshivas in Israel, and our travels had one important difference: We were eating kosher.
Eating kosher on a budget in Europe is a little like being unemployed -- you never know when or where you'll eat again. &'9;
Our trip began in Madrid, where we then rode trains through Spain, southern France and Italy, ending in Rome before flying home for the summer. Traveling through predominantly Catholic countries, we hopped from ancient Jewish ghettos to fledgling Jewish communities, sampling the kosher restaurants that saved us along the way.
While restaurant hopping almost always dominates a European trip, when attempting to eat kosher, itineraries center on food. Web sites like shamash.org and chabad.org list kosher restaurants around the world -- a very helpful resource for planning ahead.
Still, after a long day of visiting museums and skipping meals, the Web sites did not prepare us for the disappointment of finally arriving at the listed location of the kosher restaurant in Madrid, only to find the restaurant had been closed for years.
Such are the disadvantages of eating kosher through Europe, especially when not traveling through Jewish centers like London and Paris. Cheap meals are few and far between, and trying to pack kosher snacks in an already overstuffed backpack can grate on even the most patient of nerves.
Despite the aggravation, kosher eating developed into one of the highlights of our trip. We found some surprisingly tolerable and occasionally elegant kosher restaurants: La Escudilla, an Israeli-style meat restaurant in Madrid; Gam Gam, an Italian restaurant in Venice; Yotvata, a milk restaurant named after the dairy kibbutz in Israel, and La Taverna del Ghetto, a pricey Italian meat restaurant, both located in Rome; and the curiously named Pizza Dick in Cannes. More importantly, in almost every restaurant and bakery where we found food we could eat, we also found some of the most interesting Jews in the world.
In Nice, while dodging drunken Bulgarian soccer fans, we met a beaming British couple celebrating their 50th anniversary.
At a Chabad Shabbat dinner in Florence, we were awed by the operatic skills of Franscesco, a convert-in-training with a booming voice and an oversized Star of David around his neck.
And in Barcelona, we met Chaim Chalfon. Chalfon, a self-proclaimed "conquerer of the world," had settled briefly in Barcelona after a lifetime of success in business, spending time serving gourmet vegetarian food to wandering Jews in his home on Shabbat. We sampled his Pacific Island salad and salmon quiche on a balcony with a magnificent view of the city's quirky architecture. Chalfon showed us his cookbook, which was in the final stages of publication, and contained a fusion of recipes and self-help begging readers to always focus on "the human element." Chalfon told us to "forget about responsibilities and get lost in the world for a year or three."
We never really understood what Chalfon was saying, but he made great salads, so we indulged him with smiles and nods, making sure to take second servings of everything. Chalfon aimed at hosting 1,000 people during his three-year stint in Barcelona, and as we signed his guest book, his wife informed us he was more than halfway there.
At Chalfon's, Americans, Israelis, Moroccans, Italians and Spaniards all dined together -- and Hebrew united us all. Our Hebrew helped more than English in Europe, as Israelis run most kosher restaurants and many of the Chabad centers and synagogues.
Despite the gourmet cuisine, my favorite part of the meal was the warm environment (granted, there was no cholent or meat, which might have changed things a bit). Sitting around the table and listening to each other, I realized that while we lived thousands of miles apart, spoke different languages, had various levels of religious observance and had our birth dates that spanned five decades, as Jews we shared a deep, common bond.
In the three countries we crossed, we saw everything from Michaelangelo's David to astounding Italian synagogues, from Gaudi's dream houses to old Jewish ghettos, but the real highlight of the trip was the people we met along the way. From the black-hat Chabad shaliach (emissary) in Madrid to the stunning brunette boasting about her three previous (and unsuccessful) engagements to Jewish men, the stories of the people we met gave most of the flavor to our trip, more than the kosher food we ate.
Maybe our European experience was not "authentic": We ate schnitzel in Spain and pizza in France; we never tasted real Tuscan delicacies or the mouth-watering gelato in Florence. However, our trip was authentic because we learned how kosher European Jews live, of the sacrifices they make, how they struggle to keep restaurants and synagogues open so that four spoiled Americans fresh out of yeshiva can eat more than instant soup and find a minyan for prayers.
We are home now -- and we will never again take Los Angeles' kosher restaurants for granted.