A few months ago, I was with my boyfriend when we ran into a Jewish professional from our university. I introduced my boyfriend as my “friend,” trying to avoid what we both knew would follow: an intrusive game of Jewish geography. Nonetheless, this man intuited our relationship and immediately asked my boyfriend for his last name and hometown, earnestly trying to find shared connections. None were found, because despite being a white, curly-haired guy from New York, my boyfriend is not Jewish.
My best friend has the opposite problem. She is half-Chinese, and people rarely assume she is Jewish despite, as she puts it, her demonstrated efforts to wear modest clothing or “speak loudly about halacha” in order to prove she belongs. In a kosher grocery store, she and her father were once questioned by a man working there: “Do you need help with something? Where are you from? What are you doing here?” After explaining that they were Jewish and merely shopping for food, the man became excited and asked them if they knew another Chinese Jew from Manhattan. They did not.
These inverse stories both reflect the dangerous ashkenormativity prevalent in many Jewish communities. And, in both accounts, the normativity was enforced through a supposedly friendly game of Jewish geography.
A modern mainstay of Jewish life, “Jewish geography” is a popular game played between Jews when they first meet in order to identify mutual connections. The game follows a simple pattern: “You’re from Westchester? Do you know [insert name]?” “Yes, [name]’s sister is was in BBYO with my older brother.” “Wow, what a small Jewish world.” And so on.
Its prevalence in the Jewish community is ubiquitous, from small-talk at synagogue functions to “Jewish geography anthems” on TikTok. But what does it mean that our community places so much emphasis on this game? More literally, what are we implying when entry into a conversation, or in more extreme cases, a social circle, is contingent upon possessing other Jewish connections?
The very nature of Jewish geography is exclusionary, and its persistent popularity rests on a number of problematic assumptions about Jewish identity. If we are truly striving for an inclusive community, we must seriously reconsider our emphasis on and strive to limit our reliance of this seemingly innocuous tradition.
Alysha Ruth describes this intrinsic exclusion first-hand in “How Jewish Geography Excludes Jews of Color,” where she shares “how a game taught a young, Black Jewish girl that she didn’t belong.” Ruth details her repeated negative encounters with the game, and the Jewish community at large, ultimately concluding that “the game of Jewish Geography is not just a who’s who. At its root it’s a test to determine the legitimacy of one’s Jewishness. The game masquerades as a kind of small talk, when it’s actually a mechanism for keeping the Jewish community insulated and exclusive.”
It was not until I switched from my extremely small, pluralistic day school to a traditional Modern Orthodox high school that I learned the true significance of Jewish geography. The world I entered was one where almost everyone knew each other from a combination of sleepaway camps, synagogues, or summer home communities. Those who were not already friends could quickly build relationships through these pre-existing connections. I, on the other hand, could not.
For me, the more time I spent in this new world, the more I was able to gain the coveted connections — and privileges — that enabled me to eventually succeed at Jewish geography. But for so many others, that will never be the case. Because intrinsic to succeeding at Jewish geography is a number of factors outside of individual control which should not, and do not, determine anyone’s value as a Jew.
To begin, the most obvious factor of success is geography. The game typically requires one to live or have lived in a place where they can be linked to other Jews. Yet, many of the largest Jewish communities in America — those surrounding metropolitan areas such New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago — also happen to be some of the most expensive in the country.
Which brings me to the next factor: class. Even for Jews who don’t live in these major cities, “outsider” status can be remedied through several other means, almost all of which are also extremely expensive: Jewish sleepaway camps, cross-country teen tours, summer programs in Israel, and private Jewish day schools (of which tuitions can exceed $30,000/year). These experiences all enable young Jews to form connections outside of their hometowns. For those unable to afford such expenses? Sorry, you’re out.
And then there are the assumptions about Jewish ancestry and lineage. How many times have adults grilled me about where my parents grew up, only to belatedly realize my mother converted to Judaism and that no, I would not be related to the Gilberts in New Jersey? The assumption that you are related to other Jews based on name and geography alone completely isolates those who intermarried or converted.
Now don’t get me wrong, I totally understand the appeal of Jewish geography. It is an easy and immediate way to form important connections such as friends, romantic partners, or employers. And in some ways, it may even allow our small community to gain some of the societal upper hand denied to us throughout history: These quick connections allow us to build networks and support structures outside of once-discriminatory formal institutions such as country clubs or elite universities.
Additionally, there are psychological reasons behind our communal infatuation. According to therapist Aaron S. Cohn, a member of the clinical staff at Jewish Family & Children’s Service of St. Louis, “the need to belong is a fundamental human motivation.” Because Judaism is so community-based, “when we meet someone new with whom we share some form of Jewishness, activating that sense of belonging is less about confirming some abstract kind of ideological agreement or even linguistic commonality and more about actual human beings we might know.”
These explanations are fair. However, I believe we must hold ourselves to a higher standard of intellectual honesty when discussing Jewish geography. Okay, so your friend knows my cousin from the camp they went to six years ago. So what? Is this insubstantial coincidence really an indicator of a substantial relationship? Couldn’t the fact that we are both Jews alone be enough to establish our shared culture and community?
Perhaps in our motivation, as mentioned by Cohn, to find belonging through a type of communal rather than theological Judaism, we have created a dangerously homogenous society which excludes — based on assumptions surrounding race, class, and/or Jewish ancestry — any Jew who deviates from the norm.
As I enter my final year of college, I consider how my life could have differed had I not relied so heavily on Jewish geography. I have frequently used the game as a crutch, a simple way to form connections and quickly make friends amidst the insecurity of being a college freshman. I have also used it as a cover-up, a way to grant myself the sense of belonging that the imposter-syndrome ridden high schooler inside me still craves. But I no longer want to participate in a game which excludes so many other Jews.
To my fellow Jewish geographers, I urge you to also examine the role of this game in your life, and how it may act, intentionally or not, as a negative, exclusionary force rather than a positive one. What privileges do you have which enable you to benefit from and succeed at the game? Is it because you or your family can afford to have Jewish experiences? Is it because you are affiliated with Jewish institutions? Do you have previous generations of Jewish heritage in America? Do you live in a heavily Jewish populated area? Have you never been questioned for being Jewish based on your appearance?
I am lucky to have many of these privileges. But there are countless Jews, just as valid, and just as Jewish, who do not.
Rather than building up our community, Jewish geography may actually enhance divisions. Now more than ever, we must shift this model and work to include and engage Jews of all backgrounds. A first step might be asking “what are you interested in?” instead of “who do you know?”
Header illustration by Laura Supnik.