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Smoke & Mirrors

Ten is one of those mystical numbers in Judaism. Its special significance is introduced in biblical literature, and the rabbis of the 1st century codify ten as the number which represents critical mass in a Jewish community.  A Jew can pray alone, anywhere, but he or she is required to find nine others with whom to recite the prayers designated as most important.  Ten is called a minyan, quorum, and sometimes nine Jews gathered for prayers will pause in the service to wait until the 10th arrives.
Sometimes it feels like there are only ten Jews in the entire world, and the rest of us are a magician’s stunt, an illusion produced using smoke and mirrors.  I feel this most keenly when I play the game that Jews initiate upon meeting each other for the first time: Jewish Geography.  It is similar to Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, only a much older and more beloved version, and it goes something like this:
Jew #1: You’re from [name of town in New Jersey]? Do you know [name of random Jew from that town, with a common Jewish name, such as Cohen or Levine]?
Jew #2: Of course! He is a few years older than I am, but I grew up with [name of Cohen’s younger sister or cousin].
In Jewish Geography, it’s usually fewer than six degrees of separation, too.  We are a small clan, and just a few generations ago it was not uncommon for distant cousins to marry each other for the sake of endogamy.
So I should not have been at all surprised when I met a fellow Jew for the first time a few weeks ago and he asked me: “Did you go to JTS?”  For a fleeting moment, I wondered if he was curious about my rabbinic training or checking my credentials, as I will be reviewing his book for a journal next month.  Then I realized, from his follow-up question, that he was playing the game:
Tom: Do you know [name of rabbi who also attended JTS]?
Me: Of course! He was a year behind me in school, but I think he is a few years older than I am.  We work together at camp and our sons are going to be bunkmates this summer. I’m going to be visiting him in [name of town in Florida] in January.  How do you know him?
Tom: He was my roommate in college.
Ten Jews.  Smoke.  Mirrors.
I had the feeling that if we’d played Jewish Geography a few minutes more, we would have discovered a common ancestor.
As the evening progressed, we discussed mutual interests and affiliations, and chatted about his book, the publishing industry, politics– the usual agenda of people getting acquainted.
Leaving Starbucks and saying goodbye to my new friend, I understood that we are actually old friends, possibly mishpochah (family), in the sense that we are part of the quorum of ten Jews who, wherever we gather, comprise a community.
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