Josh Glancy

My Jewdar is so good I even found one on the Falkland Islands

We diaspora Jews tend to go out of our way to try find reminders of communities that have long since faded away, as well as seeking out those that still survive against the odds


Jetty used by visitors arriving by sea in Stanley, capital of the Falkland Islands.

May 19, 2022 14:29

It is a running joke in my family that wherever my parents go in the world, they somehow unearth a Jewish connection. It could be the pre-Inquisition mikvahs of Andalucia, the lost Falasha villages of the Ethiopian highlands or the two remaining synagogues of old Jewish Thessaloniki: somehow they always manage to unearth a hidden mezuzah or rusty menorah. They’re like the Simon Wiesenthals of lost Judaica.

This passion extends to living Jews, too. With a Jewdar sharper than a Chabadnik hawking tefillin, wherever we travel in the world we somehow find fellow landsmen, providing the opportunity to natter about shul or the old country.

I have predictably inherited this trait. This became particularly apparent to me during a recent trip to the Falkland Islands, where I spent Passover this year on a far-flung journalistic excursion. Seder night in Stanley was a muted affair: a crackly Ma Nishtana piped in via Zoom from London, some Carr’s water crackers serving as my approximation of a matzah. It all felt a little distant and lonely.

But then I headed out to The Victory, one of six pubs on the well-lubricated islands, with a local politician I was interviewing. Upon discovering I was Jewish, she had told me excitedly that I must come to the pub and meet Katie, a co-religionist and — as far as I could tell — the only other Jew on this most distant and gentile of islands. And so 8,000 miles away in the deep South Atlantic, amid the penguins and sea lions and bemused locals, Katie and I toasted a l’chaim over shots of sambuca and, inevitably, nattered about shul and the old country.

Katie was from Perth, Australia, a nurse I think (the sambuca made things a little hazy) who had come to the Falklands for work and adventure. She was from a Reform synagogue background, whereas my upbringing was more Orthodox. The old joke about the Jew who gets stranded on a desert island and builds two shuls, so he has one to boycott, immediately came to mind.

Thrilled by this unlikely encounter — finding a fellow Jew on Pesach amid 3,500 or so Falklanders! — I took a selfie to commemorate our meeting, her star of David necklace alongside my shawarma chic “chai” pendant.

This wasn’t even my only Jewish moment on those isles. On a tour of Pebble Island, a ferociously windy outcrop even by Falklands standards, I came across a downed Argentinian plane, its wreckage strewn across the hillside. My gaze was immediately snared by another star of David, printed on its twisted door. Flown by Argentina and destroyed by Britain, this “Nesher” jet had been made in Israel. Cue another photo.

Since returning from my Jewish heritage tour of the Falklands, I’ve been relieved to discover that I’m not alone in this obsession. One colleague told me about a trip to Eritrea where he devoted himself to tracking down the country’s last Jew, a Yemenite who ran the crumbling cemetery in Asmara. Another spent a recent holiday to Spain driving through the hills around Salamanca, finding the old converso villages that now market their genocidal past as a tourist gimmick.

I may well have quite strange friends, but lots of Jews share this interest. Indeed “the last Jews of” is also such a common trope at this point that it’s almost a cliche. Try googling it: the last Jews of Libya, the last Jews of Cochin, the last Jews of Alexandria, of Burma, of Cuba, of Baghdad. The joke about the New York Times is they will eventually publish a piece about the last Jews on the moon.

Many of us were riveted last year by the story of Zebulon Simentov, the self-declared “last Jew in Afghanistan”, who picked up global coverage for his defiance of the Taliban and gloriously predictable years-long feud with Ishaq Levin, the other last Jew in Kabul. It was all pure Bashevis Singer.

What drives this fascination? Why was I so delighted to meet Katie from Perth? These “last Jews of” symbolise the entire Jewish people, small, isolated, defiantly keeping the eternal flame flickering. In their extreme isolation, they perfectly embody Jewish resilience.

Finding an old mikvah or lonely old Jewish synagogue caretaker allows us to place ourselves in an ancient and global story, to weave together disparate strands of Jewishness into one more coherent whole, telling ourselves that there is something innate that unifies Jews no matter their nationality or culture.

These encounters can also be an antidote to the loneliness that haunts the diaspora soul. It’s notable to me that the many Israelis I’ve met on my travels around the world rarely seem as excited to discover other Jews in the back of beyond, I think because they don’t have that exiled sense of smallness or vulnerability.

It’s primarily among diaspora Jews that this passion for uncovering remote Judaica burns the brightest. We feel this powerful urge to track down traces and relics, to find those last Jews on the moon, because on some deep level we need to keep reminding ourselves that we’ve always been around, and we always will.

May 19, 2022 14:29

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