Jewish Geography & Road Trip Rites Of Passage

A universal code exists when taking a road trip with members of the tribe (MOT). When I was growing up, my family didn’t feel a city was properly visited unless three rites of travel took place: 1. We shopped at the local mall; 2. We ate lunch at a deli; 3. We figured out whether the city had a Jewish population, and whether that population had grown or flown.

Most of my travels involved family events. My Mom’s family hails from Denver; my Dad’s family is from Brandon and Winnipeg, Manitoba. The main event was the milestone, either a birthday, Bar Mitzvah or a wedding. Yet restaurants, shopping, and Jewish geography always made the agenda.

Vacation conversation was predictable. You could guarantee someone would deeply analyze how many Jews made up today’s census versus when my parents or grandparents were growing up, how the neighborhoods changed, and where everyone lives now. Also, every meal included the question, “Where are we going for the next meal?”, which was answered, “Why are you concerned? We have yet to eat THIS meal.” Then everyone would laugh like it was the first time anyone had told that joke. It wasn’t.

When we’d visit Denver, we’d prioritize a visit to The Bagel Deli and Restaurant. Predictably, I’d order lox and cream cheese on a plain bagel. This food fare was a huge treat as it didn’t exist in my Lutheran-based hometown of Minot, N.D. Lutefisk? Yes. Smoked salmon? Not so much. We’d then power shop at Cherry Creek Shopping Center. Sometimes, we’d take a drive to the old neighborhood on Osceola Street and look at my Mom’s childhood home. In addition to her siblings – she was the youngest of five – other family members lived there such as aunts, and sometimes grandparents. It was always mentioned at some point of the tour that they had only one bathroom.

Visiting Winnipeg for my Dad’s events looked very similar. When it came time for the shopping, you’d think a mechitzah – a partition separating the men and the women – was being instituted. The men went to the bookstore, the ladies went to the clothing stores. I would typically join the ladies on their power-shopping adventures.

Before the ladies broke from the men, they agreed to meet at a specific time and at a specific deli. Inevitably, a pastrami sandwich on rye bread was ordered. When it arrived, someone would wax prophetically on the quality and quantity of the pastrami, comparing it to the mile-high, thinly sliced, lean sandwiches of yesteryear.

Although these memories are in the rearview mirror, they continue to shape my road trip expectations, even COVID-19 times. Recently, my son and I loaded up the car for college at the University of Kansas (Rock Chalk, Jay Hawk!). Rather than traveling the six-plus hours home on my own, my trusted travel companion (TTC), and fellow member of the tribe (MOT), flew out to Kansas City join me. We meandered our way back to the Twin Cities over a few days, stopping in cities and towns along the way, including Kansas City, St. Joseph, Mo., Lincoln, Omaha, and Sioux Falls, S.D., to name a few. We didn’t do a lot of research and figured we’d just explore as we went.

Even without a game plan our itinerary faithfully followed the rites of travel. Here’s a brief overview of our road trip, we’ll spare you the full-length slide show!

Kansas City/Overland Park hit the rites-of-travel trifecta

Sticking with the code, we Googled the Jewish population of the Kansas City area. Apparently, more than 19,000 people make up the Jewish community, many of which have migrated to Overland Park. Famous Jews include composers John Kander, who wrote the music for “Cabaret” and “Chicago”, and Burt Bacharach. Actors include Ed Asner, Paul Rudd, and Lynn Cohen.

KC’s deli scene is strong. We stumbled on a New York-style, kosher bagel shop called Meshuggah Bagels. My order? Lox and cream cheese on a plain bagel, of course. My TCC humored me with the lox and cream cheese but stepped outside the box with an everything bagel. I laughed to myself as we ate and the inevitable question popped up, “where will we shop, and where are we going for dinner?”

Back in the car we set off to do some shopping, but where to start. Drawing from my Mom and her sisters’ playbook, the obvious answer was Talbots. Ironically, the mechitzah once again was erected. I was dropped off at the clothing store, and my TTC went to find his own stores. We reconvened within an hour and started arranging for dinner.

When my TTC and I visit restaurants in Minneapolis our typical experience includes curbside pickup and transforming our car’s front seat into a dining room. Our pandemic parlor didn’t change as we set out to try Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que. The keyword here is “que” or rather “queue” as we witness a line of people snaked around the small gas station waiting to order. In the words of my TCC, we just say no to that. Instead, we ordered curbside, parked in a wayward Walmart lot across the street, and once again transformed the dashboard into a table fit for two.

After KC, The Trifecta Was Harder To Come By

Our next stop in St. Joseph, was impromptu. Truthfully, I can’t imagine being prompted to stop there. Suffice to say it was a quick in and out. It’s a quiet town that was the starting point of the Pony Express—an 1860’s mail service, the birthplace of musician Eminem, and the death place of American outlaw Jesse James. A small Jewish population exists, about 225 people as compared to more than 3,000 in 1919. We fully understood the exodus.

Next up was Nebraska. This was my first time visiting. Our first stop was Lincoln, which has the second-largest Jewish population in the state and supports two synagogues. We didn’t find a deli nearby but did find a hole-in-the-wall Mediterranean restaurant called The Sultan’s Kite, which was excellent. Omaha has the largest Jewish population in Nebraska and supports four active synagogues. At this point we were craving a good pizza, and so we detoured from deli’s and found a great pick called Pitch. The wood-fired pizza was incredible, and we had our favorite, which is meatball with ricotta and mozzarella. Admittedly treyf (not kosher), but well worth it.

Our last stop was in Sioux Falls, and after arriving we were overcome by strip mall casinos and construction, and our mission was all but forgotten.

Vacationing during COVID-19 puts limits on the full rites of travel experience, however, if I learned anything it was this: Deli menus and serving sizes have returned to oversized portions; shopping isn’t too restricted during COVID, as long as you know what you want; and no matter where a MOT is raised, these universal rites of travel influence their upbringing.