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Which Way's North?

Some people just have a poor sense of direction. Namely, my people.

I have a theory about intermarriage. I know some people think Judaism is going to die out if Jews keep marrying outside the religion, but if my circle of friends is any indication, there's a practical, perhaps even evolutionary, reason for Jews to be marrying gentiles. In every relationship I know of, the Jew has the worse sense of direction.

I was once standing on the beach in Los Angeles asking a friend where Pasadena was. "It's north of here," she said. After I asked, "Where's north?" she patiently pointed her left hand toward the water and said, "Well, the Pacific Ocean is on your left, so that has to be west, which means north is right in front of you."


My wife, Carol (hint: she's blond and blue-eyed), and I went to Tuscany with friends of ours from Boston - Jane (a member of the tribe) and Harry, who, no matter how long he grows his beard, will never be mistaken for a rabbi. We rented a car in Rome, and as the Budget guy began giving directions, Carol and Harry stepped to the counter as Jane and I moved back. "You're not any good with maps, either?" Jane asked. "I'm better with Braille." It didn't take a Vasco da Gama to figure that the best way of getting out of Rome was for Harry to drive and Carol to navigate. I looked at Jane and said, "Jews in the back."

It's the same in every relationship, male or female, gay or straight. The gentile looks at the map and says, "This way." The Jew says, "After you." Why is this? Did our forebears walk around the desert for 40 years because they couldn't find their way out? It couldn't have been that they liked the sights so much.

Whatever. When we were in Venice some years ago, Carol would look at a map for two minutes and take us out onto the street, zig this way and zag the next, walk up one bridge and down the other, get us onto a vaporetto, and bingo, we were where we were supposed to be. Now, I'm not saying I married Carol for her sense of direction. Nor am I suggesting that every Jewish boy or girl get himself or herself a gentile to keep from getting lost. But there is a sense of completion that all good married couples bring to each other. Somebody says to Carol, "Have a nice vacation," and she says, "We will." Somebody says that to me, and I say, "We'll try." I have a much brighter outlook on life since meeting Carol. I'm not sure what she gets in the bargain.

Of course, no two people can be complete, either, so if you're traveling with compatible friends, you're even further ahead of the game. Jane did the preliminary work on scouting the Web for an Italian villa, and she and Carol found the perfect place - cozy accommodations in the small, untouristy town of Sarteano with one of those views from the porch that makes you feel you're at heaven's gate.

Jane was the most accomplished cook in the quartet, and her earthiness hinted at what WASPs get from Jews. Harry's relatively detached wryness provided a Letterman-esque running commentary. If a beautiful woman walked by, he might turn to me and simply say, "Prego!" Jane, meanwhile, had a more full-bodied, ribald sense of humor, going into mock swoons over the local doctor Harry had seen for a bronchial infection.

One day we went to Iris Origo's La Foce, something of an anti-Fascist refuge during World War II, then to the nearby gorgeous town of Pienza. After buying some of Origo's memoirs, Jane and I realized we had walked in a circle around the town and had no idea where the car was. I would have trudged back to the main gate and retraced our steps, which would have taken another half-hour or so. Carol pointed and said, "I think we should go out this gate." We did, and there was our car, about 10 yards away.

Jane said, "How the hell did she figure that out?"

I just smiled, raised my arms, and shrugged, as if to say, "This is something that you and I will never know."

Former Boston Globe theater critic Ed Siegel is a freelance writer whose work also appears on WBUR-FM. E-mail him at

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