When Marshall Morgan went traveling, the Sewickley grocer always stayed alert for exotic cheeses, mustards and preserves.
A purveyor of gourmet foods, Morgan shopped differently. Some people buy food to stock their pantries; Morgan shopped to fill his store’s shelves.
For five decades, Morgan worked at Select Food Market on Beaver Avenue in Sewickley. Retired now, Morgan and his wife, Paula, still travel. Though instead of searching for particular foods, Morgan scours his destinations for Jewish connections. This pursuit has granted him visits to remote synagogues and antiquated communities, as well as a bevy of tales from faraway lands.
When the Morgans began traveling years ago, they often spent High Holy Days abroad. As similar as many of the synagogue services were, the experiences were never duplicated.
In Argentina, the prayers were sung so beautifully, Morgan claimed, “you can close your eyes and it sounds like Simon and Garfunkel.”
In Spain, the Jewish community was so poor it could not afford machzorim, so worshippers prayed from mimeographed papers.
Like the foods he searched for, each site had a special flavor.
After a Friday night service in Delhi, the members of the synagogue where he prayed served Coca Cola and chips.
At the Chabad house in Cambodia, Morgan celebrated Chanukah with 50 people, and ate “delicious potato pancakes.”
The Morgans found that attending a synagogue abroad differed from worshipping at home.
“Security is paramount [overseas],” Morgan said. Before arriving, he and his wife would always call ahead and alert the synagogue leaders of their intent to visit.
In Chile, the Morgans were subjected to a series of Jewish-themed questions before entering the synagogue grounds. Even after successfully passing the test, he remembers being watched during the entire service.
Heightened security was not the only peculiarity the Morgans encountered. Local Jews afforded ample reminders, intentionally or unintentionally, of the differences abroad.
In Ghent, Belgium, the Morgans were told Kol Nidre services started at 6 p.m. When they arrived, though, the synagogue was empty. They asked the caretaker where everyone was, to which he replied that the rabbi had gone to Antwerp searching for a larger crowd.
Morgan, a retailer himself, laughed and explained, “you got to go where the customers are.”
On some stops, Morgan has relished Jewish life in dying and newly revived communities.
In Shanghai, he noticed dancing classes occupying the extant buildings from the famed Jewish ghetto. In Burma, he observed two beautiful synagogues in a community lacking enough Jews for a minyan.
Though some of his destinations were isolated, Morgan has routinely found landsmen.
“Being Jewish,” he said, “it is a close knit club.”
While drinking tea in Ecuador, the Morgans befriended a British Jewish couple. They stayed in touch and later spent the High Holy Days together in London.
“You meet people, and doors open in other countries,” Morgan said.
This feeling of hospitality and kindness was not lost on Morgan. Over the years, the fruits of his travels appeared in the store. Along with unique products, customers enjoyed service with a bygone charm.
When his specialty food store closed nearly a decade ago, Morgan said goodbye to a place where he had worked since he was 10. He and his wife still find time to travel, though these days they only bring a carry-on. The bag has no room for exotic cheese, but plenty of space for new memories.
(Adam Reinherz, who writes about life in Jewish Pittsburgh, can be reached at email@example.com.)