Archive for January 23rd, 2011

23rd January
2011
written by Bloom

South America isn’t the easiest place to be Jewish, but with some communities and fellow travelers spread across the continent, we didn’t wander alone. We started in Lima where the local community numbers, from memory, about 1500 – half of what it was ten years ago. Their main synagogue, which was distinguished only by the fact it has no distinguishing features on the outside of its fortress like perimeter, was sparsely attended even though there was a bar mitzvah.  Of those that did attend, most of the men barely utilized their siddurs, while most of the women did not even bother taking one. With perhaps three people in the shule under 35, the future does not seem bright for the Lima community. On Friday night we were hosted by the Rabbi, an Israeli who took on the post for five years despite not knowing any Spanish. On Saturday we were treated to a an extravagant gourmet Kiddush where guests were presented with champagne by white tuxedo wearing waiters, only further highlighting our our shabby backpacker attire.

Cuzco: Highest Israeli to oxygen ratio outside the Himalayas

Israelis tend to travel in packs so that you often encounter one or two in a given place… or enormous hordes. In Huacachina we met swarms of Israelis who would scream at the dune buggy drivers in Hebrew. In our next stop, Arequipa, there was not an Israeli in sight.

Next stop Cuzco, home to one of the most popular traveler Chabads in the world. What first shocked me about Cuzco Chabad was that it hidden away behind metal security doors.  What shocked me more was that it is a complete dump.  My previous experience with large traveler Chabads was in Bangkok, where I spent  Shavuot 2005 in a prominent, immaculate and highly air-conditioned complex with hundreds of Israeli backpackers. Chabad Cuzco however is a ramshackle courtyard style Peruvian apartment block where Shabbat meals are held in the central yard, which I imagine would be not much fun when it snows. There were around 150 guests for Shabbat, down from their high season peak of 400. Almost all of the attendees were Israelis who of course all knew each other from hanging out at other Chabads in South America. There are all types that gather at a South American Chabad: the religious, the secretly religious, the formerly religious, and the regular Israelis who simply want to be in a place where they won’t need to interact with anyone who isn’t Israeli. One of the more interesting Israelis was a quiet, unremarkable post army guy who proceeded to do an excellent job correcting kriat hatorah… without even opening a Chumash.

Now there are many people who are uncomfortable with kiruv. I am not such a person. In fact, I welcome attempts to bring fellow Jews closer to our tradition, provided it is done in an honest and straightforward manner where everyone is treated like adults. What makes Chabad Cuzco so awkward is that they so desperately want to mekarev these crowds of Israelis, it’s just that they are so damn bad at it.

Before beginning the kiruv, the rabbi stood up to welcome everybody to the Shabbat meal. He then delivered a long list of safety warnings such as, ‘people will deliberately rent you broken  and dangerous motorbikes and then charge you for the repairs’, and ‘the three day white water rafting is not safe all, people have died including Israelis.’ After the warnings one of the shlichim stood up to lead a song, which I personally think is a welcome feature at any Shabbat table.  What song did he choose? A little tzur mishelo maybe, a dror yikra perhaps? No, instead he insisted on leading, in English, a semi responsive reggae style chant about ‘waiting for the moshiach man.’ The second song was just as good, with a chorus of ‘I’m going Chassidish, I started speaking Yiddish.’ Unfortunately I can’t remember more of the lyrics of either song but I can assure you they left the listener in fluctuating states of cringing and laughter.

This La Paz optician really wants you to thank God

Now this is where I think they went wrong. Firstly, no one had ever heard of these songs, which makes it hard to get some group ruach happening.  Secondly, the songs weren’t actually about Shabbat or Judaism for that matter, they were only about Chabad. Thirdly, everyone there was Israeli ( I joked that Ilana and the shlichim were the only people in the room who didn’t serve in the army), so why would you try to sing song in English? Kiruv is like being a good DJ, you’ve got to know your audience.  In any case, most of said Israeli crowd left before the end of the meal and did not return for Saturday lunch.

Where we most would have needed a Chabad was in Rurrenebaque, Bolivia, where believe it or not you can get jungle and pampas tours in lashon hakodesh.  Unfortunately, the Chabad there had closed down just three weeks earlier as it had run out of money and the visas of the shlichim had expired. Funnily enough, we had met the shlichim, who were clearly meshichistim, at our guest house in Huacachina, where they had proceeded to strip down to their underwear and jump into, in order to use as a mikvah, the lake which exactly zero other people had thought fit for swimming.

Our next Shabbat was in Salta, a city in northern Argentina with a local Jewish community where the Orthodox and Reform shule are neighbours. Upon entering shule on Friday night I was made to lead davening, which was awkward because a) they had their own nusach, b) there was no minyan and c) the guy who asked me to lead, after becoming unhappy with my leading, then stood beside me co-leading for the rest of the service. We then ate with a small group of Israelis, mostly couples, with the wife of the Chabad rabbi.

Salta: Great Chabad in an Argentinian desert of traif

After so many weeks on the road it was strange to see men in black hats and velvet kippahs wandering the streets of Buenos Aires. As already mentioned, the city has a tremendous array of Kosher dining options of which we sampled only a few. While there are many different synagogues in Buenos Aires, the one closest to our apartment was, you guessed it, Chabad.  The Rabbi was a cheerful fellow who was genuinely excited by chasidut. What set him apart from all of the other Rabbis we had encountered is that he believed in our trip. Many religious Jews, including, and sometimes especially, Chabadnikim, cannot understand why anyone would want to wander through strange lands and cultures across the globe. Chabadnikim may find their way to the Amazon’s edge, but they are not ideological travelers. Rather, travelers’ Chabads exist to ameliorate the effects of travel. To protect and shelter the travelling Jew from his hostile surrounds, to provide Jewish home in a place so far from your Jewish home.  And yashar ko’ach to them for it. I am certainly forever grateful for their hospitality. But the Rabbi of Palermo Chabad was different in that he understood the journey for its own sake. He said that one of the mistakes of prewar European Jewry is that they were too reluctant to leave their comfort zone, and  that Avraham’s spiritual journey also began with a physical journey abandoning his homeland. He was pleased to hear that we blessed  ‘ha’oseh ma’aseh bereshit’ at Iguazu Falls and wished us well in spreading light and blessings in all the far flung places we might visit. It was nice to finally be understood as a traveler and a Jew at the same time.