Friday, December 19, 2008

Denied in D.F.

I had planned to write a tale on Mexico City's Jewish community, about its long history and vibrant community. Alas, things didn't work out as planned because the Beit El synagogue in Polonco saw fit to deny my shabbat entrance. I will explain.

This wandering Jew brought a sidekick with him for the trip down to Mexico, as I was joined by my little brother Harry for the adventure. Our first Jewish encounter came in the form of dinner with my friend Dina, a Mexican Jew who I met at the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship. We trekked down to her place for a lovely meal with her and her mother. Harry remarked how much the place felt like home for the judaica around the place, including some things that our parents have as well. We chatted a little about Mexico City (Distrito Federal, D.F.) and its 50,000 Jews, and she recommended a place for us to go to synagogue on Friday night.

On Friday, we headed over across town to get to the shul, shlepping our way two metro lines and a long ten block walk. We wished the Jews we passed on our way a shabbat shalom and arrived at 7pm, when services were to start. We showed our passports to the guard, and he looked at them and asked us some initial questions like where we went to synagogue in the US, then took us aside to ask some more questions about what we were doing in Mexico and why we ended up at this shul. He had us sit outside the shul, while he examined our passports. 10 minutes later, another security guard came out with a two-page questionnaire for us. This questionnaire wanted to know such things like where I went to high school, where my parents went to high school, where I last worked and why I left. We completed the questionnaire and sat to wait longer. At that point, our mood was still joyous as we thought it was just a mere formality. We sat on a bench, singing "L'cha Dodi" and wishing the Jews passing by a shabbat shalom, while cars pulled up and dropped the synagogue goers off, while valets took their cars away.

After a while longer, the security came back and wanted to know who recommended the synagogue to us, and the contact info for our Mexican Jewish friend, since we were coming uninvited to the synagogue. We gave them Dina's info and sat waiting longer. At this point, we were getting a little annoyed because we had been sitting out for 45 minutes and we missing services.

Finally the guard came back and said that he couldn't reach Dina, and unfortunately, we wouldn't be allowed in. WHAT! I tried to talk to him to figure out their reasons. I asked to speak to the head of security, and he came over. He then told me that the community was on "red alert" after Mumbai and some other threat that had recently taken place. He also said that a foreigner coming uninvited to their synagogue with a passport like mine gave them worry. So for me being a wandering Jew, we were being denied entrance for shabbat. I tried to explain that I used to work for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, so I understood the need for security, and that I lived in Argentina, so I understood the need for communities to be vigilant but that that was something too far. I offered to let him search our bags, talk to our rabbi in the US, whatever else he could possibly want, but he remained firm in refusing our entrance.

In all my travels to different Jewish communities around the world, I have never experience anything like this. Harry and I left angry, shocked and saddened. I thought we had left the ghetto, but here were Jews cowering behind the walls they had built to the world, trying to keep the cossacks out. We were in complete disbelief. Here were two nice Jewish boys, with proper identification, being denied entrance into a synagogue on Shabbat! It was if something had died for me tonight- this idea that I could visit the Jewish communities the world over and always be welcomed. I'm still dejected by what has transpired, and it has sadly colored my picture of the Mexican Jewish community as being scared of its shadow.

As Harry and I set off on our journey down to Mexico, I said to him a quote by Eduardo Galleano, "The truth lies in the journey not the port." As we were waiting outside the synagogue last night, still not even remotely expecting to be denied entrance, we laughed about that notion related to our journey to get to services. Harry remarked to me later that night that the quote was even more apropos. We learned a lot last night, more than if we had simply shared a shabbat with the Jews of Mexico City. If we had been let in, it would been simply an enjoyable evening of services of a different variety; instead we learned the sad truth of how scared the Jewish people have become of the outside world, the failures that we still face as a people related to our security in the world- even with the State of Israel. Shabbat shalom from Mexico City, on what was one of the saddest shabbats of my life.

My story has a little addendum. On Saturday, I went to the Museo Mural de Diego Rivera. The museum has a phenomenal mural of Diego Rivera on the first floor, and on the second floor there is an exhbition chronicling the Spanish Inquisition in Mexico. Seeing this flooded me with the realization that the Jewish community of Mexico was born out of the fires of the Inquisitionm and still deep down bears its scars and insecurities. With this realization, I finally was able to recapture my sabbath peace.

On an end note, last night was the first night of Hanukkah (Janukka!). Out of luck, we found an Israeli named Guy, who was staying at the hostel. He just happened to have a brought a menorah, candles and dreidel. We were able to light the hanukkah candles, and we spent the night playing dreidel for pesos.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Israelis at the Mall

Interesting article in the Wall Street Journal about Israelis at the mall. I should have thought to do a piece on that, but I forgive myself for not coming up with it first since I never go to the mall.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Separated at birth

I think I have a long lost brother. Check out Jono David's Jewish Photo Library

Saturday, November 8, 2008

New Jewish PM in Kiwiland

News beyond Rahm Emmanuel playing enforcer for the Obama administration: a tribe member will be heading up New Zealand.

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Dragon's Yarmulke

My roommie Chelsea is also the editor of US-China Today, the online magazine for the US-China Institute at USC. The first day we met, she recruited me for an article for the magazine. It was recently published, follow the link for "The Dragon's Yarmulke." Be sure to click on the interactive map and photo show.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The new Chief Rabbi of Uganda

As the unofficial Chief Rabbi of Lesotho, I am pleased to welcome another fellow chief. Check out this article on the new Chief Rabbi of Uganda.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Jewish World's best assests

Following in the same spirit of Maxim girls of the IDF pin-up, Heeb magazine has a new edition of girls you wish you could bring home to mom. Heeb's nice Jewish girl calendar in their summer magazine comes complete with Bar Rafaeli on the cover of the magazine.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Jews in Morocco

Posted is a nice little piece in the JPost about Jews in Morocco.

I studied in Morocco some seven years ago. I was there not long after 9/11 and while the Intifada was still raging daily. It was a fascinating experience, and I really loved my time there. I lived in Rabat with a Moroccan Muslim family who were wonderful to me. I still keep in contact with my host brothers. I spent passover there, and hiked around the Middle Atlas mountains with a kilo of matzah in my backpack, and shared it with everyone I met. I also used to make people laugh when I would ask for directions to the synagogue in Rabat, "ou le mosque pour juifs?" (Where is the mosque for Jews?)

One of my favorite anecdotes involves a close shave. I used to go on a weekly trip to an old barber who would shave me for a few dirhams. During Israel's Operation Defensive Shield, the campaign that followed the Passover bombings in Netanya, there was a huge pro-Palestinian rally in Rabat. I decided to be out of the city that day, since I was already away for the weekend. The day when I returned, there were stickers all over the place of the Dome of the Rock, including in the barber shop where I would get shaved. I noticed this sticker in the mirror behind me as the barber had the straight razor to my throat. Gulp.

Meanwhile, as the news played on the tv above, al-Jazeera began broadcasting a clip of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. This led to the barber to grumble under his breath about Sharon, all while he had the straight razor to my throat. My shave ended with a few drops of sweat on my brow, but nary a nick.

I have lots of other little anecdotes about being a Jewish Zionist living in Morocco, but I will share them in due time.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Mmmm...Kosher giraffe

As the Chief Rabbi of Lesotho, I already knew this to be kosher, but some of my rabbinical brethren have seen fit to agree. See this link.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Cusco, the navel of the world

This tale begins amid the confusion of a "paro," a strike going on in Cusco over the threatened privatization of Machu Picchu by the Peruvian government to Chilean investors. I was on a bus from Arequipa to Cusco, that was supposed to arrive at 6am. Rather, I awoke around 6am to an empty bus. I asked the driver what was going on, and he mentioned there was the strike going on outside. I would have to walk into town. I got off the bus, and started talking to another gringo named Nir. Nir was from Israel, and we decided to head off into town. Some 6 hours later, we finally arrived to Cusco, where I begin my latest tale.

Like Jerusalem, Cusco was believed by the Incans to be the navel of the world. These days, it is the center of Peruvian tourism, and is inundated with foreigners. So much so, that walking through the main square, I saw numerous Israeli flags flying along side the others. There were signs in Hebrew offering internet services like skype, and promoting packages. Nir and I even found a bagel shop, and a pretty good Mediterranean restaurant that had surprisingly decent shwarma in a laffa (Iraqi pita), with stellar harif (hot sauce). Even the Peruvians I spoke with, who are well accustomed to hot foods, found the harif to be spicy.

As Shabbat was coming in, I began wondering what I would do for the sabbath. As I was walking back to my hostel to get ready for the sabbath, I bumped into a fellow foreigner who was trying to get rid of a hawker. As we were chatting, I found out that Virginia from New York was also Jewish and looking for a place to go for shabbat. Her hotel had told her there were no synagogues, but with such an Israeli presence, I found that hard to believe. We ducked into an internet cafe, checked on the Chabad website, and sure enough- found a Beit Chabad.

After changing into Shabbat attire, I trekked through the city to find the Beit Chabad. I was lost, searching for the Beit Chabad, until I spied a hanging banner of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Yet to my shock, the Beit Chabad was closed. I had the good fortune of arriving just as Gabino de Cuza. Gabino works with the rabbi as an assistant in the kitchen, and he explained to me that the rabbi was away on vacation during a period when most Israelis are either in Bolivia or Brazil.

The amiable assistant to the Beit Chabad sat down with me to discuss the institutions that Beit Chabad Cusco possessed. Gabino mentioned that the Beit Chabad had been around for 3 years. He mentioned that they have a kosher restaurant. The restaurant receives its kosher meat from Buenos Aires, while the Beit Chabad also owns a farm to raise and slaughter kosher chicken. There is also a place to stay near the shul for Shabbat. When the synagogue is open, they receive between 80-100 people on a weekly basis for the sabbath. Meanwhile, Gabi beamed when he mentioned there were between 400-500 guests for passover. Mostly the visitors to the Beit Chabad are from Israel, but Gabino mentioned that they receive a number of Americans, Australians and Russians to the synagogue.

As I previously mentioned, the synagogue was unfortunately closed when I arrived, so I wasn't able to do a full "Tales" piece. I also boycotted writing anything about the community in Lima, stemming from some ill-received feelings of rejected hospitality that came my way from a Liman Jew. If anyone would like to see more about the Peruvian Jewish community, click here for some history.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Chile´s Jewish Community

Since I have taken over the apartment of my Chilean Jewish friend Valeria (the wandering Jew becomes an Israeli settler) and have been hanging with her and her boyfriend Jorge, I thought I should include something on the Chilean Jewish community.

The Chilean Jewish is roughly 17,000, of which 95% is in Santiago; there are pockets in Valparaiso and ViƱa del Mar as well. The Jewish communtiy of Chile is mostly Ashkenazi from Eastern Europe and Germany, but Spehardim make up nearly 20 percent. The Sephardic communtiy comes mostly from the Ottoman Empire, comprising Jews from Istanbul, Soloniki, Izmir and Monastir (Macedonia).

My friend Valeria is from a mixed-marriage, in so far as her mother is an Ashkenazi German, while her father is a Sephardic Turkish Jew. Jorge is the product of a real mixed marriage, of Russian Ashkenazi extraction, while his father is a secular Chilean who didn´t convert. They are a cute couple, who met at a Jewish function in Valparaiso.

There are eight synagogues in Santiago, five of which are Conservative, while the other three are Orthodox (one Chabad); there are two Jewish day schools. The Jewish community in Chile is very secular, very Zionist and very integrated into Chilean society, while not being especially affiliated with the organized Jewish community. Jews of Chile have been active in academia, medicine, the press and other liberal facets of society and culture. The integration is most acutely symbolized in that Chile´s President Michelle Batchelet had the most Jewish ministers in her cabinet for any country in the world, exluding Israel.

Members of the Chilean Jewish community were involved in the government of President Allende, as well as the opposition to Allende; moreover, nearly a third of the Jewish community fled into exile during Allende´s rule, only to return when General Pinochet took power. Although Chile and Argentina both underwent periods of brutal military dictatorship, the Jewish community of Chile did not suffer nearly as much as the Jewish community of Argentina. Of the 3,000 Chileans who disappeared, twenty came from the Jewish community. During the General Pinochet gave considerable support to Israel, in spite of Chile´s large Palestinian community and also bought arms from Israel.

My own anecdote on Chile´s Jewish and Palestinian communities relates to a project I worked on at the Israeli Foreign Ministry. We were hosting "Breaking the Ice," a project that set out to prove that Israelis and Palestinians could do amazing things when brought together outside the conflict. The project was to have a group of Israelis and Palestinians (who had never seen snow) travel to Antartica and climb and unnamed, unclimbed mountain together. They completed the task, and it was mentioned in Time Magazine, among other media outlets. When the heads of the Chilean Palestinian and Jewish communities heard of the project, the contacted each other for the first time, and for the first time they came together to greet the climbers upon their return.

Dialogue between the communities continues today, including an intercultural diaologue project that Valeria works on as a facilitator.

Friday, February 15, 2008

All Grandmas are Yiddishe bubbes

I was in Israel about 5 years ago, when the intifada was still going on. I was there for two weeks as a college graduation gift from my parents. I was in Haifa, staying with my friend Irit and I was leaving to head onto Jordan. Her Yiddishe grandmother was there, and when she heard I was going to Jordan, she exclaimed, "Vhat, it is so dangerous! You have to be careful wit zee Arabs!" I explained that I spoke some Arabic, and would be saying with a friend in Amman. This calmed her a little, and she said, "Fine, but before you go, you must eat something."

I went on to Jordan, and had a wonderful time visiting Petra, Ma´adaba and Amman. I was staying in Amman with my friend Omar and his family. Omar´s mother is Palestinian and his father is Kurdish, perhaps the most dispossesed combo in the Middle East. Anywho, I had a wonderful time with his family, and was treated like a king. The day I was heading back to Israel, Omar´s Palestinian grandmother was there. When she found out that I was heading to Israel, she exlaimed "What, it is so dangerous! You have to be careful of the Israelis!" I laughed, and explained that I was Jewish, spoke some Hebrew and would be fine. This calmed her a little, and she said, "Fine, but before you go, you must eat something."

That anecdote explains the Middle East conflict in a nutshell. Two sides that don´t know the other, are terrified of each other, and warn me to be wary of the demons on the other side, yet treat me with such compassion and stuff me full of wonderful food before heading out to do battle. Grandmothers are grandmothers the world over.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Nahum Goldmann Fellowship

I am keeping an ongoing blog from the International Nahum Goldmann Fellowship on my regular blog, click Levantine18 to see it. After the conference, I will post some form of it here.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Patagonia´s influx of Israelis

"Have you been to ´Israeloche?´" came the question from an Israeli backpacker. It didn´t seem that off the mark given that the Argentine city of Bariloche was indeed overrun with Israeli travelers.

For that matter, all of Patagonia is chock-full of Israelis. Drawn by the rugged landscape, numerous trekking opportunities and relative bargain that Argentina has become in the wake of the 2001 financial crisis, Israelis are pouring into Patagonia. As noted by a worker at a tourist information booth in Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego, “the most steady stream of travelers that we receive throughout the year are Israelis.”

For all intents and purposes, Bariloche is the hub of Jewish life in Patagonia. In Bariloche, there is a permanent Jewish community of nearly 150 people, and that number is buoyed by a tremendous influx of Israeli travelers passing through.

Bariloche is also home to one of the most southerly Beit Chabads on the planet, and I stopped by for Shabbat and squeezed my way into a packed service.

Following services, the synagogue reconvened in a convention hall for Shabbat dinner, and we were joined by scores of Israeli travelers; in total, nearly 150 people were there for Shabbat dinner. As good as Argentine empanadas are, they still can’t compete with fresh challah and matbouhah.

While most Israeli travelers are post-Army backpackers, I have also encountered a considerable number of older Israelis on vacation here. One Israeli remarked that he was visiting Patagonia because his son had been backpacking here the previous year and recommended it so highly that he had to visit. Similar sentiments were echoed by other older travelers, not to mention a scattered number of Israeli families traveling in Patagonia.

Every city and hiking refuge in this land of midnight summer sun is filled with Israelis. So much so, it seems Hebrew is practically a second language in Patagonia. Hostels are filled with the sound of Hebrew and Hebrew sections on menus are fairly common. I even saw flyers hawking hostels and trekking services written in Hebrew. Meanwhile, while I was on a glacier tour in El Chalten, I was the only native English speaker on the English tour: all the rest were Israelis.

The most telling anecdote of the Israeli presence in Patagonia came while I was crossing the Straits of Magellan. As our bus was crossing the Straits on a ferry, Ehud Banai started playing over the bus speakers. I figured the music was property of one of the many Israeli passengers, but it turned out to be a cd of the Argentine driver, who got it after an Israeli had previously played him the music.

Patagonia has clearly become a major spot on the radar for itinerant Israelis, and their presence here is quickly changing the tourist landscape. The promise of austral adventures will surely continue to draw the Israeli backpacker crowd, but the slow forming nucleus of a Patagonian tourist industry that caters to a broader segment of Israeli society may be something on the rugged horizon as a wider range of Israeli tourists arrive annually to this majestic territory.