Imagine Purim by the crystal clear and warm waters of the Caribbean Sea. No need for warm costumes or shoveling out the entrance to the synagogue. This week not one but two Jewish communities will have the opportunity to do just that, in a modern and multicultural celebration of an ancient Jewish holiday.
The blue sea is the only backdrop the Jews of Santa Marta Colombia have ever known to Purim and other Jewish holidays. They are an emerging community made up exclusively of Caribbean converts who, in the past decade, have built a small but strong chavurah, prayer community. Generally they are on their own when it comes to Jewish life. But this week, students from Vanderbilt University Hillel are joining them.
The 10 day alternative spring break for the visit, organized in conjunction with Be’chol Lashon is introducing these American Jews to the richness and diversity of Jewish life in Colombia. They started in the heights Bogata, where they met the established historic Jewish community before setting off for the shores of Caribbean.
In coming to Santa Marta, these young American Jews will be exposed to a community which, like a time machine, mirrors the origins of their own communities in North America many decades or centuries ago (picture the first Jews of New Amsterdam, or the first Jews to wander into the Tennessee frontier). There is a one-room synagogue with one little Torah and a small Hebrew Sunday School. There is no fancy buildings, no rabbi in site, but bucketfuls of enthusiasm to make Jewish life thrive and grow in a place where it had not before.
At the same time, the Colombian Jews will be confronted with the image of complex hyphenated Jewish American youths coming from a place where Judaism feeds the surrounding culture and is in turn nourished and morphed by it: almost a utopian dream for such a small minority culture, still in its institutional and demographic infancy.
However, as it has happened in the past with other visiting Jews, the common threads of our story will bind us together. The American students will not be eating hamentaschen this year, but rather, they will feast on a very different gastronomy. The music coming out of the speakers (louder than most American are accustomed to) during the Purim celebration will be ripe with foreign cadences. And yet, it will still be Purim. Unequivocally Purim. With Esther and Mordechai and gifts for the poor, and mishloach manot. Haman will be cursed not only in one but in many languages. Despite their differences, in the illustrious tradition of Jewish travelers throughout time, both groups will find common ground.
And it is particularly fitting that this encounter of two cultures is happening on Purim, the first truly global holiday. A people dispersed throughout the 127 provinces of the vast reaching Persian Empire, from India to Ethiopia (meHodu vead Kush) found joint reasons for revelry, and, in doing so, started to take responsibility for one another across the broad expanses of Diaspora, language, and culture. The encounter between Vanderbilt Hillel’s alternative spring break and the local Jewish community of Santa Marta will honor and renew the commitment “assumed and received” by the Jewish people on that first Purim of finding common ground in the face of adversity, but also, not less profoundly, in the promise of shared joy.
Change is an inevitable part of our lives. Most changes, however, happen to us from the outside: we age, we move, the world changes around us regardless of our desires to frame it in a moment. And yet, the most meaningful changes are often those that we set in motion on our own: our voluntary transformations. In the Jewish tradition, the New Year is a time for collective soul-searching and metamorphosis geared towards a positive transformation of ourselves and the world around us.
Central to the liturgy of the New Year is a recurrent Medieval poem which describes God as “a King sitting in a throne of Mercy” (Melekh yoshev ‘al kisse Rachamim). But there is something awkward about “a throne of Mercy.” Throughout the Bible and Midrash, the idea of a throne is associated with judgment and power. Kings, including the King of King of Kings (God), sit in high and lofty thrones that separate them from the ground. It is from this high and separate place where they dispense justice to the people below. The throne is a symbol of the power possessed by one party and not possessed by the other. Power and judgment seem to depend on differences, on distances and on separation; ideas we seldom associate with mercy, which we imagine thriving in contact and intimacy. As any playground kid knows, forgiveness (mercy´s delicious byproduct) is never really true unless sealed by that handshake or, better yet, a hug. And yet it is incredibly difficult to shake or hug someone who is sitting high above you in a throne.
Thus, the idea of a throne of mercy seems strange, even oxymoronic.
However, it precisely because of this contradictory nature, this image seems to be a perfect metaphor for the time of the High Holidays and the possibilities it encapsulates. The Jewish idea of repentance, teshuvah, is connected to the view of our own free will and our power to create- a power we share exclusively with God. Although we are constrained by limitations set by our physical, social and behavioral surroundings, there is a component in us that is absolutely free and, at any moment, can choose to act in a completely unexpected way. In the same way that a throne does not seem a fitting tool of mercy but rather just the opposite, the power of repentance is such that it can alter the expected shape and function of an object into something that it did not seem it had the power to be.
This wondrous act of transformation is made so much more powerful when it goes viral and the entire Jewish people does it together. That is the true power of the High Holidays: focusing the entire attention and energy of a people into the sole purpose of betterment and transformation. When we, collectively as well as individually, choose to do something unexpected and seek for unity instead of division, for connection instead of hierarchy, for closeness instead of judgment, our true potential as a people and as Jews becomes unlocked.
My personal blessing for these powerful days, pregnant with possibilities, is that we look into those things that we think as unchangeable and set in our lives: our surroundings and ethnicity, our situation and our language. And like the throne of Judgement, see ourselves transformed into an improbable but amazing new people with less hangups, less distance between us and other Jews, between us and our fellow human beings.
Carnival, Mardi Gras, Carnaval. These words convey exhuberance, dancing, masks, and overflowing joy (and often excess). From Rio to New Orleans, from Venice to Antigua, the week before the beginning of Lent has always been punctuated with explosions of color, music and parades. And although our own Jewish carnival (Purim) is usually just around the corner and this custom is strongly attached to the Catholic calendar, it is very hard for any local citizen or visitor, Jew or Gentile, to strange himself from the celebrations. The cities that follow this ancient custom usually close down completely during the revelry and just by stepping out of the house one is usually swallowed up in the celebrations.
A few weeks ago, I was celebrating Shabbat with an emergent community of Jews in the port city of Barranquilla in Colombia. I had been invited to perform some weddings and oversee some conversions over a weekend that happened to be coincide with the one of the most splendidly colorful carnavals in the world: the Carnaval de Barranquilla (declared one of the Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity). Given that hosting our Shabbaton in Barranquilla during carnaval would make it a logistical nightmare, we decided to take a break and move it to a quiet resort in the nearby city of Santa Marta. The Shabbaton was a moving and peaceful event full of song, words of Torah, and white linen. But as the sun set and we celebrated the weddings for the new couples, the distant carnaval caught up with us. We had not finished sweeping the broken glass from the chuppah when out of nowhere jumped a reveller in the multicolored persona of the Monocuco (a masked and veiled harlequin with a scepter that teases the crowd). The little girls changed their Shabbat best for red polka dotted dresses and crazy hairdoes, portraying “la Loca” (the crazy woman). And, here and there, through the crowd one could distinguish the undisputed traditional symbol of the the carnaval, the Marimonda (a cheeky anthropomorphic character with the trunk and ears of an elephant, a necktie and big round eyes). The joy of the newlywed Jewish couples mingled with the traditions of their beloved city to create a perfect celebration that lasted well into the dawn of the next day. oung and old, costumed and more collected, danced the night away covered in corn starch and foam to the rhythms of traditional horas punctuated with salsas, merengues, porros, and chirimías.
Throughout history, Jews have collected the traditions and flavors of the places we have been blessed to call home. With time, these traditions (like the pagan eastern european braided challah) become part and parcel and even representative traditions of Judaism. When I was in Barranquilla I asked the community baker to bake some challot for the Shabbaton in a shape that was unique to their city. He was hesitant, given that these Jews in the warm shores of the Caribbean have adopted the Ashkenazi braided loaf as their Shabbat standard. I insisted. Just before Shabbat I was presented with the most wonderful challah one could want in the Shabbat of Carnaval, a challah that was at once uniquely Barranquilla and deliciously kosher: a Challah in the shape of a Marimonda. I hope that in centuries to come this will be a tradition treasured by these new Barranquillean Jews, proving once again, that the great power of the Jewish people is to absorb the best of the beautiful world around us and by integrating it into our millenary system of holiness, elevate and preserve snapshots of the beautiful diversity that has always surrounded us.
Oklahoma City, where I live, has an amazing Jewish community. And, unfortunately, this amazing Jewish community is an expert in dealing with disaster. From the Oklahoma City bombing to the relentless wave of deadly tornadoes that have hit the area, Okie Jews (as we proudly call ourselves) respond with generosity, gumption, and optimism. So when this week our rabbi told us that two relatives of members of the community were in the affected area of Typhoon Haiyan, the community sprung into action. Donations were requested, support for the concerned families was arranged and we decided to help with our prayers by reciting the entire book of Psalms in the coming month (5 Psalms a day covers it all).
In Jewish tradition, whenever disaster strikes it is customary to accompany our physical response together with a spiritual response: prayer, action, and tzedakah (charitable deeds) are the Jewish response to tragedy. Traditionally, prayer come from the book of Psalms with its evocative language of raw humanity and hope has been a preferred tool to raise our awareness of the suffering of those affected but also to inspire us to compassion and proactivity.
As part of my work with Be’chol Lashon, I teach Torah online to Spanish speaking Jews and Spanish speakers interested in Judaism. Inspired by the Okie response, that night I invited my Spanish language learning community on Facebook to join us in the recitation of Psalms for the victims.
“Why are you doing this?” some wanted to know. The answers came from the students themselves. A student from Honduras recalled the help they had received when Hurricane Mitch hit this country. A student from Colombia emphasized the responsibility he felt as a human being with any kind of human suffering. A Mexican student quoted the words of Hillel “If I am only for myself, what am I?” The support was overwhelming. Scores of people volunteered to connect with my brick and mortar community in Oklahoma to reach out in prayer and action for a community halfway across the world.
These feelings of altruism and generosity are not new but what is surprising is the way in which living in a wired world has expanded the breadth of the planet´s capacity for empathy. In this world where no longer are we separated by six degrees (latest studies calculate it at four and plummeting) of separation. A synagogue in Oklahoma might be the vehicle for scores of Latin-Americans to connect with a tragedy halfway around the world and to do so in unmistakably Jewish ways. Tehilim are being said, and donations are being gathered by total strangers for total strangers. For all of its downsides, our global village has allowed the highest forms of tzedakah (in which both the donor and the recipient do so anonymously) to break the barriers of the pushke and the local synagogue and go global.