Growing up in Orthodox Brooklyn, all that was forbidden to us was, by its nature, exotic. We did not have much exposure to those other than us, and by others I mean anyone not Modern Orthodox, not even to many Conservative and Reform Jews, except for a sprinkling of relatives who fell into those camps. Someone who was not Jewish at all, one of the “goyim,” took on immense fascination. Tina Bonetti (not her real name) was the mother of the only Italian family on the block and therefore the designated Shabbos goy for an entire street. I would need to wander over to her house on an occasional Friday night, for example, if my mother had forgotten to turn down the oven.
“The oven is extremely hot,” I would say, or “the lights in the basement won’t go off,” never asking explicitly on the off chance that, unbeknownst to us, she was Jewish and I was therefore asking her to perform a transgression. She would open the door in jeans, her blond frosted hair in curlers, and greet me warmly, ready to serve. I had not up to that point seen a middle aged woman in jeans and she fascinated me. My experience, by virtue of the Orthodox exclusivity where I was growing up, rendered those I had little contact with “the other” much as it was supposed to. Even products advertised on TV that were forbidden to us seemed exotic and bit strange. Twinkies, for example and anything Sara Lee.
My young adult life found me in Israel for five years where “the other” became Israeli Arabs and Palestinians. As a 19-year-old student at Hebrew University, I patrolled the perimeter of the French Hill dorms with an Israeli. He wielded the gun, I the flashlight. There was little interaction in those days between the Palestinian and Israeli students at Hebrew U. The only Palestinians we knew were those who hung out at the famous left wing cafe in the center of town, Ta’amon and at Beit Haomanim, the Jerusalem Artists’ House. An Israeli friend was dating a Palestinian but they could not find a place to live comfortably and were equally harassed in Israeli apartment buildings and Arab villages. In Israel, I distinctly experienced what it was to be part of the majority.
When I moved to New England, I was certainly not a member of the majority culture, but was “other” in a very quiet, understated way. It was not until I traveled to Chile for the first time with my husband in 1987, that I had my first true experience of being “the other.” Chile, like many other South American countries, is profoundly Catholic and its middle class participates in a social Catholicism irrespective of personal beliefs. Crosses were everywhere. Jesus stared down at me from walls and paintings, statues and restaurant art. The many roads that twisted in and out of the foothills of the Andes were pierced with crosses and the names of those who had died in the aggressive sport of Chilean driving. (I received snickers when, years later, I would strap my child into his seat whenever we were on the road.) On public buses, many Chileans would cross themselves rapidly when the bus drove by a Church. There I was, amid the throngs of people in Downtown Santiago, on the vertiginous hills of Valparaiso, and in a dry and evocative desert that, as the Sinai, bordered the sea (but this time with the sea on the other side), for the first time, very much “the other.”
While there is a significant Jewish population in Santiago, and its denizens are spoken about with respect—mainly, I perceived, for their successes in the circles in which I found myself on that first trip—there was little integration except for professional acquaintances. I encountered curiosity, stereotyping, hurtful humor (it should be said that Chileans are wittily cruel in their humor and do not spare any culture or disability) and a good deal of ignorance. I began to surmise that in this country, Jews had never been let off the hook for the killing of Christ. I suggested this and my husband disagreed. A month later, to decide the contest, a good friend of ours began to stop people on the streets of Santiago and asked if they would agree to a short interview. Several did and he posed the question, “Who killed Christ?” In his small random sample of Chileans, we were indicted again and again.
It was this experience, many years later, that was still thrumming beneath the surface as the characters and themes of “Into the Atacama” began to emerge.