Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Alcalá de Henares, Spain

By Julie Kalt and Alex Freedman

1492 was a definitive year in the history of Spain. For hundreds of years, Spain was home to a confluence of the three major monotheistic religions: Christianity, Judiasm, and Islam. This mixture of traditions and peoples created a rich culture that didn’t exist anywhere else in Europe. Jews in particular contributed greatly to the economic success of Spain during the Middle Ages. This is one of the many reasons we were both interested in studying in Spain

Today, only 12,000 Jews live in Spain, and although their contribution to Spanish history are significant, you can hardly detect a Judaic presence in “la vida diaria” (daily life). Why was 1492 significant? During this time, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabela signed an edict that forced Jews to leave Spain if they refused to convert to Christianity. They felt the only way to politically unify the country was to force the created of an Iberian-Christian nation. Although the Jewish expulsion was more congenial than that of the Muslims, it was an expulsion nonetheless. Today, these Jews are known as Sephardic and make up a tenth of the global Jewish population.

But enough of the history lesson – how has this effected our experience here in Alcalá de Henares? On our first tour of Alcalá, we walked by a cooridor on one of the main streets that used to be part of the Jewish barrio (every city we visit has a former Jewish barrio with no trace of the people or religion that inhabited it). On the wall is a placard that says “The Great Syanagogue.” Lo and behold, it was not quite what we expected:

Julie: “I am so excited to see the synagogue!”
Alex: “Me too!” (asking the guide) “Where is the synagogue?”
Guide: “You’re standing in it.”
(It is now a plaza with a restaurant and a convenience store…so much for that.)
Julie and Alex: :’(

Unfortunately, this is a typical example of the lack of Judaism there is in Spain, and if it is here, it’s a part of small communities that gather in secular spaces to conduct services and pray.

Our program recently traveled to Toldeo where one of the puproses of the trip was to see the mixture of religions. We saw a mosque, a cathedral, and a synangogue. The mosque is now nonfunctioning and was converted into a “church.” The cathedral is enormous, well-maintained, and city landmark, and the synagogue has also been converted into a church (after, of course, having been converted into a mosque first). It does not resemble what we think of as a synagogue, but is characterized by Moorish architecture and structure. Our guide explained that there is no such thing as Jewish architecture because the Jews would construct the synagogues in the popular styles of the day.

This isn’t meant to be a criticism of Spain (a country that is, after all, Catholic), just an observation of how much history can change the political and cultural landscape of a country. It’s easy at Tufts to think that Jews are everywhere having the same kind of presence they have on campus, but coming to a place where there only exists a faint ghost of their presence reminds us that we are lucky to be in an open and diverse community and that, perhaps more importantly, we must remember who we are because if we don’t, who will?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

San Jose, Costa Rica

By Kristen Davenport

Kristen, left, with friends while abroad in Costa Rica

After hearing my friends’ stories of synagogues in other countries, having seen magnificent churches on every corner and having survived several days with Hashkiveinu stuck in my head, I decided to try to find San Jose, Costa Rica’s one reformed synagogue for Shabbat services. I’m spending Spring 2011 traveling around Costa Rica with Duke University’s Global Health and Tropical Medicine Program and we spend the majority of our weeks in the jungle, with class or field trips six days a week. Needless to say, there’s very little time to practice religion of any variety, but we did spend an entire two and a half weeks taking intensive Spanish in the capital city of San Jose and that I decided to take that opportunity to check out the synagogue.

For those of you who don’t know, or haven’t guessed yet, I’m not Jewish. I’ve attended reformed services at Hillel pretty consistently during my three years at Tufts and I’ve come to love spending Friday evenings there. There is something peaceful about Shabbat services and though it may not be “religious” for me, it is a spiritual experience that I value and miss while I’m away. I find that services are a great way to conclude the week and take a much-needed, deep breath before starting all over again. So I made it my mission to attend services in Costa Rica.

I found the synagogue’s website and asked one of my Professor’s if he knew anything about it. He told me that a student had tried to go last semester, but they had turned her away, so I emailed to see if I could get permission to attend. They asked for my passport information, Costa Rican and American contact information and the name and address of my shul (Hillel, of course), which I promptly sent because they needed five days to process the information. I never received a response, but I headed for the synagogue on Friday afternoon anyway. One of my few complaints about Costa Rica is that there are no street addresses; directions read something like this: “800 meters west of Pops Sabana.” That means 800 meters (which to me really only means twice around the track) west (whichever direction that is) from Pops (a ubiquitous ice cream chain) in Sabana (a medium-sized borough of San Jose.) In the end, going to services entailed walking around for three hours, giving up and taking a cab ride, just to realize I had been only 200 m from the synagogue.

Once I finally got there and pulled my khakis on over my shorts in a side alley, I approached the guard armed with my passport. I sat in the basement until a member of the congregation arrived and gave me the go-ahead, and I was led upstairs to the chapel. I said “buenas” and “hola” to a nice old lady, who corrected me by saying, “hola? Hunny, just use hello!” I soon realized that she had spent her entire life in Westchester County, NY and that more than half the congregation of about 50 was comprised of American ex-pats. The other half were their Costa Rican wives and children. The service was bilingual and they passed around a copy of the D’var Torah in English, though it was delivered in Spanish. I really enjoyed the service itself; many of the tunes were similar to the ones I know from Hillel and I was overjoyed to learn that in Costa Rica, “ch” is pronounced like a breathy “h”. So much easier! The oneg afterward was an exhilarating break from the rice and beans I’ve been living on; there was kugel, hummus, pita and even the Manischewitz tasted good.
A picture Kristen took while traveling in Costa Rica

I had a wonderful night and, though I missed the Hillel environment and all the friends I normally see at services, I feel very lucky to have had that peaceful, familiar evening in the hustle and bustle of San Jose and my trip.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

A Jew in the Churches of Europe

By Seth Rau

As I travel around Europe, it is almost necessary to visit the main church or churches in every city. While it is something that I do not mind doing since most of the churches are very impressive both on the interior and the exterior with large, opulent stained glass windows, it honestly does make me a little uncomfortable from time to time. Since I am not Christian, do I really fit into Europe? Even if Europe is far more secular than the US, is there really a role for me in Europe as an active Jew in 2011? While these questions are fairly rhetorical, I am going to try to answer them.

Starting here in Freiburg, Germany where I am based for the semester, the town seal is the St. George’s cross, which is the same cross as on the English flag. Many European Flags have the cross on it but most people view the flags as part of the history and values of the region rather than as religious symbol. The same logic applies to most major churches. The Münster here in Freiburg is pretty much a museum even though it does hold services daily. While most of the visitors are Christians, they come to look at the stunning architecture instead of visiting this sight as part of a religious pilgrimage.

La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona where I was this past weekend takes this idea even further. This monumental cathedral that was designed in 1882 is still under construction and will likely be under construction for at least another twenty years. Famous architect Antonio Gaudi designed much of the exterior and by the time of its completion at some point in the middle of the century, it will have18 towers where it currently has 8. While there are scenes of the Nativity and the Passion on both sides of the Church, it still does not feel like a church with its futuristic design. It is truly a beautiful building and I considered my visit there a Barcelona highlight.

So getting back to me, I do feel a bit uncomfortable inside a church especially upon seeing the alter, but I have been enough churches now where it no longer really bothers me. However, I feel as though I have to downplay my Judaism whenever I am near a Church especially in Germany. I know most of the time there is no direct threat to me, but at the end of the day, there is still a seeping feeling that I really don’t fit in over here. Even though I am a part German and I dress relatively like a German, I know that due to my religion, I won’t just be like everyone else here.

While I do occasionally go to Shabbat dinners at a local Jewish family’s house and there is a synagogue in town (I have not made it over there yet but I will do so before the end of the semester), I am more removed from my religion over here than I expected. There are other Jewish students in my program and even though I don’t think I am a very religious Jew, I seem to be the only person who is trying to organize any sort of Jewish activity. However, I am more than okay with this situation. I came to Germany to learn about Europe, a Christian Europe, where the Jewish heritage is often ignored except in the context of the Holocaust.

These issues are bound to come up even more in the next few weeks as the Carnival season comes into high gear across Europe. While I am excited to see the masks, parades, food, and general joy associated with this season, I know it will be weird not knowing many parts of the basic storylines behind this season and the festivities. I suspect that while I will enjoy this season in Freiburg and Basel, Switzerland, it will confirm to me that I am really a bit different from the average person on the street. During our orientation, a trainer said it takes 12 years to truly learn a culture and I have a feeling while I have not yet experienced actual religious cultural shock that it may be coming in the near future.

P.S. For first time readers, I keep my full blog here, http://www.trcommons.org/members/seth-rau/ and I am actually having an amazing time in Europe despite the slightly somber tone of this post.  

Friday, February 18, 2011

Quito, Ecuador

by Gabriel Lewenstein

Gabe on the Equator
A few weeks before I left to study abroad in Quito, it dawned on me that this
would be the first time in my life I wouldn’t have easy access to other Jews. Never mind Shabbat services or Seder, what would I do for a whole semester without kosher jokes or Mel Brooks references? I wasn’t sure what role I wanted Judaism to play in my life here. Should I wait a while before mentioning my religion to my Catholic host parents? Should I refrain from making every Jewish reference I thought of? Would I enjoy Shabbat services with the small Jewish community here? Would I cease to eat slowly on Friday nights?

Despite these questions, I admit that one of the first things I did when we got the list of people in the program was scan the list for “–bergs” and “–steins” (For the record, all of my guesses were right, plus one girl with a less stereotypical last name). On the other hand, I didn’t want Judaism to be the only way I connected with these girls, so I decided to wait until it came up naturally. Sure enough, Day 3 found “Rachel” and I leaning in to sound out the Hebrew in a septa-lingual ancient bible.

There are definitely times when I feel a little lost without my usual Jewish bubble, like when Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite” came on in a bar, and I realized no one else was singing the Maccabeats version. But it’s also been very interesting to talk with people who have varying levels of understanding of Judaism. I’ve explained to my host parents a few basics of the religion, and clarified that we do not, in fact, believe in Allah. I’ve talked with a Catholic friend about how it feels to be, or even pray, in a church. And I’ve spoken with one girl who, as one stop on her spiritual journey, spent some time as a Messianic Jew.

More recently, I’ve ended up connecting with the roughly 120 family Jewish community in Quito. For the past two weeks, I’ve gone to Friday night services, which have been, predictably, both familiar and strange. Most of the songs and tunes are the same as Hillel or my home temple, and the Jewish population is much whiter than the average Ecuadorian, making me stick out less. But entering any new community is a little awkward at first, and it’s strange being in services when I don’t know anyone and they don’t know me. Slowly though, I’m starting to get to know the community through rides home from services, going to a discussion night about Anti-Semitic political cartoons from Arab countries, and recognizing at services the guy who owns the bagel shop down the street from my house.

A photo taken by Gabe of the beach town of Canoa, Ecuador
I’m still figuring out my Jewish identity here, to be sure. And it stills makes me sad when no one understands my references to Annie Hall or Seinfeld. But things have progressed pretty well so far. Tonight, I promised my host parents I’d cook them some traditional Jewish food sometime. Any suggestions?