Tonight marks the start of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year holiday, and tomorrow will be the first day of the year 5780 in the Hebrew calendar. This means that for the next few days all around the world Jews will be doing whatever is meaningful for them in commemorating the start of a year. Many will be attending synagogue; most will be gathering with family and friends for a festive meal; some of my more secular friends in Israel have been attending a huge open-air dance festival in the shadow of Masada – Day Zero, as it is called.
And for me: well, I like to write. And as regular readers of my blog will know, I often like to write about experiences of Jewish interest. So I thought I might take the opportunity to pen a few short words about my two most meaningful Jewish experiences of this past year.
The first came with the passing of my mother in July of this year, in Israel. I wrote about it at the time (click here to read), although I didn’t get into writing about the extended series of Jewish death rituals which, for the first time, I found myself absorbed in not as a bystander but rather as an active participant.
Thus there was the funeral, which in Israel involves no coffin – rather, the body was wrapped in a simple, unadorned shroud and placed directly into the earth. After which everyone at the funeral – the immediate family especially – was required to participate directly in the burial process, by assisting in placing the body into the ground and then physically shoveling sand until the grave was completely covered over. Suffice it to say it was all a very in-your-face, hands-on affair that, no matter how ready I thought I was, came at me like an emotional punch to the gut.
There was also the shiva – six days of mourning where my brothers and I stayed – literally, “sat” – at my father’s home. During this time we received an endless stream of visitors who came by to chat, reminisce, keep us company, and feed us (there is always food in massive quantities at Jewish events, and it seems the sadder the event, the more the food). By the end of each day I felt tired, talked-out, emotional, and bloated. Yet oddly also slightly better than the day before, the constant support and company offered by family, friends and sometimes complete strangers acting like a grief-relieving tonic. And which, I suppose, is the whole point of the exercise in the first place.
But really, for me, the most meaningful moment came on the last day of the mourning period, when my dad informed my brothers and me that it was a Moroccan Jewish custom for the men of the family to attend the cemetery to conclude the shiva period with a se’uda – a meal – at the grave.
And sure enough, at the cemetery that afternoon we were joined by a group of my dad’s buddies – guys he had gone to school, university and the army with sixty years earlier. Together we said a few prayers at the grave side, and then my uncle proceeded to lay out a small tablecloth, on top of which everyone placed little platters of food that had been brought along – stuffed dates, cheese-filled bourekas, pastries, sandwiches, cut fruits, etc.
So basically, in a suburban Israeli cemetery, at 4pm on a Friday afternoon in the blistering sunshine of an Israeli summer, a group of men were having a little picnic by my mum’s grave, no big deal. And I recall looking at one of my brothers, and he looked at me, and I knew we were both thinking exactly the same thing: seriously, WTF?
But here’s the deal: As everyone sat there munching away, a few of the guys began telling stories about my mum – stories from decades ago, some of them I’d heard before, others were new. One of my father’s mates had been present on the night my parents first met in 1966 at a student bar in Jerusalem, and so we got the blow-by-blow account of my dad’s pick-up moves, to the evident amusement of all present. Interspersed between the stories a few traditional prayers were said, and then a few traditional songs were sung.
And really, once I packed away my initial surprise (and probably prejudice as to what “serious” funeral business should look like), the whole thing seemed kind of perfect. A true “farewell meal” not in honor of my mum, but actually with my mum, involving family, food, music, emotion, prayer, memory, laughter and smiles. And which, to me a least, felt like a truly Jewish way to say goodbye.
The other memorable Jewish experience from my past year of travels came a few months before that, in May, and half a world away in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, of all places.
As readers may recall, I had traveled to this fabulous little town in the Mexican highlands to visit a friend who has purchased a divine boutique hotel, and has now moved there to run it (I wrote previously about getting involved in a street accident on that trip – click here to read).
But the other thing I did while I was in San Miguel de Allende was to check, as I often do when in a new and unfamiliar town, whether there was any Jewish connection to the place that might be worth exploring. A travel habit of mine that serves to explain how I have come to visit sites of Jewish interest in locations as diverse as Boise, Idaho (read here), Seville, Spain (read here), Chile, Santiago (read here), and even Sumatra, Indonesia (read here).
Now to be honest, I was not expecting much by way of Jewish interest in San Miguel de Allende. I mean, given that the Jewish history of Mexico is largely bounded by the persecution of the Spanish inquisition, I thought that at best what I’d find in a historic, colonial-era town would be remnants of long-gone Jewish life. Perhaps an abandoned building that had once housed a synagogue; or maybe a few Jewish graves gathering dust in an old cemetery.
So I was more than a bit surprised to discover that San Miguel de Allende happens to be home to a functioning, active, and vibrant modern-day Jewish community.
You see, over the last twenty years, San Miguel de Allende has become a bit of a bolt-hole for creative, left-leaning, northerners. That is to say, about 25,000 expat Americans have made a home there, attracted by the pleasant weather and even more pleasant pace of life. So much so that the streets of SMA nowadays are practically overflowing with art studios and galleries, trendy restaurants, cool boutiques, and hipster-friendly hotels and cocktail bars.
Included within this influx of newcomers have been a good number of Jews, and they have banded together to establish a local Jewish synagogue and cultural center – the Comunidad Hebrea en San Miguel de Allende. Which I decided to pop into on the Saturday morning I was in town, ostensibly so I could attend the traditional Shabbat service, but really more just so that I could nosy about.
The synagogue itself was small and sparsely decorated, with a simple wooden ark at the front. Yet it was also packed – there were about 40 people on the day I visited. As the community has no Rabbi the service was being presided over by the members themselves, following a “Conservodox”-style format. That is, the service was entirely in Hebrew and stuck to a traditional Orthodox Jewish liturgy, with the notable exception being that men and women were able to sit together, and the women present were able to express their Judaism in whichever way felt right to them (hence some of the women maintained traditional gender separation, others sat alongside the men; some women had their heads covered with big wide-brimmed hats, some women wore skullcaps, others did not).
And I have to say, everything in that San Miguel de Allende synagogue felt warm and cozy and totally right to me – like I had stepped into a pair of comfortable, familiar slippers. I knew exactly what was going on and exactly what I was expected to do. Plus as always tends to happen when I find myself in these situations, I couldn’t help but marvel at the “connectedness” that I find from visiting Jewish communities around the world. How truly wonderful it is to be able to walk into a room of total strangers, in a faraway corner of the globe, and yet feel completely at home, as if I was among family.
But this feeling – special as it was – is not what made the whole experience so unique and memorable for me. No – what really stood out in that San Miguel de Allende synagogue was not the American expat Jews doing things that felt entirely familiar to me, but rather the local Mexicans worshippers doing those exact same familiar things.
I noticed it first when one of the (American) members of the community stood up to deliver a brief sermon, which he did in English. Sitting to my immediate left was a man and a woman, holding hands and turned out in a suit and formal dress for the occasion (which of itself was a marked contrast to most of the other attendees who were decked out in standard-issue American-style smart-casual wear – chinos, polo tops, Ralph Lauren blouses, etc). And alongside them an American lady in a flowing white hippy robe had taken up position to begin whispering into their ears, providing a running translation into Spanish of everything that was being said.
As I looked around, I saw a few more examples of this scattered throughout the room – individuals, couples, a group of teenage boys and also a family, all of whom stood out for being especially smartly dressed, all of whom certainly looked to be locals and not foreigners, and all of whom had someone helping out with English-Spanish translation but were otherwise chanting along in Hebrew and actively participating in the service.
Later I made some enquiries, and I learned that San Miguel de Allende’s Jewish community has, rather uniquely, been blossoming thanks to local conversion.
Apparently, about 10 years ago, a local Mexican turned up at the synagogue, keen to see what went on. The next time he returned he brought along some friends, and then they brought theirs. Townsfolk who just kept on coming back, week after week, intrigued with what they saw, and touched by what they experienced.
So with the assistance of a Rabbi from Mexico City, the San Miguel de Allende Jewish community began offering formal conversion classes. In 2011, a first batch of six students graduated and since then, close to 100 San Miguel de Allende locals have chosen to become Jewish. Never mind that they had been raised as Catholics, in one of the most Catholic towns, in one of the most Catholic countries on earth.
And while this may not seem like such a big deal, I found it to be utterly fascinating. Because so much of the Jewish things that I find around the world point to destruction, decay, and the loss of Jewish life. Whether that is abandoned synagogue buildings, old graves, or streets that were once the heart of vibrant Jewish neighborhoods that have now been erased through centuries of persecution, migration and assimilation.
Yet in San Miguel de Allende I got to experience the exact opposite: a Jewish community that didn’t exist twenty years ago but that is now not just functioning but also growing, and not just as a result of migration but also organically as well.
In short, in San Miguel de Allende I got to witness first-hand something which I so often take for granted: the amazing resilience and continuity of Jewish life, even in the unlikeliest of places. A Jewish experience that was uplifting in a completely real and authentic way. I just loved it.
I would like to wish all of my Jewish family, friends and readers a Shana Tova – may your holiday be meaningful to you, and may the coming year be one filled with only good and sweet things.