Jewish Kid, Catholic Country

Isaiah Fischer-Brown - Ecuador


February 23, 2014

“Voy a dormir, bendición María”

“Dios te bendiga, que descanses Isaías”

“Padre, Hijo, Espíritu Santo”

I am going to bed, Blessing.

May God bless you and that you rest, Isaiah.

Father, Son, Holy Spirit.

While speaking in her soft murmur, my host mother makes the motion of the crucifix across her chest and wishes me a restful sleep. Though she knows that I am Jewish, she probably doesn’t realize how uneasy this ritual made me at first. Her caring intent has since prevailed on me and why not accept all the blessings you can, right?

My first Christmas, though not the snowy picturesque version, was incredibly fun, and consisted of an entire night of dancing, singing and eating tons of food with my extended host family. Lovingly, they joked that I had poor hygiene and didn’t change my clothes often enough, then proceeded to bring out new socks and underwear for me. Family relations are hugely important. Due to my religious upbringing, I have found it easier to connect with my host family and understand their beliefs and practices. My many talks with my host brother about religion have increased our mutual understanding and strengthened our relationship. Christmas was when I truly realized that despite the obvious differences, there are parallels between growing up in a Jewish home and living with my host family. For starters, my mom would have said the same thing about the hygiene.

When I tell people that I’m Jewish, I typically get three responses. First, with a worried expression, “But Christ can still save you no cierto (right)?” Second, “So like a Christian but from Israel?” Lastly, the most common reaction is a confused look, which may be accompanied by an “Oh…interesting, what is that?” Because of these questions, and all of the follow ups, I have my answer down to a few summarizing sentences explaining Judaism and the differences with Christianity, the focal point of my presentation being that Jesus was Jewish and therefore a regular person in our faith.

It is no surprise to me that many people, especially kids, have never met a Jew or even heard of Judaism. My only interactions with Jews while being in Ecuador are the other Jewish Fellows and when I attended High Holiday services in Quito. My host siblings go to Catholic school where Religion of the New Testament is taught a few times a week. When I Skyped my family for Hanukkah, my host brother intently watched, never having heard of the festival. The all-inclusive, politically correct “Happy Holidays” greeting is not a thing here. Catholic Imagery is everywhere, whether it is the large Nativity scene and the 50 foot Christmas tree outside the government building or the fact that the health clinic where I work is connected to a church, where we hosted a Christmas mass. The bus I take to work in the mornings has “Dios guia mi camino (God guides my path)” plastered on the side. There are crosses in every room, and in my house I have a small one hanging above my bed. This imagery was at first uncomfortable, as I felt that religion was being forced on me at every turn, but have since realized that these unfamiliar images were really not that different from the Jewish ones that have surrounded me my entire life.

In the small town atmosphere of Otavalo, there is a focus on community relations, which mimics the feeling of a close-knit Jewish community. When walking down the street in Otavalo, it is expected that you greet everyone, whether it is a “Buenos días” or “Como está.” This environment and the communal responsibility can be seen in the minga, a kichwa tradition from the surrounding indigenous communities that means coming together. This activity requires participation from all members, and can be anything from gardening to cleaning the school to rebuilding your neighbor’s house that burned down. Failure to attend can result in a fine and a bad reputation, something that is quite hurtful here. For me, this tradition echoes and seems to combine the Jewish principles of Tikkun Olam, which is repairing the world through our collective actions, and Tzedakah, or giving to the needy in the community, thus further illuminating for me the similarities between the two cultures.

The core value of social action displayed in Otavalo, Judaism and the foundational ethics of Global Citizen Year has made my apprenticeship more enjoyable and more meaningful. Despite being isolated religiously in a Catholic country, I feel that my faith has really deepened my experience here in Ecuador, and has allowed me to better integrate into this new environment.

Isaiah Fischer-Brown