When I was in Hebrew school, my friends taught me a song about how you could always find Jews wherever you were. I have since forgotten how it goes, but the positive notion of identifying as a diaspora Jew stuck with me. As I traveled to the JCC in Krakow, Poland and to Israel where many diaspora Jews have returned, and as I am traveling in Ecuador right now, I have further developed my understanding of, and identification with, the diaspora.
Living with people who don’t know very much or anything about Judaism is not new for me. While at the North Carolina School of Science and Math, I was exposed to people from more rural parts of the state who had heard of Judaism, but had minimal to no contact or knowledge about it. Though there are very few Jews in Ecuador, I didn’t think this part of my life would be so different. Often times in the United States, one of the first things that I get asked when I meet people is: “What is that on your head?” To which I respond, “It is called a kippah, it is a religious obligation, I am Jewish.” However, here in Ecuador I have experienced something new. Many people respond to finding out I am Jewish by saying: “But I thought you were from the United States.” That was different. Here in Ecuador, due to curiosity and a lack of knowledge about the diaspora, I identify not only as a Jew, but a diaspora Jew.
Ever since I decided to start wearing my kippah full time, almost three years ago, I have acted as a “Jewish Ambassador” for many of my friends and acquaintances for whom meeting me was their first time meeting a person of the Jewish faith. However, until coming to Ecuador I had never needed to specify that I am a diaspora Jew. Doing so has strengthened my connection to the part of Judaism that exists in so many different places in the world including Quito, Ecuador.
In December I had the privilege of staying with the Jewish community that exists in Quito, Ecuador. Many of my blog posts about new experiences focus on the ‘firsts’ that I encounter. However, in this post I want to highlight a few things that I have actually done many times. Last weekend I participated in a Shabbat on my 4th Continent, in my 4th hemisphere, and I heard a D’var Torah in a third language. My favorite part about visiting the Jewish Community in Quito was the familiarity of it. Though most things were different from my home synagogue, I still found things that I recognized. The structure of the sanctuary and many of the tunes were Sephardi, but a few tunes in the service were familiar like Alienu, which has a few variations but I always seem to know the one being used wherever I am.
This trip to Ecuador has re-inspired me to continue traveling around the world to observe and participate in as many different cultures as I can find. It has also shown me how wearing my kippah though setting myself apart also gives me a unique experience in these places shared by very few others. I plan to continue traveling the world, with my kippah on, throughout my life and I am very excited to continue visiting and learning about how Judaism has adapted to different cultures around the world. Yet, I am equally interested in the parts of Judaism that do not change no matter where you are.