Wherever You Go: Judaism in Ecuador

*This post was originally published on December 9, 2018. *

*Wherever you go, there’s always someone Jewish*
*You’re never alone when you say you’re a Jew*
*So when you’re not home and you’re somewhere kinda newish*
*The odds are, don’t look far, ‘cause they’re Jewish too*
*The odds are, don’t look far, they’re Jews just like you*

In third grade, I had the smartest response to this Hebrew school music
class favorite: not at Sam’s house. You see, at my best friend’s house, I
was the only Jew. There were two parents, four kids, three dogs, and a
maximum of eight cats, and none of them were Jewish. The song was wrong.

A couple months ago, I was sitting on the couch in my host aunt’s living
room. Everyone else had gone to make tea, and I, infamous for not liking *aguas
aromáticas*, was alone. My host uncle walked in with a Bible and sat across
the room from me, setting the leather-bound book down on the coffee table.

“Are you Christian?” he asked. I didn’t know where this was going, but I
told him I was Jewish. He asked me if Jews believe in God.

I wanted to tell him that we wrote half of that book he was holding, but I
didn’t. I told him that in general, Jews believe in God, but I don’t. To
me, Judaism has never been just a religion; it’s the community, values, and
customs that I share with fellow Jews.

There are approximately 1,000 Jews in Ecuador. That’s about .006% of the
population. So if I was surprised last December when a girl from Montana
saw the giant inflatable dreidel in the dining hall and exclaimed, “What’s
Chanukah?!” with “ch” as in “chapel,” well, that’s Ecuador, except you’d be
hard-pressed to find a giant inflatable dreidel.

At boarding school, I started to miss Beth El. I popped in on Saturdays
when I was home for long weekends, and it was sad to see one Friday evening
that there wasn’t a minyan.* During that service, I accidentally sounded
out the Hebrew a little too loud, making Gus giggle, which made me giggle.
I kid you not, I was like, “Va… ei… nu…” Ever since I started going to prep
school and stopped going to Hebrew school, I’ve lost the little bit of the
language that I knew. I could never translate what I was reading, but I
could sound out the words. I’ve been meaning to brush up on the aleph-bet.

A month ago, when it came time to put together a project on some aspect of
Ecuadorian culture, my mind was made up: I was going to find the Jews.

I left home at 5:30 to catch the bus to Otavalo, then the bus to Quito, and
then walk half an hour to the synagogue. If you’d told me five years ago
that I’d wake up before sunrise to go to Shabbat services, I probably would
have snorted. But there I was, in my black-and-white maxi skirt and Groton
crew jacket, keys in one hand and alarm in the other, walking through Quito
at 8:15 on a Saturday morning.

The synagogue, officially called the Comunidad Judía del Ecuador, is
unbelievable. Stone arches connect the two halves of the building. One one
side, there’s a big room for parties, a swimming pool, and a couple
different social halls. The other houses a large sanctuary with
stained-glass windows for Friday night services and a smaller sanctuary for

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I was the first one there. After the guards let me through (security
clearance took two weeks, and I think I only got it because I called, like,
five times on Friday), I took a bunch of pictures. It was weird being there
all alone, but it was beautiful.

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The 9:30 service started when the rabbi got there at 9:50. The rabbi is
Orthodox, but most of the congregation is Conservative. Until Patricia
arrived, I was the only woman. The rabbi greeted everyone, put on his
tallis (which made me tear up a bit), and chanted for 50 minutes straight.
I turned the page when he turned the page. When it was time to take out the
Torah, he couldn’t, since there were only eight men. So instead, we had a
nice discussion of statistics. A couple guys claimed that the more times
you play a game, the more likely you’ll win. I explained that that’s only
the case if you know the final set of outcomes. I brought in an example
from the season 6 finale of Bones, during which Angela tries to induce
labor with hot sauce. The next scene opens like this:

Bones: Angela says she’s going to have her baby today.

Booth: She’s been saying that every day for two weeks.

Bones: Well, mathematically speaking, the chances of her being right
increase every day.

I’d been a bit hesitant to join in the discussion, but it helped that the
rabbi agreed with my explanation. “Have you studied statistics?” he asked
me. I told him no; I just understand it.**

[image: IMG_8388]

After services, the rabbi recited the short kiddush and hamotzi and then we
had lunch. (They sliced the challah! I was appalled.) Afterwards, there was
a little Torah study class, during which I fell asleep. (In my defense, I’d
been up since 5:00! So much for the day of rest.) I hadn’t expected to have
any trouble recording interviews, but the more observant folks considered
talking into my phone to be talking on the phone. Shabbos aside, I did snag
two interviews. I’d mentioned wanting to go to Parque La Carolina, which is
on the other side of the city, and Patricia offered to drive me. I recorded
our conversation as we went along. Later, I put my research and interviews
together into a report like the ones we do at the radio. But I did it all
by myself!

Thanks to Patricia, I finally made it to the vegan world market that’s held
every month in Quito! The hot dog and cookies I got were pretty mediocre,
but given that I paid $6.50 for a vegan hot dog and three sweets, I wasn’t
mad. I ate it all on the bus ride home.


Hanukkah began last Sunday night. I made latkes, donuts, and applesauce and
taught my host fam how to play dreidel. I had to look up the prayers to
recite as I lit the candles in a potato menorah, but I lit the candles
nonetheless. With the Christmas tree glimmering in the background, we
passed the dreidel around until the three-year-old had enough chocolate
coins to finance her college education. My latkes and donuts were mediocre
(the applesauce was *bomb*), and I missed the old Christmas Day Hanukkah
parties at Amy and Steve’s, but it felt so good. I was just… happy. There
was no shortage of things to talk about, and no one pestered the little one
to eat faster. We just played and ate and did these little arts and crafts
things from Esther, and it was perfect. I went to bed with a full tummy and
a full heart.

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So, in response to eight-year-old smarty-pants Macy (“It’s Macy Star, not
Macy, stop!”), well, you were right. You were the only Jew at Sam’s house.
You’re probably the only Jew in Quiroga. But if you don’t interpret the
song so literally, you’ll find your people. If you can’t, celebrate anyway.
Because no matter what continent you’re on, whether בָּרוּךְ is
transliterated as *baruch *or *baruj, *something about that sanctuary and
those songs will make you feel at home.

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*A minyan is the group of ten adult Jewish men (and sometimes women)
required for a public Torah reading.

**I have a very minimal understanding of statistics.