Wherever You Go: Judaism in Ecuador

Macy Lipkin - Ecuador


March 16, 2019

*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

Saturdays.



[image: IMG_8351][image: IMG_8346]



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.



[image: IMG_8335][image: IMG_8333]



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.



[image: IMG_8521][image: IMG_8546]



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.



[image: IMG_8618][image: IMG_8595]



[image: IMG_8619][image: IMG_8586]



*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.


Macy Lipkin