Continental Drift

July 30, 2009

Jewish Country Safari

Filed under: Uncategorized — unaleona @ 8:05 pm

So I’m sitting in a hotel conference room in Swaziland, trying to figure out if I have any ‘work’ to do today. It seems likely that the answer is no. Though I partly feel bad that I may be rather unnecessary here, I’m kind of psyched that I may be mainly getting to hang out in Swaziland while ostensibly working for basically this whole week. It also finally gives me the opportunity to write, because things have been going at such hyper speed for the last week or so in Pretoria that it requires running away to another country with spotty internet access in order to find the time to write anything down. So here I am, with two new stamps in my passport, ready to tell you what I’ve been up to.

I teased you with a hint of my excursion into practicing Judaism a couple of posts ago, so let me go back to the beginning. Last week after I met one of the younger women who works here at USAID, she came by my desk to talk about whether I had plans for the weekend. She was going to be away, but did I want her to put me in touch with a family she knows. “You’re Jewish, right?” A name like Rosenblum gives it away every time. I explained my non-religious level of Judaism, and she told me she was also pretty secular, but that this family had had her over for Shabbat dinner a couple of weeks before. They had been really nice, and had a son my age. Having no plans for Friday night and tired of eating at home with only dogs for company, I said of course. But then when they picked me up, it was not to head home for dinner, it was to head first to temple.

So there I am, holding the prayer book (thank God I knew enough to be turning the pages right to left), wishing that my skirt covered my legginged-knees because I suddenly realize that this synagogue is Orthodox. Culture shock worse than ever experienced, and I thought to myself that I could probably not feel more ridiculous anywhere in my life. Unfortunately this was false, because as I was leaving a young woman came up to me and introduced herself as the Rabbi’s wife, and then surprisingly mentions that, “We’re so excited that we get you and Lauren for dinner next week.” The woman who had me for dinner that week told me this was a great honor, to be invited to dinner at the Rabbi’s and that I was very lucky to be going. After attending dinner at her house, I knew I was in for a challenging experience. They had a serious Shabbat dinner, complete with challah and a blessing over the wine. Even though I confessed my lack of practicing Jewish-ness from the beginning, I kept feeling like they were going to realize I was an imposter and kick me out on the street. Luckily their son who is around my age seemed to like me, so I hoped he wouldn’t vote me off the island.

I got home wishing that any of you were around for me to tell you about this ridiculous experience. Alas 5PM your time on Friday is not a time when anyone is likely to be on Skype. Luckily, when it came time to go to the Rabbi’s house for dinner the following week, I at least had moral support. Lauren was back from Cape Town, and try as we might we couldn’t come up with any plausible excuse to avoid partaking in this great honor. We couldn’t even think of anything that would get us out early, so fortified by wine (drunk from Obama glasses in the USAID office), we headed to temple. This week I was ready, wearing a below-the-knee-length skirt. When someone started explaining that the Jewish community in Pretoria is small but inspired, whereas in America Rabbi’s have a much harder task in trying to motivate their large but apathetic community, we were sure we were being targeted especially. Then when the guest rabbi from Philadephia started giving a speech about the difference between eggs from white chickens and cheese from black goats, I just started trying desperately not to look Lauren in the eye for fear that she would find it as funny as I did.

We made it through temple and were relieved to discover that we were not going to be alone at dinner with the Rabbi and his wife and their eight (count them 8!!!) children. The next hurdle happily avoided was joining the freezing group of dinner guests walking across the creepy deserted rugby pitch to the Rabbi’s. Because this is South Africa and you don’t walk anywhere, especially not at night, they are escorted on either end of the procession by two black men in orange vests. I’ve rarely seen anything stranger looking, especially because for all eight of those children it was completely normal. We were bad people and drove.

The dinner on a whole wasn’t as challenging as I expected it to be, mostly because most of the time we were just quizzed on what “nice American Jewish girls” were doing in Pretoria and think of the country. The Rabbi and his wife both turned out to have a decent sense of humor and to much more approachable than I would have expected. That said, I’ve probably never experienced a more stressful meal (possibly with the exception of dinner at Mama Mama’s in Quito, for some of you to have an idea of what it was like). The stress was probably only increased because I performed my fatal faux-pas right at the beginning: a little while after arriving at the rabbi’s we were asked to go and wash. Everyone seemed to be letting water from the sink run into an ornamental pitcher, and then pouring it from the pitcher into their hands, then refilling it. I did the same, and then went back to the table where the rabbi told me to please sit down. Everyone sort of awkwardly sat, and then looked at each other awkwardly and then fidgeted. I figured it was up to me to make small talk to avoid the silence, so I turned to the annoying American man and started to ask him how long he had been in Pretoria. He leaned over really far and shushed me really dramatically. I turned bright red, obviously. I was also confused, because other people were still talking. I stayed silent, and then after a very long pause everyone was silently seated at the table and the rabbi prayed and cut the challah. Then everyone began talking again, except me. To add insult to injury, annoying American guy leans over and starts LOUDLY explaining to me the significance of the silence between after washing to prepare ourselves for the food….oy vey.

I’m somewhat bewildered that even though I’ve never searched for the Jewish community when I’ve been abroad, now twice in Panama and Pretoria of all places, it has found me. A sign? Will the Jews find me in Mali as well? I kind of hope they will.

I’ll write more soon about adventures with Afrikaners and something about Swaziland

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1 Comment »

  1. My prior comment didn’t make it so I hope this one does. Tonight on MacNeil Lehrer there is a special report about orphan girls raising themselves and living alone because parents died of aids. Quite shocking. Makes me think maybe it would be a good first step to ascertain what programs there are for these folks. The work you are doing is important

    Comment by stece — August 5, 2009 @ 11:51 pm | Reply


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