Monday, September 22, 2008

St Lou Jews Abroad

On the occasion of our 5,000th page view, I wanted to showcase our newest talent, DH1, who will be writing a bit about her experiences as a Jew traveling abroad.

“Y, tu? Cual es tu religion?” my Mexican host mother asked me excitedly. I couldn’t believe that I actually felt nervous answering a question about my religion. Had I ever, in my entire life, felt anything but glowing pride in making the statement that I was Jewish? If I can recall correctly, the answer was no.

These uneasy feelings were unfamiliar to me. I was confident that my Jewish identity was strong, as I had grown up in a community that welcomed diversity and had never lived far from the security of a supportive Jewish world. As I prepared to embark on a year-long adventure throughout Europe and Central/South America, I recall feeling a strange apprehension with respect to my Judaism. My knowledge that anti-Semitism was thriving in many countries around the world filled me with many questions about how the next year would unfold.

For the first time, I considered the possibility of encountering situations in which I would not feel comfortable expressing my Judaism. I already knew that I would be living with three different host families in Mexico, Spain, and Chile. What if my families didn’t like me because I was Jewish? I had already experienced how unfounded hate continues to be a common thread within the historical memory of many cultures. As I had witnessed in Poland two years prior, I knew that old stereotypes and fabricated tales still hold great sway and power in the minds of many.

Fortunately, I am happy to report that my experience in Puebla, Mexico was nothing of the sort. When I carefully explained to my host mother that I was Jewish, her eyes lit up with a kind of intense happiness that was both shocking and difficult to describe.

As it turns out, my Mexican host family professes to a sect of Christianity that is deeply devoted to Israel and the belief that the Jews are God’s chosen people. A woman of modest means, my host mother had traveled to Israel a few years before, and related vivid accounts of her experience at the Jordan River.

Throughout the summer, she would wheel me into the kitchen (out of sight from my non-Jewish roommate), place her hands on my head, and begin to recite a stream of extravagant blessings and prayers. The shock and humor of the situation was astounding to me. I had been expecting an uneasy welcome. Instead, I was met by an overwhelming fascination with all things Jewish. My host family introduced me to the pastor of the church (“she’s JEWISH!!!”) and asked me to write all of their names in Hebrew. Occasionally, mealtimes would be characterized by interrogations about Israel and its geography, the Jewish holidays (they were especially curious about Passover), and my family’s traditions.

The warmth, love, and acceptance of strangers who welcomed me into their home and their lives were deeply inspiring. They showed me that tolerance does exist, even in the most unlikely places.

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