In a land rich in resources from gold, emeralds, coffee, and a multitude of fruits, it’s easy to think about planting seeds to reap in 5775. Though I suppose it’s equally counterintuitive to think about planting seeds during the northern hemisphere’s fall, when things are settling into hibernation, pulling in color displays, baring naked limbs for a long period of (seeming) inactivity. The ‘earth’ is ready for seeds to take root. I can only hope my internal seeds find equally fertile ground to grow.
Jumping into the unknown is a good way to start a new year. I’ve played the vulnerability card, a key to new beginnings and stripping away dead ‘skin’. But with the new, I’m holding on to what gives comfort and strength like holding to my rituals of the Jewish New Year.
They say wherever you are in the world, Kol Nidre (the beginning chant for Yom Kippur) is the same. It’s been true for synagogues I’ve attended in the states, and this year I heard the familiar chant in Medellin’s Ashkenazi synagogue. Wrapped in the traditional tunes and prayers I was reminded that across oceans, history, culture, and even assimilation, the power of tradition, a bond grounded in cellular DNA directs not just phenotype, but a spiritual expression.
Yet attending holiday services here in Medellin I thought I’d get a real taste of being immersed in ‘this’ culture, especially after my Eastern European journey. But it’s not that black and white – nothing ever is and I should know that’s particularly true of Jewish communities regardless of continent and language. There’s lots of ways to be an outsider, and maybe it comes back to language – again. It was easy to connect with the few other English speakers I met – especially since I glommed on to them while catching words I easily understood. I sat upstairs with P., after leaving her husband D., a former Aussie, to sit downstairs on the men’s side. P. told me they’d been praying with the more Orthodox ‘converts’, and were happy to now be attending this synagogue. The ‘converts’ are the B’nai Anussim – the rising number of Colombians who are claiming their Jewish roots.
This conservative synagogue has a community of about 250 members and is made up of three different groups. Most striking was how much the congregation looked like so many other congregations I’ve seen over the years. This might seem like a strange thing to comment on, but the only other place I’ve seen so many European features (in the last month) is in my current hostel. These congregants represent the Jews who fled Hitler’s slaughter, settling in this corner of South America.
Yet this is the most recent – and – smallest part of Medellin’s Jewish history as I learned on my ‘Real City’ walking tour. While the Spanish ‘invaded’ this American continent in lust of gold in the late 1400’s, two other Spanish groups sought refuge in this region protected by winding mountain roads– the Basques (political) and the Jews (religious). Does this mean many paisa’s (people living in this ‘department’) have Jewish DNA I asked my guide Julianna? Yup – in fact she said when Spain recently released the surnames of the (expelled) Jews who settled here, it was hard to find anyone who didn’t have Jewish blood. She pointed to the Jewish influence of the region’s typical dress: a striped poncho with stringed ends, reminiscent of the Tallis. And while the regional dish contains pork, it’s marked by two symbolic cuts to show it was eaten in protest. And while the Basques and the Jews sought wealth in freedom, ironically this area was filled with gold bringing riches to the refugees. The region’s new liquid gold is roasted rather than mined: coffee!
And you may be wondering why I didn’t mention what Medellin, and in fact Colombia is most famous for these past years: drugs. Well as Julianna mentioned, drugs didn’t add to the economy – in fact sucked financial resources from the city through murder and fear. This is a country that has suffered decades of internal war and violence, including all that Pablo Escabar famously added.
(And who creates the drug problem? Obviously the people who buy it – without the demand, the suppliers would be baristas pushing pastries)
But here’s the kicker: while this country – and city – has every right to be wallowing in PTSD, Medellin has most famously gone from 2002’s world’s most dangerous city to being awarded most innovative city (of the world) last year. I’m intrigued and awed by how this city has risen from the ashes (so to speak) and is changing and growing and aiming to become the crown of South America – a goal it will easily achieve, I’m sure.
Julianna said it had to do with selective remembering – and forgetting – about the city’s violent past. And focusing on the good while celebrating life. Talk about resilience and a good life lesson for all of us!
This country’s been blessed with natural beauty and resources – but so have others like South Africa – yet somehow this diverse culture and people are turning their country around with a strength and power that is intriguing and awe-inspiring. I want to know what’s it all about. Is there something in the air? If so, I want to take a deep breath and begin this year with this surge of resilience.
Lucky for me, I have the next few months to explore and sate my curiosity while delving into a new way and place to work and live. It’s scary and exciting and I hope to walk away infused with Medellin’s energy of growth and recreation.