The Tribulations of Trying to be a Good Jew in Costa Rica

As a famous comedian once said, “I am not Jewish. I am Jew…ish.” I’m not at all religious. I was never bris-ed, bar mitzvah-ed, and never learned a lick of Hebrew. I love me some bacon. But through a good portion of my family–blood or otherwise–I am enough ethnically Ashkenazi and/or Sephardic to try and uphold a vague connection to my cultural history with various traditions. Call it obligation, call it curiosity. I try not to make a big deal out of it.

But Judaism in much of Latin America is a cultural Sasquatch. Especially away from cities, in remote rural areas, where people tell stories of Jew-sightings with equal parts confusion and mystique. When explaining my Jewish heritage, I’ve gotten everything from surprise, fear, disbelief, a handful of salt, a pinch on the nose, an “Allahu Akbar,” and even a “Namaste.” And it’s really hard to find the right ingredients for the ceremonies.

So I make do.

Do I ever.

Years back during my first stint in CR, I tried to commemorate Passover in a remote coastal field station. The Seder plate was…improvised, to say the least. The Maror was water apple and breadnut. The bitter herbs were wild Jackass Bitters which were, indeed, very bitter. My matzoh was OG–I literally mixed water and flour and left it out on a rock in the sun. I invited all the staff and volunteers to join and tried my best to explain the significance of each item, until about halfway through when the glass of wine I’d left out for the Prophet Elijah was drunk by a coati. We ended up calling him Elijah.

It was the least authentic, but in a way also the most authentic, Passover I’ve ever had.

Last night, I celebrated the last night of Hanukkah with a simple dinner and candle lighting, as it’s not as big an event outside the US as people may think. With no menorah, I had to find 9 birthday candles and jam them into a plantain. They lasted several hours, and ended up smelling quite nice. A miracle! The latkes also turned out well and were very popular, but I’ve long ago discovered that frying starch in oil is a universally beloved concept. I skipped the dreidels, since that tradition never made any sense to me and good luck finding a dreidel in Quepos.

Other misadventures that come to me now: substituting manischewitz with a homeade coconut wine that proved to be both much sweeter and much stronger than intended. We barely made it through the haggadah, and even then I kept forgetting to read backwards. Trying to secure a DJ (that is, Designated Jew) for more formal occasions to actually say the Hebrew prayers right. Replacing the Plagues Upon Egypt with Plagues Upon Interns: Blood (in the stool), Frogs (in the shower), Mosquitoes, Wild Monkeys, Intestinal Parasites, Heat Rash, Thunderstorms, Cockroaches, Power Outages (for 3 days, no less), and Death of the Electronic Devices. We poured out a drop of wine for every one.

It gets downright Biblical out here.

I always make a point in participating in local holiday traditions when invited. And I never impress my traditions on anyone. I personally think that kind of ruins the whole purpose of a holiday. But anyone is welcome to join me in mine, and I’m happy to elaborate on the history and significance behind any tradition, even one poorly understood, scarcely remembered, badly interpreted, and inconsistently observed. And occasionally interrupted by drunk coatis.

Ask a feminist about the orange.


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