An Orthodox Volunteer Finds That Shabbat in the Andes Is a Time to Teach and a Time to Learn

10 Sep 2013


By Cheryl Geliebter

Cheryl Geliebter is a graduate student from Brooklyn, earning an MFA in creative writing from the New School. Her previous piece for Shabbat Shalom, “First-Ever OU NextGen/Justifi Trip Takes Jewish Social Justice to Thailand,” appeared in the July 26 issue.

The taxi driver grunted as he hefted my suitcase into the back of his car at Alejandro Velasco Astete International Airport, a tiny speck 11,000 miles above sea level in the Andes Mountains of Peru. Lo siento, I mumbled, apologizing for the fifty pounds, but happy that I wasn’t the one handling it anymore. I wanted to crack some joke about really needing all that clothing, but my Spanish knowledge didn’t extend that far. And besides, it wasn’t true. Only fifteen pounds of my luggage was clothing. The rest was food and cooking utensils. I was prepped for ten days of being one of few Jews—if not the only one—keeping kosher and Shabbat in Cusco in January, when the Chabad House and kosher restaurant are closed. Oh, and I was going to do it while living with a Catholic family.

Cheryl exploring Cusco.

I first heard about ProWorld, an organization that places volunteers in sites across the developing world, several years ago. I browsed their website on multiple occasions and dreamed about going to foreign lands to do some good, but always felt like being an Orthodox Jew would make things too complicated.
But this past December I decided that enough was enough. Being religious shouldn’t condemn someone to a life of missed opportunities. The opportunities just need to be adapted to fit in with religion. So I contacted ProWorld, explained my unique situation, and sure enough, they were happy to work out the details with me. I was all set to spend a week volunteering at the Cochahuasi Animal Sanctuary, a refuge that rehabilitates injured wild animals just outside Cusco. I was going to be giving English tours to visitors, feeding animals, beautifying the grounds and doing it while keeping kosher and Shabbat.

A Cultural Experience:

A few weeks later I found myself being introduced to my Spanish-speaking, Catholic homestay family, and discovered that I was going to be sharing my bedroom with a painting of boy Jesus and a lamb that hung on the eastern wall. That was my first clue that the next ten days were going to be a…cultural experience. And having to turn more north than east to in order to avoid facing the painting while davening Shmoneh Esrei was just the first in a whole series of adjustments.
The folks at ProWorld had informed the family—in Spanish—that although I would eat my meals with them I would be preparing my own food and that Saturdays were my Sabbath, but I had only given the ProWorld staff a basic rundown of my requirements. The minor details were mine to explain to the family—in broken Spanish that couldn’t be completely fixed with a dictionary.

Cheryl (center) with her Peruvian host family.

Mealtimes were when most of the Jewish education took place. The family was amazed by the vacuum-sealed meals I’d pop in the microwave for lunch each weekday. The high school and college-age son and daughter, who learn English in school, would read the English ingredients on the boxes with delight. And all were fascinated by the exotic contents of the boxes: chicken or beef with farfel, tzimmes and kugel, cholent with kishka, etc. There were no direct translations for those foods in my dictionary!

My Peruvian mom, as ProWorld volunteers refer to their host mothers, is a chef, so she was very eager to offer to adapt her meals so that I could eat them, but I kept having to remind her that unless the food was prepared with my own utensils I couldn’t eat it. Sometimes she would offer me food from the table, and I have to assume that she was just being polite, and not trying to test me, but I felt more uncomfortable each time I had to turn her down. I can imagine it being insulting having to hear repeatedly that your cooking utensils aren’t good enough for someone else to eat from.

When it came to cooking my own food there were all sorts of things I had to be aware of. I’m not just talking about using my kosher pot and pan on a non-kosher stove. I’m talking about the food itself. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get kosher meat or dairy products in Cusco, but I didn’t expect to have problems with pareve food.

Shopping with the locals at the Pisac market near Cusco.

I can’t remember the last time I found a blood spot in an egg in New York, but apparently that’s a luxury I wasn’t aware that I had. Two out of the three eggs I cracked in Cusco had blood spots, and after number three I decided I was done for that trip, because I didn’t want to waste any more of the family’s eggs. Not that the eggs were wasted; after guiltily explaining that I couldn’t eat them because the innocuous-looking, little brown specks on the yolks were actually blood, which Jews are forbidden to eat, my Peruvian mom told me not to worry—someone in her family would eat them.

Another luxury I didn’t realize I had in New York was clean rice. My Peruvian mom told me that I could take rice from the sack whenever I wanted, but to make sure to wash it well because it’s full of bugs. That’s when I realized that I hadn’t brought a strainer with me. I could have bought one in Cusco, but the idea of meticulously checking the rice was a turnoff for me. I’d stick to the innumerable varieties of local corn and potatoes.

The Challenge of Shabbat:

Despite a few quirks I managed to get along fine, food-wise, during the week. But meals on Shabbat weren’t quite as easy. And I spent two of them in this house. I wanted to save my vacuum-sealed meals for days when I could use a microwave, so I picked up a package of chicken cold cuts in the kosher market in Lima at the beginning of my trip, along with challah rolls and some bakery items. (Unlike Cusco, there is a substantial Jewish presence in Lima, and the community maintains a kosher minimarket that contains both a bakery and restaurant). I put the chicken cold cuts in the refrigerator on Friday morning when I got to the house, and on Friday night, after a quick Kiddush and hamotzi in the privacy of my bedroom, I opened the refrigerator door to take them out, and was greeted by the lit-up interior.

The kosher minimarket in Lima.

I smacked my forehead. Why hadn’t I bothered noticing that there was a light in the fridge before Shabbat started? I took my food out and stood there awkwardly, hoping that the door would swing shut on its own. I wasn’t sure how many crazy-sounding rules the family could handle all at once, so I refrained from telling them about the light bulb situation right away. Once I finished my meal I dawdled by the fridge, waiting for someone else to open it so I could toss my food in while the door was open. It took longer than expected, and the eagerness with which I lunged at the open refrigerator door just earned me weird looks. So I had to explain the situation to them after all.

They had already heard from the ProWorld folks that I couldn’t use electricity on Shabbat, so this wasn’t a total shock for them, and they happily told me that I should let them know anytime I needed them to open the fridge for me. I nodded and smiled, not caring to get into further details about how they couldn’t do anything for me on Shabbat that I couldn’t do for myself. And although I did my best to explain the basic situation using simple Spanish sentence fragments, the daughter of the family was still under the impression that Jews couldn’t open refrigerator doors on Shabbat, whether or not there was a light inside.

My Peruvian mom also mixed up some facts. I was entitled to Spanish lessons as part of the volunteer program, and my verbal Spanish placement was scheduled for Shabbat morning, something that could not be rescheduled. I needed make sure that I had enough time to daven and make Kiddush and hamotzi before leaving in the morning, so I asked my Peruvian mom to make sure that I was awake by a certain time, because I was not able to use an alarm clock. She kept reminding me throughout Shabbat that I could ask her for the time whenever I needed. I thanked her, but wasn’t sure why she thought that was necessary. I pointed to my watch to show her that I had one, and she looked shocked. Apparently she was under the impression that Jews were not allowed to tell time on Shabbat. That was cause for more explanation on my part. Flipping through the dictionary got tiring after a while.

Shabbat as a whole was a learning experience, for both me and my host family. Peruvians are very careful to conserve electricity, which is extremely expensive, so no light is left unnecessarily on. Including the bathroom light. My Peruvian mom reiterated that I should tell her when I needed to use the bathroom so she could turn the light on for me. And again, I gave her a huge smile and said, “Muchas gracias,” never once taking her up on the offer.

Since pretty much the entire house was cloaked in darkness once the sun set on Friday night, I was forced to join the family in the living room after dinner in order to read my book. Oh, and it also would have seemed mighty antisocial/just plain weird for me to go to bed at 7:30 p.m. Whatever electricity was saved by having the lights off in the remainder of the house certainly seemed to be wasted in this room. The computer was on, the television was blaring, and so was their sound-and-light-show nativity scene that remained on display all twelve days of Christmas. At one point my Peruvian mom asked me if Jews have nativity scenes. I almost burst out laughing, but contained myself and told her no, we don’t.

Unfortunately, when the family wasn’t there, that meant the lights weren’t either. On my second Shabbat I came back from a walk seudat shlishit time to find the house empty. And completely dark. I spent the next hour-and-a-half eating and singing sadly to myself as I counted down the minutes to havdalah.

As frustrating as certain things were at times, this was a learning experience I’m glad I had. I taught my host family more about Orthodox Judaism than they probably thought existed, and I learned a thing or two about Peruvian culture and Catholicism in return. They were kind and patient people, excellent roles model for hachnasat orchim, and I grew quite attached to them over those ten days.

I also learned a lot about myself and my own relationship with Judaism. I learned that when faced with a difficult situation I’m fully capable of remaining true to myself and my values. As a light unto the nations I hope I shone more brightly than the one in the refrigerator.

A giant menorah in the Jewish neighborhood in Lima.

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