Sunday, February 21, 2010

Forty-Two Years

A week or so before David and I headed off to our respective places of temporary residence, my mother asked us (out of curiosity) whether we would tell people we were Jewish. David, inspired by a(n awesome) stunt I pulled two Christmases ago, decided he would say he was Episcopalian, since Turks tend to still really dislike Jews. From what I had read in books and heard from friends, though, it seemed like the Spanish regarded Jews with a mixture of curiosity and national guilt. It has been only 42 years since the Alhambra Decree, the one that expelled all Muslims and Jews from Spain, was repealed. Jews have actually been living here since the 19th century, with limited degrees of freedom. As a result, it's not surprising that the Spanish regard Jews sort of like Native Americans - we're an important part of the national history, but no one really knows that much about us and a lot of truths are mixed with wild assumption and imagination.

Such has been the case with living with Pilar. Pilar is a genuinely wonderful, caring, and intelligent person. She's remarkably well-read and has a lot of compassion, so I'm not sure if she's a good sample case, but religion is one of her fascinations. Though not religious herself, she told me on one of my first days here while we were watching coverage of the earthquake in Haiti that she respects voodoo like all religions. Judaism came up later in regard to eating. She was commenting on how I eat anything, whereas many of the BU kids are Jews and don't eat pork. "I'm Jewish as well," I said, "but I don't follow those rules." This has become one of her prime curiosities. One Sunday, I told her I had spoken to my parents. "Did you tell them you have been eating pork here?" she asked. "Um...we eat pork at home. My mother loves pork," I said.

Actually, I think we rarely go three days at this point that she doesn't ask or mention something about Judaism. For instance, she's reminded me three times in two days about a polemic art exhibit in which a Jew is holding a machine gun. Judaism, for her, holds the possibility of mysterious, magical religious practices. When I mention that we eat horseradish in a ritual, she immediately asked if it was for voodoo. The actual explanation let her down a little.

Anyway, this weekend, a friend (the guy who hates NJ) invited me to the synagogue. He said it was a nice social experience, since there were people there from all over. It sounded like a good opportunity, since I tend to have a hard time meeting people with which to speak in Spanish and my program can be a bit insular.

I had been warned by my friend Evan, who had studied on the same program, that you can't get into the synagogue without a passport or identity card. What I hadn't anticipated was the degree of the interrogation required before entrance. While the regulars passed unmolested, I was immediately stopped at the door.
"Stop here for a second. Is this your first time here?"
"Where are you from?"
"The United States."
"Oh, so I can speak in English. Why are you in Spain?"
"I'm a student. I study at the Autónoma"
"Where do you live?"
I gave my address.
"How long will you be here?"
"Until June."
"Can I see your passport?"
He flipped through to read my information and visa.
"Are you carrying a cell phone?"
"Yes, but it's off."
"Can I see it?"
He made me turn it on and off again to show that it was a real cell phone.
"Are you carrying any weapons?"
"How did you get here?"
"How did you find out about us?"
"A friend told me."
"What's his name?"
I gave his name, but it didn't seem to ring a bell.
"Will he be here tonight?"
"He said he was coming. I don't know when he'll arrive."
"Did you know that we have dinner for you tonight?"
"I didn't know."
"Oh, well, you're welcome to stay after the service."

The service was pretty standard orthodox (although most of the people were not), though I guess the tunes were Sephardic, so I wasn't familiar with many of them. Afterward, there was kiddush, complete with standard tapas (I assume the ham was fake). I ran into a girl from my program, who had been invited by a guy (who was from Gibraltar!) who worked at a bar near her house. There were probably less than 50 people in total, so I find it amusing that she was among the crowd. Although the meal was probably the worst I've had in Spain, dinner was, as promised, very social. My table was mostly people around my age, with a few Americans, a few Argentinians (one of whom was actually named Brian, in honor of the movie "The Life of Brian" - ironic that he was essentially named after Jesus) and a couple people who seemed to move around so frequently that they didn't identify with any nationality. After dinner, they brought out hard liquor and mixers so that everyone could drink and sing together. There were a lot of invitations to Purim parties for next week (when we wear costumes and drink until we can't remember the difference between good and evil) and some more conversations.

Perhaps the most interesting part for me was how weird it seemed for everything to be conducted in Spanish. When a man with a bushy gray beard and a black suit and hat stands up, I expect him to talk in Yiddish-tinged English, not in Spanish. Similarly, I was a little confused when people started sprinkling their Spanish with Hebrew phrases. For instance, when I asked where are tablemates had gone, the girl sitting next to me told me "netilat yadayim" (to wash hands). I had to have her repeat twice before I realized she wasn't talking in Spanish and that I knew the phrase. Language was actually an interesting issue, since some people there didn't know Spanish. I was talking to one Israeli couple who I originally thought were just humoring me by speaking in English. When I switched into Spanish, they looked confused and then asked, "could you tell us how you learned Spanish? We've been here for a month, but we don't know how to go about learning it." Sometimes, you just had to negotiate through a few languages before you arrived at one or a combination of a few that all members of the conversation understood.

In all, it was probably my successful evening in terms of shear quantity of social interaction since I've arrived, especially since later on I got into a club for free because someone else from the synagogue works in the coat check. It also has invited a whole new round of questions from Pilar, which, I have to admit, is much more interesting than being told every day how it has been raining a lot.


  1. Ahh that is so fun! I am glad you did that. I told you it would be really intense security! And see, Jews give great social interactions. Go to the Purim parties! Fun fun

  2. Haha I love that someone actually named their son Brian with "Life of Brian" in mind. Which reminds me...I envy every single European who will be able to attend this: But hopefully Eric Idle will come to his senses and let U.S. audiences partake soon enough.