You know that song Wherever You go, There’s Always Someone Jewish? Turns out it’s kind of true. I never quite appreciated the significance of the line “you’re never alone when you say you’re a Jew” until I found myself in a foreign city in a foreign country, with few strands of common culture to grasp when it comes to Chileans. At home I was never the type to actually email that friendly girl who went to ____ University and was willing to answer all my questions when I was looking at schools. It takes massive amounts of prodding for me to call up a friend of a friend of a friend of my mom’s, or even just a friend of my mom’s sometimes, to set up a lunch to talk about a common interest. But lo and behold, walking down the streets of Santiago, my heart only fluttered a little when it came time to call a Jewish family I’d never met in my life, despite my debilitating fear of speaking Spanish on the phone.
For some reason, calling this family struck me less as awkward and an imposition, and more as a path to salvation from my cultural isolation. And I did it, and it was wonderful, and they spoke English! Last Wednesday I went to the Gittmans’ house for dinner. They have three daughters ages 19, 21, and 23, and they picked me up from the metro station in a car. In person, we spoke Spanish. I even remembered to stop and buy some cake so I wouldn’t arrive empty-handed, and they responded just as I expected, by telling me I shouldn’t have brought anything.
As soon as we got there Yael, the 21 year old daughter gave me a tour of the beautiful and large apartment, and then we sat down and compared systems of higher education. The perfect host, she never let the conversation falter into awkwardness. “So you live at college from the time you’re 18?” she asked me. “Yeah, and explain to me why it’s better that universities don’t really look at your grades from high school, only your scores on the PSU (their SAT)?” I responded. When dinner was ready, we sat down together. The dad made corny jokes that I thought were fine but embarrassed his daughters. The youngest sister called, and everyone fought over the car. I was invited to Rosh Hashanah. When it was time for dessert, they offered me tea. Instead of worrying about how the world might end if I said yes and now one else was having any, I remained calm and rational and realized that a bag of leaves was a bag of leaves. When it was time to go they said, we need to take you home because we’re tired. Next time you’ll come earlier, call if you need even the smallest thing, and they drove me home.
I’ve had a few conversations with another Jewish friend here who went to a similar type of friend of a friend of a friend’s house for Shabbat later that week about why we are so much more at ease in these homes. It could be coming from us– a matter of confidence. We enter with a feeling of familiarity, with an expectation that we are going somewhere where we will finally understand the rules about how to act. Because of this, we act less awkward. We speak better Spanish because we are at ease, and because they know English. We tell ourselves it will be more comfortable and so it is.
But it might be something else. There is something familiar in the invitation. I know that when my mom tells someone from far away that they can call her for anything while they’re in Philly, she really means it, so I am able to take them at face value as well. Or it might be that these Chilean Jews really do do things differently. That they really are tangibly more similar to our own families. Perhaps we are for the first time experiencing the real depth of the Jewish community the way it was meant to be felt, in exile. We are finally learning and understanding the value of sharing a common culture with people who are spread out in a worldwide diaspora.
It’s probably both. Part of the comfort we feel in these Jewish homes comes from our own projection (Chilean Catholic dads, for example, also make corny jokes. I think that’s just universal), but part of it probably is a shared understanding and openness among a group of people who share a history and a value of community. My host parents have never introduced themselves to their nextdoor neighbors.
I expected to learn more about Catholicism here. I prepared myself mentally to live with a Catholic family and thought only fleetingly about seeking out the Jewish community. I never thought my first major religious enlightenment in Chile would be about my own religion. I’m pretty comfortable in Santiago now, but on Friday I was frustrated and feeling down and isolated. When I got back to my apartment the first thing I did was use the slow internet connection to look for places to go for Shabbat services.
I love the other people in my program, and my host parents are great, but I’m frustrated with how hard it is to make Chilean friends my age. Every time I feel like I’ll never really get to know anyone in this city though, I think about my plans to go to Friday night services this week. My salvation from cultural isolation seems to be laid out before me once again. I’m having trouble expressing how I feel about it, but it’s not like I’m so much more comfortable around Jewish 20 year olds than other Chilean ones, it’s just that somewhere beneath my doubts and insecurities about being here, I know that the Jews will take care of me.