Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Stateside Adventures

Rabbi Ruhi Sophia Motzkin Rubenstein
Family together in Philadelphia
The last few weeks of our sabbatical - May 1 to June 9 - were spent back in the USA, and featured trips to Concord and Portsmouth, NH, Boston, the Adirondacks, Northampton, and New York City (3 times). But the highlight was just this past weekend in Philadelphia, where our daughter Ruhi Sophia graduated from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and received the title of Rabbi. It is difficult to express the joy and pride that we feel in her accomplishment, and in seeing this amazing person begin such a significant new phase in her life. At the end of June Ruhi Sophia and her husband Jacob Siegel will be heading to Eugene, OR, where she will begin her position as Rabbi of Temple Beth Israel on July 15. With Shira flying in from Buenos Aires, the weekend provided the rare opportunity for our whole family to be together.
Ari and Brent - The Esplanade on the Charles

By the George Washington Bridge
In fact, these last six weeks have been all about family and friends, and the sabbatical adventures and new experiences continued. We spent time in Boston with Ari, his boyfriend Brent, and our good friends Gail and George Strassfeld, kayaking on the Charles River during a spectacular weekend. Other weekends we biked along the New Hampshire coast while visiting Jonathan's sister Judith in Portsmouth, and had a couple of great bike rides along the Hudson River Greenway on the west side of Manhattan.

Casa Azul, Mexico City
Casa Azul, New York Botanical Garden
Before going to Philadelphia last weekend, we picked up Shira at JFK on Thursday morning and went to the New York Botanical Garden to see the exhibit "Frida Kahlo - Art, Garden, Life." We were intrigued by this because on our trip to Mexico City in April, one of the highlights was a visit to Casa Azul, where Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera lived, and which is now one of the most popular museums in Mexico. The artists constructed beautiful gardens at Casa Azul, and the NY Botanical Garden created a reproduction of those gardens and some of the features of Casa Azul, as well as a gallery show of Frida's paintings.

Not a day went by during these last six months without our feeling profound gratitude for the amazing opportunity we had been provided by our community. This gift of time to travel, explore, rest and reinvigorate ourselves has been a great blessing. We return to work today inspired by our experiences and enthusiastic about the work ahead.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

More México

The religious and cultural diversity of Mexico is a source of continual delight and wonder for us. While Spanish is the national language, there are 68 officially recognized regional languages. There were hundreds of different indigenous peoples in the geographic area that became the Estados Unidos Mexicanos (the United Mexican States – the official name), each with its own cultural traditions, clothing, food, dances, rituals and masks.

Though Catholicism was adopted by the overwhelming majority of these peoples, there remains to this day a fascinating syncretism of indigenous practices and Christianity.

Santa Cruz Church
This past Shabbat, as we were strolling home from the morning service, we heard drumming and chanting coming from Santa Cruz, the church down the street from Shalom San Miguel. Dancers in brightly colored clothing and feathered headdresses poured out of the church square, in processional behind a Christian banner.
Funeral Procession

And as we returned from market on Monday, we encountered a funeral procession coming down Zacateros, a street near our home. The hearse was preceded by a man in black holding a crucifix banner in front of about a dozen dancers and musicians maintaining a rhythmic beat.

La Virgencita
Everywhere we go we see the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, a Mexican Catholic icon which incorporates layers of religious significance for indigenous Mexican peoples. Here are just a few places where she appears around San Miguel de Allende:
in a restaurant bathroom

Our apartment patio

Good Friday in San Miguel de Allende
This year the weekends of Pesach and Easter coincided. On Friday April 3, which was both Good Friday and Erev Pesach, people lined the streets for a parade through the historic center of San Miguel.

Seder at La Fortuna

We attended the Shalom San Miguel community seder, held inside and on the outdoor patio of La Fortuna, a local restaurant.

Quema de Judas
Quema de Judas
And on Easter Sunday, in the Jardín Principal (the central town square), hundreds turned out for La Quema de Judas (the Burning of Judas). We first experienced this Latin American Easter custom seven years ago during our sabbatical in Valparaiso, Chile, and it had left us feeling somewhat squeamish to witness the public burning of dark-clad Judas (Jew-like?) figures as the representation of evil. But here there were dozens of brightly colored papier mache figures of both men and women, representing evil in the form of everything from political caricatures to fictional characters, each containing fireworks that were exploded one by one in a festive celebratory atmosphere.

We have had the opportunity to do a bit of travel this month, first to Guanajuato, the capital city of the state of Guanajuato in which San Miguel de Allende is located.

 Like San Miguel, Guanajuato has a lovely, Spanish Colonial historic center, built on the site of former indigenous communities.
And then five days in Mexico City, including a side trip to the pyramids of Teotihuacán, an ancient city pre-dating not only Spanish but also Aztec rule, and once home to over 100,000 people.
At the Templo Mayor
We also stumbled across an incredible scene of dozens of dancers and drummers outside the Templo Mayor, the ruins of the temple of the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan, which lies beneath the center of present-day Mexico City.

Our spiritual home in Mexico has been the Jewish Cultural and Community Center of San Miguel
(and its Shalom San Miguel Shabbat minyan), housed next door to a tortilleria where people line up to get fresh tortillas.
This past Friday, Jonathan led another challah-baking workshop in a private home
 and on Sunday, Linda taught a small group how to make simple repairs to one of the community Torah scrolls. We have loved being part of one very tiny piece of Mexico’s religious and cultural diversity.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Leaving the countryside for town

Jonathan with Brewster, Rosie, and Lily
We moved from the country into the city on April 1, from Simple Choice Farm located about 12 miles outside of San Miguel de Allende, into a rental property close to the city center.

We are looking forward to the opportunity to explore and get to know San Miguel better, (and to celebrating Pesach with members of Shalom San Miguel, the Jewish community here), but there are also some things that we will miss when we move.

We will miss the quiet of the countryside, where the loudest noises (except for the occasional bus or car on the road) are not human-made: the wind in the trees, the braying of donkeys and barking of dogs, the crow of the roosters, the twittering of birds. 

We will miss the way that animal life is inextricably blended with human life – the goats and sheep that scamper across the road, the cows that gaze at us placidly from their pastures, the pig that lifts its head and grunts a greeting when we walk by, the donkeys and horses that live alongside the campesinos

Brand-new church in El Membrillo
We will miss the friendliness of the people who live in the many ranchos accessible by footpaths or cobblestone streets from the main road, who smile and exchange greetings even with us foreigners. One of our favorite walks was into the comunidad of El Membrillo, where the residents were building a new stone church. We saw both the end of its construction, and the decorations celebrating the first Mass in the new building for the fiesta of their patron saint San Jose.

Decorated for the mass and fiesta of dedication
Almost finished interior
Our new street - our house is the bright yellow on the right
And while we may not miss the forty minute bus commute between the farm and the town center, we will miss the local color of the ride itself, and the way the people on the bus look out for one another. On the rural road, there aren’t any official bus stops; folks just flag the bus down, and the bus driver waits when he sees people hurrying down the footpaths. We are the only gringos on the bus, and the first time we road it was a market day. The bus was packed with people, like ourselves, carting bags of fresh fruits and vegetables, and students just out of school. We weren’t sure we would get on the bus, but the driver urged everyone to squeeze, and then proceeded to the next stop, where another dozen schoolkids miraculously squeezed in after us. A grandma with a baby on her lap urged us to put our bags of vegetables on the floor by her feet, even though it cramped her leg room, rather than standing with them in the aisle.

Interior courtyard of our apartment
This past weekend, we did a Bread and Torah program at Shalom San Miguel (click here for pictures) and we look forward to attending their community Seder. 

There is much to do and experience in town, and though we will miss the countryside, we are excited about beginning the next phase of this journey.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Our Casita
For the month of March we are living in a beautiful and somewhat isolated place ( about 12 miles outside of San Miguel de Allende. We are reading, writing, scribing, and doing art in a very comfortable, well-appointed, light filled casita.  It is extremely quiet and peaceful, with warm, sunny days and cool, cloudy nights.
Down the road

Down the driveway we can hail a local bus into town that comes four or five times a day on a somewhat unpredictable schedule. We haven’t spent much time in San Miguel but it is beautiful charming, quaint, artsy, and full of gringos. There is a lot to do there but we are not in a hurry to explore the city because we are planning to move into town for the month of April. It strikes us a combination of Northampton and – well, Mexico. It is very touristy but also very Mexican.

Purim at the JCCC
We moved here on Sunday, March 1, but we arrived in San Miguel on the previous Friday, checked into a wonderful BnB, and went to services at the synagogue – the San Miguel de Allende Jewish Cultural and Community Center ( – Shabbat eve and morning. We were warmly welcomed – I would say embraced – by the community of mostly American ex-pats and winter residents. We received numerous offers of hospitality, and w
Special challah
e feel we will make some real friendships here. We also attended the morning service and megillah reading on Purim, and we made for the community a sombrero-shaped challah with the Hebrew words "chag purim sameach" (Happy Purim). We are already lined up to do a Bread and Torah program at the end of the month.

New church being built near our house
In San Miguel de Allende
Within a good walk from where we live there are a number of small villages that we have only begun to explore, and we are excited to do so. The villages and the countryside are gringo-less and tourist-less, filled with warm local residents, some of whom we have met, as well as roosters, pigs, horses, cows, turkeys, pigs, goats, sheep and, of course, burros. When we go into town we feel as if we are moving between worlds.

We feel very privileged, lucky, fortunate, blessed to be able to wake up each morning and look out over the mountains, and to have so much beauty, culture, and adventure so close at hand.
Trail behind our casita

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Trámites – Our dictionary lists the translation as “formalities, red tape, procedures”, the ordeals that one sometimes has to go through in order to get anything done. But I like the echo of the English word “trauma”, because anytime anything is a whole procedure to accomplish, anytime there is a lot of red tape or hoops to jump through, it’s also a bit traumatic, no matter how good one is at adjusting one’s attitude and taking things in stride.

We are on sabbatical, so trámites are definitely easier to endure when you haven’t got deadlines to meet and appointments to keep. Even on sabbatical, however, the stuff of life continues to happen and there are inevitable challenges. As I write this blog post, Jonathan is lying in bed with one of his chronic back episodes. We can’t blame this one on stress, or extreme activity, or even doing anything stupid. He bent down to pick up the garbage pail, and couldn’t straighten up again. (As Shira pointed out, “Sometimes an illness isn’t psychosomatic.”) Luckily, we have no need for major readjusting of schedules, and Jonathan is currently resting, reading books and watching movies on our laptop, not too unhappily. He’s better today than yesterday, and we expect this will pass in a few days.

Flying over the Andes - Argentina to Chile
Not all trámites make for good blog posts, so we’ll skip the details about our cell phone being stolen on the Buenos Aires subway, or Shira’s backpack taken while we were on a side trip to Chile to visit our friends from our last sabbatical in Valparaíso. (That trip to Chile will be the subject of another happier post.) Not pleasant experiences, but ones that reminded us of how lucky, overall, we really are. “Good fortune doesn’t mean that nothing bad ever happens to you; it means that when something bad does happen, you have the necessary resources to deal with it.” Sage words Shira quoted to us from … not sure whom, but I think perhaps another sage woman, Jonathan’s sister Judith.

Our most blog-worthy trámites experience to date concerns our detention, at the the Santiago airport when we arrived in Chile, for attempting to smuggle contraband into the county. We had filled out the usual airport customs declarations stating that we weren’t bringing anything illegal into the country, but were then accused of filing a false statement when contraband was discovered in our backpacks during the required X-ray luggage screening. Our contraband, which was taken from us, weighed and itemized on several different forms, consisted of:
Legal raisins and banana
  • pasas (raisins) 0.13 kg
  • mix frutos secos (mixed dried fruit)  0.14 kg
  • ensalada (salad)  0.2 kg
  • platano (a banana)  0.24 kg

All these items were illegal agricultural products from another country. We got to witness, up close and personal, the efficient workings of Chilean customs: the several different bureaucrats who got involved in our case, the decision (made by them, not us) to apply all the criminal charges to just one passport – mine, not Jonathan’s, the taking of my statement: "No declare por que olvide por completo que teniamos los alimento y era nuestro almuerzo" – “I didn't declare these items because I completely forgot we had this food; it was our lunch”, the warning that while I would be let off this time without a fine, the consequences would be severe if I ever attempted to smuggle a banana into Chile again.
Back in Valparaíso
The stairway to our hostel in

After signing the appropriate forms indicating my guilt and acceptance of the destruction of my contraband, this particular experience of trauma and trámites ended, and our Chilean visit began.