August 27, 2006

Sabbath in Asunción

In Paraguay's capital, a Chabad rabbi labors to maintain a community on the fringes of Judaism.

Adam Rosen

Asunción, Paraguay—Without waiting for confirmation, the rabbi poured another shot of whiskey into the fine crystal sitting just in front of my plate. "One more—why not?" he seemed to say as he turned toward me, a subtle hint of coercion apparent in his gaze. I'd fallen victim to peer pressure before, but never like this. "L'Chaim," he muttered, barely pausing for the requisite chorus of the same phrase before helping himself to another as well.

bus in Villa Hayes
Public bus in Villa Hayes, a town just outside of Asunción named after obscure US president Rutherford B. Hayes, who in 1868 supported Paraguay in a war against its neighbors.
During some important Jewish holidays this type of consumption is encouraged, but tonight was just plain old Sabbath dinner, an exhibition game as opposed to the championship. This night may have been similar to all other Sabbath nights, but the setting couldn't have been more unusual: As the capital of Paraguay, one of the most obscure countries in Latin America, Asunción is also home to one of the most isolated groups of Jews in the world. Our thawed-out challah bread and kosher meat had to be brought over from Buenos Aires, over 1,300 kilometers away.

I had arrived in town the previous day after an 18-hour bus ride from the same distant Argentine capital, where I had been living for the previous few months. After lugging my gear downtown, I made my way over to the local chapter of Chabad, the international Jewish community's equivalent of the Mission. In order to sustain Jewish practices and cultural traditions in even the most far-flung places, Chabad maintains "houses" in six continents and almost every South American country. Chabad houses in cities with substantial Jewish populations usually function like places of worship anywhere, more or less. But in locations such as La Paz, Bolivia, or Asunción—where the Jewish population numbers just around a thousand—the Chabad house can be equal parts seminary, social club, and synagogue.

I could hardly be considered religious (my most enduring memory of Hebrew school is the far wall of the principal's office), but I've always found it fascinating to see how other Jews throughout the world get by, which is what brought me to the Asunción chapter of Chabad. Language, skin tone, and dress may differ from place to place, but I've found cultural habits and a sense of fraternity to be remarkably universal. Plus, all maudlin anthropological theses aside, I was traveling solo and figured the Chabad House would be a good place to meet people.

After a thankfully brief service (my Spanish was mediocre; my Hebrew worse), the rabbi, who is short with a soft brown beard covering a wrinkleless face, invited me to his home for Sabbath dinner. We walked the few blocks to his building, passed by the elevator on the way to the stairs, and arrived in an apartment with the lights fully turned on, the standard Friday night protocol in any observant Jew's home from Brooklyn to Kinshasa, Congo. Greeting us warmly at the apartment was his wife, recently departed from England and speaking neither Spanish—Paraguay's official language—nor Guaraní, the local indigenous Indian vernacular.

The rabbi, Levi Feigelstock, who was born near Rio de Janeiro but grew up in Buenos Aires, had lived in Asunción for about six months when I met him. Remarkably, he speaks English, Portuguese, Spanish, Hebrew, and Yiddish. As we sat down to eat, I noticed that the uncompromising permanence of the family's new life didn't seem to weigh on his wife to nearly the same degree as it did him. Even though she's from London, a world apart from relatively modern Buenos Aires and Rio, she maintained her cheer as she dutifully attended to the screaming toddlers running around the apartment. (Of course, deep, unforgiving culture shock cannot be ruled out as a source of such self-denying bliss). A local elderly couple from Asunción joined us, and I, as a native of the great city of Baltimore, Maryland, brought total continental representation at the table to three.

Adam Rosen
Adam Rosen inside the Cabildo, the former government house that's now been converted to a museum.
The most crucial ingredient to the success of Chabad's satellites may well be its stewards, who typically are a far cry from the stereotypical image of the weathered, hunched-over rebbe with little time or patience for trifling matters other than the study of ancient manuscripts. Seven years ago, as I stumbled bleary-eyed around the terminal in Amsterdam’s airport during a midnight layover from Israel, an uncharacteristically excited young guy with a black fedora accosted me and some friends, ushering us into a windowless room sandwiched between a string of duty-free shops. While his proposition to lead in a few quick prayers was hardly unappreciated before a nine-hour plane ride, the offer of free vodka was the clincher for his audience of 16-year-olds. After more recent visits to Chabad houses in Córdoba, Argentina, and in my own university in the States, I realized that this guy, like many of the organization’s worldwide branches, was shrewdly playing on the gospel religiously adhered to by young people everywhere: the divine worship of free booze and food. The Chabad rabbis are not so different from the thousands of Mormons who arrive in all corners of the globe to spread the Good Word: They are young and energetic, having been specially groomed for their commission to a place they likely have never heard of and that requires a worrying number of inoculations. (The analogy isn't perfect, and not just because of the beards: Usually the Mormon mission runs for just a few years, while the Chabad post is often indefinite; and, of course, the rabbis have long indulged in the grand reward patiently awaited by all premarital missionaries, toting their children along with them to the faraway land of their charge.)

Even for these indomitable young men, reinvigorating and maintaining a community on the fringe is just as much labor as it is love, regardless of their holy mandate. Although most dinner conversation was conducted in Spanish, at one point while discussing life in Asunción I had difficulty understanding the rabbi—who spoke with a soft voice and rarely looked you in the eye—and I asked him to repeat himself. "You can't get nothing!" he said in English, raising his voice to levels not even heard during services earlier. As all other table conversation abruptly ended, he took a deep breath and expressed how difficult he found life in Paraguay.

Most of South America's Jews descend from Europeans who crossed the Atlantic fleeing the Holocaust. Nearly all of them settled in Brazil and Argentina, where advertisements for Jewish day schools line subway stations in Buenos Aires. In Paraguay, while many Jews have been fortunate enough to fall on the prosperous side of the socioeconomic divide—in a place where "middle class" is considered an intriguing theory—they face their own unique challenges.

For example, intermarriage. I met a 21-year-old girl named Tami who described what is likely the most common predicament affecting Jewish Paraguayans of her generation: Her mother threatens to all but disown her should she marry out of the religion, but in a country with barely 1,000 Jews, of all ages, finding a suitable match she hasn't yet dated and has legitimate interest in was becoming all but impossible. One of her best friends already lives in Buenos Aires; it's just a matter of time, she thinks, until she'll have to do the same. For those who do stay, a choice between high-school and elementary-school sweethearts is hardly a desirable one.

This is where Rabbi Feigelstock and others like him come in. Though I was only in Asunción four days, while I was there I had a palpable sense that this community, for all of its difficulties, wasn't yet finished. On Friday night, services were packed. On weekends there are programs for teenagers to get together. Even the email invitation I received for the Purim holiday party was smart and stylish, obviously designed with enthusiasm.

Living in a strange land is never easy; having to slaughter chickens there—as Rabbi Feigelstock does to supply kosher meat—makes it that much harder. Between his responsibilities to the Asunción Jewish community and those to his own family, the rabbi undoubtedly has little time for leisure and self-enjoyment. So if the man wants me to join him for a few (extra) drinks on a Friday night, to that, I say heartily, "Amen."

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- World
- posted on Aug 28, 06
C. Pooster

I must express my sincere sympathy for the young woman, Tami, who is looking to stay within the confines of our faith by marrying Jewish. For her, finding a suitable beau in Paraguay is like one Adam Rosen finding his way into the arms of a nice Jewish girl in Pikesville.

Aye dios mio.

- World
- posted on Feb 18, 07
Judith Shocron

Queria saber como es la comunidad judía en Asunción, fui en una oportunidad al país,pero no me interiorice sobre el tema.

- World
- posted on Jun 17, 07

Vivo en Barcelona. Soy argentino. Viví en USA, Costa Rica, Colombia, México, etc. Aquí son 400 familias. Odian a los recién llegados. Son una nueva versión de xenofóbicos. Casarse con una judía imposible. Caso de simpatizar con alguna, la jauría lo impediría. En Barcelona el dinero lo es todo, para todos por igual. El 80 u 90% de los judíos se casan fuera de la comunidad judía. Yo he elegido no casarme ni juntarme, esperando tiempos mejores.

Comentarios bienvenidos a mi E-Mail.

Vuestro amigo.

- World
- posted on Jun 17, 07

E-Mail de Alfredo:

- World
- posted on Jun 18, 07
Alfred in english


I live in Barcelona. I´m from Argentina. Lived in the US, Costa Rica, México, etc. Over here there are 400 families. They hate newcomers. They are a new version of xenofobia. To get married with "A nice jewish girl" is impossible. In case of making contact with one, the wolf pack wouldn´t allow it. In Barcelona money talks, the same for everybody. 80%/90% of the jews married out of their faith. Myself, I choose nothing, waiting for better times.

Your friend

Comments welcome:

- World
- posted on Aug 29, 12
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