By: Ellen Brown ’12
Cultural immersion is the most valuable lesson of studying abroad. By experiencing other cultures, we are morphing our learned perspectives from our home environment. In addition, one learns immense insights about oneself outside of their home environment. But what does that mean for maintaining your personal values? Is leaving who you are behind the best way to approach cultural immersion?
Before leaving for Costa Rica, a prominently Catholic country in Latin America, my mother had asked if I wanted to bring shabbos candles and a siddur “just in case.” “Just in case what, ma?” I said, “In case I don’t want to take advantage of learning everything new that I can…I don’t have room in my suitcase for things I already know.” In the past, I have had many encounters with Judaism where I have realized that there is a lot more for me to learn if I so choose. This is the nature of Judaism; we are always encouraged to ask questions. However, even though I am aware that I have much more to discover, I feel confident in my identity and at the time of departure for Costa Rica, I was secure enough to put my Judaism on hold in order to make way for an appreciation of the religious practices in my host country.
My home-stay experience has been by far one of the greatest aspects of the program. Living with a traditional Costa Rican family has surpassed my interest for cultural immersion. So much so, that I find myself longing for my own traditions, culture, language, and even just a simple set of shabbos candles and a siddur. Every day, I continue to embrace my temporal surroundings and absorb the local social norms while still managing to avoid pork.
There are many perspectives I wish to hold on to and bring back with me when I return. But I can’t help but feel like my ancestors did while in exile. I am a stranger in a strange land. My humor, personality, morals and values, all the components I am composed of, have Jewish roots. It has been a struggle to express myself in a language and culture that is not familiar with Jews. Three months in, and I have broken down.
I contacted the Jabad (chabad) in Costa Rica’s capital, San Jose, to see if two other Jewish students participating in the same semester-broad program and I could attend a Seder on the first two nights of Pesach. We were warmly welcomed into the home of Herman and Michele Fainzilber. Herman, born and raised in Costa Rica, had recently become more religious with his wife four years after moving back to Costa Rica from Texas. Herman is a general surgeon in one of the local hospitals, and Michele takes care of their five children. They chose a house close to the Jabad so they could continue practicing a religious lifestyle.
As my host family began preparing for their holy week, I anxiously awaited for the 15th of Nissan. After arriving in San Jose the eve before sedar, my friends and I did a test run looking for the Jabad house and the home of where our bellies will become filled with the bread of affliction. We couldn’t find it; and on the day of, we got lost. But when one is lost, especially when looking for G-d in Judaism, there is always a large feast at the end of the journey. Our persistence is what got Pharaoh to say “go” and also delivered us to ma’ariv services fashionably late.
For me personally, it was mystifying to read the same prayers in the same tunes as I had learned growing up. It reminded me of the Jewish unity I had felt in Israel. I had thought for sure this experience would be different. Shell-shocked and a little rusty at the whole daily prayer service, a young girl handed me her slender Spanish siddur opened to the right page. That gentle guidance from a child is what I love most about the Jabad/Chabad movement. The next generation is so enthused and knowledgeable from such a young age. I slowly began to chant along and sway to the Amidah. By the time we hit the Mourner’s Kaddish, all the rust had been sanded off my wheels, and I was back in riding with no hands in my Jewish zone, realizing I had room in my suitcase after all.
It was no surprise that the young girl belonged to Herman and Michele. We walked to their house and made small talk in Spanish while waiting for the rest of the guests to arrive. Finally, the moment had come. We are all standing around the table ready to make Kiddush when Herman speaks to us in English, “These haggadot are in Spanish, we have ones in English. Can you understand? The whole point of the sedar is that we understand.” I wise-cracked that Spanish is fine because I have heard the story before. I had felt so at home with this family that I even projected the long drawn out memories of pesach that I have had in the past. We each read aloud in Spanish the infamous story of our exodus from Egypt. However, the words seemed to be so much more powerful, the story felt so much more alive. It could be the cognates or the romantic roots of Spanish, but I was more attentive to the sedar than ever before. In retrospect, the only difference in this sedar than the ones I have at home is that we read in Spanish, there was no hunt for the affikomen (we wrapped it then ate it later as dessert), and there was a nice dish of avocados. The kugel; the chicken soup; the marinated-for-hours-melt-off-the-bone meat was the same. With another sense of comfort, in each bite I was able to recline a little more into my identity.
Upon our return for the second sedar, it clicked. I could try my best to absorb and master another culture, but I could never do so by putting my own culture on the back burner. Instead, I need it to compare and contrast. All throughout the semester I would bite my tongue at every, “In Judaism…” that popped in my head, but now I feel the importance of reference points. They never tell you in the abroad program brochures that it takes a strong person to go abroad, and it takes an even stronger person to accept cultural immersion. I was fortunate enough to find a Jewish community to connect to, and I have maintained my own cultural and moral values because they are imbedded in my personality. And from now on, I know I can never leave my Judaism at home.