2nd dispatch from the Southern Hemisphere
I like writing these updates, and I hope you like reading them. If you want to be taken off the list, please let me know, and I will! This is much more fun than writing everything down in my journal by hand... After I leave my cousins (Monday morning), I think there will be fewer updates. They have, I think, two computers for four people here, and they told me to go on the Internet as much as I wanted--not sure they knew how often that meant! I have a lot of down time in Sao Paulo, so there's time to write. You are hereby warned that this is a very long e-mail. I am a woman of words, as they say.
I also have another introductory note--a lot of this "edition" will be about Shabbat and my brief impressions of the Jewish community here. Also, some will be about my cousins. I thought about doing separate updates, but decided not to, and you can feel free to utterly ignore what doesn't make sense, or ask me about if after I return to the US.
When I last left you, I was changing into sandals. This was all after Peggy (Chaim's wife), Stefanie, and Natasha (their daughters, ages 19 and 17, both of whom study at a local university) came home and I met them. The whole family is SO nice. After they all came home, they made me a Brazilian lunch of rice and beans, which is pretty much what I eat anyway--I loved it! They also made this weird thing that tasted kind of like spinach--I think it's called "couve," which sounds like "koovah" or "kovah" or something. There's this powerdery stuff that they put on the rice and beans and couve (?)--it's made out of some kind of a large root vegetable, and has no particular taste. It sort of adds body to the food, I guess, but it just made mine taste kind of gritty--not in a bad way, it just didn't add anything special for me. They're pretty into healthy food. Peggy said she would be happy to make me brown rice, when I told her that I liked it. I gave her one of my rye crackers to try (part of the warehouse of kosher food I brought from the US), and she liked it and said that they can't get things like that in Brazil.
After writing the first dispatch, I went to the small kosher food store in their neighborhood, and I bought cheese, yogurt, and other stuff like that (Bisli, since it was there). Then, we went to this gourmet supermarket (maybe like Citarella in NY? not sure--like Fairway, the upstairs is all healthy foods). Maybe it's more like Bread & Circus in Boston, or I guess it's now Whole Foods. Spotlessly clean, beautifully arranged produce, etc. A lot of the food here seems to be either banana- or guava-flavored. For example, there were several kinds of banana cookies at the grocery store. There's also a lot of stuff made out of coconut. I may try to bring some guava jelly back to the States, if I decide that I like it. I don't think I know how guava tastes... Peggy bought me about 5 or 6 different kinds of fruit that I have never seen before in my life! We only bought Brazilian fruit--there were also a lot of imports from Peru, Columbia, etc., but she sniffed at those and said that they were "exotic" and "strange," so we didn't get them. (They may have been expensive--dividing by 2.6 is not my strong point!)
We bought cashew fruit! The fruit is bright red and soft, shaped kind of like a bell pepper or a square-ish apple, and it has a little cashew attached to the top, wrapped in a green pod! I had a taste feast for seudah shlishit yesterday afternoon, and the cashew fruit is very curious-tasting. They said it did something funny to your mouth, and both Peggy and Stefanie were trying to explain what they meant, but failed in their limited English, and what they meant is this: It leaves a funny, chalky aftertaste in your mouth. I really, really liked the jaka ("j" like the "s" in pleasure). It smells very sweet, and tastes kind of like banana--just sweet, but not too sweet. Delicate, aromatic. It has the texture of, maybe, um, a bell pepper? Kind of slippery. I also had fresh papaya, and funny fruit that looks like a grape tomato but has a big pit inside and is sour, and I also had raw sugar cane. Of all of those things, the jaka and cashew fruit were my favorite. At one point in the first day or so, I also had mango, which was the best mango I've had in my life, including in California, in Israel, etc. (In NY, mangos come shipped hard and green from Mexico and then slowly become soft, mushy, and sweet on the grocery store shelves.) This mango was firm, and sweet, and juicy. Not stringy at all. I also had fresh pineapple, also probably the best I've ever had. 100% sweet, not sour at all, juicy. Wow.
On Friday night, I went to a nearby shul with Chaim (who wore a black velvet kippa, which is funny if you know him, I think). It turned out to be Chabad. Everyone was very nice--I spoke Hebrew with a sheitel-wearing woman. I had to ask her if they said the additions for winter or summer in the amida--it only ocurred to me as I got to it that it was actually summer here, but winter everywhere halacha was written (at least until the past few hundred years). And I've never been in the Southern Hemisphere before, so I'd never thought about it. She looked at me like I was crazy when I asked, and said, "Of course, choref, like Yerushalayim." This particular woman shared my siddur for kedusha, because she didn't have her own siddur, because instead of davening, she was reading tehillim. Even though she was sitting in the shul during mincha (which was definitely after sunset, but I guess chasidut was created to break rules like that) and maariv.
Everyone at "Beis Menachem" was either wearing a sheitel and pretty Lubavitch-looking, or wearing slacks and pretty not-so-frum looking (based on my probably irrelevant American standards). Miriam, everyone except the rebbetzins was talking a lot, and loudly, like in Spain! They come to shul to socialize--I can respect that! It didn't really bother me--I think only one or two of the non-Chabad women could daven in Hebrew (the rest were reading the Portuguese side of the siddur). [Aside: It's funny that people complain so much about talking in shul in the US (I complain, too). I think that the US has the quietest shuls outside of Israel. (I wonder if that is because of the influence of the Christian church model of prayer, or because of the German influence--I assume that yekkes talk less in shul?) At least in the US, the talkers make an attempt at whispering--here, there was outright talking.]
Davening itself was interesting. I couldn't see through the trellis + fake leaf mechitza at all, but from listening, it seemed that one shaliach tzibur was a young Lubavitcher, one seemed to be a 90-year-old man from somewhere in Eastern Europe, and several loud congregants seemed mizrachi. They read all of Shema out loud, like in a mizrachi shul, and, in the 3rd paragraph, said "tzitzit" with a very strong TH at the end--"tzitziTH." There were other mizrachi influences as well. It was neat. The older rabbi (there are two there, and he isn't old at all, but the younger one looked like he was 30, tops) was American, but Chaim said that these Lubavitchers come to Brazil and learn Portuguese (how do you spell that?) like natives. Both rabbis spoke, and the mechitza was open when they spoke. When the younger one spoke, he studiously avoided looking at the women's section. His speech, which I gathered to be a synopsis of hilchot taanit esther and Purim, was rather "eh." The older rabbi was more dynamic and looked at the whole room when he spoke, which I liked better. Also, he gave more of a drash. I kind of got what he was talking about, but have no recollection now.
Chaim saw his friend Benny at Chabad, and he invited him back home for Friday night dinner. (Chaim knew Benny in Israel, and it was Benny's brother Jaques who helped get Chaim papers to live in Brazil.) After Benny made kiddush for us on the kosher wine that Chaim had bought specially for me ("sacramental" wine, it said on the bottle, and it was very, very sweet--Chaim told me that for me, he got only the best), the whole Shprecher family, plus Benny, ate Friday night dinner together, and then Stefanie and Natasha got dressed to go out. Benny is frummer than Chaim and family. I knew he was really frum because he walked up all 14 flights of stairs with me! (Peggy couldn't believe I would do such a thing, but I promised her that it was not a big deal because I'd had Shabbat lunch on the 17th floor just the week before in NY. Since I've been going to the gym, 14 or 17 flights isn't FUN, per se, but it isn't hard. It was harder when I walked up all 14 flights the next day, at around 3 pm, when it must have been around 85 degrees out, and their apartment isn't air-conditioned. I mean, they have wall units, but they weren't turned on and I wasn't going to.)
Friday night dinner was fun. I brought them a babka from New York (Green's, for those in the know), and they all LOVED it! Chaim told his kids, "This is a REAL Jewish cake." Benny first thought we got it at the local kosher store, and couldn't believe how good it was, but then I told him that it came from New York. It turns out that Chaim loves basically everything sweet, and Peggy and the two daughters love chocolate. People after my own heart! So it was a big hit, even though it was totally smooshed from the suitcase.
On Saturday, Chaim went to work, so Peggy walked me to "Beit Chinuch," a complex with two synagogues and a school for 800 students in k-12. It is very difficult to get into Beit Chinuch without someone like Chaim, who studies Gemara there twice a week, and whom the guards therefore know. They didn't know Peggy at all, and since the bomb in Argentina, Chaim told me that security has been very tight all over South America (in the Jewish communities). Peggy had to basically list the rabbi and everyone else she knew before they would let us in. If I had been there alone, I would not have been able to get in at all.
I couldn't see the men's section at all (trellis with gauzy fabric over it). In fact, I couldn't really hear much either, so except for Parshat Zachor, kedusha, and when I was davening, I people-watched. Like Chabad, there was a LOT of talking. But this was, overall, much frummer. Every woman there was wearing sleeves to halfway between elbow and wrist, and every woman over 18 or 19 (maybe 20) was wearing a sheitel. A very nice sheitel. I don't have much experience with sheitel-wearing women, but it seemed that these sheitel-wearing women were wearing brighter clothes, shorter skirts, thinner stockings, and lower necklines than in, say, New York or Jerusalem. That makes sense--if you are going to wear a sheitel in humid, 85 degree weather, you have to take something off, somewhere! Or maybe they were just more modern than American and Israeli sheitel-wearing women tend to be. What I'm trying to say is that they weren't frumpy. I noticed a lot of freckled red-heads, and strawberry blonds in the shul. Peggy also has that coloring. Her mother came from Austria, and I wondered if there was a large Austrian community in Sao Paulo and if they have more redheads than your typical Russian- and Polish-heavy New York or Boston Jewish community. There were not enough siddurim for the women, so one woman somehow signaled to her husband, who brought some over. There were a LOT of kids running around. Most were not in shul. I think maybe some more came in for parshat zachor. All the little boys, including the ones with long peyis/peot and velvet kippas, white button-down shirts, etc., were playing a rowdy game of soccer (futbol). It looked like fun.
The most astonishing thing about the shul was that people started leaving, en masse, long before services were over. Mostly women left after zachor. After kedusha of musaf, nearly the whole shul got up and walked out! I couldn't really hear what was going on, and was kind of confused. I thought, "Maybe they sped through the rest of chazarat hashatz and don't do aleynu, etc. here?" By the time I finally ascertained that shul was over, it was me, two other women, and barely a minyan of men. And the shul was BIG, and fairly full for Zachor. I went to kiddush, me and the rabbis, and when I got there, the room was FULL of people eating already! There were no chairs, cups, or food left at the women's table (separate seating kiddush, of course), and only enough room for the 10 last men at the men's table. I took someone else's seat and met a nice American woman who married a Brazilian man who imports cameras from the Far East, or maybe he manufactures them in Brazil.
Benny had said that he might be able to arrange lunch for me. Otherwise, I was going to go back to the Shprechers, where I had two challot, some wine, and new and interesting cheeses and fruit yet to try. He found a couple he knew, where the wife was American, and Benny and I went to lunch there. (Benny is a real mensch, and funny. He told me some amusing stories about Chaim and Peggy, and really likes to talk about how fabulous Australia is.) These people--Roberto and Malka--had an enormous, gorgeous apartment. Very swanky in a tasteful way. Everything was beautiful. (Mollie and Imma would have particularly liked it, I think.) Roberto imports (legal, for medicinal purposes) drugs into Brazil, which is apparently a good business. (Everyone I met in the Jewish community imports actual products into Brazil, or imports designs and then manufactures them in Brazil. Also, there are a number of bankers.) Malka was very nice. The wine was *fabulous*. I think it was from Chile. I had "palmetto pie," in addition to the usual chulent and potato kugel. I guess it as made out of palm, but I didn't really understand how they turn a palm tree into a delicious pie. For dessert, I had this papaya creamy thing (made out of soy, I guess). It was incredibly rich and tasted like heaven.
Our conversation during lunch was very interesting. I don't know how we got into this at ALL (this type of thing always seems to come up when I'm around), but it came out that I had studied Talmud for quite a few years (6 years in day school, one year in Israel, on-and-off during college). Someone asked me, I kid you not, "Don't you find, as a woman, that the Talmud is too abstract for your practical, women's brain?" Or maybe it was more like, "Jeez (but not that word), didn't you just hate learning Talmud because you're a woman and women are better at concrete things than abstract things?" And I said, "No, I actually loved studying Talmud, and found that it suited my brain just fine." The husband was kind of incredulous and he was going to bring something difficult from Nedarim to stump either me or my wife (that part was a bit unclear), and while he was gone, I explained to the wife (Malka) why studying mishna and Talmud was interesting, and how it helped one understand how we got from what is written in the Torah to what we observe today. She admitted that she had studied Talmud for a semester at Bar Ilan, but I was not to tell her husband-- he didn't know. She thought it was just fine to study Talmud. Someone else said, "But it's assur for women to learn Torah sheh baal peh" and I launched into my canned speech (haven't had to give this one since around 1998, when the poor yeshiva boy sharing my El Al flight back from Israel hardly knew what hit him). About how women used to be restricted to Yiddish translations of stories from the Bible, and how the Chafetz Chayim wrote a heter for beis yaakov permitting women to study things like Pirkei Avot, and Rashi, too, I suppose, and how many women learn Torah shebaal peh now, etc. They were interested. It was fun. We moved into an interesting discussion about the last aliya of parshat vayikra, which includes psukim that are directly (or nearly directly) quoted in bava metziah, and then Benny gave a very nice drash about Megillat Esther. It was good to be challenged. Very good. Downright fun, I daresay.
After that, I went back to the Shprechers' apartment, walked up 14 flights (the equivalent of 16 American flights, since there is a ground floor before the first floor and there is a 13th floor--apparently a lucky floor to live on in Brazil), and took a long, sweaty nap. God, it's hot here. Chaim warned me, before I came, that it would be the beginning of the fall and therefore "not so hot," and I, in turn, told him that New York was "not so cold" anymore... It turns out that Brazilians think 5 degrees Celsius is very cold, and this American, at least, thinks that 80 degrees
Fahrenheit is pretty hot.
I read some of my Portuguese phrase book, and then Shabbat was over. I went to an ice cream and cake store that had recently opened, and I put figs on my ice cream! That's a normal thing to do here, apparently. I saw some enormous fresh figs in the grocery store, by the way.
Then, Chaim and Peggy and I all went to a party of friends of theirs, in a huge, opulent apartment. They brought in 12 kitchen staff to cook and serve everything, and there was free-flowing wine, vodka, whisky, and this weird Brazilian soda that tastes like nothing I've had before in my life. Chaim told me that there were three heads of banks there. The whole thing was very interesting. Chaim seems very interested in having me try new things, have new experiences, etc., so I turned to Peggy to help me avoid eating, um, very non-kosher things. It was a totally surreal experience in every way possible. Bizarre. My first, and maybe only, interaction with the hopelessly rich. I didn't know anyone there except for Chaim and Peggy, and also Chaim's friend Jaques (Benny's brother) and his wife Ilana (I think). I spent a lot of time watching people. I don't know much from face lifts and other plastic surgery, so I spent some time studying people's faces and hands and picking out the ones who had had plastic surgery. There were many men wearing "chai" necklaces, and the hosts had four or five beautiful megilla cases, three etrog boxes, and maybe four bsamim cases, all ornate and in silver. And people were heaping milk and meat onto their plates. Together. I guess it's not so weird, but the combination of super-rich, treif Arab food, and super-identifying with Jews and Judaism was odd. Also, there was a scantily-clad young woman doing Arabic dances at the end. First, solo, then with men (one at a time), then with a bunch of women. Everyone looked like they were having a fabulous time, but I found the whole thing kind of bizarre and fairly distasteful. I don't think it was Peggy or Ilana's style, either, and they were being a little bit snarky, which was fun. It was an interesting experience overall.
This morning, we went to this huge Jewish club, called Hebraica. I didn't understand what it was before I got there, but I guess it's like a country club for Jews, in the middle of the city. Security was very strict. Inside, there were five swimming pools, two or three tennis courts, two soccer fields, an athletic club with aerobics classes, maybe ten restaurants (one was kosher, but if you ask for "kasher" at the Japanese restaurant, they won't give you anything without fins and scales), a walking track, an olympic gymnastics center, a volleyball court, a bank, a synagogue, a theater for shows, a movie theater, and several playgrounds. It kind of looks like a small, well-tended kibbutz for fitness freaks. There were sheiteled Jews there, with all manner of kippot and tzitzit in various stages of hanging out, but mostly just a LOT of non-identifiably-Jewish Jews. Maybe it was like a JCC on crack. In any case, it was gorgeous and Peggy and I walked around the track for about twenty minutes. While we were there, I had "coconut water," which is what comes out of a coconut when you impale it on a stake and poke a hole in the other end! It was amazingly refreshing, and a little bit sweet. Yum. Ater we left Hebraica, Peggy took me to a mall, because I was curious--it was nothing special, except that it was AIR-CONDITIONED! Which was fabulous. Not crazy air-conditioning, like you have a wear a jacket, but air-conditioned enough so that you don't need to constantly be guzzling water, as I have been. At the mall, I tasted coconut and dulce de leche ice cream. Peggy promised it would be good, and it was.
It was 32 degrees Celsius today--that's about 90 degrees Fahrenheit. I was stupid and didn't put on sunscreen before leaving the house this morning, and after about 20 minutes at Hebraica, I realized that my skin was frying. I slathered on sunscreen from head to toe (especially toe--my feet hadn't seen the light of day since August or September). It was SPF 30, and Peggy told me she never wears anything less than SPFD 60!
Tomorrow morning, I'm flying to Foz do Iguacu. I was going to take the bus, but because a bridge fell down, the bus would have taken 16 hours each way. The flight is pretty cheap, and Peggy also made reservations for me at a budget hotel in town there. I'll be back in Sao Paulo for Wednesday night, and early Thursday morning I'm taking a bus to Rio.