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Rabbi's Week in Review - 12/26/2023

12/26/2023 12:41:59 PM

Dec26

As I write this, Fay and I are returning from a memorable trip to Chile. While I could write solely about our time in Patagonia and its awesome, overwhelmingly beautiful landscape carved out of ice millions of years ago — and a feeling of some insignificance in relation to G-d’s created world — there are other pieces of the trip that had me connecting back to our own stories and our present existence.

Three components to our Chilean experience resonated for me that I wish to share: (1) our Jewish history, (2) how we create relationships over food, and (3) how the Chilean political environment may provide lessons for us. Before I dive into these topics, I have to give special thanks to Erica Clinton for lending us My Invented Country: A Nostalgic Journey Through Chile, a memoir by Isabel Allende. This book gave us a wonderful context for our Chilean experience and gave me much to ponder.

Fay and I have been fortunate to pursue our love of travel. We have discovered that in many of our travels, we can connect to Jewish community and to Jewish history. Our time in Chile’s capital, Santiago, was no exception. Among the places we visited during our daylong tour was the synagogue building, which became home to the bikur holim society, created in 1917. We met Aaron Schotz, whose work, whose passion, was to go through a treasure trove of photographs, official documents, letters, books and Jewish ritual objects to preserve the history of Santiago, the history of Chile’s Jewish community. Our guide for the day, Oscar Guzman, pointed out within a photograph his father, uncle and cousin, taking pride in his family’s long history and contribution to building community. For me, seeing the importance of those connections, I am contemplating not only how we preserve and honor history within our own Kol Ami community but also how we create community anew with our changing Jewish demographic.  

Isabel Allende’s aforementioned book extensively addresses the dynamic of memory. Allende, whose uncle was progressive Chilean leader Salvadore Allende, who was killed in a military coup in 1973, talks about history and memory much in the same way we talk about Torah — a reflection of ourselves as a spiritual connection rather than a singularly accurate accounting of chronological history. I am sure Oscar Guzman’s prideful accounting of Jewish community in Santiago left out some of the lesser developments in the community, but it absolutely informs his perspective on community, his own family and how he views the world.

From our food experience, I relate two wonderful encounters. The first came to us via the Netflix show Somebody Feed Phil. The show’s creator and featured subject is Phil Rosenthal, who visits different cities, eats at different restaurants and, through his dining adventures, meets and gets to know the locals. He is a goofy guy who may get on the nerves of some, but Fay and I find him endearing, and the way he connects with people through food resonates with us. Through his show in Santiago, we found our way to the Ambrosia Bistro and its chef-owner, Carolina Bazán.  

We had no expectation that we would meet Carolina, but after a few minutes, she walked into the restaurant. We recognized her immediately from her distinctive tattoos and dreadlocks. As we sat at the counter that overlooks the kitchen, she engaged us through the evening with a generosity of spirit. We learned of her two kids and her struggles as a woman to keep a balance vis-à-vis the very demanding work of running a restaurant, and her clear love, passion and skill for creating wonderful and inventive food. (I have to admit that the evening was helped along by how whenever we remarked that some dish she was preparing looked particularly good, she threw a sample our way.)

In Valparaiso, on the Chilean coast, we had signed up to take a Chilean-cuisine cooking class.  We had expected to spend the day in a restaurant working with a chef. Instead, we began the experience in Valparaiso’s massive food market, a place of wonderful mayhem with a vibrantly colorful array of food, particularly the produce. Our guide and instructor for the day, Sebastian, had his favorite vendors. They knew one another well, driving home the point of how we create relationships over the food we eat.

To cook the food, we ended up in a house high in the hills overlooking Valparaiso. (Valparaiso is a series of incredibly steep hills. It makes San Francisco seem rather flat in comparison.) We prepared our food over great conversation, learning about his life and family, the music he loved and, of course, food. We ate our meal of empanadas; fish; a Chilean condiment, known as pebre, of fresh tomatoes, onions, cilantro, olive oil and hot pepper; and cookies, known as alfajores, with a type of dulce de leche (manjar). Again, this was a reminder that food is a marvelous window into people and culture. When approached with openness and respect, food is always relational and never transactional.

As not much of a side note, Valparaiso’s other claim to fame is its street art, which you find on houses and buildings around every corner of the city. It is an expression of life, politics and protest that is uplifting and, at times, troubling. It’s another gift to all who visit this city. The art appears with, and is often commissioned by, the owners of the buildings/houses.

The political part of our trip arose from discussions surrounding an election in Chile during our stay. Chileans were voting on a new constitution. The history informing this particular vote goes back to Isabel Allende’s uncle, Salvadore Allende. After the death of the progressive leader in the 1973 military coup, the dictator Augusto Pinochet took over as leader of Chile until 1990. In addition to a number of repressive measures attacking the free press and civil and human rights, often under threat of death, Pinochet’s economic policies caused an enormous wealth gap in the country that diminished the middle class. He also instituted a constitution for the country that was created for him to retain control over the country and also protect power for other right-wing extremists.

That wealth gap has continued to this day. Pinochet was arrested in 2006 for some 300 criminal violations. He was placed under house arrest but died before being tried.   

In 2022, the country elected progressive leader Gabriel Boric as president. He is best-known as the leader of the student protest movement in Chile and is Chile’s youngest elected president.  While this seems like a new era for Chile, the oligarchy that came to power during Pinochet’s rule has remained.  

Boric sought to institute a new constitution to replace the one instituted by Pinochet. There was extreme pushback from the right-wing extremists in the country. Instead of voting on the constitution sought by Boric and other progressives, it was a proposed constitution by the right-wing that was voted on a couple of weeks ago. This proposed constitution was soundly defeated by some 12 points in the election.

I picked up two possible lessons, both from Isabel Allende’s description of the political ebb and flow of Chile and from discussions with a couple of our guides. On the downside, the wealth disparity created under Pinochet has remained as well as some modicum of fear and hopelessness, even so many years after his rule ended. In other words, the impact of authoritarian, dictatorial rule can have a lasting impact long after the dictator is deposed. The positive take is that protests against authoritarianism were sustained, even among threats of violence, and even as many Chileans left the country after Pinochet took power. 

Elections did and do have a positive impact when people show up to vote. (Election days are national holidays in Chile.) Apathy can be overcome with engagement, and voting really can make a difference. Voting is vital and is an indication of a people who live with hope. These are lessons we can all carry into the year ahead.

I am grateful for the opportunity to create relationship, for the generosity of spirit shown to us by Chileans wherever we traveled and, yes, for the wonderful food.  

Thu, February 29 2024 20 Adar I 5784