Sunday, February 28, 2016

Shabbat in Guatemala City

(Thanks to Diane Bernbaum for letting me use a lot of her email to write this blog.)

We’d been told that  our Shabbat would be an emotional highlight of the trip.  It was.

We arrived  in Guatemala City in the early afternoon and went straight to the Chabad House. as a convenient place to have lunch.  We each ordered our meal in advance for Friday lunch and Saturday dinner after havdalah, and for those that keep strictly kosher, it was the first chance to have a non-vegetarian meal.   The rabbi is Israeli born but his parents made aliya from Argentina,  so he is a native Spanish speaker.   They have been in Guatemala for 16 years.  They have nine children, and the  oldest three study in New York, where their mother grew up and near their grandparents.    The younger children of school age sit at computers for a virtual classroom, their classmates being other children of Chabad world-wide. Apparently they press keys to raise their hands or write on the board, and it becomes like a real classroom.  We saw one of their kids totally focused on his screen with earphones on his head. All the children are trilingual, speaking Hebrew with their father, English with their mother, and Spanish with everyone else.

 The rabbi, Shalom Pelman, sat with us while we ate and told us a history of the Jews in Guatemala.  We also heard about the history from a friendly representative of the Centro Hebreo that night.  Here is a summary of what both said.  There are about 800 Jews that live in Guatemala, and more that visit, especially young Israelis out of the army.  There is a Chabad rabbi near Lake Atitlan, and he and his family often host tourists.

Jews probably came during the Spanish conquest but there is no firm evidence.  At some point there were Jews in Antigua, and there are last names such as Katz, Rosenberg, Cohen and Ashkenazi, but people with those last names whose family has been in the country for more than 150  to 200 years, have assimilated and have no memory of their Jewish connection.

When Germans came to Guatemala starting in 1843 and developed coffee farms, Jews were among them.  Starting in the early 1900s, Sephardic Jews from Turkey, Egypt and other such countries settled in Guatemala City, and the first synagogue was built in the center of the city, called Maguen David, and dedicated in 1925.   The synagogue is still in use and has amazing acoustics.    As Jews became more successful in their professions, many moved to better neighborhoods.  However, many still go to services there on Shabbat.  Maguen David has a minyan and class held in it once a week.  

From 1935 to 1950, a growing number of Ashkenazic Jews arrived in Guatemala, first to escape Hitler and then as survivors.  At first they used a room in the back of the Sephardic shul for services.  Eventually once of the more successful businessmen donated a big piece of property in zone 9 to make an Ashkenazic synagogue.  At leave five football courts could fit in that property.  The synagogue Centro Hebreo was finished in the 1960s, and if one looks at it from the air, it looks like a Jewish star.   It can seat 250, was recently renovated, and has a stunning stained glass mechitzah  ("wall" dividing men and women during prayer) that is about four feet tall.
Image result for synagogue centro hebreo, guatemala

We spent Erev Shabbat with the Ashkenazi Orthodox community, Centro Hebreo.  It was a pleasant evening.  There are perhaps 10-15 families who are Shabbat-observant and the rest of the congregation is less so.   Security is very tight.   We needed to provide photos of the front page of our passports before we left the States, and when we arrived on Friday night,  one entered the fence into a room.  Then the door to the gate closed, and only after it is closed, does  a second door from the air-lock open into the synagogue courtyard.  We only saw the shul, but two members of our group spent Shabbat morning and afternoon  there as well and got a tour of the whole complex which includes a soccer field,a kosher grocery store, and a cafe.

The Ma’ariv service itself was about 45 minutes long, led by a new, young Spanish-speaking rabbi.  It was all in Hebrew, and those of us familiar with the liturgy could follow easily.  Most of the tunes were familiar and the davening was spirited, but as in most Orthodox shuls, focused on the men's section..  

 Although it is an Ashkenazi congregation, the davening was led from the center of the room in Sephardic form.  However, there was also a lectern at the front of the room, on the bima where the ark was. At the end of the davening, Danny Siegel from our group gave a teaching about a section of Talmud emphasizing the principles of social justice that inspired our trip. Afterwards, the entire congregation went downstairs to the social hall for a full meal.  We were told attendance was sparser than normal because many members of the congregation were at a wedding in Antigua over the weekend).  Perhaps there were 50-60 of us including our twelve. There was a big spread: meatballs, rice, potatoes, veggies, salads, soup and an extensive dessert table.  A similar dinner is hosted this every Friday night.  

Some of the women in our group enjoyed chatting with Brenda Rosenbaum, who was raised in Guatemala and is the founder  Mayan Hands, which I mentioned in  a previous blog.    Brenda had one relative from Europe who had immigrated to Panama at the turn of the 20th century who started out as a peddler and eventually ended up in Guatemala.  On her other side, her relatives  were born in Aleppo, Syria and raised in Egypt.    Brenda was actually born in Italy and the family moved back to Guatemala, which was considered safer, at the time of the Korean War.  Brenda moved to Albany, NY to study for a Ph.D. in Anthroplogy at the time of the extreme violence of the country's Civil War in the mid-1980s but still maintains a house  in Guatemala and travels back frequently.  A very nice man named Tommy came over and talked to our group and told us more about the Jewish community of Guatemala.   I think he was the one that mentioned that many of the young people are leaving Guatemala.  At one point, there were sixteen Jewish youth from Guatemala in the IDF, Israeli army.  Some are staying there.  

  Most of the local women sat in their own groups at dinner.  I did chat with a young businessman from Israel, code switching between Spanish, Hebrew, and English.  The congregation has a sofer (scribe) from Israel--originally from Yemen--who lives part time in Guatemala and part time in Israel.  He was fascinating.

But  Friday night was nothing compared to the high point of Shabbat morning. There is a very small Reform congregation called Adat Israel, and they warmly hosted us as if we were returning family.  The congregation was started by individuals who had come to Judaism along different paths.  Jeannette, the president who sat with Diane, Marcy, and others at lunch, grew up Catholic and was always in trouble with the nuns because she didn’t believe what they were teaching. She had a grandmother who wouldn’t cut fingernails or cook on Saturdays and spent the day reading the Bible (much the same as the story with  Diane's sister-in-law, Ninfa, who, after she became Jewish discovered she had Converso roots and that her family had been Jewish centuries ago.). One man had a Jewish grandfather and wanted to honor his memory by becoming Jewish.  One family moved from Columbia because no one there could help them become Jewish.  Another had taught Hebrew to seminarians until a few years ago when he helped start a home for disabled adults.  He introduced himself to us in Hebrew.  Another had started out as Catholic, explored evangelical Christianity,  a messianic church but didn't like the Christian bent, and finally discovered Judaism. 

In 2010 several members of the group went to the annual conference of Latin American Progressive Jewish communities, were interviewed by a group of leaders (they said that it felt like a bet din) and were then helped to make contact with support.  One person was Rabbi Elyse Goldstein.     She has taken the congregation under her wing as a volunteer, arranging to bring their children to Jewish summer camp in Canada and teaching them at a distance over six years. When she felt they were ready, she visited with two other rabbis in 2013, and held a bet din for each of them and converted those she felt ready, which was 24 of the 26.  Then she remarried three of the couples who wanted to get married under a chuppah.   The congregation is a full member of the World Union of Progressive Congregations.

The congregation meets in a small house with the downstairs set up as a shul, complete with a donated ark and a Torah covered in an exquisite Torah mantle made of Guatemalan cloth.  One of the congregants lives in one of the bedrooms upstairs and is a caretaker.  The neighborhood is a twenty-minute drive from the upscale Orthodox synagogue.  Needless to say, there is no security guard or need for xeroxed passports here.

The congregation uses a prayer book from Costa Rica which is in Spanish, Hebrew, and some English. It’s hard to describe the spirit in the davening/praying. Many of us were in tears at many points in the morning. The service was co-led by Elijah, a young father of a four-year-old who was born in Guatemala but lived in Los Angeles for several years.  He announced the page numbers, decided what would be read in Hebrew or in Spanish etc.  The young woman who was the shaliach tzibur ( like a cantor) was an amazing 21-year-old, named Rebecca, with a voice that made your soul vibrate.  She is the daughter of Jeanette, the president of the congregation.  She spent last summer at Brandeis-Bardin Institute and when Diane told her that the camp’s director, Navah Kelman Becker was a student of hers, they formed a special bond.  I was sitting next to Ilana, the director of Fair Trade Judaica, when Rebecca/Rivka started to sing, and her voice sent shivers through me.  I leaned over to tell Ilana, and she responded by telling me that Rebecca had  decided several months ago to study at American Jewish University in LA next year and eventually to become a rabbi.   That brought tears of joy to me and they continued to fall slowly for the next ten minutes.  Even now as I write this and when I tell others, I get goosebumps.  Our group members offered to donate money so that she can have a tallit from the Mayaworks weavers.  

The two leaders asked if anyone wanted to hold the Torah scroll when it came out of the ark, and Pamela, the president of her Reform congregation in Massachusetts, volunteered.  

 The members of the congregation do not yet know how to chant the weekly portions from the Torah scroll,  so four of us came prepared to read an aliyah each of three verses..  Diane, Susan, Betsy and I all chanted.  

 Susan  spontaneously was asked to read the Haftarah (a portion from the prophets) since she had the last Torah reading, and she beautifully sightread and chanted the very long portion.

Ilana  give a drash on the Torah portion of the week and on Judaism and  principles of fair trade.   She was wearing a beautiful tallit from MayaWorks.

 The service was longer than other Reform services that I had attended and had a lot of Hebrew.  Participants were enthusiastic in their prayer, filled with kavannah.  At the end of the service, Diane and I offered to teach the Ladino version of the prayer Ein Kelohenu, but it turned out that many of the Guatemalans already knew it.  So we ended up teaching it to some of the U.S. visitors! 

Afterwards the members set up tables, rearranged the new pews as picnic benches and served us a delicious chickpea stew with rice.  There was so much warmth and welcoming in the room.  There isn’t a lot of acceptance of this congregation among the more established Jewish community here and we were glad that our visit was a support to this Reform congregation.

We  ended our Shabbat back at the hotel with havdallah and a text study Ilana led comparing the principles of the Fair Trade movement with Jewish values.  It was quite an extraordinary day.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Guatemala: Feb 8, 9 and 10 with Artisans

We saw three more groups of artisans the second week plus visited an ikat weaver.

On February 8th, we visited a very special Mayan Hands artisan group in Vasconcelos.

It was a multi-generational group of 14 women who are flexible and very creative.  Notice that their cortes (skirts) are different from those of other area we have seen.

The group had a large sitting area with shade provided by sewing sacks together to make a roof.  Also they spread a lot of pine needles on the floor to welcome us as you can see in the photos above and below.  The smell from the needles indeed added to the warmth we felt from this group.

This group has existed for 19 years, working with Mayan Hands. It began with thirty women but the group didn't work with so many so the group split up.  At first they began weaving table runners, baby blankets, and brocade purses.  There was lots of competition from other groups of weavers (as women traditionally weave, and it was said that 750,000 people weave in Guatemala), so they began to make bracelets, but there was still not enough work for them to make enough money.

Dona Brenda (Rosenbaum) saw the need to do something different, and the women were willing to try.  A couple from the U. S. was brought in to teach a felt workshop.  They brought the special needles, wool, and any other implements needed.  The first products were bunny eggs.  After learning how to use the needles, they began creating their own shapes.  The first animal they made was a horse, as it was common in their region, so I bought one.  (The doggie was mine.)

The women soon added doves, penguins, and sheep.  At first the animals were floppy,  but  they soon learned to make stable animals with wire inside for shaping.

 As a result, these animals are ornamental and not for young children to play with.

The Mayan Hands staff took the felt artisans to the zoo so that they could see the animals in person, and then they decided which ones they wanted to make in felt.   They have improved the quality of their work over time and now have 50-60 different animals and other shapes. They work with imported wool. for the outside but can use local wool for the inside.  They can make two to four felt objects a day, depending on the size, the time they have, and elaborateness.

Each takes two to four hours to make..

 I finally figured out how to best photograph them with my Maya doggie on top!
Several of us were particularly attracted to a felted Mayan woman at work.  Since we visited on February 9th, they had several animals with red hearts on them including a Snoopy.  They are now creating a hamsa and dove hanging that Ilana helped design and we saw the first sample.
Lesley  is a Mayan Hands employee who works with this group
Sometimes the group has special orders.  For example, for Valentine's Day they had a rush order and made forty in one week!  They earn between 700 to 1,500 quetzales a month (US$90--200).  They felt around their family and home duties, but sometimes work seven hours a day.

They introduced themselves, telling us their age, marital status and number of children (if any),  and we notice that there were a lot of younger members.  Some who used to work with the group have aged and cannot work anymore.  Some talked in their first language

Carmen is the head of the group.  She is 25 and has two daughters, ages 6 and 3 weeks.
Maria is single and 37.

 Diega, who seemed a bit shy at first,  is 36 and her daughter Karen is 13 and has a school scholarship from Mayan Hands.  Here Diega is below, smiling, showing the purse I bought from her.

Emilia the daughter of Juana, is "visiting" the group. She is 19 and in her second to last year of high school, studying accounting.  She lives in the house where the group is meeting today.

Candelaria is the group secretary.  She is 24 and single.

Maria Teresa is 17 and she has one daughter Ingrid who is seven months old.
Irma Yolanda is 19 and single.

Candelaria is 26 and married with one boy who is 5.

Micaela is 25 and single.  Below she is pictured with the beautifully embroidered purse that she had made that I bought from her.  I decided later to use it as my new tallit bag. The back is made of corte material and has two zippered pockets where I have put kippot and my tiny yad.

Maria is 50 year old and has seven children, four sons and three daughters from about age 35 to 19.

Antonia is 30 and single.

Santa Huit is 45 with eight children, six girls and two boys from 22 to nine.

Rosa is the group's treasurer. She is 36 and has four girls and one boy and is wearing the pink sweater.  I am sorry for the poor quality of some of the photos but I had my camera on the wrong setting for a while.

Juana is 46. She too has eight children (4 boys and 4 girls) from 26 to ten, including Emilia who is "visiting" today.  We are being hosted in Juana's home.

When we began to introduce ourselves, the indigenous women clapped as each of us finished our introduction.  Ilana realized that we had missed an opportunity to clap after each artesan had been introduced instead of just at the end, so she humbly apologized to the group for not clapping after each of their introductions and thanked them for teaching us the right way in their culture.    Her sensitivity is one of the reasons I respect Ilana so much.

After the introductions, we met some of the Mayan Hands staffers, including Maira who lives in San Juan but is from San Pedro.

She speaks Tz'utujil (which is spoken in Solala and one other department) so translated from Tz'utujil to Spanish for some of the group members who spoke to us int heir first language.  Then Leslie (who also works for Mayan Hands) or Jeannie translated into English.    Maira is in the middle with the cloth on her head and Leslie on the left of the photo below.

Mayra is 34 and has two children, a girl age four and a boy who is two.  Maira visits local Mayan Hands communities and is in charge of samples.

We noticed that the younger women in this group have fewer children than the older women and started having children in their twenties or 30s.  Also, some of the women are still single and are not getting married at an early age like their mothers had..

We then helped the finances of the women by buying their wares.  Below you can see Danny and the beautiful bag that he bought and others from our group shopping in the background.  He too is using it as a tallit bag!

This was a wonderful group to visit.  It would have been nice to sit in three smaller groups with them with one of the three of us that spoke Spanish in each group so the women could ask us questions and also find out more about these special women. But then we also did not have the time to do so as Jeanne and Ilana had set up so many wonderful visits for us.  Maybe that will be possible when a future group comes and meets them.

I learned from Brenda that Mayan Hands offers scholarship for the daughters of its weavers.  Last year 39 were scholarshipped  and this year 51 are receiving scholarships, including six who are attending university.  This would have been impossible without the help of Mayan Hands donations.  If you are interested in learning more on how you can help, check the Mayan Hands website or write me and I'll send you more information.

After this wonderful visit, we headed to the Georginas Hot Springs, which I will describe in another blog.

The next day after crossing Lake Atitlan, we visited MayaWorks kippot makers in Santiago.  It is one of the two MayaWorks groups that makes kippot. (The second group has 40 members.)  Our boat landed in Santiago, a city of 70,000, and then we took a ten minute truck ride down a rather narrow path/road to the group of 15 women.
 I sat next to the driver on the way out so I was able to take a picture of the narrow road.

This was a very special visit  for me as I had been looking forward to meeting the women who had made the kippot that I bought in 2001.

When we walked into the home compound, two little children ran up to Jeannie and Danny and gave them big hugs.  The children have known Jeannie most of their lives, and she is like family to them.

Members of our group brought along items to give to the artisans including crochet hooks, scissors, reading glasses, crayons, pencils,  non-electric tools, etc. A  boy from Chicago who was adopted from Guatemala collected school supplies for Guatemalan children as his b'nai mitzvah projec, and Jeannie said that she would get them to Guatemala for him.  Jeannie sent some to us to take down with our luggage, and the night our trip began, the items were put in eight piles, bagged,

and then distributed to the eight artisan groups we met.  Below you can see Jeannie giving sacks to Diego and Mirna, including a special sticker book for Diego to share and a special book in Spanish for the boy, entitled "Diego" and a puzzle for the little girl.

He was so excited to have a book with his name on the cover!
Below are some of the women in the group.

We met these women:
Lidia is 17 and no longer studying but did finish 9th grade.  She is standing next to Fidencio, our driver.
Josefina is 22 and wearing the plum colored outfit.

Maria, age 28, is standing above to the right of Jeannie.  She started with MayaWorks at age 16.  She finished high school with a diploma in Business Administration last year. She want to continue her studies at university but needs more money.  She hopes that she can earn enough so that she can start next year.

Elvira, one of the leaders, welcomed us, and like the previous group leaders, told us how happy it makes them that we visit and value their work.  She is 37 and has three children.  Diego is her son.  She is in the photo with him above.

Fourteen-year-old Rosaura is Elvira's daughter.  She has a scholarship from MayaWorks to help with supplies for school.  She is in 7th grade and sometimes helps her mom make kippot.

Hilda is 17 and just began making kippot. She finished 7th grade but chose not to study any more.

Dolores is 41 and has been making kippot since her group began to crochet them in 2001.  She has three children:  Josefina (the oldest), Lidia in the middle, and Mirna the youngest (4 1/2 years old).
Notice the huipiles of the women of this area have a very distinct design with the vertical stripes.
Some huipiles are very heavy while these are more spring like.

One of our group members told an artisan that her huipil was beautiful and the woman offered to sell it to her...which she did.

The three Guatemalan employees of MayaWorks were also with us, Luis, the accountant, Angelica (who visits the groups and does quality control), and Charlie.

It takes about four to six hours to make a kippah.  The embroidered ones and the 7" ones take six hours to make.  The last few years, MayaWorks has been getting orders for about 7,000 kippot annually, so orders keep the two crocheting groups busy.

The story of how they got started to make kippot is fascinating.  A Jewish woman was on a MayaWorks tour to Guatemala in 2001 and saw the hackysacks that the group was making.

She immediately said that the artesans could make kippot!  And they have every since.

The following three(one of which is 7-species) are embroidered and take more work.  There are also working on a stunning Tree of Life design.

This one fitted beautifully on Susan's head
One of us asked the women if they dream of kippot and new designs, and they laughed and said that they did!  They also know from their dreams that an order is coming form Jeannie.

The MayaWorks artisans had been making the MW designs for a long time and then three years ago began making their own designs which MW now sells.

Below two of the women are embroidering kippot for a big order they have.  The woman on the right is kneeling as she embroiders.

I let the little girl named Mirna hold my stuffed doggie Maya, and she seemed so attached to it and also because my trip would soon come to an end, I decided to give it to her.  She was very pleased.

The women also weave and I bought a lovely wall hanging with quetzal birds embroidered on it from them.

After that we visited two MayaWorks mezuzot artisans in Santiago. They make beaded mezuzot that can mostly be used indoors, and they also make jewelry.

Bead work is slow and taxing.  The women make the mezuzot by first making a flat piece and then sewing them ends together with a row of beads to make the cylindrical shape..  The seem is invisible. It is really remarkable!  We suggested that they could also put the Hebrew letter shin instead of the Jewish star on the front. The star is actually quite hard to make, and they have done a beautiful job.  Also we told them that they did not have to put the star on the back as it would be hidden by the door frame.  It takes at least two hours (maybe I meant days?) and often more to make the mezuzot.

There were originally 75 in the group but now there are between 23 and 30.  They earn a bit less than the other groups, about 700 to 1000 quetzales monthly, or $100--$130.   They also make challah covers with birds embroidered on them.

The women mainly spoke Sutiuil, and Diego translated for us.  His pants were beautiful.  His wife made them for him, and the saying is that one can tell by the number of birds and the intricacy how much his wife loves him.  Diego has a store in town in Santiago, near where our boat docked.  He also works with wood and made the windows and doors at the hotel/restaurant where we had lunch.

He said that Santiago had only 14,000 people when he was young and now the population is over 50,000.  The increase in population is mostly from children and grandchildren and is a wonderful place to live.

Our last visit with artisans was on February 10th.  Because of the winds on Lake Atitlan, we could not visit the eight women in the Mayan Hands group, but two of the women did come to us at our hotel in Panajachel.  Some of the others did not come as they were afraid of traveling on the lake, but they sent warm regards and hoped that we enjoy their country and the lake.
Lilian Elizabet is 39 and has four children, two boys and two girls, ages 22, 19, 16 and ten, and  two young grandchildren.  She began making kippot ten years ago and has been with Mayan Hands for three years.  There used to be twenty in their group but now their are eight as not all could maintain a good quality standard.  In a good month, each earns about 300 quetzales (around $40) so they hope to develop more production and sales.  They make 6" kippot and can make two a day.

The huipiles (blouses) of the women from San Pablo are very different. They buy materials and then make the special collar.  It takes about a week to finish.

 Angelica Marta is 27 and has two children, ages ten and five.

They also make adorable small animals like the little cat below.

I got three of these for family members, and Mayan Hands  has more for sale.

They were very sweet, hard-working women, and we were very glad that they had come to see us. We asked if their children wore traditional clothes, and we were told that it depends on the mothers.  A little huipil can cost 200 quetzales or take the mother a while to make, but a simple t-shirt may only be ten quetzales in the market.    Nancy from the Panajachel office of Mayan Hands does not wear traditional clothes but does wear them on special occasions.  
We also visited Juan de Dios Rodas Galvas, in Santiago on February 9th..  He is an Ikat weaver and what is unusual is that he is Ladino and not indigenous.  His nickname in town is Chuck Norris, and you can see why though I think he is more handsome.
Ikat weaving is very intricate and often has a "clouded" look.  Juan de Dios very kindly showed us the process, but I have to admit that I understood very little of it.

He learned from his grandfather and father, and has been doing this work for over thirty years. So altogether in the three generations, over 200 years of ikat weaving are involved. However, his children are not interested in following in his footsteps.  Juan de Dios' brother also works with him

as do 15 other weavers.  Juan de Dios owns some of the looms and lends them out while a few of the weavers have their own.  Most are men as it is hard work but some are women, and all work in their homes.

His workshop is above his home (which is a work in process).  He prepares all the raw materials, dyes them, tie dyes some, dries them, spins huge spools of thread, and mounts the looms.  It takes 20 days just to do that much of the process.

Here is a link to some colors of jaspe/ikat design.

He mainly works with blues and blacks.  It is not a business where someone can get rich, but it does provide a steady income.  He usually sells to wholesalers.  Here are some photos of the process.
Tie dying, a bit untied
Drying material

Juan de Dios is highlighted in the book by Debra Chandler  entitled Traditional Weavers of Guatemala: Their Stories, Their Lives.   I found this book in my library and it is a treasure, definitely worth reading.