It’s not politically correct to say that Bolivia is the end of the world. But for me, in the fall of 2001, it was. It was also an unlikely place for me to come to terms with my Jewish identity. This is the story of how Hanukkah made that happen.
I reached Tarija, a small city near the Argentinean border, through a humanitarian internship program à la Peace Corps funded by an NGO and the Canadian government. We were a group of six university graduates from Quebec, and my job was to help digitize a women’s empowerment organization aptly called Mujeres en Acción (women in action).
This adventure was a life-long dream of mine. Since my teenage years I had been plotting ways to see the world, to leave the tight Jewish community I had grown up in, at least temporarily. Yet, the long-awaited opportunity came at a bad time—a year after my father’s sudden, untimely death. Not everyone was happy about my decision to travel to South America for a year, but I wasn’t about to pass up this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Needless to say, it was an exciting and uncertain time for me.
I found Tarija to be vastly different than anything I’d known until then. The local Jewish population was nearly non-existent. The handful of missionaries I encountered in town salivated at me like birds of prey over fresh meat.
I couldn’t have been happier.
Two months into my gig, I had learned the language quickly, made many foreign and local friends, and bonded with my new colleagues. Still, something was amiss. I didn’t have my normal touchstones. I was looking for ways to connect with Bolivians, to grab hold of the experience, to connect my old world with this new world.
That’s when Hanukkah came into play.
Mujeres en Acción managed a residence for teenage mothers and their children. It was a place brimming with hardship, but the girls were always eager for company—and a reason to celebrate. The house mother and father were a couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses, who unsurprisingly, took a keen interest in the new Yid in town.
My epiphany came while yet another Bolivian acquaintance sang the praises of local potatoes. “Did you know that Bolivia grows 400 different species of papa?” (I did.)
Wait, potatoes….it is December now, I thought. What I needed was a Hanukkah party! I checked the Hebrew date at the local Internet café. Luckily, I hadn’t missed it. I would organize a Hanukkah party for the girls and their kids at the residence! Was there anything that bountiful light, unbridled oil consumption, and mesmerizing spinning tops couldn’t redress? My colleagues loved the idea. I was convinced: Hanukkah and Bolivia were made for each other, like long-lost soul mates reunited at last.
We began making plans in earnest. I made a hanukkiah from wooden slats and screws (thank you Hebrew school!). I even found a few dreidls. It was during these intensive preparations that I realized I didn’t know how to make latkes. My matriarchs had always done the deed: grating, seasoning, and frying to potato perfection.
So I did a test run. I can still hear my mother coaching me over the phone. “Squeeze the liquid, Melanie. If you do anything, make sure you squeeze the liquid out of the potatoes!” she pleaded.
Needless to say, the party was a raging success. The latkes and homemade apple sauce were commendable. The girls and staff were thrilled to learn yet another way to prepare Bolivia’s beloved tuber. The kids enjoyed the dreidels, and the house father took exceptional delight in reading the blessings I transliterated for him as I lit the candles.
And then something unexpected happened. Hanukkah spread like wildfire. Once word got out about the Mujeres en Acción event, everyone I knew in Tarija wanted a Hanukkah party. The next thing I knew, I was invited to light candles and fry latkes at a different venue every night. Needless to say, I was the only Jew at these events, but who cares when you’re having so much fun?
Looking back, Hanukkah has been a metaphor for the journey that would ultimately take me to Israel. Growing up in Canada, Hanukkah was always the appetizer before the main course, the less worthy Jewish equivalent of Christmas (more on that here). In Israel, where I have made my life, Hanukkah is the main event. I live as part of a majority.
That Hanukkah in Tarija was a turning point for me. Left to my own Jewish devices in a place far from home, Hanukkah helped me find myself at a critical juncture. The experience helped me find balance between running away and staying connected to my roots.
Most importantly, the holiday’s infectious charm let me spread a little light, something that’s always welcome, no matter who you’re with and where you are. That’s a lesson I’ll always cherish.