Fawzy Zablah

The great synagogue of Rionegro

Photo by Levi Meir Clancy for Unsplash
Photo by Levi Meir Clancy for Unsplash

I arrived in Rionegro, Colombia in the early evening. My girlfriend, a somewhat levelheaded Guajira, was meeting me at the airport. She was originally from Santa Marta but relocated for work about two years before we met.

I spied her slender figure by the arrivals, next to the taxi service, arms crossed and shaking. She did a little twirl and then started running towards me like if we had not seen each other in years, and as I caught her in my arms, I fell back just a little bit from the impact of that sweet and violent Colombian embrace.

We held on and swayed in the nippy climate.

When we arrived at her place after the bumpy UBER ride that winded in and out of the hills and mountains, we settled in somewhat hastily in her cozy nest, had quick, but emotional sex and then showered and went to bed. She had work in the morning at a children’s dance academy and they had Christmas show rehearsals in Medellin, a 45-minute bus ride.

I slept late Saturday morning until about 10:00am and decided to go find coffee and breakfast. Before she left, she mentioned there was a little bakery about a 20-minute walk, rounding a valley on Cra. 87, the main road in front of her condo.

This was my first time staying with her in Rionegro and I wanted to explore the neighborhood. The condominiums where she lived were on a hill and upon first setting your gringo eyes upon it, seemed like an architectural marvel.

It had everything a modern condo building should have: a pool, a basketball /soccer court, a pet area, and a children’s playground. The air was pure and despite the almost hour distance from Medellin, it felt solitary and busy at the same time due to the residents that come in and out about their day taking advantage of all the amenities.

Rionegro is located amidst the Northern Andes, and feels very different from Medellin.

The bakery was at the turn of a ravine, and facing a green valley. Just right around the corner of her street like she said. The temperature was cold enough for sweater weather.

Before the bakery there was an outdoor gym that was part of some type of city initiative to promote exercise. There was a plaque explaining the initiative. They had weight lifting machines and a row of stationary bikes. The area where the machines were was designed like a balcony overlooking a long drop down a green hill.

After the outdoor gym, there were three small, modest brick ranch homes across the road from where I walked another deep ravine. Then more green hills and the random cow here and there.

At a corner turn to the left of me, I walked past a glass tabernacle with Our Lady of Chiquinquirá. The following block, across the street an old lady sat alone on a chair selling homemade candy.

Walking into the bakery I noticed I was the only customer. A woman on the other side of the counter welcomed me. I asked for breakfast and she gave me the special for the day: Arepa with queso blanco, scrambled eggs and chorizo.

The plate arrived quickly accompanied by a medium soup bowl of hot chocolate that was included with the breakfast special. Looks like no coffee for me this morning.

“Can I ask you something?” she said, somewhat embarrassed.

“Yes,” I said.

“And please don’t take this the wrong way.”

“I will try not to, but I can’t make any promises,” I said, with a nervous smile.

“Are you a Jew?” she said.

“A Jew? Are you asking me if I am Jewish?”

“Yes, you’re a Jew, right?”

“I get that from time to time.”

“You look like a Jew.”

“Do I?”

“Yes, you do.”

“I’m not. I was born in El Salvador, but my grandparents are Palestinian. So maybe that’s why, same part of the world.”

“An Arab? Of course,” she said. “So, I was kind of right.”

“Have you met any Jews?”

“Not, really. I mean, I’m not friends with any, but I see them come by from time to time.”

“Jews pass by here? How do you know they are Jewish?”

“Well, I know they’re Jewish because only Jews come to visit the ruins of the great synagogue.”

“What, great synagogue?”

“There was a synagogue in Rionegro but it was abandoned and now it’s just a ruin.”

“Jews lived here?”

“There was a small group of Jews a long time ago. They’re all gone now.”

“That’s interesting.  And where is this ruin?”

“Of course, you would, you’re the same.”

“Trust me, we are very different.”

“These Jews are annoying. They’re always here, asking about the ruin.”

“That’s funny. Which Jews?

“Jewish tourists that come from time to time. I have a map I can draw so you can see the ruins yourself.”

“Thank you.”

After I finished the breakfast, she sat next to me and spread out the map that she had quickly drawn. From the way she explained it, the ruin was not too far. I would have to walk down a road that led into a valley and follow some newly placed signs towards the sight. I was more than intrigued, mostly because it seemed so close.

Before I left, she asked me if I was sure that I was not a Jew.

“I am not a Jew, ” I said. “I’m an Arab, and Catholic.”

“Of course,” she said, beaming that enchanting Paisa smile at me.

I walked out of the place feeling like I was the butt of a joke on the way to a trap.

I was not a Jew, even though according to family lore, I did have a Great-Great Jewish grandmother. But it was just a rumor that was yet to be proven. And even if she was a Jew, it did not really make me one. I was not going to mention it to the Paisa because I did not want her to think she was right. In this country, I have also been called a Dominican, and it does not matter.

Following her directions, I found myself crossing a small valley and there were signs, blue signs with the star of David. Arriving at the end of the trail, I could see now the white concrete ruins of the former Jewish place of worship.

There was a man on the other side reading a plaque and he turned towards me, upon hearing my steps and then there was a nod. When I got closer, I saw his skull cap.

“This is all that’s left, and it’s not much,” he said.

We both stared at what was left, which was just the tile floor of the synagogue. It was a sandy brick, there was a lot of sand. There was also part of a wall left.

I knelt and felt the floor with my hands: “That’s a lot of sand.”

“It’s a Dutch-Portuguese tradition. It’s not seen much anymore, not many sand floor synagogues left. And they’re mostly found in the Caribbean, except for this one.”

“I don’t understand–why sand?”

“Historians are not really sure why. Some say it began in Amsterdam; the sand was used to dry the mud on people’s shoes. Apparently, those synagogues were next to unpaved streets so when the weather got bad, it got really muddy.”

“How long have you been here?”

“I arrived over a week ago. And you?”

“Last night. I’m visiting my girlfriend.”

“Of course, you are.”

“They tell me only Jews come here?”

“Jewish historians…who happen to be Jews.”

“You’re telling me Jews really lived around here?”

“Yes, we did, we move around a lot. We’re almost everywhere.”

I smirked. There really was not much left, and now the wilderness was taking it over.

“This temple used to be in Barranquilla, and then later, it was moved here.”

“They moved a whole synagogue here? Why?”

“The rabbi’s wife left him.”

“His wife left him, so he moved the whole synagogue here?”

“He moved the synagogue to be closer to his wife, who was now with a local.”

“That sounds very desperate.”

“Yes, well he loved her very much.”

“He was trying to win her back?”

“I guess but it did not work. His congregation splintered and joined other temples. By the time he finished building it here, he was the only one left.”

“And in the end?”

The man smiled at me: “In the end he asked God for forgiveness and disappeared into the Andes. The synagogue barely finished; the structure survived for some time until it was ransacked by the wilderness.”

“And you’re an archeologist?”

“Only of my people.”

We stood side by side in silence, for a good moment until he started speaking again. He seemed like a man that enjoyed the sounds of his own voice. I sensed a bit of narcissism in his tone, and vocal affectations.

“I would have never had the chance of visiting Rionegro if it was not for this ruin. I am glad I did; it seems like a very pleasant place.”

“Yes, it is. I really like it.”

“It’s nice to be in love in such a beautiful place.”

I smiled like someone keeping a secret.

“Enjoy it,” he said, walking back towards the entrance.


Later that night I recounted my very interesting archeological tale to my girlfriend who was intrigued about Jews as much as she was about the story.

“They are such fascinating people,” she said. “They have been through so much. I’ve seen Schindler’s list twice and I cry every time.”

She was beautiful and dumb, but I think it was only because she had not yet experienced a good part of the world so I could forgive her. I was sure that she looked at me as a curiosity as well.

I watched her fall asleep and as we lay naked side by side, I visualized all that raw land that enveloped us and these condos on these hills.

The Northern Andes I could now hear screaming in my ears. The balcony was open like it always was. The reggaeton bounced off the biggest hill and down into the ravine which I had hiked earlier. There was a Saturday night concert at the amphitheater.

The huge moon felt like it was inside of our room and, in a few days, I had to fly back to Miami and get back to the other Americas, the other, other Americas, the Americas that are sleek and shiny and unrecognizable but still dog-eat-dog, and brutal and truly remain untamed from one second to the next, the Americas that continue to reflect the bloody red dawn slipping down into the horizon.

Could not wait to get back to my savages, the good ol’ US of A. God bless her.

About the Author
Fawzy Zablah was born in El Salvador but raised in Miami. Among his works is the short story collection CIAO! MIAMI and the novel RARITY OF THE CENTURY. His fiction has been published widely at Hobart, 3AM Magazine, Acentos Review and Expat Press. His new novel, This Modern Man is Beat: A Novel in Stories, was just published by SIMI Press:
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