Member Post: Passover in Cartagena, Colombia

Passover in Cartagena, Colombia – A SANS “Moment” Remembered

The Jewish holiday of Passover began during the last part of our trip to Colombia, in April 2016, when we were in Cartagena. At first, this was a big obstacle for the Jewish travelers who wanted to go on the trip. But, as we are accustomed, SANS is flexible, creative and respectful of beliefs and traditions. So, Joanne suggested we try to find a Seder in Cartagena for the Jewish travelers. Along with our friend Yaffa, they found a congregation that welcomed us. And it turned out to be an interesting and welcoming congregation beyond our expectations.

The story of our Seder hosts is this: during the Inquisition, in 1492 in Spain and the colonies, many Jews converted to Catholicism to save their lives. Secretly, however, families continued to follow Jewish laws and customs in their homes. Even in the Spanish colonies in Latin America, practicing Jewish customs was dangerous for centuries. Apparently, many Jewish customs were just kept as family traditions, generation after generation, without the families’ knowledge that they were Jewish in origin.

Bringing this story up to modern times, about 15 years ago, during a comparative religion course at his Catholic Church, the leader of our host congregation, now its Rabbi, first learned about Jewish customs. He recognized several practices as his mother’s, and started to study his family’s roots. At the Seder we attended, his children told us: “our grandmother used to light 1 candle every Friday night in front of a mirror.” It was an unusual practice. But it made sense in light of history: lighting 2 candles on Shabbat could be risky as it might identify them as Jews, so 1 candle was lit in front of a mirror and the family tradition stuck. (For 500 years!) The children also told us that their grandmother had 2 separate sets of dishes that she washed separately. She, apparently, didn’t know why, but these were remnants of Kosher laws. And the congregation’s rabbi discovered that his family name, Montoya, was originally known as a Jewish name.

This is the only Jewish congregation in Cartagena and they were only 8 families when we met them. They formed their community only 15 years ago, and this was only the 2nd year they were having Seder as a community.

During the Seder, they followed the Seder traditions to the letter – in Spanish and Hebrew. At one point, the Rabbi asked me, in English, to read a portion of the Seder service, as he had asked others to do. I said I didn’t know Spanish. He said that’s all right, read in English. So I read. Then he asked me, “what does this mean to you?” I gulped a little and came up with an answer. I became aware, then, that he asked the same thing, in Spanish, to everyone who read a portion. “What does this mean to you?” In that moment, I realized he was teaching his community about Passover. They were just learning what it meant to be Jewish, and about the history, food and symbols of Passover. I felt a sense of awe that we were experiencing the very beginning of a Jewish community, teaching itself traditions that were part of their roots that had been denied to them for more than 500 years.

One more vignette.  Songs are part of the Seder tradition. At one point, the group began to sing a song they didn’t fully know. However, Joel Davidson knew it, as did Ann Silverman. I walked over to the Rabbi to let him know Joel had some experience as a Cantor and would he like Joel and Ann to sing the song. He said yes, and invited them to do so.

It was a unique and very special experience to be invited to participate in this wonderful Seder and in this welcoming community.

~ Sandy Machson