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Sunday, November 17, 2013

A SEMITIC DIVERSION Mykel Board's Caribbean Blog, Chapter 9

by Mykel Board

[A Semitic diversion.]

[For this entry I want to deviate from the trip chronology to focus on one particular adventure: in Suriname.]

I'd like to see the synagogue,” I tell Jose. “There aren't too many in the Caribbean.”

I've got to do a lot of work today,” he says, “but you can ask any cab driver to take you to the synagogue. They'll know.”

The next morning, I call a cab. The driver nods when I tell him I want to go to THE SYNAGOGUE. It's a $2 trip, and he drops me off in front of... a mosque.

Now, I may be a twice-a-year Jew, but I know the difference between a synagogue and a mosque. Synagogues have the Star of David SOMEPLACE. They do not have minarets.

Next to the mosque is a small empty lot... then a white shack... then another building, impressive, almost colonial looking. At the top of that building is... you guessed it... the Star of David.

Yes! Yes! Yes! I'm in love with this country. Is there anywhere else in the world where a mosque and a synagogue could be peaceful neighbors?

I walk up to the gate and turn the handle. It's locked. Padlocked. I walk around the outside of the gate to check out the property. On the non-mosque side of the synagogue is the Jewish cemetery.
Not a whole lot of graves, but the style and markers are really interesting. No tombstones,just one long slab directly on the ground.

There is a nice article about the synagogue on the internet. There's a picture too... carefully cropped to avoid the mosque.

At first, it looks like that's it. My Synagogue adventure: a locked gate and a few pictures. Not much more to tell.

I'm off to get something to eat. Right here comes THE SCARY LUNCH STORY, but I'll tell you about that in the next blog entry.

When I return to Jose's place that evening, Dad asks me how my day went. I tell THE SCARY LUNCH STORY first.

And the synagogue?” he asks. “Did you get to see it?”

I saw it,” I said, “but it was closed... locked up tight.”

He frowns.

Wait,” he says, “I'll make a phonecall.”

I smile, shrug and go off to bed with the intention of writing, NOT of fucking around on Facebook. Yeah, right.

The next day is THURSDAY, I plan to take the family out for a meal. They've been feeding me, taking care of me, conversing with me, keeping me entertained this whole time.

Jose has been really busy... he made an effort... but it was clear he was one frazzled guy... with bad luck! (His car kept breaking down. He never finished his homework. He was bogged down with... me!) So it fell on mom and dad to take care of the ever-present guest.

I'll take you and your family anywhere,” I tell Jose, “as long as they take the Visa card.”

We eat in a fine Indonesian restaurant. They don't take credit cards... but they do take US dollars. Whew!

Thank you for that, Mykel,” says Jose's Dad. “And now I have some good news for you.”

I feel my eyebrows raise.

I have a friend whose wife was Jewish,” he says. “He's still like Jewish. And he says there is a Mass at the synagogue tomorrow night.”

I doubt if it'll be a Friday night Mass at the synagogue, but I don't say anything.

He'll take you so you can see for yourself what it's like.”

That's... er... great,” I say.

Shit,” I think, “do I have to get dressed up? I've got nothing to wear to a Friday night service. A clean pair of Levis... well a CLEANER pair... The closest shirt I have to presentable is a frayed black Country-Western shirt I got in Tennessee.

When the time comes, I wear that shirt. I pull my pants over my boot-tops and try to fix my face into a respectable pose. (Asking me to look RESPECTABLE is like asking Lady Gaga to look VIRTUOUS.)

Jose's father drops me off at a fairly nice house on the outskirts of town. The gate in front of the door is padlocked. I reach through the bars to knock on the wood. There is some shuffling inside.
A man who looks like Milton Berle answers the door. [Note: The picture is of Milton Berle... not the man in the story.] Because I forgot (or never knew) this guy's name. I'll call him Milton.

He slowly totters to the door, fumbles with the key, opens the padlock and the gate, then he motions to the doorpost. There is a mezuzah on it. (For the goyim: Here's a picture.) I touch it and then kiss my hand.

Milton smiles, nods and lets me in.

Come in,” he says.

I start to take off my boots.

No,” he says, “that's okay. Just come in and sit down.”

I sit down on the couch. The livingroom is decorated with a lot of pictures, some plaques, some wood furniture. The man walks into another room and returns with what looks like a sedar plate.

This is a sedar plate,” he says, handing it to me. Made in Israel

I'm not Jewish,” he continues. “But my wife was Jewish. She's dead now. We were married for 20 years. I'm a Christian, but I always went to synagogue with her. I felt closer to the Jews than to the Christians. I don't know. Better food maybe. My wife was the only Jew in her family. I used to go to the synagogue all the time.... with my wife.”

I can feel myself beginning to fidget.

Ok,” he says. “we'll go now. I only need to find my car keys.”

Milton gets up and walks to the kitchen. I follow him. There is a key rack there. The car keys are not on the key rack.

I know I had them,” he says.

Then he walks back into the livingroom and looks at the large table there. On the table are the car keys... nothing else.

Here they are,” he says.

We walk through the gate. He closes it and reaches into his pocket.

I need the padlock key,” he says. “I'll be right back. I just have to get the padlock key.”

He goes back into the house. I hear something fall with a heavy thump. Before long, he's back. He locks up. We go to his car and head for the synagogue.

I forgot to mention that Surinamese drivers are maniacs... daredevils... passing each other at high speed on one lane roads... plowing through unlit intersections with, at most, a beep of the horn. I have never practiced anal clenching as much as since I've been in Surinamese vehicles. Milton, however, does not drive like this. He drives like an old Jew.

Slowly, we creep along the road headed toward the synagogue. He stops at every crossing... sometimes in the middle of the street... then slowly proceeds, leaning over the steering wheel... staring at the road directly in front of the hood... as honking cars speed past... nearly avoiding head-on collisions.

Suddenly we stop. There's traffic. And cops. On the street ahead, there are lights. A streetful of candle-lights. It's a parade.

There's a Hindu holiday,” Milton tells me. “It's today. It's a festival of lights... another festival of lights. Every year, they have this parade. I forgot about it. We'll have to go a different way. I hope I remember how to go.”

There is a break in the parade. The police let us pass.

Besides the fear of endlessly circling, I'm suddenly struck by another fear. What if I get an aliyah? If I'm called to the Torah and have to say the blessings? After all, I'm an honored guest? A New Yorker, after all... from the diaspora capital of the world. How could they NOT give me an aliyah?

I haven't said those blessings since my bar mitzvah. I know they start with Baruch atah... EVERYTHING starts with Baruch atah... But I don't think I can get further than that.

Eventually we leave the road and go into a parking lot. (Hmmm, a synagogue with a parking lot, I guess it's not orthodox.) We get out. Milton seems to be at a loss, looking for a passage to someplace. We get back in the car and follow someone who's leaving the lot.

Milton rolls down his window and hails the other driver. They speak in Dutch.

The other driver points vaguely to the street. Milton thanks her. (Dank U, is easy enough to recognize in Dutch.)

I made a mistake,” says Milton. “This is NOT the synagogue parking lot.”

He gets out of the car, walks down the street, studying a few alleyways. Then he comes back, pulls the car onto the street, through an alley and onto a grassy piece of land. That IS the synagogue parking lot.

We get out of the car. In a nearby SUV, an old woman talks with someone who could be her nurse. The second woman is a lot younger and a lot blacker than the oldster. I am wrong. They're both just congregants.

How long will it take me to I soon learn that Suriname is not a country where you can judge these things. It's a place where ANYBODY CAN BE ANYTHING!

Milton says hi to the older woman. She holds up a finger in a hold-on-a-moment gesture, goes back to the car, does something, returns and hugs Milton. He introduces me.

This is my Jewish friend from New York City,” he says.

I don't know what sect of Jews they have here, so I don't know if I'm supposed to offer my hand or what? I check to see if she's wearing a wig. She isn't. Anyway, she extends her hand. I shake it. We walk around to a side entrance and into the sanctuary.

The temple itself is weird inside. There are pews on either side. (Note: I'm not sure that synagogues call pews PEWS. My sister checked it out, though, and she says that's the name.) MOST of the women sit on one side and MOST of the men sit on the other.

There is a balcony, but it's empty. Oddest is the sand on the floor. It's like thousands of people just came back from the beach and tracked it in.

There's an official explanation for the sand. I reprint it here, though I HATE the expression very unique. Unique means ONLY ONE, for G-d's sake. How can something be VERY only one?

A very unique characteristic of the Neve Shalom Synagogue is its sandy floor. According to tradition, the sand is:
  • a reminder of the Hebrews’ 40 years in the desert after the exodus from Egypt, and
  • the days of the Inquisition when practicing Judaism was punishable by death. During those days, marranos met in cellars to practice their Judaism. They covered the floor with sand to muffle the sounds of their prayers.
The Rabbi seems very young, late 20s at most. Olive skin, he could be a Sephardic Jew anywhere. He's reading from a prayer book-- not from a Torah. That means NO ALIYA! Silently, I count the number of men in the congregation. There aren't many.

Milton is a mind-reader.

A minion here is 7 men and three women,” he says.

Wow, the sexes are separate, unless they don't want to be. A minion isn't ONLY men... but it's mostly men. The synagogue is next to a mosque. Very unique indeed.

And the congregation? It's a Klansman's nightmare. Black guys in yarmulkes. Not only black, but the whole possible spectrum... like nothing I could imagine in New York:
The service is entirely in Hebrew. Several people in the congregation know the song-breaks and join in at key moments. A few songs are familiar, but with different music than I remember.

Throughout the service, mothers and fathers chase their errant kids around the pews, trying to bring them back into the fold... or at least SHUSH them. Finally, something that's NOT different here.

On the bima-- in the middle of the floor, like in Bay City... not in front-- like in reform/conservative synagogues-- is the Rabbi and an older man who I assume is there just to make sure there are no mistakes.

Milton doesn't pay much attention to what is going on Bima-wise. Instead, he takes me from person to person, saying hello, then introducing me as my Jewish friend from New York.

People are nice enough. Shake my hand. But I miss the interest. A New York Jew! Here in Suriname! Why? No one seems curious.

After the service, we head to the little shack next to the synagogue. It's a mini-chapel... a study space... Tonight, it's for the kiddush.

There are little plastic cups of wine for everyone. On the tables are some tonic water, and some locally made soda. I forget the name but it's something like GREEN GOODNESS. In any case, it's green.

First, we have to wash our hands. The blessing over the hand washing is written in Hebrew, with a transliteration... using Dutch pronunciation. I can get the baruch atah part, but not that part that changes with every blessing? I try it, but... let's say there was a bit of chuckling.

Then some homemade challah, some wine, both preceded by more blessings. Those I know.

See that bottle of GREEN GOODNESS?” Milton asks, pointing to the soda. “That's from Suriname. The factory owner... he's dead now... but when he was alive... was a Jew. He was rich. Had the most popular drink in Suriname...”

What about Parbo?” I ask, mentioning the local fermented favorite.

Okay,” he corrects himself, “the most popular non-alcohol drink.”

Sitting around the kiddish table, I again notice that people are polite, but not friendly... not curious. I'm disappointed. There are questions I want to ask. Friends I want to make. I guess they get a lot of visitors... maybe anthropologists. In fact, there are two white girls in the crowd. They look to be in their early twenties. One of them takes a lot of pictures.

Those two,” says Milton, “they are from some university. They're on their study term here.”

Are they Jewish?” I don't ask.

The guy who was reading the prayers passes me. Well, if the mountain won't come to Mohammed...

Excuse me, Rabbi,” I say to him.

I'm not a Rabbi,” he says. “I'm just one who happens to know the prayers. We don't have a Rabbi now. We used to have a Rabbi, but...”

The sentence is never finished, but it leaves me feeling that there's some deep secret buried along with those graves on the side of the synagogue.

He quickly takes his leave and goes to talk with his friends.

Before long, we also take our leave.

I hope I can find the way back to Jules' (Jose's father) house,” says Milton.

So do I,” says I.

He cannot.

This is obvious from his hesitation at every corner. His pulling into a street, stopping suddenly, making a U-turn, heading to the next street and the next U-turn.

It was about 9 when we left the synagogue. It's now creeping toward 9:45. We're on our fifth U-turn.

Wait,” says Milton. “I have an idea. I know where I live.”

That's a relief,” I don't say.

It's in the other direction,” he continues, “but I know how to get to Jules' from my house.”

Another U-turn. Then a slow but steady roll to Milton's house.

There it is,” he says, pointing out the window. “You recognize it? That's my house.”

Sure,” I lie.

From here I know,” he tells me.

And street-by-street we inch closer to what Milton thinks is the way to Jules' house. I've taken the ride many times. This doesn't look like the right way at all.

I'm wrong.

At the house, Jose's father invites Milton in for a drink. They talk like old friends.

After their warm-up conversation, Dad turns to me. “Mykel,” he says, “was it what you expected.”

Not exactly,” I say, “for one thing they didn't have a Rabbi.”

Jose's dad frowns.

That's a Jewish priest,” explains Milton.

I do not (visibly) cringe.

They used to have a Rabbi,” he further explains. “But you know what they say about Jews: If there are two Jews, there are two completely different opinions.”

Three completely different opinions,” I correct him.

He smiles.

Anyway, I don't know the whole story,” he says, “but something happened with the last Rabbi. He just left.”

AGAIN: something THE SAME about US and Surinamese Jewishness.

The topic changes.

What did you think about the aquarium in Milton's place?” asks Jose's dad.

I didn't see it,” I say.

What?” says Milton, “You were in my living room, right?”

I nod.

You saw the pictures... my wife... the sedar plate.”

I nod again.

And you didn't see the aquarium?”

I shake my head.

It's as big as this bookcase,” he says, standing up and moving toward a large bookcase in the living room. “It takes up half the room, and you didn't see it?”

Sorry,” I say.

And what about the birds?” asks Jules. “Did you see the birds?”

I smile sheepishly.

You didn't see the birds?” says Milton, “I have two birds. Beautiful birds. How could you miss them?”

I smile again... and shrug.

Milton shakes his head.

And the women?” he says. “The three beautiful women... the ones I live with now that my Jewish wife passed away. You didn't see the women?”

I laugh, hoping he's kidding...

Next blog we'll have some more Suriname adventures. Then, hopefully get back to French Guiana, plenty of adventures wait there too: a visit to the Hmong, a canoe trip through the jungle, a feast of rodents, and a lot of mud.


I just found this from a Paramaribo tourist company. I didn't take the tour, but it fits!

[You can read previous travel blog entries below.
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