Some Like Haroset Hot
By Judith Fein
Against all odds—and largely on its own—a group of Christian-born Guatemalans has found its way to Judaism. Fortunately for them, a Brazilian-born rabbi from Kansas City has provided the support and Torah education they seek.
Clara de Medina was at home in Guatemala City when her mother called. "Don't forget the haroset for the competition tomorrow," her mother reminded her. "The prize goes to the recipe that is the most Guatemalan."
Haroset, a concoction of fruit, nuts and wine that symbolizes the bricks of Egyptian slavery, is a great favorite on Passover. During the Seder, Jews eat hair-raising horseradish, or maror, to remember the bitterness of life in Egypt, and the sweet haroset offsets its sharpness.
"I knew [Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn] was coming, but I had completely forgotten about the competition," de Medina admitted. "I wondered what I could add that would be Guatemalan? I put in onion, garlic, cilantro, wine vinegar, olive oil and then—because I am a naughty Jew—I added chiltepe. It's our spicy chili pepper."
The following day, in the summer of 2006, the 25 women, men and children who then made up the fledgling Casa Hillel Jewish community in Guatemala City met with Cukierkorn. Today, the group claims 35 active, converted members and several dozen others who are loosely affiliated, though they have not yet converted. Although his pulpit is the New Reform Temple in Kansas City, Missouri, Cukierkorn has taken under his wing those born-Christian Guatemalans who have been studying Jewish texts and converting to Judaism. The quirky haroset-in-July competition was the rabbi's idea—and scheduled to coincide with his visit.
But the contest wasn't the only reason Cukierkorn came; for three years, he had been teaching Casa Hillel students via videoconferencing, assigning them books on Judaism, including his own Spanish-language Hamadrij: Guide to the Values and Practices of Modern Judaism (European Association of Jewish Studies).
A year earlier, in 2005, Cukierkorn had flown to Guatemala to convert seven students after the men in the group were circumcised. On his second visit, Cukierkorn performed 14 conversions and remarried 4 couples according to laws of Moses and Israel.
One of the new grooms was Mario Valdez, a 44-year-old teacher who took the name Iosef. "Having a Jewish wedding was the highlight of my life," said Valdez; he remarried his wife, Flor, whose Hebrew name is Hadassah. "I had three goals—brit mila, conversion and a Jewish marriage. I have accomplished all three. My… [next] goal will be my children's Jewish marriages." Valdez is president of the Casa Hillel synagogue.
Jeannette "Miriam" Orantes, 51, an executive secretary and convert, agreed that the ceremonies were "a wonderful experience for all of us. We had studied for six years"—three on their own before connecting with Cukierkorn—"and now we accomplished what we were waiting for," she said. "We became special people for God. We have a challenge to fulfill—to be Jews with love, care and special feelings for each other."
Her husband, Alvaro "Eliyahu" Orantes, 48, is a salesman and former president of Casa Hillel, so named after Hillel Cukierkorn, the rabbi's father, in gratitude for all his son has done for them. (A couple has also named their newborn son Hillel.) Although there are no statistics, Orantes said he and others like him are part of a phenomenon in Latin America today: born Catholics who feel a deep attraction to Judaism.
But the road to a Jewish life has not been smooth for the members of Casa Hillel. "When I was growing up Catholic, I never liked going to church," Alvaro Orantes said. "When I prayed to God, I used the word 'Father,' not Jesus. By the time I was 12, I had visited the Jewish cemetery because I felt peaceful there. At age 16, I painted Jewish stars on the wall of my parents' house. My parents thought I was nuts. I speculate that my attraction to Judaism was a historical memory that all human beings have in their souls. Mine is Jewish.
"In the millennial year of 2000," Orantes recalled, "a Christian messianic Jew from Cuba arrived in Guatemala City. It was like an earthquake in my head. He told me that Jesus wasn't his real name; it was [Yeshua] and it was a Jewish name. If we believed in Jesus, he said, we had to learn Torah."
About his studies with the messianic Jew, Orantes said, "Maybe what he taught was wrong and maybe it was right, but he…introduced us to Torah." Eventually, Orantes explained, he and the other Guatemalan seekers realized that the knowledge they desired "can only be obtained from the Hebrew point of view."
Like Orantes, several other members of Casa Hillel say they feel like they have Jewish souls and are "returning" to Judaism rather than discovering it for the first time, though they have no formal proof that their ancestors were Jews. Perhaps they are descended from crypto-Jews from Spain, who had to hide their religion during the Inquisition. Or they could be, as a few of them suspect, from the lost northern tribes of Israel that fled after the Assyrian conquest in 722 B.C.E. Cukierkorn thinks these connections are possible but cannot be ascertained.
"I think it is easier to just convert them and move on, rather than engage in this business of returns," he said. Cukierkorn is a founder of Kulanu, an organization that reaches out to lost and dispersed Jewish communities.
After Orantes married, he threw away his Christmas tree. He informed his new wife that Jesus was a great rabbi but not divine. After their children were born, the couple began to observe Shabbat; today, Juan Pablo (Johanan) is 25, Ishmuel (Mijael) is 13 and Rebecca (Rivka) is 11.
Orantes used to pore over Jewish Web sites such as www.torah.org, study with his family and exchange information with friends. He had the words of the Shema emblazoned on the rear windshield of his car, even though he did not speak Hebrew. He hoped that a Jew in the street would read it and ask him why they were there. Orantes even programmed his cell phone to play "Hatikva."
"The biggest proof of our sincerity," added Carlos "Menashe" Hernandez, a 25-year-old welder, "is that we legitimized the Jewish traditions in our life, such as marriage."
He converted with his wife, Karla "Naomi," and daughter, Ester "Hadassah." In mentioning the sincerity of the Casa Hillel community, Hernandez was alluding to their nonacceptance by Guatemala City's Jewish establishment.
When Cukierkorn came to Guatemala in 2005, he wanted to assist these fledgling Jews find a place in the mainstream Jewish community.
"It is always better that there be a local rabbi rather than a long-distance one," he explained. Cukierkorn accompanied Orantes to Centro Hebreo/Shaarei Binyomin, Guatemala City's main synagogue. When Cukierkorn asked the administrator there whether "my friend Orantes can come here with you to be taught," recalled Orantes, "the answer was 'No. This is a private synagogue.'"
Casa Hillel members believe they are shunned because of their past contact with Christian teachers.
"They have their own reasons and we respect them," Orantes said without rancor. "[But] as we have never had any formal contact with [the Jewish community], they cannot say the Casa Hillel people have any taint of Christianity or give any other reasons since they cannot know our hearts."
Centro Hebreo is now headed by Orthodox Chief Rabbi Shimon Lubelski. "I went to Guatemala for a vacation in September 2005 and… the community hadn't had a rabbi for nine months," said Lubelski. "They asked me if I knew how to pray on Shabbat and I said I was a rabbi. They asked me to be their rabbi."
Lubelski affirmed—without explanation—that his community does not perform conversions. "If people want to convert, they have to go to New York, Miami or Tel Aviv," he said.
Lubelski, originally from Argentina, acknowledged that mainstream Jews, most of whom are Orthodox, do not welcome Casa Hillel members and do not accept Cukierkorn's Reform conversions.
"We respect [them], but we are not interested in any encounters between the two communities," he said.
Sources who requested their names be withheld, including one member of Lubelski's community, indicated that another reason for the distancing from Casa Hillel is socioeconomic. Establishment Jews own many of the commercial businesses in Guatemala while Casa Hillel members tend to be less affluent; one works as a blacksmith, another is a sales manager, several are teachers.
Almost all of Guatemala's 1,000 Jews live in the capital, Guatemala City, with a smattering in Quetzaltenango and San Marcos as well. There are about 800 Ashkenazim and 200 Sefardim, but the community continues to shrink due to assimilation and intermarriage.
The main Jewish organizations are Comunidad Judia Guatemalteca (011-5022-360-1509; www.comunidadjudia.com); the Ashkenazic synagogue Centro Hebreo/Shaarei Binyomin (5022360-7643); and the Sefardic Maguen David (502-2232-0932). (There is also a small Chabad shul and a community of Israelis working in security and construction businesses who meet for services in a private home.)
Archives in Mexico indicate that Jews first arrived in Guatemala in the 16th century, but today's community has roots in the German influx of the mid-19th century. In 1965, Jewish refugees arrived from Cuba.
Before Cukierkorn came into his life—and with no connection to local Jewry—Orantes decided to be circumcised. "It was done by a doctor," he said, "because we didn't have any access to a mohel and there was no rabbi for rabbinic supervision. But it was done with the correct berakhot… It was done according to the Torah. When it was done, I felt as though it was my conversion.
"And then a miracle occurred," he said. He Googled "conversion to Judaism" and found Cukierkorn's Spanish-language Web site. After multiple contacts, the relationship between the rabbi and Orantes's group was established. "I didn't want an 'electronic' conversion, and Rabbi Cukierkorn never suggested it," Orantes said.
Orantes contacted Hernandez and Valdez, who had likewise been studying with a messianic Jew and on their own. "I didn't want to involve too many people, in case we were going to be tricked or judged or shut out again [as they were by the local community]," Orantes said. "I chose four humble and sincere people: a welder, a schoolteacher, a helicopter pilot and an 81-year-old high-society lady.
"We had read… that God will even show mercy to outsiders like us who keep the day of rest and observe the laws. The [Torah] study helped me. It gave me a way to behave, rules of conduct to follow and it was good for my family. Other people began to express their interest."
Orantes and his study-mates were among the first converts; they immersed in the natural springs of Antigua, an area about 25 miles away.
"When we were doing our tevila," recalled Cukierkorn, "there were hundreds of people getting baptized in nearby pools."
Cukierkorn continues to teach his weekly Torah classes via the Internet, which members also use to study Midrash, Pirke Avot, Mishneh Torah and Shulhan Arukh. Study has become easier since Michael and Karen Herman, members of Cukierkorn's Kansas City congregation, sponsored the purchase of 200 Jewish books—including children's books—in Spanish.
The Casa Hillel library, supervised by Clara de Medina, and a Torah scroll donated by another of Cukierkorn's congregants, Robert Uhlmann, are situated in the Casa Hillel synagogue in downtown Guatemala City, for which Cukierkorn's congregation contributes half the rent.
To help individuals acquire Jewish ritual objects, the New Reform Temple's social action committee (firstname.lastname@example.org) has begun a Judaica-exchange program that sends new and used items to the converts. On Cukierkorn's to-do list for his next visit in July is to teach the converts to read Torah with the cantillation.
Meanwhile, Casa Hillel members refrain from working on Shabbat and spend the day in their two-story building (12 Avenida 17-21 Zona 11, Colonia Mariscal) where they pray, eat lunch, study Torah and end Shabbat together. They welcome visiting Jews. There are also Rosh Hodesh and Kabbala study circles.
When Cukierkorn visits—he now comes several times a year—a few of the young men celebrate by engaging in exuberant Hasidic-style dancing, which they learned from a video, and the young girls, wearing blue, white and gold outfits, dance and sing to Hebrew music. In the absence of an organized Hebrew school, the children study Torah with their parents.
Cukierkorn had a lawyer incorporate Casa Hillel as a legal entity; its formal name is Comunidad Hebrea/ Beit Ha-madrij Hillel (www.casahillel.com, in Spanish). It is registered as a civil association that is, in Orantes's words, "formed to strengthen the ties between the State of Israel, Israeli Jews and the Jews of Guatemala.
"We are open to all Jews," he added, "and all Guatemalans interested in the process of genuine conversion and the study of the Torah and Jewish culture."
When Cukierkorn visited in 2006, he brought with him two members of his Kansas City community, Karen Lichterman and Mark Edelman, to be witnesses to the conversions and marriages; they also convened for the haroset "beit din."
When the rabbi tasted Clara de Medina's entry, he grinned broadly—the chili kick made it a clear winner. Cukierkorn presented de Medina—whose Hebrew name is Jojma, pronounced hokhma, meaning wise—with a Magen David the size of a small car tire, festooned with bright lights. A member of his Kansas City congregation had created it to compete with Christmas decorations during the holiday season.
De Medina's Guatemalan haroset is perhaps the perfect paradigm for Casa Hillel's essence. It embodies Jewish tradition with a flavor all its own.
3 green apples, peeled, chopped, with a splash of lemon juice
2 TB chopped cashews
2 TB honey
1 oz sweet Passover wine
1 tsp fresh, chopped cilantro
Toss all ingredients in a bowl, set aside.
1 oz chopped chiltepe (green and red chilis)
2 tsp chopped onion
2 peeled garlic cloves, chopped
1 small tomato, chopped
1 TB wine vinegar
1 TB extra-virgin olive oil
1. Liquify all ingredients in blender and season with salt to taste.
2. Add 1 TB of the chili sauce to the haroset.
3. Add cinnamon to taste.
—Clara de Medina