It was in Costa Rica that I attended my first Seder. For the past three months I had been studying abroad in a predominantly Catholic country whose national religion is Christianity but I hadn’t once stepped foot in a church. My native host parents weren’t Catholic but rather Evangelical Christians. (Evangelicalism is on the rise in much of the developing world including the Central American nation of Costa Rica.) Although I had been invited to attend Easter services with my host parents at their church, I politely declined, not only for the length of the service (upwards of two hours), but also because most Evangelical ministers seem to be the fiery, yelling kind and I surmised that the Spanish speaking version wouldn’t be much different. One rainy Saturday afternoon, I actually watched an Evangelical service on the television with my host mom. While she was transfixed by what the minister was saying, I was frankly scared by him. During the entire service, every other word seemed to be pecado (sin) or abominacion (abomination), spoken at an extremely high level. Having been raised in the Presbyterian church where our minister could best be described as kind and soft spoken and could have doubled for Santa Claus with the proper attire and beard, seeing a “man of God” get so heated when preaching that his face turned all shades of red was not for me. So on Easter Sunday I ate some of the chocolate Easter bunny my parents had sent me.
Some years Passover and Easter fall around the same time, but the year I was in Costa Rica, Passover was much later. After having returned from a trip up north to neighboring Nicaragua, the two Jewish kids in the program decided they wanted to hold a Seder, a ritual meal served on the first night of Passover which commemorates the flight of the Jews from Egypt. Although we non-Jewish kids were dubious that they would be able to find the traditional items needed for a Seder, clearly we underestimated the global reach of the Jewish people. While not exactly New York City’s Lower East Side neighborhood, Costa Rica is still home to about 3,000 Jews, most of them concentrated in the area of the capital of San Jose.
Anyone was invited to attend the Seder, provided they helped in preparing the meal and readying the table. Although for the past six weeks we had all led separate lives, having gone to different parts of Costa Rica and Nicaragua for our internships, the night we prepared the Seder, there was definitely a sense of community present in the kitchen as we worked.
I was in charge of preparing the charoset, which is a sweet paste made of almonds, apples, raisins, and wine. It symbolizes the mortar used by the Hebrew slaves and the sweet taste of freedom once they had fled Egypt. I love foods that hold special meaning and at a Seder, every food has some type of symbolic meaning. The roasted egg is traditionally a symbol of mourning (eggs are the first thing to be served to mourners after a Jewish funeral) but at the Seder, it serves as a symbol of the Hebrews’ new life when they left Egypt; salted water remembers the tears and sweat of slavery; while horseradish, the bitter herb that reminds Jews of the bitterness of those times; and matzah, the unleavened bread symbolizes the haste with which the Israelites left Egypt.
Once the table had been set, the plates of food, the goblets of wine, the burning candles and even a copy of the Haggadah, a Jewish text that sets forth the order of the Seder that someone had printed from the Internet all laid out, I was amazed by the simple beauty of it all. Here we were in the land of toucans and monkeys, star fruit and papayas, a country only about 10 degrees from the equator, and yet we were celebrating one of the most important and significant holidays in the Jewish faith, on the other side of the world from Israel, and thousands of miles from any American-Jewish celebration, and yet our Passover Seder was like anyone else’s.
The following year when I studied in Spain, I learned a great deal about the Sefardi Jews who lived in the Iberian Peninsula until they were expelled by Queen Isabel and King Ferdinand, so my memory of another Jewish experience in another Spanish speaking country was never forgotten.
(Unfortunately these were the only two photos I took of the Seder but hopefully you can see the uniqueness of it.)