My Lonely Passover in Uruguay

My college study-abroad term in Montevideo, Uruguay, left me with reasonable fluency in Spanish, a fear of slugs in sandwiches, the knowledge of more than a dozen soccer chants — and a deep, visceral love for the Jewish holiday of Passover and its accompanying festive Seder meal.

The year before I lived in Uruguay, I’d loosened up with a game of beer-pong for my college’s Hillel House Seder, where I drunkenly slurred my way through “Dayenu” with the other Jewish students too far from home to return for the holiday. The naive college me believed that her motivation for attending was the free meal offered by Hillel. After all, growing up in a Jewish household, we were hardly observant. We lit the candles fewer than a half-dozen other times in a year. Passover, however, was never missed. I’d never let a spring go by without the joys of licking the wine from my fingers after the 10 plagues, and my parents laughed at the joys of making children run around the house playing hide-and-seek with a stale cracker.

There is a small Jewish community in Uruguay of about 20,000 people; in fact, the building in which our classes were held also housed a Jewish school. But despite my best efforts asking around, I never found anyone who identified as Jewish in any significant way, which to me meant attending synagogue or celebrating the Sabbath. At a restaurant, I told a waiter that I kept kosher in a desperate attempt to avoid the cuisine’s dual building blocks of deli ham and processed cheese. Instead of the empanada filled with ham and cheese, he recommended pizza with ham.

Uruguay, in early 2005, had just exited “la crisis,” and men with donkey carts still plied the streets of our middle-class neighborhood, picking through trash. When friends from home asked about Uruguayans, I settled on the word “melancholy” to describe the national personality.

There were 17 American students in my program, and we were considered curiosities: stared at, asked to pose for photos to be sent to friends (“Look what I met!”), and rarely invited home for dinner.

So when I set out to try to find a Seder to attend, I was not met with what I had hoped for: a warm invitation to share a bowl of matzo ball soup. At best, I was given a begrudging shrug when I inquired if anyone knew a Jewish person, but mostly it was just that already-familiar look of confusion mixed with curiosity.

On the first night of Passover, I therefore resigned myself to another evening watching “Las Desperate Housewives” with my host family, over a meal of ham-and-cheese empanadas scented with cigarette smoke. I was lonely and sad, and the faux-witty banter of Felicity Huffman and Teri Hatcher was hardly a replacement for my dad’s unchanging annual Passover jokes. I hummed the tune to the four questions in the shower and reminded myself how lucky I was to be spending the term living in South America. It required sacrifice, I told myself. And there would be next year’s Passover — I didn’t even need to be in Jerusalem, as long as I was at a Seder. I tried not to think too hard about this year’s matzo balls, whether they were my mother’s sinkers or my grandmother’s floaters.

My resignation lasted until the next morning, when I overheard one of the other American girls complaining about her meal the previous night. Complaining about our last meal was a daily occurrence in Uruguay. We’d long since realized how far we were from the juicy steaks of Buenos Aires and the bountiful churrascarias of Brazil. The national dish was milanesa, a breaded piece of meat with the toughness theoretically pounded out of it, and almost every dish was laden with ham and cheese. We could feel our hearts slowing and our taste buds dying.

“I’m not sure,” she was saying. “There was some sort of singing, and a lot of talking.” My head snapped up to hear her better. I never got to listen to the full description of her confusion over the maror and her distaste for the matzo, because I had to excuse myself from the classroom to wipe the unexpected tears from my face.

The following year, when Passover came around I was back at in school at Dartmouth College, and things were different. Aunt Gene invited me to her big annual family Seder in Philadelphia. While my own worries of another Seder-less holiday were thus assuaged, I couldn’t rest until I knew that nobody else would go through what I had experienced. I filled up my car with people who needed a ride to their own Seder, making stops in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York on my way to Philadelphia. If I found someone who didn’t already have Seder plans, I brought that person along to my aunt’s house. Thankfully, Aunt Gene slipped in the two extra spaces at the table, with a minimum of the requisite familial guilt-tripping (I probably should have given her a bit more of a heads-up). I recruited Seder guests with the ferocity of an NCAA coach going after a four-star quarterback. I couldn’t allow anyone within traveling distance of my holiday meal to have even the slightest chance of missing out.

Another year went by, and this time, back home in Seattle, my mother’s Seder grew significantly, thanks to my invitation binges. My family’s relatively small eight-to-nine person dinner expanded until we needed all the leaves in the big dining room table to fit some 15 people. A friend‘s new girlfriend was raised Jewish? Join us! Someone mentions on Facebook they are stocking up on matzo? Come break (non) bread with me! I was like Oprah handing out cars: “You get an invite! You get an invite!”

In the following years, I augmented my mother’s first-night Seder by starting a Seder for friends on the second night. I invited not only my Jewish friends and strangers, some of whom hadn’t seen a Seder since their grandfather led a four-hour service in Yiddish when they were a kid, but also anyone else I knew who might be excited to drink wine and eat good food. At these “Freders” the gentiles often outnumber the Jews, and the service is short, sweet and dotted with explanations to help first-timers understand what we are celebrating.

It was at the first of such Freders, in the middle of an explanation of why we (briefly) open the door and put out an extra glass of wine, that I realized the strength with which Passover’s meaning had burrowed deep within me. Alone in a foreign country, I had longed for someone to open his or her house and share a drink with me. I now understood that my invitations to strangers on Twitter or to friends of friends of friends were my modern way of following ancient, biblical commands. After all, the Haggadah begins the Passover story by exhorting us, “Let all who are hungry come and eat.”

Naomi Tomky is a Seattle-based food writer. Her writing can be found regularly in Lucky Peach, Serious Eats and Edible Seattle, and on her own blog, The Gastrognome.

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