My father would count down the days as far out as August: “196 days left until—”
“Aruba!” we’d respond, the feeling of sand between our toes, mother’s pleas to “wipe the sand off your toes” ringing in our ears. My siblings and I looked forward to our annual trips to the Dutch Caribbean island, where it seemed like the entirety of our Syrian Jewish community in Brooklyn—in reality, not the entire community, but still an impressive number—about 6,000 people—would congregate for 10 days in the middle of January. It was our very own Borscht Belt. Instead of the comic circuit we had the casino, and rather than deposit pee into a lake, we did so in the Caribbean. The sea teemed with inflatable tubes pulled by speedboats, ready to test the strength of our bladders and bikini strings.
Early recollections of our family vacations are clichéd, memories colored with pastel nostalgia: digging for seashells (and finding empty beer cans instead), getting sugar-drunk on virgin piña coladas, discovering sunburned shoulders and more than a few new freckles.
The real fun began before the trip did, with the 4 a.m. wake-up call that our ride was waiting outside: “The van!” My mother might still be in the kitchen, imprisoning aluminum tins of frozen, home-cooked meals in layers of duct tape like a toy-sized, Middle Eastern version of Guy Fieri. “We’re rollin’ out!”
By this point, the heki—or “talk”—about Aruba had already been circulating in the Syrian community for weeks. Every year, it was the same:
“Where are you going?” they’d ask, in restaurants, in line at the fruit store, or the butcher, or the bar at a wedding.
“Aruba.” Where else?
“See ya there.” Sigh: I hope we don’t end up arguing over beach lounges.
No, let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.
(For the kids.)
The script played on the way to the airport, too.
People shouted, “Where are you going?” to familiar faces over cracked car windows. Question and answer lobbed over the Belt Parkway East like programmed Ping-Pong balls as countless maroon (always maroon) colored vans packed like clown cars crept toward the same place. I remember thinking, It looks like we’re all running away from something.
Before there was Aruba there were the Club Meds in Ixtapa and Punta Cana. Prior to that, Syrian families traveled to the Hilton in Puerto Rico. My grandparents’ generation frequented Aruba with friends before my parents and their contemporaries began bringing their children around the turn of the millennium.
It’s not difficult to imagine why our grandparents began vacationing in Aruba in the first place. Most of them emigrated from Aleppo and Damascus in the 1950s and ’60s. Like many other ethnic communities, they preferred to live among each other. Their new home in Brooklyn afforded them this comfort. They began to grow their families, “putting down roots” and working hard to afford new luxuries, travel being one of them.
My grandfather, an Egyptian-born man who regarded the AC as a modern anathema, felt at home in the heat. (Aruba’s sun didn’t quit. The days were long and dry.) His generation’s hotel of choice was the Holiday Inn. When the Marriott Hotel opened its doors down the beach, it offered a new playing ground, equipped with a sprawling pool and a raucous casino, where bets were placed in English and conferred in Arabic. The Marriott casino was and still is the epicenter of nightlife. Sneaking in as an underage kid was basically a rite of passage.
On my first trip to Aruba in 1999, my father rented a minivan in what would turn out to be a heroic attempt at exploring the island. He and my mother packed their four young children into the car and at the direction of a man on the road headed “straight” toward our destination, Baby Beach.
“Straight” landed us in an expanse of loose rock and gravel, the ocean nowhere in sight. My father, ever the salesman, convinced us that “off-roading” had been the plan all along! The VHS footage from that car ride looks like a cross between The Blair Witch Project and Little Miss Sunshine. To my father’s credit, we did eventually reach Baby Beach, whose crystalline waters and white sand proved worth the three-plus hour drive.
Still, I believe that was the last trip to Aruba where we left our hotel grounds.
There are few other words in our slice of Brooklyn that evoke such a visceral, and entirely predictable, response. Simply saying ‘Aruba’ unlocks a cornucopia of understanding.
Marriott opened The Ocean Club in 2000. Its timeshares could accommodate large families and most importantly, were equipped with kitchens. Like many other modern Orthodox Jewish communities, Syrian Jews’ religious observance falls on a spectrum and often varies from family to family. The kitchens allowed those who kept strictly kosher to bring food from home for the entirety of the week. As a friend put it, “My family keeps ‘strict’ kosher. My mother has two extra freezers in the basement: one for Passover and one for Aruba. Everyone comes to our room for samboosak and mini pizzas.” Because, drunchies.
Even for families (like my own) that do not strictly keep kosher, it was and is common to bring fully frozen meals for Shabbat. These days, my mother prefers to eat at one of the organized Shabbat dinners in the hotel. To bolster her case she rehashes the incident of the thawed kibbe cherry, circa 2002. Apparently, her swaths of foil and duct tape were no match against the flavors of the Middle East, which ran fast and free all over the contents of its suitcase.
Marriott opened a second timeshare complex, the Surf Club, in 2005. It was then that Syrian families numbering in the hundreds started flocking to Aruba during mid-January, when community yeshivas gave off for winter break. Today, the Surf Club is home to the Syrian shul that pops up for about 10 days every year. When my grandfather passed away in 2016, my father was assured that he would still be able to say kaddish every day while away, knowing that there would be a minyan in Aruba.
The days in Aruba began early, usually with a mad dash to secure lounges on the beach. This task usually fell to the patriarch of the family. It took a unique combination of girth, charm, and gangster to get enough white aluminum-strap chaises for his clan. By whatever means necessary. Keeping them was another story, one that required careful planning and staging. Towels were ruffled, sand was thrown, and slick bottles of Sun Bum tanning oil were scattered among the lounges. There, now they were reserved.
While our parents spoke to their lounge neighbors and struggled over when it was OK to stop speaking to their lounge neighbors, the kids ran off. Days were spent strapped inside life vests aboard inflatable tubes tugged by speedboats driven maniacally by the water sports staff, who took great pride in seeing us flung into the ocean. And who could blame them?
“FASTER!” We cried. And up we went; a sharp left turn or a ripple caused by another boat lobbing our tiny bodies into the air like a real life game of Angry Birds.
There are few other words in our slice of Brooklyn that evoke such a visceral, and entirely predictable, response. Simply saying “Aruba” unlocks a cornucopia of understanding.
It’s all my mother would have to say to summon the assistance of the sales staff at Lester’s or California Sunshine, where swimsuits hung like colorful fish all year round. And then it was shy walk after shy walk as my two sisters and I petered in and out of the dressing room like broken marionettes.
“Pretend like you’re coming out of the water. Does the bottom shift?”
Bless my mother, she picked so many of my wedgies in those days I still look to her in times of need.
“I’m loving this one.”
“All the girls are loving this one.”
“Do we want something all the girls are loving?”
“I don’t know but we love it.”
“Die for it.”
“It’s not too skimpy, Ma?”
“How can it be skimpy—you’re tiny!”
“She is tiny! No?”
“Look at her, she’s gorgeous.”
“She is. It’s stunning on her.”
“Forget it! It won’t be as stunning on everyone else.”
As years pass, girls who become women become aware of their bodies and their ability to evoke a reaction—positively or negatively. At the age of 16, I realized something on our annual trip to Aruba: People were having a really fucking good time, and it wasn’t because they were digging for seashells. Aruba became something else entirely.
Who needed sunscreen when you had the shade of the pergola that hung low above the bar?
There were boys at the bar, boys who now looked completely different than they had growing up next door in Brooklyn. They suddenly took an interest in you while you took an interest in anything over ice: Aruba Aribas, Long Island iced teas, and whatever else might dull the sensation of your inner thighs touching and the all too obvious glare of your parents.
“Who is that boy?”
“That’s what’s-his-face’s brother’s son.”
“Are they good people?”
“They just bought the house on your corner.”
“The boy looks adami,” slang for a total catch.
“He’s aboose.” (Or, in English, cute AF.) “Look at those dimples.”
“Go to Aruba, maybe you’ll find a nassib,” Arabic for betrothed, became a common refrain. The island had a near mythic reputation for its matchmaking abilities.
Fewer hours were spent in the ocean, on the water slide that snaked around the pool, or eating homemade egge pita sandwiches while you performed hari-kari by electively having your entire body buried in wet sand. More time was spent circling “The Pit” like a pronghorn antelope at a watering hole. “The Pit” was a mosh of lounge chairs on the beach, and it was the heart of the scene, where young eligible adults went to mingle.
The thrill of traveling with my parents dimmed as I grew well into my teenage years. Sure, at ages 17, 18, and 19, I’d rather go away with friends. But when that wasn’t an option Aruba was the second best bet. During those years it was the only place my parents permitted me to travel without them, knowing I’d be “at home” in the comfort of the community and familiar surroundings.
I didn’t find my nassib on the island, but I did reconnect with friends, and I definitely participated in my fair share of “Power Hours,” which I’d correctly supposed was the closest I’d ever get to a “spring break” experience.
I’m now 27 years old, and I haven’t been to Aruba in six years. The last time I was there was with my boyfriend who, two months later, would become my fiancé and soon after that, my husband. We didn’t meet on the white sandy beaches outside the Ocean Club but there’s a pretty pervasive rumor that if we had, we’d have been comped a weeklong stay in a timeshare the following year. Not a bad deal.
Most of my contemporaries now make the trip with children of their own. My parents, three out of their four children married, continue to go with my youngest sister who, at 21, regales me year after year with stories that to the untrained eye might read as a memoir about Rumspringa.
Still, I was curious about how many couples actually “met” on the trip. What kind of prep, physically and mentally, was involved? How does one strike the balance between I’m just here to have a good time and I’m here looking for “the one”? Was the pressure to look one’s best as high for boys as it was for girls?
I wanted to separate myth from reality, if you will. And so, a week before my sister Raquel was to leave for Aruba this January, I ambushed her and five of her friends in the kitchen of my parents’ home and forced them to talk to me.
They sat around the table, four girls and two boys, sipping iced coffee, a couple of them Juuling because, as they deadpanned, “Aruba.”
The trip was less than 10 days away.
“I have to do laser.” One of the girls remarked. “I have to do my highlights.”
“Juice cleanse a week before,” another girl chimed in.
“Manicure, pedicure, obviously.”
The girls nodded in solidarity.
I turned to the two boys sitting at the table and asked, “Do you guys actually care this much about what the girls look like?”
“Yes.” A definitive answer.
“There’s a pressure in Aruba to look and feel your best,” Raquel surmised. “But I don’t think it’s as much for the boys as it is for the girls. Year after year you come in and there’s a new set of girls younger than you, skinnier than you, everybody’s walking around looking great. You don’t want to be the one hiding your ‘sunburn’ under a wet white T-shirt.”This is where liquid courage comes in.”
“One-hundred percent liquid courage,” the girls agreed. Alcohol was readily available and the best antidote to vulnerability. It also begat what they called “Aruba goggles,” a phrase used to describe what happens when one’s vision and romance barometer is clouded by the high stakes environment. It’s also what happens when you drink tequila in your coffee. It all sounds a bit like a barely watched reality show on ABC in which 20 women compete for the affection of one man.
“There’s pressure for the boys, too,” one of the boys interjected. “The pressure to spend money, to buy girls drinks, take them out to dinner every night.”
The girls looked at each other. “The 6 o’clock Hunger Games.”
Every day at approximately 6 p.m. the beach morphs into the setting of some post-apocalyptic YA novel. People begin to panic. With sunset fast approaching, that leaves only an hour or so to secure an invitation to dinner.
“Did you talk to anyone?”
“Not yet. Did you talk to anyone?”
“Should we do something?”
Girls who have plans tiptoe around those who don’t like Buddhist monks. Some ghost their friends entirely.
“Thinking about it gives me anxiety,” Raquel told me.
I asked the girls what their hopes were for the trip. Some expressed to me that even at 21, they feel “old.” Do people still meet on the trip? They do.
What constitutes “meeting,” if everyone already knows one another from back home? What is it that gives two people a higher likelihood of meeting on a trip that happens once a year, versus the countless weddings and social events that bring young people together all year round?
“There’s a preconception that if you’re in Aruba, you’re there to meet someone,” one of the boys offered. “I’m more likely to approach a cute girl I’ve been eyeing since the summer because everybody knows you go there to meet new people.” Other trips within the community, even ones specifically marketed as singles’ trips, don’t produce the same results.
My relationship with Aruba is kind of like my relationship with my hair. I’m hesitant to cut it off completely because in many ways, it functions as a security blanket and I like knowing that it’s there. It’s entwined with my identity because it reinforces my sense of self and community. When I’m hankering for change I give it a periodic trim, but every few years I like to return to my roots and grow it really long. It takes maintaining, but I know what to expect.
Things have changed since my last romp on the island. I reconnected with Raquel and her friends once they got back to hear how, exactly. For starts, there were now organized day and night parties, which every boy and girl between the ages of 18 and 35 attended. And their days were generally spent at another hotel down the beach, where the atmosphere was a bit more relaxed. One thing hadn’t changed, at around 5 p.m., everyone still migrates toward the Ocean Club, where hundreds of teenagers and young adults convene around the bar.
Two of the girls I’d spoken to returned with boyfriends. Raquel returned, and I quote, “with the hope sucked out of my body.” When asked if she would go back next year she said, “Last year I swore I wasn’t coming back, so there you go.” I picture Jack Shephard shouting to his fellow Lost survivors of Oceanic Flight 815, “We have to go back!”
In truth, winter break in Aruba does seem to have all of the trappings of a cable TV drama, including negative reviews. Users on TripAdvisor caution against booking a stay at the Ocean Club during the second and third weeks of January, when “Jewish groups from New York” descend upon the area. And while I can understand one not wanting to vacation with an essentially relocated community, I do feel inclined to defend what—shenanigans aside—I feel is an important, if not vital, tradition.
In many ways, Aruba is a time capsule. Generations return year after year, many with new additions to their growing families; sons and daughters, grandchildren who play in the very same sand that their parents did. Ruckus ensues the same way it does anywhere that five or more people with hormones congregate.
But the more I ponder it, my belief is reinforced: that the trip signifies our survival and growth as a cohesive community. It is no coincidence that as a community whose history is full of persecution, we have always traveled en masse. There is safety in numbers and comfort in the familiar.
About a month ago, I ran into an uncle who is also the self-professed Prince of Aruba. He was quick to tell me that a cousin of mine had been seen with someone, and who knows, it could be serious.
“And you?” He asked, even though we both knew it was irrelevant. “I was with your parents, you know.” He continued. “Maybe next year you’ll come with the baby.”
Maybe. I thought.
364 days until Aruba!
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Esther Levy-Chehebar is a Brooklyn-based writer. She is currently at work on a novel loosely inspired by her Syrian Jewish upbringing.