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Jewish Connections in Guatemala City

Our Diasporist finds many parts of the diaspora

Irin Carmon
February 21, 2012

There could be some sort of magnetic force that briefly draws together all wandering Jews before scattering them again, or maybe I just notice them more on the road. (Either way, this force or tendency comes in handy for writing the Diasporist column.) In Guatemala earlier this month, I expected to run into young post-army Israelis, but my itinerary didn’t intersect much with theirs. Instead, I got a few surprises.

When I approached Associated Press reporter Romina Ruiz-Goiriena at a press conference in Guatemala City, hoping for some pointers on the city, I had no idea she was a Haaretz veteran, a fluent Hebrew speaker, the daughter of a Cuban Sephardic Jew and a Caracas-raised Basque who converted to Judaism. (Spanish speakers can read her on her Jewish observance here). We probably would have become friends anyway, but Hebrew-Spanish-English patois was a bonus.

Guatemala City is regularly ranked among the most violent cities in the world, and the security levels could exceed even what I was used to in Israel and other Latin American capitals. I was electronically fingerprinted five times to enter one corporate office, and locals warned me not to even bother walking two blocks in the daylight in search of wifi. Romina and I went out to dinner in high-end strip malls reminiscent of her native Miami, only these were mostly empty and surrounded by both armed guards and fortified gates. Each person who walked through the faux-plazas, the “sidewalk” seating or past the fountain, looked like they’d been hired to act as extras in an approximation of a walkable city.

She was on the relentless wire-reporter schedule, and I had been immersed in deportations and human rights abuses, and we both thought it would be nice to get away from the smog-choked city before I went home. A quiet spot nearby seemed like the answer, until we found out that a computer glitch had allowed us to book a room despite the whole place being booked up.

“You’re going to laugh,” Romina promised on the phone. And I did, because the hotel had, in fact, been booked that weekend by a women’s retreat of a Jewish community in Guatemala City. The owner—the Austrian widow of a wealthy Guatemalan—kindly made room for us anyway, which was how I wound up looking over at a volcano at sunset, listening to her tell me about how the Jewish ladies come every year. “They are my friends, and it means a lot to me to say that,” she said meaningfully. “If you know what I mean.” I did.

That was also how Romina and I ended up marking Shabbat with a Crown Heights-hailing Chabad shlicha, sundry wives of Israeli security consultants, and dignified Ashkenazi ladies who had been raised in Guatemala City. They too welcomed us, of course.

Related: Linked Arms [Tablet Magazine]
What It’s Like To Be Shipped Home [Salon]

Irin Carmon is a senior correspondent at New York magazine and co-author of The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Her Twitter feed is @irin.