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.
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.