A Deutscher Shabbas

01 Kabbalat Shabbat 2018-01-06 LJGH HamburgMany of you have heard of — a few have even met— my dear friend Günter.  Günter is a German Lutheran Pastor.  To make a very long story short . . . beginning in the teen days of church youth group, he has struggled to confront the dark history of his birth nation.  As a seminary student, he came to a Lutheran seminary/university near Toronto to work on his Masters degree.  A college professor wangled, for me,  a summer teaching spot in “Old Testament” at that very university.  Günter enrolled in that class.  Our friendship began as German and Jew, in some kind of dialogue working towards we-had-no-idea-what.  We quickly became simply dear friends.  Günter has gone on, with his PhD in New Testament, to study and teach — to seminarians, clergy, and laity alike — about anti-Judaism in sacred Christian text (especially Luke and Acts).  He is a very special force for good in Jewish-Christian relations.  He is my beloved friend of 40 years.  And right now, I am sitting in his home in Hamburg, Germany; tomorrow I will join with 70 others of his family and friends in celebrating his 65th Birthday!  Neither of us has any idea how we got so old . . . .

Last night was Erev Shabbat.  Liberal Judaism was born in Hamburg.  The Hamburg Temple Association was founded in 1817.  That original community was decimated in the Shoah (the preferred Jewish term for the Holocaust).  A revived, liberal Jewish community came into being in 2004.  Günter and I headed there to celebrate Shabbat.

The community was small — less than 20 of us in total.  Many of its members are Russian.  Their Rabbi, Moshe Navon, was born in Siberia and trained in Israel.  I don’t remember a colleague welcoming me so warmly!  He insisted I join him at the front of the congregation and help lead worship.  The Rabbi’s English was his least proficient language; so, we communicated mostly in Hebrew and my even-more-broken German (with my current Spanish studies swirling in my head as well . . .  Oy!).  As coincidence would have it, this week’s Torah portion is the opening chapters of Exodus.  The Rabbi’s sermon (delivered twice, once in German and once in Russian) celebrated the many heroic women of the story, chief among them my Hebrew namesake Miriam.  He kept referring to that Miriam and the one sitting there, a Rabbi!, who had joined them for Shabbat.  Utterly delightful.  And with all its textual references, I was even able to understand the sermon!  The one in German, that is …

At the lovely Oneg that followed, Günter and Navon discovered that they have many colleagues and teachers in common.  Rabbi Navon was so taken with my friend that he announced his upcoming birthday to all, and a rousing rendition of Siman Tov uMazel Tov followed!

There is a Yiddish saying Iz schwer zu zein a Yid, which translates as “It is hard to be a Jew” — a clear reference to all the tragedies of our history.  But today I am feeling that it is ever a joyous blessing to be a Jew, with community everywhere and a joyful Shabbat community to share with a treasured Lutheran Pastor buddy . . . !

Tomorrow I head to Church, where Günter will be preaching.  Then the Grand Birthday Lunch!

I return to Reno on Tuesday.  When I’m done with jet-leg, I’ll need to prepare in earnest for Panama.  Stay tuned.

In the meantime, Shabbat Shalom!

05 Kabbalat Shabbat 2018-01-06 LJGH Hamburg



My medical/dental clearance from the Peace Corps just came through.  So, it looks l really will be going this time.  Our Panama cohort will be “staging” in the Washington DC area on February 20 and then leaving, for Panama, the next day.  For now, that’s pretty much what I know.  More details, as I have them.  But I wanted to share this good news right away.

A Happy (secular) New Year to all!!

Yes, Miriam, you can stand up to city hall . . .

. . . or the State Department, as the case may be.  Which is to say that the nice Peace Corps nurse did make it happen — and rather quickly so; my medical documents for Rwanda are now properly uploaded in place for the Panama position.  Mind you, they have not yet been “approved.”  That’s the next step.  But at least the documents are there.  One would think that, since I received medical clearance just a short time ago, approval will not be an issue.  But I no longer take any of this process for granted.  So, we shall see.

I did, by the way, get the official word that (this time!) my legal background clearance is all approved.  Can you imagine if they had even suggested putting me through that “hoop” again?  The Myra-explosion would have echoed from Rwanda to Panama, for sure.

So, what is this Panama placement?  Well, it looks really interesting (which explains my perseverance through this whole process . . .).  It’s officially called “English Co-Teacher and Life Skills Facilitator.”  2/3 of it is working in either elementary or secondary schools, with a Panamanian co-teacher, teaching English.  The other third is working at the community level to teach leadership and life skills to youth and other community members.  While a few of the placements are in rural areas of Panama and/or with indigenous populations, the majority of the positions are in semi-urban areas. Which means, unlike in Rwanda, a good possibility of electricity and running water and other such creature comforts, albeit at a level quite less developed than anything we North Americans are used to.  Needless to say, I wouldn’t mind having indoor plumbing.  And I really like the sound of the work.

And talk about propinquity.  (A great cocktail party word . . . assuming I’m even using it correctly . . .)  When this placement first came my way, I was sure that I didn’t meet the qualifications for it.  First of all, there was a Bachelors degree plus requirement, the “plus” of which — literacy training or a major in Literacy studies or a teaching credential — I didn’t have.   Second, there was a Spanish requirement that I didn’t meet either.

But it turns out that I actually acquired 30 hours of TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) training during my preparation for Rwanda.  So while Rwanda didn’t happen, it qualified me for the Panama position on that score.  And then, the Panama folks decided that my month study in Ecuador was Spanish basis enough for the 3-month pre-training that they do in country.  So my seemingly inexplicable decision to head to Cuenca unintentionally contributed to my even being considered for this Panama slot.  Some days the Great Goddess of Coincidence is really alive and well and on the job!

I am still drawn to Africa and continue to mourn, at least to some extent, the loss of the Rwanda dream.  And Rwanda offered training and certification in TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) which I could have taken anywhere in the world.  But it’s not as if my life’s career depends upon that.  And, in any case, it’s obtainable online.  On the other hand, after the 3 months of living with a Panamanian family and intensely studying Spanish, I’ll have to test out at an intermediate level of Spanish literacy, and I’m pretty excited at that prospect!

And, finally, did you know that Panama hats are actually made in Ecuador?  The story I heard is that those workers on the Canal needed some good protection from the sun.  Those traditional brimmed straw hats from Ecuador fit the bill so well that pretty soon they were known as “Panama hats.”  But they really are from Ecuador and there were, in fact, several rather “famous” such hat factories in Cuenca.  One more indication that this Panama gig may have been “meant to be”?  I’ll let you decide . . .

But, I repeat, past Peace Corps experience tells me that it’s not over ’til I’m there.  For sure, there’s still sufficient bureaucracy to go.  But, yes, I am excited.  And hoping that this time maybe it will all fall into place.  So far, I’ve heard 3 different departure dates — February 18, 19, or 20.  I’m guessing that means that U.S. “staging” would take place on the 18th and 19th, with actual departure to Panama taking place on the 20th.  That, at least, was the pattern for Rwanda.

So watch your email for ongoing updates.  In the meantime, to Jewish followers of this blog — Shabbat Shalom!  And to everyone else, have a great weekend!  And, again, thanks for hanging in though this crazy journey that sometimes seems like it might be going nowhere . . .

Maybe Yes . . . and Maybe Not

I rather suggested, in my last post, that you would be hearing some new “Peace Corps news” in the near future.  But as it has turned out, every time I sit down to write that piece, the “news” has changed.  So, I decided I should at least send out a tentative something-or-other . . .

To recap, for anyone who might need it . . .

I was supposed to have been on my way to Rwanda, for 27 months of Peace Corps service, mid-September past.  But the Peace Corps somehow couldn’t manage to get my background clearance done; so, 5 days before my expected departure date, they told me I couldn’t go.  House sold, bags all packed, rarin’ to go, and so forth.  Big disappointment!

So I took my sorry self to Cuenca, Ecuador, where I had a magnificent month studying Spanish, volunteering with cute kids at an after-school program, and just enjoying the heck out this wonderful town and the friends I made there.

Mitten drinnen (Yiddish for “midway through” . . .) my Cuenca time, the Peace Corps completed my background check.  Almost exactly a month-to-the-day after I should have been Africa-bound.  Go figure!

A Peace Corps handler-person contacted me to see if I was still interested in serving.  I had lots of reservations on that score, but figured I’d see what they had to offer; so, I said “Yes.”  A series of bureaucratic nonsense followed; but I’ll spare you those gory details and cut to the bottom line, which is that they offered me a great placement in Panama for which I would be leaving mid-February of next year.  I thought I would be writing to tell you all about that placement.

But wait . . . nothing with this organization (your U.S. government at work!) is ever that simple!  I am really emotionally worn out by all this organizational to-ing and fro-ing of the past year(!) now.  It was/is clear to me that I have no energy to re-do any of the documentation, etc. that I’d already done for Rwanda; so, I decided that, if that were necessary, I’d be done.  And sure enough, the medical people want me to resubmit all of my medical documentation!  Mind you, some of that is in Florida, some in Reno, and a small bit is on my computer.  And my previous medical clearance is less than 3 months old . . .

So, I told the Peace Corps medical folks that I’m not resubmitting anything and either they can use my previous documentation or I will formally withdraw my application.  A nice nurse (I’ve found all the Peace Corps people to be lovely; it’s the system that is infuriating . . .!) is trying to see if there isn’t a way to make my past medical data work for this new placement.  It may be a week or two until I hear back on that for certain.

So for now, I’ll spare you details of the Panama placement (which really sounds great) and its wonderful synchronicity with my Ecuador month.  I’ll save that for if it actually looks like that placement will happen.  Considering my experience so far, I won’t believe the Peace Corps is a reality until my feet touch down on the soil of my placement country.  And perhaps I’ll end up putting this entire adventure to rest long before then.  We shall see.

Meantime, I hope all you nice readers are well and happy.  As I’ve written before, stay tuned!

Last Night in Cuenca

Tonight is my last night here in Cuenca.  Just came back from my last salsa class.  Tomorrow is my last Spanish class.  It is so tempting just to stay.  But I’ll be on the plane . . .  So, now, for a few parting miscellaneous observations.

Driving.  This town has to have the worst drivers in the universe!  When I first arrived, my Air BnB owner sent his cousin to the airport to pick me up.  On the way to the apartment, I watched the signage, thinking I’d start working on my Spanish right away.  Octagonal red signs — that sure looked like stops signs — had the word “Pare” on them.  “Oh, good!” I thought.  “Pare must mean stop.  My first new Spanish word!!”  Except that my driver never stopped at a single one of those signs! “This is going to be a hard way to learn Spanish,” I thought.  Little did I know that the driving would only get worse from there.  And in the historic center of the city, all the streets are narrow and one-way.  Yet I haven’t seen a single accident since I’ve been here.  There is apparently something “defensive” (??) about everybody driving like a loon . . . !!?!

Papas Fritas.  This place has the best french fries . . . and they are fresh out of the fryer on every corner!  Salchipapas include little sausages (sometimes even made of chicken!) with the fries; but you can get them without the meat.  They are truly delicious and generally cost about a dollar.  An Ecuadoran culinary miracle, in my book . . .

Physical Affection.  We have all noticed how incredibly physical these people are.  Parents are always cuddling and lovin’ on their children.  Men as well as women; boys and girls.  It is really a joy to behold.  And even basic strangers — folks in my dance class who I’d just encountered once and didn’t even know their names — come up and hug you and do the kisses-on-the-cheek thing, as if you were a beloved friend or relative.  And there’s nothing creepy about it.  It’s just genuinely warm and friendly.  I like it . . .

An observation on the bus.  Bus fare is 25 cents, and you have to have exact change to put in the change receptacle at the front of the bus.  But hardly anyone ever seems to have the exact change.  So, they deposit what they have.  Say 50 cents.  And then they wait until the next person gets on, who has a quarter, and they take the quarter from them.  (Or, if they put in a dollar, they collect 75 cents from the next folks who have that amount, either individually or collectively.)  Everyone seems fine with this “system,” the bus drivers all trust that it’s all happening honestly, and somehow it just all works out.  I have no idea why this strikes me so . . . but it does.

Ok, enough of my Cuenca ramblings.  I’m probably just stalling on going to bed because, when I wake up, it will be my very last hours here.  Thank you all for accompanying me on this part of whatever-my-journey.  Stayed tuned for where-in-the-world is next.  Or . . . some harrowing saga of my journey home.  We’ll see which.

Buenas noches!



Wow!  This town knows how to party!

Dia del Muertos (Day of the Dead) and Cuenca Independence Day are being celebrated this weekend.  Actually, the “weekend” started Thursday.  Schools closed down after classes on Wednesday and won’t re-open again until Monday.  Same for banks, public offices, etc.  Particularly for Cuenca Independence Day (with a tiny nod to Dia del Muertos), the whole city seems to be in fiesta mode.  There  are vendors everywhere — particularly up and down the shores of the Tomebamba — selling arts and crafts, jewelry, food, and just about anything that anybody might buy. If there’s an empty inch of space without a vendor’s tent, there’s a band occupying it and booming out great music.  There are bleachers and official programs set up in every park.  There are concerts everywhere.    A parade is likely to come marching down any street.  Fireworks at night.  And a crush of people at every turn.  It is great!

Dead Guy on Sax

Fiesta Parade

Fiesta Parade 2

What a great way to commence to begin to end my time here.  The timing couldn’t be better, as I really am sad to be leaving this wonderful place.  More than once, I’ve considered extending my stay.  But . . . some responsibilities are calling me home.  So, I will just have to return some day.

Meantime, I had a second lunch with members of the Jewish community here.  This time there were 10 of us.  Some interesting folks, including one couple who has purchased a finca, in the Amazon, where they are supporting sustainable development.  Same couple has been asked to start a program teaching English to indigenous folks in a nearby small village.

Two more Spanish classes Monday and Tuesday.  Turns out the school has a program for continuing Spanish study via Skype . . . a program I will definitely be exploring.  Then it’s the long flights home, beginning late Tuesday night.

And . . . there is some Peace Corps news in the offing.  But I will save that until it’s “official.”  Probably Monday.  Stay tuned.

Meantime, it’s back to joining in the citywide partying!  After, that is, I take a nap.  Vive Cuenca!




Yitgadal v’yitkadash…




This morning, I went — with Daniel and Karen, a Jewish couple who will be living 5 months in Cuenca — to the Cuenca Municipal Cemetery.  When I met with the Jewish Community in Cuenca, Daniel had told me about a Jewish section in this cemetery and had suggested we go there to say Kaddish.  Which we did.

Alas, Mr. Google doesn’t give me much information about this cemetery.  But it is huge and beautiful (surrounded, as is everything here, with the wonderful vista of the Andes), wonderfully taken care of (by the city, I presume), and full of families visiting departed loved ones.  I wish I could give you precise information on its size and history, but hopefully the photos will give you some sense of it…

What follows are some photos of the Jewish section of the cemetery.  (Interestingly, in this overwhelmingly Catholic country, there was also a separate Baha’i section, too).  I was pleased that when, as I entered the cemetery, I asked one of the on-duty guards for directions to the Jewish section, he knew immediately what I was seeking and where it was.  As I walked, I came upon signs with listings of various sections of the cemetery and the Jewish section was, again, clearly marked and located.  There were about 2 dozen graves there.  Some of the burial dates were as recent as the late 1990s, but many more were from the 1940s and 50s.  Most of the surnames were German (or Yiddish), reflecting that population of Jews who landed in Ecuador when fleeing the Third Reich.  Interesting to me were the Spanish-German combination names.  You can see the name of a Rozita Weisz in one of the photos that follows.  There was also an Enrique Baumann.  Clearly, we settled in to Ecuador, as in so many places to which — over our long history — we have fled.





And so the three of us, albeit not a halachic minyan, said Kaddish for these folks whose stories we do not know.  I reflected that while it is right and proper that we do so, it’s a bit hard to know what lessons there are to be learned from the lives of these individuals who, while landsmen, are also strangers.  For that, I turned to a favorite reading from Mishkan T’filah, the Reform prayer book.


by Merritt Malloy

     When I die

Give what’s left of me away

To children

And old men that wait to die.


And if you need to cry,

Cry for your brother

Walking the street beside you.

And when you need me,

Put your arms

Around anyone

And give them

What you need to give to me.


I need to leave you something,

Something better than words

Or sounds.


Look for me

In the people I’ve known

Or loved,

And if you cannot give me away,

At least let me live on in your eyes

And not your mind.


You can love me most

By letting

Hands touch hands,

By letting bodies touch bodies,

And by letting go

Of children

That need to be free.


Love doesn’t die,

People do.

So, when all that’s left of me

Is love,

Give me away.


May that be the blessing from these deceased strangers, buried in a portion of the municipal cemetery in Cuenca, Ecuador.  And may that blessing be our commitment.










The Cutest Ninos . . . and a bit More

Idi, the wonderful woman who runs the after school program, in which I volunteer with several others from my language school, took the following photos.  They are telephone quality — which is to say “not great” — but I really love these kids and wanted to share some pictures of them.  The photos where our fingers are on our noses (or wherever), and where I’m bent over attempting to touch my toes (or knees), were taken while teaching them “parts of the body” in English.  If there were a sound track, you would hear a hilarious rendition of “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes . . . Knees and Toes.”  (Thanks Marty M.!)  If you don’t know this pedagogic classic, check You Tube . . .

20171010_161218 20171011_153047


20171024_154611 (1)

20171024_161652 (1)

This past Monday night was salsa class; Wednesday merengue.  Last night, a performance of folk dancing from Ecuador, Colombia, Paraguay, and Bolivia.  Tonight, after Shabbas candles, a brass band concert outside in a beautiful garden.  Tomorrow the zoo.  I really am loving this place!  And the cold, gray weather has turned to beautiful, sunny springtime.

So, for now, Shabbat Shalom and Hasta Luego once again . . .




We Really Are Everywhere!

I had a long and lovely brunch this morning with four members of the Jewish Community of Cuenca.  Their stories are fairly characteristic, from what I can tell, of many of the ex-pats here.  All were North American.  The facilitator of the group’s Facebook page lost her job back in 2008, when the U.S. economy tanked.  She was old enough that finding another job just wasn’t happening.  She lived for about 4 years, depleting a pension that wasn’t very large to start with.  Reality was that she had to find a place where she could live on her Social Security alone.  Ecuador offers that, and she particularly liked Cuenca.  She has lived here for 4 years now.  Next in our group was a recently retired couple who wanted to get out of the States after Trump won the Presidency.  (All my brunchmates were firm political liberals, which I was told was the case with all the Jews here, save one!)  But this couple has kids and grandkids back home; so, they have moved here planning to split their year between Ecuador and the U.S.  (My Sanibel readers will recognize this seasonal life style.  The commute is just a bit further!)  The last of our group was a 55-year-old woman who likes to travel and move around.  Her work can be done, through computer, from anywhere.  So she came to Cuenca for a trial few months, last fall.  And then moved here permanently this past June.

Life in Cuenca is very good.  If you can put up with the crazy weather, that includes a great deal of rain, it really is quite a beautiful place.  It’s a medium-sized city with a population of approximately 330,000.  (It’s the third largest city in Ecuador.)  The Andes mountains are all around.  Museums are free as are many things like the symphony.  There is also free WiFi in virtually every public place, including the parks.  (How come we can’t have that in the U.S.??).  U.S. dollars is the national currency.  In Cuenca, one can live very comfortably on about $1500/month; and at $2000/month, you are living really, really well.  I’m told that the ex-pat population here is about 10,000 folks, but I’m not convinced that anyone knows that number for sure.  And there are obviously many more North Americans living in the two bigger cities of Quito and Guayaquil.

The Jewish Community of Cuenca is small.  Its major gathering is for the Passover Seder, when they have 30-40 in attendance.  (Their matzah, by the way, comes by way of the Chabad rabbi in Guayaquil.)  They are mostly North Americans, but there are a few Ecuadoran Jews, and an occasional Jew from elsewhere in South America, among them.  Most are in the retirement age range, but there are a few families with kids.  Aside from Passover, they gather for Rosh HaShanah dinner and, from time to time, for general social get-togethers.  My impression is that many just want a group of “landsmen” with whom they can feel “at home” in a foreign country.  (To my Saniblel/Captiva/Fort Myers readers, doesn’t that sound something like the glue that holds Bat Yam together?).

One more thing I learned is that in the national cemetery, here in Cuenca, there is a distinctly identified Jewish section with approximately 25 graves.  The biggest influx of Jews into Ecuador, in general, was composed of refugees fleeing Hitler.  There apparently was an Ecuadoran “Schindler” who granted Jews visas for a period of about 6 months before the government fired him.  Don’t know his name or many firm details; I need to do more research on this.  Once the war was over, most of those Jews left Ecuador for Israel or the U.S.  Anyway, this national cemetery is within easy walking distance, and I plan to visit and say Kaddish.  Photos will follow, after I do.

So, that’s today’s report.  School’s back in session tomorrow, so time to do my homework.  Shalom and Hasta Luego!

Thursday, Friday, & Saturday


A busy several days here.

Thursday, my friend Lowell and I went to one of a series of children’s theater puppet shows being presented from a host of South American countries.  The one we saw was from Colombia.  It was one of the most delightful and creative presentations I’ve ever seen!  Just two actors and a cast of small puppets.  Complete with painted umbrellas used to create much of the set (the stars and the sky, painted on one of the umbrellas and held over a puppet character’s head . . .).  The theater was packed with kids who were a total hoot, yelling to little Juanito, the main character hero, whenever the bad guy was creeping up on him, etc.  At the end, all the kids came on stage . . . I was tempted to join them!  The pictures don’t do the performance justice, but it was really superb!!!IMG_0587


On Friday, our whole school came together to make a traditional Ecuadorean dish called Llapingachos.  There are lots of “extras” that can be included in this dish, but its primary component is a fat potato pancake that is stuffed with cheese.  Each of us had to go to the nearby huge, open-air market and purchase one of the ingredients for the dish.  My assignment were the papas cholo, 3 pounds of very large red potatoes.  Then we reassembled and talked about the “shopping experience” while our teachers cooked up the dish.  Good fun and tasty enough.  Best of all was that on the way to the Mercado,  a new young fellow in our class pointed us toward a fabulous small  food stand with the best french fries I’ve ever tasted!  Alas, this place is merely a block from school.  Anyway, a big day for potatoes!!

Friday night, I lit candles and made a short Shabbat in my apartment.  Mercy, I do miss having a Jewish community here!  But not having a shul, I decided to finally go to the nearby Jazz Cafe and take in the music.  It was grrrreat!  Alas, for the musicians, I was the only one there.  But I sure enjoyed my private concert.

Today, a group of 6 of us went to El Cajas National Park.  After the Galapagos, this is Ecuador’s greatest natural treasure.  And it’s only an hour’s drive from Cuenca.  It is over a 100 square miles with 250 lakes.  And most of it is above 10,000 feet.  Alas, it was a miserable day weather-wise.  Rain — much of it of the downpour variety — and therefore quite cold (especially at such high elevation).  Nonetheless, we trudged onward.  And it was well-worth it that we did.  A really beautifully awesome place, even in the G-d-awful weather.  In the morning, we did a 2-hour hike at about 13,000 feet.  Lots of climbing on very slippery-wet, rocky trails.  Yup, it was breath-taking . . . literally.  After lunch, we came down to the 10,000 foot level and hiked another two hours, this time much easier on level ground and under the protection of thick forest cover.  Again, the pictures don’t do justice, but here are some, including me bundled up (in several jackets!) against the rain and cold.





Our guide for this excursion was a lovely, older Ecuadoran man named Moses!  Moises  in Spanish.  I, of course, had to tell him that we were related, seeing as my Hebrew name is Miriam, his sister.  Which led him to ask about my religion.  Turns out Moises lived on Long Island for 14 years and had lots of Jewish clients.  So, in the middle of our soggy path, he breaks out in a rousing rendition of “Heiveinu Shalom Aleichem,” with me joining joyfully in.  Too funny.  What a way to spend Shabbat!

Speaking of Jews, albeit obliquely, tomorrow I’m having brunch with a few of the members of the Cuenca Jewish community.  Stay tuned for the “scoop” on that.

In the meantime, I’m taking my soggy, aching body to bed.  Hasta leugo!