Category Archives: Uruguay

Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Bus-hawkers

Friday May 17, 2013


Today, for the first time, I ventured onto Montevideo’s public transportation. They don’t have subways, but they do have what appears to be a reasonably efficient bus system. The bus stop is conveniently a few meters away from my new bachelor pad (perhaps more on the apartment another time). I wasn’t sure exactly where to get off, but I had informed the driver of my destination and hoped for the best.

On the following stop, a man jumped onto the bus with a bouquet of leggings flowing out of his hands. He immediately proceeded to give his song and dance as to the quality of his merchandise, as to the special price and that due to his injured arm this was the best way he could make a living. If I closed my eyes I would be transported to the subways of New York. He even had the same rhythm of voice, the same practiced pitch of feigned excitement that was suitably ignored by all the commuters. Some things are universal.

One woman however did buy a pair of the warm-looking leggings. I felt that hawking on a bus was somehow a greater invasion of privacy (harder to ignore?) and yet more effective for the salesman.

The successful merchant got off at the next stop, and was quickly followed by an old man selling bandaids. He was less successful and also got off a stop later, not surprised or moved by the lack of clients.

Anxious to find the street I needed to get off on, I got a good look at the main drag of Montevideo, Avenida 18 de Julio. It reminded me very much of London’s Oxford Street with an eclectic mix of fancy stores and modern stores interspersed with older, more rundown cousins, underneath offices and apartment buildings. Various street-vendors were thrown into the mix. There are two main differences though between 18 de Julio and its British counterpart. The Uruguayan version is much more rundown, with unartistic graffiti sullying the walls.

The second difference, and I think I finally figured out part of the special charm of Montevideo, are the statues. This is not a scientific study, but I get the sense that Montevideo probably has a higher per capita presence of statues than other comparable cities. The classic architecture of Montevideo is European with a hodgepodge of different eras next to each other. In general it gives the city a pretty character beyond the more modern or utilitarian buildings. However, interspersed throughout the city and often in unexpected nooks and crannies, one will find a classic bronze statue. I don’t know if there was a sale decades ago on bronze statues, but for the most part they are very well made, some quite stately and noble looking, though rusted and dirty. One statue reminded me of the scene from Lord of the Rings with the gigantic stone statues guarding the approach to Minas Tirith.

In any case, despite my enrapture with the local scenery, the bus driver remembered my request and told one of the other passengers, who told me where to get off.

But now, back to things Jewish and Rabbinic.

Shavuot was wonderful. It’s been many years since I’ve celebrated a two-day holiday (besides Rosh Hashana), but there was something nice about an additional enforced day of rest. The holiday was filled with fantastic energy in the all-night learning, delicious food, generous hosting and thought-provoking theological discussions. I ended up giving a lecture on the questionably adulterous origins of King David (always a fun and popular talk). The first time around I gave it in English to a small group. Later in the night I received another request and gave it again. The following day word of further interest got around and I gave it in Spanish to a larger audience. I think the talk actually improved as the languages got harder for me.

Next week should be the first normal week on the job for me and I am looking forward to it, though I suspect there is nothing “normal” about this job…

Shabbat Shalom!

Adventures of a Chief Rabbi, May 7, 2103



The “Rambla” boardwalk of Montevideo

Monday May 7, 2013

Loving Montevideo!

So I have to admit that I was becoming resigned to a less than pretty neighborhood. The street I had become used to walking from the hotel to the synagogue was dark from tall somber trees and I needed to keep my eyes on the ground because of the highly uneven sidewalks littered with dog residue. I figured that’s just another price of shlichut (the Hebrew term for going abroad on a conceptually noble mission to do something for fellow Jews).

But then two things happened. I was invited to leave the not-inexpensive hotel and temporarily move in with an extremely hospitable family until I could find more reasonable accommodations.

The second thing was that I was tiring of taking taxis to the not-that-far office. So I bought a bike. I haven’t really biked since my biking accident when I broke my ankle over a year and a half ago. Only after I schlepped the new bike up to my office did I realize I only have my suit on and not my usual biking gear and I needed to transport my briefcase and trenchcoat as well. To make a medium-length and unusual-looking story short, I took to the streets of Montevideo with my briefcase over my shoulder, my trenchcoat tucked precariously between the straps and my tie flapping in the wind. The streets were mine!

There is no better way to discover a city than to get lost, and there is no better way to get lost than on a bicycle. I made it from the semi-commercial area of my office through older semi-abandoned areas of the city to the boardwalk. The boardwalk is wonderful. It doesn’t have the classic busyness of Copacabana or the energy of Tel-Aviv. It’s more of a rustic laid-back boardwalk, with brick-red tiles making an unusual contrast with the grey sea flecked lightly with white breakers and the occasional jogging couple. Nonetheless, at that moment it was majestic. There is nothing like a cool salty breeze blowing through your hair as you speed down the beachfront with the Atlantic by your side.

I eventually made it to my hosts’ house, dropped off my briefcase and trenchcoat and proceeded to get lost again on my way to the synagogue. But what a beautiful detour! I discovered parks and fountains and elegant streets. Beautiful apartment buildings, fancy stores and pretty houses. It turns out those few measly blocks I was walking from the hotel to the synagogue are probably the ugliest I’ve seen in Montevideo – and I thought that was what the rest of it looked like!

I think I caused of little bit of a stir as I rode into the synagogue complex on my bike. After people got over the surprise, they smiled and one said it was entirely appropriate for Uruguay.

In sadder news, yesterday a mother of four in her mid-forties passed away. In Montevideo, they’ve developed an unusual custom of sitting shiva (the 7-day Jewish mourning period) in the synagogue between the afternoon and evening prayer, as opposed to the almost universal custom of sitting shiva at home (more on the reasons in a future post, perhaps). There was quite a large turnout for the shiva. There were people in the crowd who had probably not been to synagogue or participated in prayer services in many years.

In contrast to the hominess I’m used to in a shiva house, I think there may be some advantages to the greater structure and formality of this synagogue shiva, especially for people who are more distant from religious services. Rabbi Michael, the Rabbi of the synagogue was masterful in conducting the services and in his sermon, giving true comfort to the family.

This past Sunday was also the “Classico” which I learned meant a match between the two popular local soccer teams. As a dutiful guest I participated in watching the match on TV together with the male relatives of my hosts. It is quite enjoyable to comment on the skill or lack thereof of players, coaches and referees and to moan and groan at the action. It turns out this was a highly valuable exercise as this was all most males have spoken about today and I have already chosen which player to pick on in my comments on the game (Novick of Peñarol).

For those who might be thinking I am shirking my rabbinical duties, rest assured that I am being kept busy with all matters rabbinic. Today was the inauguration of the community’s revamped clothing gemach (charitable organization) at which I was the keynote speaker and I also had a meeting with the community board to report on my assessment and plans for the rabbinate. And it’s only Monday!