Traditions Old and New

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This past weekend I co-hosted a Passover seder with a fellow half-Jewish friend here in Cusco. Although I have one Jewish parent and one Christian parent, I was not raised with religion and it is not something I have chosen to identify with in my adult life. I do still believe in recognizing my heritage, however, and so the idea of hosting a seder with a friend seemed to me like a great way to do that while also bringing people together with good food, wine, and conversation. I’ll freely admit that it had been years since I had attended a seder, but as the day approached I found myself getting more and more ‘into it’ and excited. In the days leading up to it, I found myself reflecting on all the beautiful parades and ceremonies I’ve witnessed here in Cusco as I prepared to embrace my own history and traditions.

There are couple of things inherent to a seder that require some re-interpretation within the culinary confines of Cusco. So although the lamb shank bone had to be replaced by a chicken bone, and horseradish was absolutely nowhere to be found, the one thing I was determined to have at our Passover was a traditional brisket. I was dead-set on having brisket except for one slight problem: I had never cooked it before…and not only had I never even cooked it, but I also wasn’t really sure what part of a cow it came from which meant that I lacked the vocabulary in English and CERTAINLY in Spanish to articulate what I wanted to prepare.

I was sure, however, that I wasn’t going to find brisket in a grocery store, and so I got the general location of a butcher’s shop which would hopefully be able to help me out. The day before the seder I hopped on the bus after class and arrived armed with a picture on my phone which labeled every imaginable cut of meat on a cow. I was ready and determined to figure this one out, but then in classic Cusco fashion I arrived to find that the store was closed in the middle of a Friday afternoon for no conceivable reason. Not to be deterred, I arrived first thing the next morning (aka 10am Cusco time) to find the butcher’s shop open for business. After some pointing and gesturing combined with trying to explain Jewish holidays in Spanish, the woman at the counter said she’d “go check in the back” for a piece of beef matching my description. A few minutes later she returned with a beautiful piece of meat which appeared to be what I wanted, although it was definitely the largest piece of meat I’ve ever handled. Feeling triumphant, I took my prize beef home with me on the bus and began to contemplate the process of preparing it in our oven that only has two temperatures: 450° Fahrenheit or OFF.

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The brisket was a large undertaking but turned out (much to my surprise) to be fully cooked while also remaining tender–I was thrilled to have not ruined the seder before it even started. In total, we were an interesting and varied group consisting of two Peruvians, an Evangelical Christian Missionary couple, three Americans raised with varying degrees of Christianity, and two American half-Jews. Upon arriving we quickly got the seder underway as we all took turns reading out loud the history of the Israelites’ escape from slavery and learning about the different items on the seder plate. The evening was characterized by the spirit of sharing, and was full of stimulating conversation about not just Judaism, but about Peruvian traditions and customs and everything in between.

I felt truly gratified by the experience and by the opportunity to reconnect to my roots by sharing them with others. I’ve recently been thinking more critically about heritage and what it means to be even half-Jewish, while also making a concerted effort to educate myself about the Israel/Palestine conflict. Something that is so wonderful about Cusco is how connected people are here to their traditions and history—in spite of the fact that a lot of that history has been marred by Colonialism and violence. Whether or not it has anything to do with religion, the feeling of being connected to one’s history and heritage can be comforting in a powerful way, and this seder turned out to be a wonderful way to gain some insight and perspective into not just my own heritage, but that of my friends and fellow seder-ers.

Until Next Time,

Caroline

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P.S

For those who are ‘in the know’, Larkin found the hidden afikoman!

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