Thousands of Pieces of Tortilla Thrown into Water for Yom Kippur Dams River;
Fish Become Obese Overnight!
By Rob Goldfarb
It was the first time I followed my Jewish tradition of letting go of my sins since I was a kid. Only this time I didn't have any bread and I wasn't in suburban Connecticut. Tortillas were the substitution for bread and the rainforest of Guatemala was the place in which I tossed my sins into the river.
While living abroad or traveling I am constantly defining myself. Being with people of diverse backgrounds fuels my sense of self. As much as I want to know about them, they want to know about me. Our questions and stories we reveal to each other forces us to identify ourselves. Through our interactions we learn what separates us, and what we share despite cultural or religious differences.
On this past Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur I found myself in the tropical jungles of Guatemala in Rio Dulce a village of 400 inhabitants. I have been living there for the past two years involved in various community projects. Rio Dulce is surrounded by green rainforests that stretch out past the horizon. Yet with no seasons except for hot and hotter, Rio Dulce is a harsh environment to live in.
Stepping back a short ten years ago there was only one phone in Rio Dulce. Nor were there many stores, restaurants, hotels, schools or people for that matter. In fact, there was not much of anything in Rio Dulce except for a river cutting the land and making a natural boarder line of the Peten Wilderness and jungles. That is why Rio Dulce is still called Fronteras, The Frontier.
It is an appropriate name even today. There have been changes over a short period time. In the late 1980' a massive bridge was built connecting the banks of either side of the river forever destroying the tranquility of the jungle. A few years after the completion of the bridge an ex-general bought property in Rio Dulce and wanted easier access getting to Rio Dulce from the his home in Guatemala's capital named, Guatemala City. At the ex-general's request a 270 kilometer paved two-way highway was laid down. Instead of the usual 18- hour bus or car ride, vehicles could now make the journey from Guatemala City to Rio Dulce in less then seven hours.
Over the past ten years Rio Dulce has been growing. But with only one street, Rio Dulce feels like a Wild West movie set packed with bus stations, hotels, restaurants, hardware stores, banks, markets, vendors, marinas, heat and noise. The only difference between Rio Dulce of today and an 1880's American Frontier town is that Rio Dulce has Internet cafes. But with gunslingers, a strip of storefronts and a sense of wildness, it's no wonder I compare Rio Dulce to the American Old West.
However beyond Rio Dulce's street and congestion lie tropical forests, green covered rolling mountains dotted with villages, river canyons and waterfalls. Monkeys, alligators, jaguars, toucans and thousands of other wildlife also fill the countryside. Three miles outside lays Lake Izabel, Guatemala's largest lake. The lake is fed by a continuous stream of water coming off from the tops of the mountains that surround the 155-kilometer lake. Yet, the lake is transformed into a river (River Dulce) that stretches and winds through jungle canyons for 40 kilometers that empties out into the Caribbean.
Guarding the entrance of the lake stands a stone Spanish fort that was constructed in the 16th century to ward off British fleets coming into the lake pillaging the Spanish gold mines. The Spanish of course had been pillaging the Mayan gold, silver and jade mines, but the Mayans unfortunately didn't have a fort to protect their lake at the time. However four centuries later the Mayans are able to protect their natural resources from foreign oil companies wanting to drill Lake Izabel for oil.
Adding to Rio Dulce's history of yesterday and today is me. I live on the lake next to the fort on the headwaters of River Dulce.
On the day the Jewish New Year arrived, I was visiting my friend Rick Bronson, a Canadian archeologist. He wished me a happy Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year). Since I am really bad with dates of Jewish high holidays, I was very thankful there was someone in the remote rainforests of Central America to remind me.
I called my grandmothers and wished them a happy new year. Once I did that, I was in full swing of participation. I just didn't know what to do. I knew apples and honey were to be eaten and there was something about throwing bread into the water. I called my mother for the details.
When it comes to asking for advice on Jewish matters and just about everything else, I seek advice from my mother. I probably should go to the Torah, but I go to my mom because it's a much faster route.
For the Jewish New Year she explained apples and honey were to be eaten symbolizing the hope for a sweet new year. Then she gave me the quick version of the practice of Yom Kippur. I was told to use pieces of bread that symbolized my sins and throw them into a river while asking for forgiveness. It was a ceremony of releasing and cleansing. The process sounded cool. I don't know why I never did it before. I have spent time meditating, writing, observing silence, but not letting go, and certainly not mindful of the Jewish traditions.
Being that a captivating river is literally a hop skip and a jump from my house, I wanted to share my Jewish tradition and ceremony with people I cared about. I knew my Guatemalan girlfriend Magda would be very excited to participate. Ever since she found out I was Jewish, she kept asking questions about my Jewish heritage. When she had asked me about my Bar Mitzvah, I was shocked because some of my American friends don't even know what a Bar Mitzvah is. I asked her, "How do you know what a Bar Mitzvah is growing up in Guatemala?" She responded as if I asked the most stupid question. She simply said, "I read."
It would seem more people should read. Let alone talk to one another. But Magda has a passion for reading, listening and asking questions. That's probably why she is such a good doctor and has gained "confianza" (trust, understanding, caring, confidence) among her people.
As the sunset over the mountains casting an orange glow over the jungle, I collected a few close friends and explained to them the ritual of Yom Kippur. My Yom Kippur group consisted of Magda, Hilda and Rene. Hilda is a Belgium anthropologist and a volunteer at Magda's clinic. Tohil is a Mayan shaman and my neighbor. They told me they would be happy to join me since we couldn't find any bread, we brought along tortillas. I wasn't sure if tortillas are kosher, but they are made out of flour and floats. I figured God would understand.
Sitting on a dock over the water, we had a majestic view of the jungle, the climbing moon and the waters of both the river and lake. With our feet dangling over the side of the wooden dock, our feet almost touched the dark water. Again, I repeated the instructions of acknowledging your sins and ripped a piece of tortilla and threw it into the water.
Then the questions came out of the darkness. Magda asked who was doing the forgiving. She wanted to know if we were forgiving ourselves. Hilda piped in asking if we were asking forgiveness from God. Rene inquired about asking forgiveness from our community. I played it safe and with a very authoritative tone replied "Yes" to all three accounts of forgiveness.
There were no sounds on the water. At first there was silence among my friends. Occasionally a monkey somewhere out in the jungle would let out a howl, protecting his territory. But there was no sound from any of us. Everyone was lost in sin.
I was having a hard time pulling any sins up. But with pieces of Magda's tortillas hitting the water every few seconds, I was amazed as how many sins Magda was coming up with. One after the other, a piece of tortilla would hit the water. It was as if Magda was on automatic. Her tortilla was being devoured while my tortilla looked like a mouse had only taken a few nibbles from it.
It is not as if I were a saint and didn't commit any sins. I was just having a difficult time figuring out a definition of a sin. I asked Magda for some guidance and also wanted to know why she was almost on her second tortilla.
Holding a piece of tortilla in between her fingers she said, "This piece is for lying to my mother." She then threw the tortilla into the water with a heavy sigh. Honesty is one of Magda's qualities to which I am most attracted, and I was shocked to hear she had lied. I asked her, "When did you lie to your mother?"
"All the time." she said and threw another piece of tortilla into the darkness. I had no idea what she was talking about. She explained to me that she lies to her mother every time because she doesn't tell her mother everything. Everything meaning that she and I have a romantic relationship and we are not married. Her mother, in her late 60's, is very traditional and believes it is a sin to live with another person if you are not married. Even though Magda is 30 years old and lives in her own home, her mother would not approve if she knew that her daughter was living with a man that was not her husband.
But I protested. "Guilt is not a sin. You shouldn't feel guilty because we are romantically involved!" That is not the point she said. "What is the point?" I asked adding, "How could God think living with someone else is a sin especially when the couple involved are in love with each other?"
"It's not about God." she argued, "Besides, God is not my mother and in the eyes of my mother it is a sin." Magda clarified that although she doesn't agree with her mother's beliefs, she respects them. She feels that living with me and not telling her mother about it she is pretending to be something she is not. Magda sees this as a lie and there was no way I was going to convince her otherwise. Meanwhile I was witnessing the power of the tortilla and Jewish tradition.
I went back to my own sins. I felt them come up one after the other. I experienced feelings of sadness, guilt and remorse. Finally a sense of release flowed through me as I let the pieces of tortilla drop into the water. I felt cleansed and refreshed and was wondering about other Jewish traditions I was missing out of. It was exhilarating to rediscover such a rich Jewish experience I had either forgotten or dismissed.
After about 15 minutes of remembering and letting go of our sins, Hilda, Tohil and I were sitting back on our hands with our heads tilted up to the moon. We were feeling invigorated and content. Then I heard the distinct "ploping" sound of a tortilla hitting the water. I looked over my shoulder and was surprised to see Magda continuing to send off chunks of tortilla. She was now on her second tortilla. Exasperated I asked, "Now what are you sins?"
With a slight shaking of her head and heavy eyes Magda said one word, "Chisme" (Gossip) "Gossip?" I said. "Gossiping is not a sin!"
"Of course it is!" she said with a sigh and threw into the river another piece of tortilla. She went on to add, "Gossiping doesn't benefit anyone and creates negative energy. It's just not healthy."
"But", I pleaded, "that doesn't mean it is a sin!" Once again, we began to argue our points. Finally, to settle the matter, I called my mother 5,000 miles away. Since my mom is like consulting the torah only much easier and in English I asked, "Mom, is gossiping a sin?"
A flurry of portions of tortilla hit the water and within minutes we all needed to get more tortillas. Gossiping had eaten our tortillas. Looking at the endless trail of tortillas that drifted down river I thought if our releasing of sins continue, we will see in tomorrow's newspaper headlines, "THOUSANDS OF PIECES OF TORTILLA THROWN INTO WATER FOR YOM KIPPUR DAMS RIVER; FISH BECOME OBESE OVERNIGHT!"
For the next 15 minutes, there were a few more sins squeezed out and we ended up discussing what defined a sin. Casting away our sins took on multicultural significance. Our self-imposed multicultural, "What Is A Sin?" board agreed on the Seven Deadly Sins of Anger, Lust, Envy, Pride, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth.
The Mayan representative Tohil explained that it was also a sin not to payback your spiritual debt to the world for having been created.
Magda representing the Latino community maintained that even if you don't agree with them, not respecting your parents and elders is a sin.
Hilda didn't know of any specific Belgium sins and so she added to the list Mahatma Gandhi's Seven Sins: Wealth without Work, Pleasure without Conscience, Science without humanity, Knowledge without Character, Politics without Principle, Commerce without Morality and Worship without Sacrifice.
By the time the board heard my views I only had to add to the list that selling your bicycle for monetary gains is a sin. A bike is a gift and should be always given not sold. Hopefully titanium bike frame builders will find religion soon.
Through the tradition of Yom Kippur, we asked for forgiveness of God, ourselves and of each other. We defined our own sins. They were personal; they were revealing. By the time we ran out of tortillas we were feeling pretty cleansed. Being Jewish never felt better.
I felt connected with my friends, the water, and my own family thousands of miles away. There was no distance or space between us, no religious differences. Even though the four of us sitting on the dock were different from one another we were bonded by a Jewish tradition.
There is so much to be being Jewish that I am unaware of. Yet in sharing my story I feel the experience of being Jewish that I couldn't get while I was growing up. On the road or jungles for that matter I am constantly reminded of my differences culturally and ethnically.
In retrospect, after Yom Kippur had passed we all came up with a new sin. It's a sin to eat a tortillaless burrito. That night we had thrown away all of our perfectly good tortillas. Ending the fast with just beans and rice without any tortillas was just no fun.
Next year's Yom Kippur we will remember not to toss away our dinner.
from the September-October 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine