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May 6, 2012 2:36 pm

Jewish Holiday Improvising in Nicaragua

avatar by Kari Hochwald

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Choosing a winner in our Hamentashen contest. Photo: Kari Hochwald.

Leaving the comforts and luxuries of home to spend a week in Nicaragua for Spring Break with the American Jewish World Service is an experience that cannot be easily described. With so many different facets–building a cattle pen, discussing AJWS curriculum, spending time with friends, exploring the country, enhancing our Jewish identity–it is nearly impossible to try to explain it all at once, though each component was crucial in shaping my experience over these seven days.

One of the most important aspects of this trip, and why I went through AJWS, was the integration of Jewish ideas and values. In Nicaragua, with a Jewish population of close to 50 people within the whole country, we weren’t expecting to have a Jewish community beyond the 12 participants of our trip. On a farm in the very rural part of Diriamba, we were to somehow create a Jewish atmosphere for celebrating both Shabbat and Purim during our stay.

Purim is one of my favorite holidays because of the fun practices and it’s also a rare time when you are encouraged to make noise with groggers and shouting. Of course there is the eating hamantaschen part (though we all know the only good part of it is the middle) and getting to dress up. But when planning to pack very lightly for a week, you don’t go out of your way to fit a costume into your suitcase.

Being in Nicaragua during Purim allowed my group to make the holiday completely our own. We had the Megillah, some masks and groggers, but that’s about it. When one of our troop leaders, Chloe, suggested a hamantaschen baking contest, this seemed like a fun idea aside from the fact that we had no access to recipes or the correct baking tools, no oven, and limited access to other resources. Yet this also ended up being one of the best moments on the trip for me.

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Taking some lemon, flour, eggs, sugar, and vanilla, my team mixed the ingredients together until the consistency seemed hamantaschen-like. I have to give most of the credit to Chloe though for creating the flavor and adding all of the right ingredients. It was a Top Chef worthy moment. Once we had a bowl full of questionable hamantaschen batter, the next challenge was how to go about baking it.

This was one of those instances when circumstantial challenges lead to creative solutions and you end up being better off than if you had  everything you needed in the first place. My team decided the best (and only way, really) to make our delicious treats would be to fry them with oil in a pan over a gas stove. But we had to have the triangle shape. Let’s take this gooey, sticky batter and somehow get it into a Ziploc bag, cut a hole at the bottom and shape the batter as if we were cake decorators! Genius!

Who knew I would go to Nicaragua and learn that I am incredibly good at shaping batter into triangles? Chloe and Chanel (our trip leaders) did the majority of the ingredient mixing so it was up to Emily B. and myself to shape the masterpieces. We worked out a system of me shaping the batter while Emily expertly flipped the hamantaschen. Some were a little round looking and a few got burnt, but it was a pretty perfect system aside from that.

Let me also mention that during this time the two Nicaraguan cooks working on our site were watching this all being played out as they prepared lunch.  Chloe tried to explain to them what we were doing, and they couldn’t help but want to join in on the fun. Adelina tried her hand at the triangle-shaping and, of course, was much better than myself.

Coming on this trip I was one of the few participants that knew absolutely no Spanish (thank you two years of high school Spanish class) and struggled to communicate with the residents. Yet the comedic moments always transcended language, and Adelina and I could both laugh at the strangeness of the situation as well as the absolute mess that I was making.

Using a plastic bag filled with batter is going to have its shortcomings, and by the end of our baking my hands were a sticky disaster. But the results were worth it. Chloe and I “filled” the center of our hamantaschen pancakes with dulce de leche and put them aside for the contest later that night.

After a rousing Purim play put on by our group, narrated in English and translated into Spanish, it was time for the contest. Adelina was the judge and chose my team’s hamantaschen for best presentation, with the other team winning for overall taste. However, my team’s bite-sized treats were eaten up the fastest, so we all know who really won.

Being able to celebrate Purim while so far away from home and its comforts ended up being a more memorable celebration than another year of the usual festivities. And being able to share this holiday with the people who added so much to our time in Nicaragua was an unparalleled experience. Although I will be celebrating Purim for many years to come, I’ll never forget the time I celebrated this holiday with new friends in Nicaragua, teaching them about my culture while also learning so much from theirs.

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  • Melissa

    Very well-written, so glad you had positive experiences in Nicaragua!

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