I live in the Garden of Eden. Well, not exactly, but close. I live in Barbados, where the water is crystal clear, the sun never stops shining, and a rum punch is always right around the corner.
The living is easy. The Jewish living, though? Not so much.
There are 19 Jewish families in the country, according to a local who is one of a handful of regulars at Shabbat services. Nineteen exactly. A minyan is a rare cause for celebration.
My husband, my 14-month-old son, and I raise the number to a nice, round 20. We’ve been living here for almost a year now, the latest in a string of moves: Morocco, Israel, India, and now this gorgeous Caribbean paradise. Our jobs with the Foreign Service take us to a new Embassy every two or three years. I’m sitting this latest tour out while my husband works so that I can stay home with my son.
Here in Barbados, my baby boy is the only member of the congregation without a college degree, let alone the only one in diapers. He toddles around from chair to chair and waves to the other members when they stand up for “Lecha Dodi.”
The words are the same, but the tune is unfamiliar. The service has a solemn, almost burdened feel; the weight of the Jewish legacy is on our shoulders. The campy, carefree, singsong tunes that I grew up with are nowhere to be found.
Jewish mothers, at least, are the same the world over; they fawn over my toddling son and pinch his cheeks. “Uncle Benny” sneaks him pieces of banana bread from the Kiddush stash.
His presence is adorable, but his uniqueness is a stark reminder of the grim future of the Jewish community here. It also drives home just how lonely it is to be Jewish in most places in the world.
I feel guilty for putting my child in a situation where he’ll always be different. Where the religious vocabulary he learns at home will be gibberish to his friends and classmates. Where absences from Friday night parties will be conspicuous. Where dating out of the faith will be the norm, not the exception. The odds, as they say, are not in our favor.
Our neighbors asked about our Omer chart, a colorful poster where we counted up to Shavuot each night. I told them it’s like a Jewish advent calendar.
We were psyched when local friends finally invited us, baby included, out to Saturday morning pudding and souse. I’d seen signs advertising the dish everywhere, from hole-in-the-wall food shacks to luxury restaurants.
When I found out the ingredients, my excitement melted away. The star of the dish is pickled pork. I asked if there’s a vegetarian version. They laughed.
Still, we try to infuse Jewish culture into our lives so that it’ll seem natural to our son. Judaism has quite a few built-in barriers against assimilation. From waking up with a singsong “Modeh Ani” to kissing the mezuzah hanging in our doorway, I hope that the actions will wedge their way into the depths of his subconscious.
Wanting to share large Shabbat dinners without the prerequisite large Jewish community, my husband and I thought that maybe we could become somewhat of a pseudo-Chabad-in-residence.
We invited friends and acquaintances from all over the island to come for Friday Night Dinner (which, to the uninitiated, sounds a lot less threatening than “Shabbos.”) They did, and they were respectful and interested in the customs. But after a few polite questions about Judaism, the conversation turned to Christianity. Somehow our Shabbos dinner conversation ended up focusing on the homiletic teachings of Jesus.
Sometimes I just want to give up.
Not wanting my son to be left out of yet another island rite of passage, I took him to meet a local Santa on Christmas. To my secret delight, he screamed, cried, and kicked his way back to me, practically gasping for air.
Maybe there’s hope for him after all.