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Wrong Time, Right Place
I had always planned to maintain my Judaism while in Albania, though I realized fairly quickly how flexible I needed to be to make this work.
Soon after I arrived in the tiny town of Shijak, Passover started, and with it came my first challenge -- how to keep to the dietary restrictions while with a host family already confused about my choice of vegetarianism.
At the time, my skills with their language were slim to none. I learned a few words to help me out: "bread," "slave," "religion." I tried to explain my even more complicated eating rules to my hosts; my stammering, I'm sure, came out something like this: "Because I faith (I hadn't learned possessives yet). I am the Jew. Before are slave, then are not slave. We leave fast. Don't eat bread."
Needless to say, this was met with looks of confusion from the jysh ("grandfather"). We usually resolved such looks by playing our own little game of charades, with words and hand motions.
I decided that trying to act out the story of Passover would not be all that productive, and my best option would be to follow the dietary restrictions when I was out of the house. When I was home, I'd eat only one serving of whatever was offered, even if it broke the laws. I'd also avoid unnecessary items, such as bread.
I also dreamed of celebrating Shabbat. Yes, I wanted to bake challah, light candles and bless wine. But I must admit I was not so successful here, as Fridays became days when I traveled to meet friends to combat the loneliness I felt in Shijak.
It wasn't really until the High Holidays approached when I realized that keeping religious traditions might be an important part of maintaining my sanity.
So I developed a plan. My parents sent me a prayerbook, and I'd do what services I could on my own. I looked up a recipe for challah and bought some candles (well, actually, they were given to me, as the word for candle is only slightly different from an improper word, and my co-workers were afraid I'd mess up, thus bringing turpe -- "shame" -- upon myself). But I was ready to go.
Soon, though, I realized all that would be missing: the sound of the shofar, the feeling of community and being with family at this important part of the year. Perhaps I could stream services. Obviously, there were some inherent problems with this -- mainly, the time difference.
After talking to another Jew in the Peace Corps, I found out that she had arranged to bring some rabbis to Albania. I will admit that I was much relieved to be spending Rosh Hashanah with others. Unfortunately, the plans did not pan out since the rabbis missed their plane.
I quickly called my mother, who offered to Skype services with me. We audio-Skyped using Rabbi Jim Egolf's iPad (he's the rabbi at my family's synagogue, Beth David Reform Congregation in Gladwyne). He even publicly welcomed me to services. While the experience was a bit surreal, it was nice to be with family in some way on this day.
There were also some other details that made this experience so meaningful. This year, Rosh Hashanah fell on the same day as Bajram, the end of Ramadan here. So my holiday was accompanied by drums, calls to prayer, and my neighbor ringing my doorbell in the middle of my Skype service to bring me sweet cake and wine.
I returned the food gift, offering the challah with raisins I wound up making. At the risk of being overly sentimental, there was something special about this exchange, and the intermingling of songs from my cantor and the calls to prayer over the mosque's loudspeaker. I suppose it's just that feeling of universality we sometimes, though rarely, feel.
Libby Horwitz is a 2009 graduate of Cornell University. Read more about her travels at: wanderinginalbania.blogspot.com. The views expressed in this piece are solely her own.