I am blessed to have had the opportunity to travel extensively in the last six months. Following a four-and-a-half month stint in Costa Rica studying at la Universidad Nacional in Heredia, I traveled in Israel on Birthright provider Kesher.
After leaving those travels, I had a lot of thoughts on what it means to be Jewish. For New Voices, I compared my experience as a diasporic Jew with that as a mainstream Jew, and for Interfaith Families I argued against patrilineal (or matrilineal) determination of one’s “Jewishness.”
I was thrilled to see so much discussion about these pieces by both my Jewish and Costa Rican communities.
And while the Jewish feedback was usually positive (or if negative, constructively so), the feedback from Costa Ricans was notably negative.
The first, written by Rico, described me as “myopic” and correctly pointed out that I had missed certain aspects of San José, such as the giant menorah in the capital city’s biggest park, La Sabana.
Rico took issue with my description of San José but, more importantly, challenged my version of what I saw as a small Jewish community in the country:
San José is not “just a foul city filled with Catholics”, but home to a large number of Jews, Italians (ok, not a religion, but if you know an Italian, you know that religion and state are one), Catholics, Protestants, Christians, Jehovah’s, Evangelists (who continually keeping ringing my door bell every week)…just about every religion is covered. Even atheists!
Nevermind that Rico truncated my quote. I recognized in the piece that there are many in San José that are athiest.
The Costa Rica Star also disagreed with my description of San José and defended what I’ll call the country’s “Jewish record”:
Last year, the Costa Rica Star was happy to share the news about San Jose being deemed a “lovable city” by British magazine Monocle … Before we goyim say mazel tov to you, Mr. Cohen, perhaps you should know that the Costa Rica Star has been mentioned in the Times of Israel, which is a fine publication. Did you know that Costa Rica and Israel keep pretty good diplomatic relationships despite our country’s support of the occupied territories?
One of their writers emailed me and asked if I’d be interested in a “content partnership.” I didn’t feel inclined to work for a publication that had intimated that I solicited prostitutes (“Interestingly, Mr. Cohen seems to know a bit about harlotry in Costa Rica.”). I also didn’t particularly appreciate the inaccurate headline (I loved my experience in Costa Rica and have said that many times) and the vaguely anti-Semitic tone of the article. The writer defended the piece saying the Costa Rica Star gives their writers “creative flexibility.”
When I let them know of some of my objections to working with such a publication, the writer responded:
Lol never mind bro, we are from different worlds, disregard my offer, cheers…
Finally, on my Facebook page, one reader told me:
I take great offense and think you are a VERY closed minded human being and not a very good world traveler! I believe if you want a synagogue on every corner in a predominantly Catholic country you should go elsewhere; I would be embarrassed by your remarks if I were you…but I am not…and I thank GOD for that. Time for you to ONLY go to countries that practice Judaism en masse (emphasis added).
I’m fine taking criticism. In fact, I recommend everyone who read my original piece read these responses. You can also see on their respective comments sections my take on each piece.
But I wish they would have done a little more research. They seem to take that blog post as disdain for the entire country of Costa Rica. Which is not true at all.
It’s notable that major websites took such issue with something I saw as an innocent first-person perspective. Though I did not illustrate San José in a flattering manner, their concern about their Jewish credentials is unnecessary. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the synagogues of San José (As I originally wrote: “I felt just as Jewish at services at B’nei Israel as I did when I was surrounded by it in Israel. 10 hours in a shul in Latin America was as spiritually fulfilling as 10 days in the Holy Land.”)
If I did not enjoy or at least accept living as a minority, I wouldn’t live in the United States, as I do now. I wouldn’t change a single aspect of my Jewish experience in Costa Rica.
Which begs the question: Why are these bloggers so defensive of their country’s record on Judaism?
Zach C. Cohen is a student at American University.