Bolivian Rhapsody

By John Auchard
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 21, 2002

"I am," he said, "the only rabbi in Bolivia."

I was 20 feet past the Orthodox Jews -- Lubavitch Jews, deep in conversation -- before I stopped and thought about it. In Brooklyn or Manhattan I wouldn't have blinked, but way up in the Andes on a sidewalk teeming with braided women in ponchos and bowlers?

I turned and waited for them to notice me. "Why?" I asked. "How?" And then, to be crystal clear, I added, "Cómo?"

Around 9 o'clock the next night, the Argentine-born Rabbi Yossi Smierc and his American wife, Keyda, with their infant son, Mendi, and two young Lubavitch colleagues on a visit from Rio de Janeiro, met me at a bustling cafe on the Calle Potosí in La Paz.

I soon learned that during the 1940s, Bolivia had provided refuge to more than 10,000 German, Polish and Austrian Jews. When the war ended, however, it became clear how hard it would be to begin a new life -- and especially a new livelihood -- in a very poor country with neither a port city nor a seacoast. Therefore, and with something of a rush, the greater part of Bolivia's transitory Jewish population again emigrated, this time to the United States, Canada, Chile and Argentina. The fact is that today, in all of landlocked Bolivia, there remain fewer than 900 Jews.

The Lubavitch exoticism delighted the crowded Alexander Cafe, and in fact the 24-year-old rabbi said that after almost two years in Bolivia, he had encountered almost none of the anti-Semitism he had met throughout South America. For all the noblest reasons that may be true, and yet I suspect that any special Bolivian affection for the Lubavitch crowd may partly derive from unrivaled appreciation -- indeed the greatest I have encountered in my travels so far -- for really interesting headgear.

As we talked, I felt pretty sure that I was coming across as a rare outsider who was impressively familiar with the many ways of the Hasidim. That was until Rabbi Smierc leaned across the table and asked me if I had ever heard of something called -- he slowed down his speech and carefully enunciated his words so I wouldn't become alarmed -- a bar mitzvah. After getting off theology, we talked about those hats.

In this country, where the sun is close and killing and more than 50 percent of the population is of native Indian stock, you see terrific hats everywhere -- the pacha montera, the montera de luto, the katari kari and the joq'ollo worn by boys until they reach puberty. No one at the Alexander Cafe knew why the Aymara women -- and only the women -- began wearing the world-famous bowler, although there was suspicion that it had to do with the whim of a peculiar Spanish king. A week later, a man from Oruro, a city south of La Paz, insisted that an 18th-century merchant had sent a batch of hats so undersized that the colonial masters laughed out loud. His shrewd agents started the rumor that any woman who wore one would be blessed with children who would all survive. The legend quickly swept the plateau -- where even today infant morality remains fearsome -- and it stuck.

Holding her 8-month-old son, Keyda Smierc said she especially liked the nativity scenes where the Christ child wears a pointed Andean cap, with llamas on ear flaps that finish in woolen strings. Then one of the Brazilians related how at an airport, some people had once called out to him, "Michael Jackson!" He took in my blank stare and then pointed to the top of his head -- "because of the hat," he said.

He stroked his beard and tried, unsuccessfully, to look somber. "Now in the markets, it's different," he said. "When I walk by they say, 'Osama bin Laden! Osama!' " The same thing also happened to his friend, who was wearing a far bigger flat-brimmed hat. Later, at a market in Cochabamba, I thought of them when I bargained for nylon gym pants, with -- on each knee -- the haunting face of the terrorist himself and beneath each knee the warning, "Se busca, Osama" -- "Osama, we're looking for you."

When the two constantly smiling, powerfully charming Brazilian friends -- in garb that made the costume design of "Yentl" seem almost Tommy Hilfiger -- slid across the room to talk up two blond backpackers from France and Sweden, I asked the rabbi and his wife why they had decided to settle in Bolivia. The attractive couple liked the challenge of the poor place, and they loved that relentless materialism hadn't quite taken hold yet. When I asked Yossi Smierc what he really was after, he did not say he wanted people to be pure, but instead said something quite different. "I want people to discover purity," he said with his hands up before him. "I want them to be happy," said the intense young rabbi.

Bolivia's far-off prospect has attracted other outsiders who, from a distance, might almost appear to be Lubavitch cousins, although of course they are nothing of the kind. In that entirely different part of Bolivia, far beyond the mountains where the Amazon basin just begins near western Brazil, the first German- and English-speaking Mennonites began arriving from Canada in the early 1970s. In pursuit of their own simplicity and purity, the Mennonites too have eluded the modern world at yet another unsuspected end of the Earth. At last count, their number in Bolivia exceeded 35,000.

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