EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part two of the “Passover Rum Diary.” Part one can be read here. All the photos, videos in this story were taken either pre-Chag or by local staff.
Wondering the streets of Playa Norte in the dark our beacon appeared– a yellow Moschiach flag billowing in the Caribbean wind… outside Snappers Sports and Oyster bar?
I did a double take. We definitely had the right place, I mean why else would that flag be there?
Skeptical, I stepped in.
I quickly surveyed the situation: Arkansas was playing Oral Roberts on the TVs dotting the bar. I recognized some Israelis we had bumped into earlier in my trip pre-gaming. A man was thoroughly enjoying his plate of calamari.
This couldn’t be the place.
Now intrigued I made my way further back into the bowels of the bar, cautiously walking past a sign advertising live lobsters for sale.
Scanning the scene in front of me I realized that I was definitely in the right place– past the locals playing pool and drinking beer the schlocum were preparing seder items on a covered table in the back.
Schnear emerged from a back doorway beaming.
“You made it!”
“It’s very nice, no?” he asked.
Confused. I came closer.
And then, in the very back of the bar in an outside area flanked by pools, I saw what he was referring to.
What if I told you that you can have a totally kosher seder in the back of an oyster bar? If I didn’t experience it myself I would have called you a damned liar.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Jew in me feels obligated to point out that I am writing this portion of my story sitting in the back of a van on the way to see some pyramids during Passover (wrong pyramids I know, but still, it feels necessary to point this out).
Sitting here in the van making my way to ancient Mayan ruins my head is still buzzing from the two seders I spent on Isla Mujares, Mexico. To be honest I’m still processing what went down that first night. It was both the most religious seder I’ve ever been to and also the most bizzare. I live for dualities, this didn’t disappoint.
The Jews of Isla daven to a different beat. Not a wrong one, but maybe it’s the Caribbean sun that makes them vibe at a different frequency. I can tell you, entering that open air back bar I definitely felt like I was vibing at a different one too. And your humble Pesach correspondent was very sober at this point.
To say that this seder was Orwellian would not be an exaggeration. A massive screen in the back of the room, I assume normally reserved for less holier things judging by the UFC stickers underneath, had a massive black and white photo of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. I mean massive. It… he, was larger than life.
Banners on each side of the room announced that Chabad (picture of the Rebbe included) wished us a happy and kosher (my emphasis) Passover. I guess for the night, at least this part of Snappers was no longer an oyster bar.
On stage the local rabbi was still preparing for the seder. His body just a black silhouette under the bright light of the screen. His children running back and forth on the stage.
We found our seats near the back next to the doorway I first tentatively peeked in from. One row over from me the bochurim were religiously counting and guarding their private stash of matzah and wine.
The tables were filled with plates, wine and grape juice bottles, seder plates, and haggadot completely in Hebrew.
I then realized I forgot to pack my English haggadah. Crap.
This seder was like having Thanksgiving with your very big and rowdy family.
We started with the bochurim standing between each row haggadah in hand screaming at us the Hebrew words of the seder. Chanting like young, smiling bearded monks above the fray, they only paused to take turns calling out people for not paying attention. (The vast majority of the room was not paying attention.)
The first cup was quickly downed. Bottles of tequila magically appeared to fill in the time till the second.
Then it became time to wash.
“I guess we are washing here,” I said to my tablemates gesturing to the bathroom. Under the glow of the dingy neon lights washing cups were placed in the bathroom’s sinks.
When in Isla.
Matzah time. Bags of broken pieces were handed to us from the Mexican wait staff, all wearing black kippot.
More shouting from the bochurim.
“BARUCH… ATAH… ADONAI…”
The cadence was like my Hebrew teacher yelling at me to please for the love of everything holy just get it right this one time.
With the mitzvah completed I took in the scene around me.
“How the hell did they manage to pull this off in the middle of nowhere?” I thought.
I counted the seats and quickly did the math in my head. At least 150 people were there that night in the open air.
On stage the rabbi’s kids were still running around on the stage. One bumped into the table tipping over a wine bottle and spilling its entire contents on the ground. The rabbi, still in silhouette didn’t even notice. The child paused to watch the wine fall and then quickly got back to running once it was emptied.
Food appeared en masse. Beef carpaccio with jalapeno on top.
Skeptical looks. Nervous laughter. We poked it like a dead animal. It was cold, unlike the very humid and hot air around us.
“Do we eat it?”
It was good. Very good. (And no digestive issues to report after.)
The rabbi began his d’vorah torah. Again all in Hebrew.
Hebrew… Shomer Shabbos. More Hebrew. Something shomer Shabbos.
I asked what he was saying to a table mate.
“He’s saying we should start doing small things in order to slowly become shomer Shabbos.”
Being of the Orthodox persuasion already, and it being hot (sticky sweaty hot), I joined the other people who were breaking off to do their own thing.
I went outside to the front. Back through the bar. It was a different universe there. Oral Roberts lost the game. Customers were seemingly unaware of the scene playing out in the back.
In front a large group gathered to enjoy the cooler air.
The constant theme of conversation seemed to be bemusement. Smiles were on everyone’s faces. A mixture of frum, secular and religious of all stripes were swapping cigarettes and island stories. We all agreed, this was a seder like no other.
A couple of Satmar guys were in an animated conversation using a parked golf cart as chairs. The glow of their burning cigarettes illuminating their payot.
Somehow I ended up holding a baby. (It belonged to a family I befriended earlier.)
Several minutes later his family packed up to finish the seder at their hotel. Their four other children were tired. We were all tired at this point.
I headed back in. The chanting bochurim had retreated to their own table, starting on their seder. They were busy chomping on matzah.
I had two glasses still to go.
When it came time to see if Elijah would finally show up “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere” started to play on the front bar’s speakers. It was late. Closing time late.
The Mexican staff were tearing down the room around the huddled groups still making their way through the seder at their own pace.
The rebbe’s face was replaced with a country music Pandora station. The music on mute, but the songs changing: A Jimmy Buffet song, Kenny Chesney… Zac Brown Band.
The tables around us were being taken down at a more rapid pace.
“Next year in Jerusalem!” L’chaim’s all around.
By this time the chairs were being stacked.
It was 1 a.m. but a sizable crowd was still in the room, all in various stages of completion.
We had made it.
Walking back in the silent night the prayers were still echoing in my head in the same slow steady cadence of the bochurim.
Passover is a story of overcoming monumental challenges. How the Jews of Isla pulled this off (keep in mind this is not an established Passover program) was an impressive feat of mountain moving– both spiritually and physically.
Staring out at the moon over the ocean it felt good to know that even here Jews of all stripes can come together to not break bread. I’m sure there’s a better metaphor here, but sometimes there is beauty in the chaos. My trip home took me past the two swastikas I had discovered earlier. Whomever painted them failed. The Jews of Isla are loud and proud and rightfully so.
Originally Published Apr 5 2021 03:11PM EDT