Archive by category "Exploring God's World"

Kiss a Whale — And Lick Cancer?

(When Corinne Copnick, now an ordained rabbi, contemplated moving from Toronto to California, she sent a number of stories about her experiences back to The Jewish Tribune, a national Canadian newspaper, for which she had written a weekly column and other stories for several years. This true story was first published in 1998. She has made a few small changes here.)

 

KISS A WHALE — AND LICK CANCER?

The Whale Enjoyed it Too!

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

 

The biblical Jonah didn’t know about it when he inhabited the belly of a whale, but kissing a whale can lead to an easy recovery from cancer surgery. It may not be in the medical text books, but that’s what Jane (not her real name)   believes. She is a retired Canadian businesswoman now living in coastal California.

The encounter between Jane and a young Pacific grey whale took place in the warm, salty waters of San Ignacio Lagoon on the western coast of Baja California. This area is the mating and birthing grounds of thousands of Pacific grey whales who divide their time between Baha and their feeding grounds near Alaska.

Photo credit: https://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/88183

After their encounter – a friendly kiss — Jane, who teaches yoga, felt as if she had journeyed through a mystical experience. Apparently, the whale enjoyed her kiss too, and it may even have been partly the whale’s idea. Richman weighs a little over a hundred pounds. The whale weighs in at fifty times more.

“The young whale came right up to the boat, and his head came straight out of the water,” Jane recounted excitedly. “I leaned over and kissed him.” At the time, she was one of several dozen members of a whale-watching expedition sponsored by the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in San Diego.

Her husband (now late husband), Mark (not his real name), had arranged to take her on the whale-watching trip three days before her operation for thyroid cancer. Jane was dreading the operation because previous thyroid surgery had involved a very painful recovery. But after kissing the whale, she claims, both the surgery and the recovery were a breeze in comparison to her previous experience. She credits the awes-inspiring whale encounter with giving her such a positive feeling about life that it affected the aftermath of her surgery.

It is not only Jane who believes the whale kiss helped her lick cancer. Her husband felt the same way. In fact, he filmed his wife’s interaction with the whale, as well as another two hours of the whale-watching trip. The behavior of these “friendly” whales, he pointed out at the time, is particularly astonishing “when measured against the savage, bloody history of mankind’s interaction with the Pacific gray whale.”

It is not known exactly why whales in these protected lagoons actually seek out physical contact with humans. According to a report in California’s Westside News, “the young whales in particular swim right up to small boats, pop their heads out of the water, look around with eyes the size of baseballs, and then, like dogs wanting to be petted, nuzzle up to the boats and the outstretched hands of the humans aboard. They seem to enjoy the contact. With the mother keeping a watchful eye nearby, some of the young whales will frolic around the boats for half an hour or more. Sometimes the mother will even nudge her off-spring toward the boats, as if eager for the young whale to get a look at the strange creatures inside.”

Just in case you’re already reaching for your weathered copy of Moby Dick for a whale refresher, the story of Jonah, which traditionally we’ll be reading on Yom Kippur afternoon, is even more enthralling. When he got a long look at the inside of that strange creature, the whale, he underwent a complete spiritual overhaul. Just like Jane says she did when she shared a friendly kiss with a young whale on the west coast of Baja California. In that mystical moment, she understood the interconnectedness of all living creatures. She tickled the insides of the whale’s cheeks too, and he loved it.

Blow With All Your Heart!

 

Blow With All Your Heart!

by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

 

Did I tell you that I can’t blow the shofar? I have tried and tried. But I’m a rabbi who can’t even blow up a balloon without getting winded. I could excuse myself by saying, “Oh well, that’s what happens when you’re well into your eighties.” Instead I keep trying.

So first I bought a small one, direct from Israel, a ram’s horn with a kosher sticker (it’s still on the horn). And then I tried and tried to blow it. Not a sound.  Over and over again on many occasions, I have tried to produce at least a little noise with my shofar. Nada, as we say in California. Nothing.

At this point, it’s only rational – right? – to think that the fault was not with my blowing ability but rather with the shofar. What kind of a kosher shofar was this short, white horn, sticker and all? That’s when I went shopping and bought a pretty, ebony black, Yemenite shofar. Also kosher, very curvy, and from Israel as well, it came from an antelope, not a ram. It’s skinnier than the ram’s horn, like a shofar that’s been trying to lose weight. “Aha!” I thought. “This looks like a shofar made for me,’ and, without a second thought, I bought it.

Sadly, I couldn’t produce a single sound from it. Not one, even though I tried to blow the shofar many different ways. This couldn’t be a coincidence. Why couldn’t I get ANY shofar to sound for me?

Just then, my sixteen-year-old granddaughter, entered the room and saw me huffing and puffing away. “What’s wrong, Grandma?” she asked, concerned.

“Can you get any kind of noise from this shofar?” I asked her. “It’s from an antelope in Yemen.”

She took the shofar from my hands, put it to her mouth, and drew from it a long, soulful, teenage blast. “Sure,” she said. “It’s easy.”

I took the ram’s horn from its place in the cabinet. “How about this one?”

She put it to her lips, and again drew from it a deeper sound than the first one. “No sweat,” she said. “It’s easy.”

So it wasn’t the fault of the antelope, not the fault of the sheep, nor the people who put stickers on.

Then my thirteen year-old-granddaughter became alarmed by all the noise and came running into the room.

“Here,” I said, handing her one of the shofarot. “Can you blow these?”

She gave me an adolescent’s reproving look. “Grandma, I’ve already had my bat mitzvah!”

On the first try, she blew strong, firm blasts from the shofar she selected. And then from the other one. The blasts were so loud, they sounded like a ship’s horn making it way through the fog. Or maybe a shofar – ram’s horn, antelope’s horn, straight, curly, it doesn’t matter — sounding exactly the way it was supposed to. You could hear it from a mountain top.

 

* * * *

 

The fact remained that my granddaughters with powerful lungs and musical ability were not coming with me on my High Holy Day assignment on a cruise ship. And now I knew that there was nothing wrong with my either of my shofarot. Well, on a cruise ship you have to improvise. Maybe I would be someone who could play the trumpet on the ship, or at least a wind instrument.

When my little “congregation-at-sea” assembled on the Sabbath prior to Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, I asked if, by chance, anyone could play the shofar or a wind instrument. To my surprise, a short, middle-aged man spoke up.

“I can play the trumpet,” he offered.

Of course I was delighted. I explained that our Rosh Hashanah trumpet would be a shofar, if he could blow that too. The ancient sound of the shofar is supposed to be like the trumpet-blasts acknowledging the coronation of a sovereign – God.

“I’ll try,” he said. “My name’s John.”

While I couldn’t produce a sound from the shofar myself, I did know the pattern of sounds that a shofar should produce for the High Holy Days. So the two of us spent an afternoon in the nightclub on the top level of the ship. Normally, it wasn’t used during the day, and we were able to fill its quiet with lots of shofar noise, while John got used to the sound patterns this shofar could ably produce. During the actual service, I explained, I — as the rabbi — would call out one at a time the Hebrew words meant to evoke the pattern of sounds that John would then draw forth from the shofar. The shofar’s sounds are intended to stir our consciences, individually and collectively to confront our past mistakes.

 

Tkiyah   Shevarim  Truah  Tkiyah

Tkiyah   Shevarim  Truah  Tkiah

Tkiah     Shevarim  Truah  Tkiyah

 

As we practiced the sounds together – word call and musical response, I could see that John was very moved. “If we miss the mark, we can always try again,” I told John. And he blew his practice notes of the Tkiyah Gedola, the long, long blast of the Great Shofar until he was so red in the face, he looked like he would burst – with joy, I thought.

During that meaningful afternoon, John poured out his heart to me. He was not a Jew. Although he had been born a Christian, he had always felt drawn to Judaism. Eventually, he had become a Jew for Jesus, a Messianic Jew.

We talked for a long time. John was a deeply soulful person who had read widely. He had a highly developed brain that interpreted the world mathematically and was attracted to Gematria. On his own, he had studied and developed an appreciation of many of the mystical precepts of Kabbala (not the red string kind!), but he was in spiritual turmoil. He longed to be accepted by the Jewish community.

“You need to study with a rabbi, John,” I said. “Jews believe in one God. If you say that you are a Messianic Jew, that means you accept Jesus as divine. You have to decide, and I think you need some help to do that.”

We spent a couple of hours on another afternoon addressing some of the issues that concerned him, and the differences between Judaism and Messianism. I made some further suggestions as to whom he could contact for further study, and what readings would help him in his spiritual quest.

“Take your time,” I counseled. “In order to become a Jew,” as he now claimed he wanted to do, “you would have to convert, and to give up the divinity of Jesus, your belief in him as the Messiah. To become Jewish is a serious commitment. You will have to think about it long and hard.”

When it came time for the Rosh Hashana services, I was a little uneasy. In order to blow the shofar at services, you are really supposed to be a Jew, so I eased my own conscience by thinking of him as a Jew-to-be. “I want to become a Jew,” he told me before the service. “I’m sure of it,” he added with sincerity.

“Time will tell,” I replied. “When you blow the shofar tonight and tomorrow, John, I want you to blow with all your heart. I want you to blow for the Messiah to come. Our world is in turmoil and surely needs one. It won’t matter if he – or she – is coming for the first or second time. Blow for peace in the world.”

John smiled. And when he blew the shofar, not only did his face get red, but tears of happiness shone in his eyes. It turned out to be a terrific Rosh Hashanah.

A Shofar Sounds In Venice!

 

by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

 

From the harbor where we disembarked, my daughter and I had walked almost the length of the Venetian canal to reach the Old Jewish Quarter. In Barcelona, we had found only an extinct Jewish community, memorialized mainly by a few inscribed cemetery stones inserted into a wall, tales of what used to be, and white-washed stories of the Spanish Inquisition. In the ports we visited in Croatia, we had discovered a small synagogue but little else that warmed the heart of Jewish life. In Albania, we found nothing. By contrast, the Old Jewish Quarter in Venice it was restored, vibrant, and alive with the sound of young, black-clad and hatted, Chabad students showing interested tourists how to lay tefillin – and how to blow the shofar (a ram’s horn traditionally used to herald the Jewish New Year). Scattered on a long table were shofarot of various shapes and sizes. In preparation for my Guest Rabbi stint on a Mediterranean cruise over the High Holy Days, I had carefully packed a small, whitish, bubble-wrapped, Israeli ram’s horn – chosen over my black Yemenite antelope’s horn, curlier and harder to fit in the suitcase. I didn’t know that I would be able to find a shofar – from such a plentiful array — in the Village Square of the Old Jewish quarter in Venice. You have to hand it to Chabad (even if they don’t accept women rabbis!)

Photo credit: http://www.venice-italy-veneto.com/images/jewish-ghetto-venice-today-13.jpg

The long table was set out in front of a storefront synagogue, a comfortable prayer space for travelers that Chabad had set up, and right next to it was – yes, a small kosher restaurant. Both were full. Klezmer music played, and it was next to impossible to keep my feet from dancing. The joyful atmosphere was infectious. It was old Jewish Venice revived.  

In the Judaica shop, I was drawn to and almost purchased a good-sized Torah scroll (available in a smaller size, too, but harder to read) that featured a continuous, brightly-colored comic strip to tell the story of the Five Books of Moses. The balloons emanating from the characters in the story were in English (other vernacular languages may have been available), and bannered directly above each comic strip was the Hebrew text. It was a beautiful creation, not garish at all, not sacrilegious. A good teaching tool to interest bar/bat mitzvah candidates, I thought.  And I’m not one to be thrilled by comic books (even though I did devour Wonder Woman comics and plenty of others when I was a kid).

Torah Scroll: Michal Meron

“How much?” I asked the kind-faced Hasidic man who seemed to be supervising the store. That’s when I found out that the price was $1,000. That’s why there were donation pages preceding the text to record the names of the givers. Probably the scroll was intended as a bar/bat mitzvah gift. I still wavered – it was so unusual. Where would I ever find such a scroll again?

In Florida, that’s where! The truly excellent artist, Michal Meron, lives in the U.S., and the scrolls were produced there, too. “It takes her a year to make each scroll,” the Hasidic man said gently.  He was a great salesman, but now he wanted to close the sale. The Judaica shop would ship it to L.A. for me, but the price was the price.

“Hmmm,” I prevaricated. Buying it would decimate my shopping budget for the entire, three-week trip. “I think we’ll take some time to think about it. We want to visit the restored synagogue first.”

So my daughter and I climbed the steps to the moderately-sized, Sephardic synagogue on an upper floor overlooking the square and listened to an informative guide explain its history, and how it had, like everything else in the quarter, been so lovingly restored.

Then we returned to the Judaica store where I regretfully told the Hasidic man, who eyes still smiled at us, that we couldn’t afford the comic book Torah, but the Hanukah dreidels (miniature tops that spin and are used for a children’s game) were also compelling. So we settled for several really beautiful dreidels crafted in Murano glass.

I haven’t been to Florida in years, but the next time I visit there, I’ll look up the inspired artist who creates Torahs for bar/bat mitzvah kids.

 

Seeking Jewish Life in Spain?

 

by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Photo credit: http://qrgotic.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/QR-GOTIC-sinagoga-call-650×380.png

 

500 Years Ago

 

Despite the fact that the Spanish government, a democratic monarchy now headed by King Juan Carlos’ son, Felipe VI, has tried to redeem the ugly facts of the long ago expulsion of Spain’s Jews. It happened 500 years ago. Amazingly, in 2014, the well-meaning Spanish government decided to offer full citizenship to Jews whose ancestors were once expelled from Spain. Better late than never. Yet, despite this enticement to come back, the number of Jews living in Spain still remains small.

As history reminds us, the Jewish presence in Spain effectively ended with the decision of the devoutly Catholic monarchs of Spain, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, to to establish what was known as the Spanish Inquisition in 1478. Officially it was called The Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition.  There were to be no heretics in Spain.

Some 15 years later, The Edict of Expulsion, issued in 1492, compelled all Jews, rich or poor, either to convert or to leave the country within a four-month window.(1) There were some 300,000 Jews in Spain! Many of their families not only had been living in Spain for centuries but had also contributed largely to the country’s brilliance and prosperity. Of these, 40,000 to 100, 000 (estimates vary) Jews, refused to convert. Consequently, they were forced to liquidate everything they owned —  if indeed they could — and flee.

The majority of the Spanish Jews, however, wished to remain in Spain; in order to do so, they were forced to convert to Catholicism. Forever after, they were known as Conversos (or derogatively, Marranos, meaning pigs). Although many Conversos adhered to Judaism in secret, it was a dangerous practice. They were constantly suspected of “Judaizing.” Discovery of secret practice or Jewish associations incurred severe punishments, such as torture or burning at the stake. Confiscated holy books were burned. Assets were seized.

Despite the efforts of a prominent, wealthy, Jewish scholar and businessman, Don Isaac Abravanel – who reportedly had financed the three ships for Columbus’ voyage to the New World (the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria) in order to influence the rulers to delay or rescind this order, the rulers remained firm. They were under the indomitable sway of the Grand Inquisitor, Torquemada. No Jews in Spain. In addition, it was undoubtedly to the rulers’ economic advantage to seize Jewish properties and other valuable assets that could not be transacted within the four-month deadline.

Many Spanish Jews fled in terror to nearby Portugal (where, unfortunately, their safety was very brief) and to the other countries of the Mediterranean. Others fled across the Mediterranean to Arab lands. They carried their culture, their Spanish language, and their haunting Ladino songs with them.  Some also carried the keys to the old synagogues and passed them down. Always, these Sephardim hoped to return. For the first time in centuries, they can.

 

A Period of Transition: 1975

 

The first time I visited Spain was in 1975. It was a period of transition from the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, which had begun in 1939 after he led his right-wing Nationalist party to victory in the the fiercely fought Spanish Civil War. During World War II, Spain leaned toward the Nazis in Germany and the Fascists in Italy.

By 1975, when Franco died and the dictatorship ended, local people still seemed guarded, reluctant to converse with foreigners. Policemen helmeted in the curious Spanish manner were still evident on the streets of Barcelona, Catalonia — the first city in southern Spain on my tour’s itinerary. While the beautiful Costa del Sol was being developed as a resort area, reflecting the political uncertainly, stalled projects, reflecting the political uncertainty, could be seen along the beaches. The whole country, it seemed, had warily assumed a waiting posture as the process of establishing a democracy had begun under a monarch, King Juan Carlos, as head of State.

The Spain I was revisiting four decades later in 2016 was a happy, bustling place.(2) People had welcoming smiles for visitors and, in Barcelona, there was great pride in the extravagantly joyful, out-of-the-box (even weird), Gaudi architecture that is the pride of this lovely city; the icing on the cake is that there are beautiful beaches too.

Barcelona, however, has a noticeable paucity of Jews:  According to the Jewish Virtual Library, about 5,000 live in Barcelona now, while some 12,000 Jews live in Madrid (the Conservative Beit El synagogue is there), Malaga, and Barcelona combined.(3) There is a small synagogue converted to a museum in Toledo. However, depending on the source, estimates for Jews living in Spain today vary considerably, anywhere from 13,000 to 50,000. A handful of Jews live in Valencia and Marbella, as well as in two North African enclaves.  Once there were so many more.

Back in Los Angeles, I had researched the old Jewish synagogue still standing in the center of Barcelona. Its name, Sinagoga Major de Barcelona, suggests its past importance. Dating back to the 6th century CE, with sturdy Roman foundations and the remains of arched Roman walls, it may well be the oldest synagogue in Europe. In fact, it is one of only five medieval synagogues that have survived. Its two rooms – that’s it! — are pictured on the Internet.(4) Since I had already viewed the photographs, the Sinagoga’s rooms seemed familiar when I arrived in person, except that they seemed so much smaller than I had anticipated. In order to enter, I had to descend a flight of stairs. Of course! Because of its great age and the fact that it had been unearthed, the little synagogue was very considerably lower in the ground than the surrounding buildings.

I had the sense of entering a dimly-lit cave. That’s what it felt like – a smallish cave with a structure held up by enduring Roman walls. Two ladies (Jewish?) sat there in folding chairs, ready to impart information to visitors. They told us that there was probably a mikvah buried under the adjoining building, but it could not be excavated because it was the private property of other people (who understandably didn’t want their café dug up).

 

Good Will and Then Some…

 

Given the good will of the current Spanish government, the efforts to rebuild Jewish life in Spain continue. Unfortunately, there is also a strong and very disturbing anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian feeling pervading the country – a new kind of anti-Semitism, even though few Spanish people have ever met an actual Jew. Or even have a true understanding of what happened to the Jews in Spain 500 years ago.

Unfortunately, what passes for the old Jewish quarter in Barcelona is really a figment of the imagination. It’s not even a good stage set. In reality, it consists of a bunch of engraved plaques attached to tall brick buildings constructed long after the original buildings were demolished. The plaques identify where the original buildings in the narrow alleys of the Jewish quarter ONCE stood. None of the brick buildings were the original buildings. Consequently, our visit there was a disappointment.

Until. One of the walls of a building – possibly identifying the site of the quarter’s long ago cemetery – had individual names in Hebrew letters etched in them. What??? Salvaged stones from the old Jewish cemetery had been built into the new wall. I kissed the Hebrew names etched in each marked stone within my reach. Even centuries later, those who visit this quarter-that-isn’t can still honor the Jews who once were there.

Even though, as Daniella Levy writes in her excellent article about her own, more extensive visit to Spain (5), she found a pro-Palestinian slogan (Palestina Libra)  — scrawled maliciously across the Hebrew letters identifying the site of the old Jewish quarter.

As I wrote in the Guest Book of the Sinagoga Major, “I am still here.”

(1)The full Edict can be read online at www.vituallibrary.com and other sites.

(2)It reflected my own feelings as, once again, a Guest Staff Rabbi on a Cruise Ship, this time to the Mediterranean.

(3)www.jewishvirtuallibrary.com

(4)www.wikipedia.com

(5)“Dear Spain: Want to Attract Jews? You’re Doing It Wrong,” Scribe: The Forward’s Contributor Network, Forward, July 24, 2017.

Carnival – a Lifeline in Rio

 

by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

 

All the way along the coast to Rio de Janiero, we could see the progress of the world-renowned Carnival in the small towns and cities near our ports-of call. Early on, stands were already being constructed; a little later, decorations were being added, parts of costumes tried on, carried on hangers, even worn in the streets in each of the places we stopped. Every Brazilian town of any size, at least on the east coast, has its own Carnival.

Photo credit: http://cdn.timesofisrael.com/uploads/2016/02/riosambadrome2-e1454591334799-965×543.jpg

It’s not just a once a year performance that’s at stake; it’s a progression towards the ultimate by the inhabitants of Brazil, toward maybe being the best samba dancers, musicians, and artists in the land. The Rio de Janiero show will be attended by thousands of tourists — and, of course, proud Brazilians.  

As we sailed up the coast of Brazil, we could see the grim signs of poverty too, the ugly graffiti that deface once beautiful buildings and the grey, broken-down favelas (miserable slums occupied by squatters) that, ghostlike, ring big cities like Rio. Of course, the city also boasts areas where the rich live, like the luxury apartments and big hotels surrounding the fabled Copacabana Beach (reminiscent of Miami) or the magnificent mansions around the site of the historic Imperial Palace. As the English Charles Dickens wrote in a Victorian context, it’s a tale of two cities.

However, in Brazil you can’t always tell the income level of an area by what appears outside. It’s common for residents not to keep the exteriors in good repair to avoid paying extra taxes. Inside the apartments may be very nicely furnished and well kept.

The favelas, though, are completely run-down; the front lawns are rubble, where children play and teenagers flirt.  Because these areas are a jumble of lanes without addresses where mail can be delivered (at least, at the time I was there), the socialist government (no longer in power) was providing free telephone service and Internet access to the residents. Despite the pervading poverty, it seemed like everyone had – or had access to — a smart phone.

Portuguese-speaking, local taxi drivers who couldn’t speak English used them as portable translators; the customers spoke English into the phone, and it was translated into Portuguese; and vice versa.

“I’m sorry I don’t speak English,” the driver apologized.

“I’m sorry I don’t speak Portuguese,” I replied (that is, Portuguese Brazilian style, whose guttural sounds are far removed from Portuguese, Portugal style!)

Yet somehow we communicated very well. It’s amazing how far cell phones and hand gestures can take you. Plus the limited phrases from our guide book (and the couple of classes in getting-to-know Portuguese that we took on the ship) helped us as we drove around the city.

Rio is undoubtedly well guarded.  Standing over Rio, its huge, art-deco-style dimensions and outstretched arms protecting the city, is the iconic statue of Christ the Redeemer. Standing atop a pedestal on the summit of Mount Corcovado, and made of reinforced concrete covered with 1000s of triangular soapsones, it is 98 feet tall; the reach of its extended arms is 92 feet. Since 2007, it has been considered one of the Seven New Wonders of the World. Although it’s by far the largest statue of Christ in the world, Catholic Churches of varying sizes and splendor can be found everywhere throughout Brazil.

“Thank God that the people have the Church and Carnival,” I remarked to the cruise ship’s Catholic priest. “I think they would explode without them.” The tension in the country, centering on the need for jobs in the face of big projects stalled every where for lack of money, is palpable. At each of the ship’s stops, young men stood in groups, arms grimly folded, eyes devouring us, hoping for work that wasn’t there for them.

It is a syncretic kind of religion, though, that colors Carnival. Some Brazilian natives (especially in the north of Brazil, closest to the U.S.) had been slaves, transported to this country from Africa by colonial powers to work in the plantations and mines. Despite the best efforts of Christian missionaries, though, Brazilians throughout the country still retain vestiges of the native religions that once permeated the jungle areas. Although eventually most converted to Christianity, they superimposed their native deities on top of the Christian trinity and saints. It makes for a very vibrant, transposed religion in many keys that dances its way to the competitions of Carnival.

Carnival is so integral to the spirit of Brazil that I had always thought it was run by the government, but this is not so. Apparently, it is a private, year-long enterprise. It organizes samba clubs all over Brazil that develop their own routines, different each year, and practice hard and long to enter their own club’s “show” in competition. Eventually twelve and then six samba clubs are chosen. These are invited to design their décor and sew their costumes in a specially constructed complex in Rio.

It is these six clubs that finally perform at Carnival, and thousands of people attend. Each club performs for an hour and a half in one night’s frenzied entertainment. So with six clubs performing, that’s a total of nine continuous hours that audiences sit on concrete benches to applaud the frenetic dancers and musicians. (By the time we got to Rio, tickets were $500 per person to sit on the backless benches; if you wanted a reserved seat with a back and a little closer to the entertainment, the tickets were $1,000 apiece.) The very next day there is a Carnival parade for the populace led by the winning club.

Our ship had arranged for local dancers and musicians to put on a private, onboard show (beautifully costumed dancers, shaking their almost bare backsides to frenetic rhythms, delighted some of the older men on board by dancing with them). Rather than brave the crowds and continuous alcohol consumption late at night, my daughter and I opted for this shipboard arrangement (it was terrific)! In addition, since many smaller towns also put on a dynamic show, we attended one at the next stop, Parintins; it was well worth the price ($150 per ticket).

As it happens, the revelry of Carnival takes place close to the time of Purim, the Jewish festival where young and old kids dress up as Queen Esther and King Ahasuerus and hiss and shake noise-makers at the villain, Haman, who wanted to kill all the Jews in long-ago Persia. The Festival of Purim, too – the one night of the year Jews are supposed to get drunk! – has acted as a safety valve for the many years that Jewish people suffered persecution at the hands of various countries. People need to let off steam in difficult situations, and a festival of this kind is a joyful way of doing it.

Whatever your religious belief, thank God for Purim, and thank God for Carnival. These festivals continue to allow for a reprieve of happiness in the midst of miserable conditions; the concentration of working towards a collective, bigger-than-oneself goal; and the opportunity to be grateful for the vibrancy of life while we live it. They can be a lifeline to better times.