Out there: The flavor of coffee, tacos and the High Holy Days

When friends asked me how the holidays were, I said “amazing.” What was I going to say – that Yom Kippur in Jerusalem wasn’t the spiritual high I romanticized about and imagined it would be?

Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu in Argentina  (photo credit: AVI OHAYON - GPO)
Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu in Argentina
(photo credit: AVI OHAYON - GPO)
So there I was two weeks ago in the palatial Casa de Nariño presidential residence and offices in Bogota, waiting for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to issue statements to the press.
Truly a majestic building, this Casa de Nariño. Neoclassical architecture built in a city surrounded by mountains; decorative water fountains; big vases of red and white roses sitting on round mahogany tables; ceremonial presidential guards at rigid attention – the Colombian version of the guards at Buckingham Palace – decked out in red and blue uniforms with gold buttons and carrying rifles with bayonets.
We, the journalists, did what we do best: we waited.
Earlier this month I had the good fortune to accompany Netanyahu on his trip to Buenos Aires, Bogota, Mexico City and New York. It was fascinating, truly it was.
But it’s not all glamour. In fact, about 80% of the time we spent just waiting – waiting for the prime minister to board the plane; waiting in countless lines to pass through endless security checks; waiting hours for a meeting to end to hear the leaders issue a statement; waiting for briefings to start; waiting for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to finally finish his painfully long speech at the UN so that Netanyahu could begin his. Lots and lots of waiting.
At least at the Casa de Nariño in Bogota we waited in style. The building is magnificent, the Wi-Fi worked, there were chairs where we could sit, and even a desk upon which to write.
And there was coffee. Hot, black Colombian coffee. The kind about which myths are brewed.
“Wow, what a cup of coffee,” one of my colleagues gushed.
“Truly great,” another enthused.
“Now that’s a cup of coffee,” said a third.
Then I sipped and it was – well, a cup of coffee. Granted, a good cup of coffee, but it wasn’t the Mona Lisa of coffees.
It dawned on me then: reputation is everything. In certain parts of the world, people are going to praise certain things simply because of expectation. When the mind has pre-established that something is going to be great – or lousy – it is going to be great (or lousy) regardless of objective reality. Call it mind over matter.
Colombia is known for its coffee – so how can a cup of coffee in Colombia made with fresh Colombian beans not be just the best cup of coffee imaginable?
My colleagues were convinced that it was going to be great, so – voilà – it was going to be great. You could have served a cup of Elite instant in that Casa de Nariño, told them that it was authentic Colombian brew, and they would have said it was the best java they had ever tasted, bar none.
THE SAME THING happened in Argentina, and then again in Mexico, though the object of desire there was food, not coffee.
Think Argentina, and chances are your mind will conjure up Evita, Nazis on the run, and steak. And if you have a steak in Buenos Aires, you’ll probably praise it as the best steak you’ve ever sunk your teeth into. Why? Because you’re having that steak in Buenos Aires, it’s Argentinean steak, and – as a result – it must be good.
Even if it’s not.
I actually had two steaks in Argentina. One was a disappointment, but I’m a little hesitant to say that, because who goes all the way to Argentina and gets a crummy steak?
Same thing in Mexico. A colleague and I went to a kosher Mexican restaurant in Mexico City. I ordered soft tacos. When they came I had to say they were terrific, even though they were really average, because how could a taco in Mexico – the land of the taco; nay, the birthplace of the taco – not be the best taco ever? If it wasn’t the absolute best taco ever – if it was not the primo taco – then the problem must be with me, not with the taco.
ALL OF which got me thinking about the High Holy Days in the Holy Land. Rosh Hashana in Israel is like coffee in Colombia; Yom Kippur here is like steak in Argentina; Sukkot akin to tacos in Mexico City. The mind has conditioned one to think that here in Israel, those days must be meaningful, spiritual and really, really special.
Except it does not always work that way.
I remember spending my first High Holy Days in Israel as a college student some 38 years ago, troubled that I had experienced more meaningful Yom Kippurs in Denver than in Jerusalem. The services here started a lot earlier and went much faster, the tunes were unfamiliar, the people were not especially friendly, and the sermon was meaningless because it was delivered in a language I couldn’t understand.
But when friends asked me how the holidays were, I said “amazing.” What was I going to say – that Yom Kippur in Jerusalem wasn’t the spiritual high I romanticized about and imagined it would be?
Now, over time, that’s changed. With each passing year I became more accustomed to how things were done here, the tunes became familiar, the environment much more comfortable, and the people more friendly because I got to know them and – as I learned the language – could actually understand what they were saying.
Today I can’t imagine spending the High Holy Days anywhere else. But it’s an acquired taste: perhaps like the coffee in Colombia or the tacos in Mexico City.