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Panama Jungles in a Metropolis

Slums, Casco Viejo and Panama City from the City Park.

   No matter what they say, Panama is not a Central American Metropolis. The square kilometer of half vacant high rises and one large mall does not make a Manhattan in most respects. Panama, for the most part, is still a poor central American Nation.
Banana farms break up thick jungles and tiny towns pepper the two coasts. The Canal, the man-made wonder of the world where a sixth of world’s trade comes through, has not benefited the people of Panama in almost a hundred years. Only now has it begun turning a profit which trickle down. After thirty years, the Panamanian government began reconstruction of devastation left by United States when ousting Noriega in the 1980s. Blocks lay waste and buildings stand barren and burned,  pockmarking the Casco Viejo. This battle ground is next to presidential palaces, tenements, hostels, boutique hotels, markets, brothels, posh restaurants and nightclubs. Nearby is a nature reserve with sloths and toucans. That is the real image of Panama: wealth, nature, poverty, destruction and life inside a tropical unbearable heat.

    Here, Jews found refuge hundreds of years ago while hiding from the inquisition. They built secret churches, such as the one still standing in ruins in Casco Viejo. Its delicate wide arch demonstrated to the Canal engineers tectonic stability of the nation. Thus prompting the building of the canal in Panama rather than through Nicaragua.
As converso Jews melted into the black Caribbean and mestizo population, new Jews arrived after WWI and WWII from East Europe and Syria. The two communities live side by side as elsewhere in Central America. They live in the “foreigner” housing as Panamanians like to call the posh high rises. The high rises are near multiple synagogues so that the religious can walk to synagogues. In the area whole kosher strip malls close for holidays and Shabbat. Two large all kosher supermarkets are walking distance from each other and the one of them happens to be the largest kosher supermarkets outside of Israel. Even 7-elevens and Presidents own store chain carries kosher wine and kosher snacks. In Panama, one must not be religious about God, just about eating kosher. I met one girl at my hostel who was outcast from the community for being different. And being religious won’t make you Jewish to some, as Paula Harari told me that her Aunt, from Aleppo thinks one must be from Aleppo to be Jewish.
    Rich Christian Panamanians attend Jewish schools and have Jewish friends but know better than to hope to marry a Jewish boy or girl. The community employs locals to guard the temples who are not as easy to talk to about going in. Everything is done through the central Rabbi. The Rabbi is a very busy man and very hard to get a hold of.
    Chabad sometimes turns Americans without passports away, although no attacks have happened there security is still a priority. But sometimes they let us Americans through for Passover, when Jews from all over the world come together in the Bet El dining room for Seder. There you can find a Venezuelan composer who will tell you about violent life in Venezuela and Puerto Rico. You can chat with a Peruvian businessman about Jewish life in Lima. Or you can try speaking with Israelis, although good luck speaking to them if you don’t know Hebrew. Seems to me that with a lot of Israelis, if you don’t know Hebrew, you cease to exist. Maybe it’s normal to them because they are so used to ignoring each other. Most of the Israelis that travel tend to be those who were born in Israel, who speak only English and Hebrew. Although I am starting to see some Russian-speaking and Ethiopian Israelis travelling as well, which is encouraging.
    The Rabbi at the Chabad, even if busy, will be happy to meet and speak for a few minutes in Chabad fashion. He will heat up some sweet potatoes and chicken and get you some salad even if rushing off for his home.
So what do Panamanians think of Jews? There is not much to think as there is little that they know. They know when they give Jews money for products and they know when they get money from Jewish businessmen when they work with them. They see Jewish SUVs and they see Jews walk to temples.
In Panama as in many other places in the region, Jewish people rarely interact with the poor. The rich do business with the Jews and there are some friendships here and there, but for the most part with such a large community, the religious keep to themselves while the secular integrate into the society. Unlike in other places, the secular are not afraid to admit that they are Jewish, they just don’t like to be associated with the Panamanian Jewish.
Why not? They consider it it is a club or a clique. The synagogues are guarded and one must have permission to enter, two Presidents have been Jewish and many other influential people. Panamanians see what Jewish people do as far as their impact on Panama but are the Jews really Panamanian? To most Jews and non-Jews they are distinctly Panamanian.
Like other Panamanians, they are self-assured and talkative. They are proud of creating a nice community where one can be a strict follower of Judaism. They welcome Jewish refugees from all over the world and enjoy their earned success.  Most Panamanians feel isolated with the world and maybe one day, Panamanians will find out about their connection to the world via Jews, about their unique Jewish community and as the two come together, they will value eachother. Panamanias will value Jews for the progress and Jews Panamanians for letting Jews settle in such a tolerant and prosperous place with beautiful beaches, lush rain forests and colorful towns that dot the isthmus of Panama.


3 thoughts on “Panama Jungles in a Metropolis”

  1. I forgot to say we have this rainforest spot " cerro Ancon" in the city because we are a tropical country, we like the mixing of the nature with our "metropolis", it gives a unique and special touch , that you will not see in Manhattan, well they have their central park, so you see, they like a little of bit of green too.PACE

  2. Thanks for reading and even more thanks for your comments Megan! I'll work more on my article. You see, I could only write about the opinions Panamanians gave me whom I met and unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to meet you. Although I think your opinion would have been the small minority of Panamanians who have access to computers because even though the country is four million, it is no where near development of let's say Norway which is also 4 million. You see it's not about quantity of people that defines the progress, it is all about how you use those people and the education that you give them, or don't give them. But I think you missed my main critique, which was the United States and not Panama, because it was United States which has been profiting from the Canal all these years. However now that Panama is profiting from the canal it is about time you lift the poor and give them education, don't you think?As far as our noses… I just want to let you know that the comment is a little racist. Some Jews have big noses and that's the ones you identify Jewish but most do not and you probably just assume that they are not Jewish because you attribute big noses to Jews.. it is a common mistake by a lot of people… Kinda like if I assumed that all Panamanians are rich just by spending time in downtown Panama City instead of going to Casco Viejo or San Blas or any other parts where poor Panamanians live.But all that aside it doesn't bother us that some people think we're not attractive. We are a people who prefer brains to beauty, because beauty lasts two decades max while brains last a lifetime. However just to show you the Jews you've been missing, here's a list of just some of the cute Jews out there… Maybe you've heard of them? Levine Kunis,Natalie PortmanHarrison FordScarlett JohansonAdrien BrodyJames FrancoBen HarperLenny KravitzSammy Davis Jr.Kate HudsonGwyneth PaltrowAndy SambergI could go on but there's a wiki page for that ;). So see, we are a lot more divers than you thought, just as Panama is a lot more diverse than I wrote. We all have our faults :)

  3. You didnt like the "nose" comment don¨t you? You turn defensive and want to prove me that not all jews have ugly noses….Well i turn out defensive too because you were attacking us emphasizing so much how POOOOORR Panama really is….I don¨t know who told you that we were a first world country, NO, we do know that we are are a third world country with many issues that we need to work on, problems that need to be solve, we don´t believe we are superiors but we don´t believe we are inferiors either,…..We are progressing and we are happy for that, we love our country so much and that is why we don´t emigrate like many others, as mexicans and colombians…Prove of that? how come we have so many inmigrants ( and no, i am not talking about rich inmigrants) i am talking about thousands of colombians, dominicans, people from Nicaragua etc that see Panama as the "American dream" Panama offers to those people what their country didn´t , they come with nothing trying to apply for a servant job or being a butler in a restaurant or do what ever to survive…..Panama is one of LATIN AMERICA, NOT EUROPE, most dinamic economy, i repeat, we are in progress we are not comparing ourselfs with Japan, Australia France, etc we just want to get closer to a better Panama that is all!PSD. And no honey, i am not multimillionaire, i am not the presidents daughters, if you think so just because i am writing in english and using a computer hahahaa,In fact, talking about computers and education, the government gave laptops to all those kids that attend public school and don´t have access to computers, so even the poorest, at the least younger ones have access now…..It has been a pleasure to clarify some points we you and sharing opinions….Bye my jewish friend, your are always welcome to my country just as the rest of your people :)

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