I wanted to do something different this winter vacation other than Miami. Yes, Bal Harbour has a street lined with various kosher restaurants and two huge synagogues, but I wanted a new adventure. Panama has been popping up in my Instagram and Facebook feeds as the newest destination for the kosher traveler. I asked some friends who frequent the area and received rave reviews. Since my husband is Argentinean, I knew the language and culture would be familiar to him and translatable to me.
First, I had to explore Panama’s most famous fashion accessory, the Panama hat. The origin of the very popular hat was in the early 1500s, when Spanish conquerors first observed a mystifyingly beautiful headpiece worn by the natives of Ecuador. The rich and shiny material was like nothing they had ever seen before. The straw used was deemed sacrilegious by the superstitious Spanish explorers, who thought that the Ecuadorians were wearing vampire skin. Perhaps the most definitive and fashionable moment of Panama hat history occurred when they were showcased at the 1855 World Fair in Paris. None of this would have been possible without Manuel Alfaro, a man who in many ways is considered the grandfather of Panama hat history. This Spanish entrepreneur arrived in Montecristi in 1835 to make his name and fortune in Panama hat history, where his streamlined production process, coupled with business from the Gold Rush boom, ushered him into a new era of prosperity. Little did he know that it would become the most definitive fashion chapeau in history. Since I already owned one oversized version, I knew that it had to be packed for my Panama vacation.
The country did not disappoint - in fact, it was a better experience than I had imagined. Who would have thought that there would be finer kosher restaurants there than in all of New York City? There are 24 kosher eateries and two kosher supermarkets. The dragon sushi rolls at Kava, the Vegas Steak at Aria, the plantain pizza at La Spezia, and the triple cheese lasagna at Darna are just a few examples of the culinary masterpieces among TripAdvisor’s top five kosher restaurants in the city. According to Canadian Jewish News, “In a country of 4.1 million, Jews are very influential in Panama. The past 60 years has seen two Jewish presidents: Max Delvalle, who served for just under a month in 1968, and his nephew, Eric Arturo Delvalle, who was in office from 1985 to 1988. Jews also play a heavy role in tourism, retail and construction, and have financed many of the gleaming high-rise buildings and condominium towers in Paitilla.” (That explains the mezuzos on all the doors of the visitation center to the Panama Canal!) “‘We feel greater in number than 15,000,’ noted Allan Schachtel, whose family-owned companies include a major tourism firm, the cruise ship port and the ferry boats that deliver tours of the Panama Canal. Rabbi [Aaron] Laine [of Beth El synagogue in Paitilla] summed it up succinctly: ‘Take away the Jewish investment in construction in Panama and the country would still look like a shtetl.’” The Jewish community is so ingrained in the city that there are several synagogues, multiple schools, and a large community center. You need to fill out an extensive security form in order to gain entrance to these places. There are also several Chabad houses for Shabbos meals. Most hotels are within walking distance of a shul, and are accommodating to observance of Shabbos and Yom Tov. The Bio Museo is a must see. I thought it to be the most spectacular piece of sustainable architecture that I’ve ever seen. As this structure was designed by Frank Gehry, it’s as impressive on the inside as the colorful angular sections are on the outer layers. The old city of Panama, Casco Antiguo, is a fun place to shop for the handiwork of local artisans, indigenous people’s crafts, and endless versions of the Panama hat. If you are a beach person, you can explore the many little islands of the Caribbean, Pacific, and Atlantic Oceans. Or you can just sit by the park and watch the tankers and cruise ships line up to cross the great Panama Canal.
My suggestion is to think outside of the box of the ordinary and venture into the tropical paradise of Panama, where you won’t have to compromise a thing as a traveling observant Jew. Dine exquisitely, tour the oceans, cross the seas, relax under a palm tree, and don’t forget your Panama hat!
Tobi Rubinstein is a retired fashion and marketing executive of 35 years who currently produces runway and lifestyle events for NYFW, specializing in Israel’s leading artists and designers. She is the founder of The House of Faith N Fashion, fusing culture and Torah. Tobi was a fashion collaboration and guest expert for ABC, Geraldo Rivera, Huffington Post, Lifetime, NBC, Bravo, and Arise. She hosted her own radio and reality TV series. Tobi is a mother, wife, dog owner, and shoe lover.