Monthly Archives: June 2012

Passover in the Land of Allah, Buddha, and Shiva

During our first months in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (62% Muslim, 25% Buddhist, 9% Hindu), we celebrated Id Al Fitri, the Muslim festival ending Ramadan, Chinese New Year, and the Hindu holiday of Thaipusam. Now it is our turn. As it gets closer to the Jewish holiday of Passover, my wife Ruthann and I are determined to have a real Seder, complete with Haggadah, matzoh, and concord grape wine.  The problem is we can’t find the fixings and, except for one American couple in our apartment, we can’t locate any Jews!  Since I am in Malaysia under the auspices of a Fulbright grant, I contact the cultural attaché at the U.S. Embassy who, after numerous emails and phone calls, manages to locate a single Jew!  In this modern Asian city of 1.4 million, there are no synagogues, no Jewish schools, no kosher butchers, and exactly one permanent Jewish resident—Mr. Gary Braut, an Orthodox Jew from Brooklyn.  Gary was in the U.S. Merchant Marine and, on a tour of duty to SE Asia, had shore leave in KL. He liked what he saw and returned to start a new life. He opened an auto parts business that became quite successful and provides him with wealth, comfort, and ability to live an observant lifestyle in a city with absolutely no Jewish resources.

Gary Braut And Some of His Multicultural Staff at Precision Automotive Co. in KL

Gary is proud of his religious heritage and enjoys sharing holidays with any other Jews in town as well as those with no knowledge of Judaism–just as we have shared unfamiliar Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist festivals with friends and neighbors. A few weeks back he placed an ad in the New Straits Times (the main English language newspaper) saying, and I quote:

Passover Seder.   Let’s Break Matzoh Together.  Everyone Invited.  A Young Rabbi from Brooklyn Will Officiate. Call 03-XXXXX for Details.

Menorah Made From Used Auto Parts

It sounded interesting and we decide to go.  We drive to the specified location only to realize the Seder is not being held at home but in his auto parts factory, which is easily identified from the large menorah (candelabra) constructed of used mufflers and tailpipes. It is strange celebrating Passover in a foreign country, but even stranger holding it in a warehouse surrounded by machine tools, compressors, and ball bearings.

Gary has spared no expense in planning this celebration. There are boxes of Streit’s matzoh and bottles of kosher wine air freighted in from the U.S. There is homemade charoses (a ceremonial dish made from fruits and nuts) and matzoh ball soup prepared by Muslim women in burkas and headscarves.  They have no idea of the significance of these ceremonial foods but, nevertheless, do an excellent job. The biggest surprise is the presence of Velvel, a 23-year old rabbinic student from Brooklyn, complete with the payess (side curls) and tzitzis (fringes) worn by all Orthodox Jewish men.  He flew in from New York to lead the Seder for this one evening.  Afterwards he travels to Surabaya, Indonesia to minister to a dozen or so Indonesian Jews.

The other fascinating thing is the audience.  There are 35-40 people, but only six are Jewish—Gary, the rabbi, my wife and I, and the other American couple in our building.  The remaining 30 or so are Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists who are friends, employees, or locals who simply saw the newspaper ad and are curious to learn about this strange celebration. Most of the non-Jewish attendees are knowledgeable about Israel and the political unrest in the Middle East, probably due to Malaysia’s anti-Zionist foreign policy, but few appear to know anything about the religion. Their tone is friendly, inquisitive, and extremely polite.

There are Haggadot (Passover texts) for everyone, including comic book Haggadot for the children.  The rabbi does an explanatory Seder rather than a rigorously religious one, describing the history of the Jewish people, the role of the Torah (with parallels to the Koran and Bhagavad-Gita), the story of the Exodus from Egypt, and the reasons behind such symbols as the matzoh and four cups of wine. The attendees are fascinated and listen intently.  They ask numerous questions—from “What is this strange writing?” (Hebrew) to “How did Moses part the Red Sea?”  (tradition says with the help of God).  The rabbi carefully and thoroughly answers each question in a manner worthy of a skilled classroom professor.  The Seder lasts almost two hours but I hardly notice as I am enthralled by the questions, discussions, and explanations of this religious potpourri.

Following the ceremony we eat a delicious meal of fresh fish, hard-boiled eggs, potato salad, tomatoes, cucumbers, and kosher wine. We have salmon for the main course since, according to religious law, its distinct orange color let’s you know that you are eating the flesh of a kosher animal.  With other species it can be difficult to distinguish between kosher and non-kosher.  (The nearest kosher butcher is in Singapore, 300 miles distant.)  The meal is prepared by observant Muslim women using brand new pots, pans, and chopsticks to ensure they meet the strict Jewish dietary rules for cooking utensils.

When it is time to leave, our host presents all attendees with a gift—a bronze coin containing a likeness of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.  Velvel explains the role of the rebbe in Orthodox Judaism by comparing him with a Hindu guru–a teacher and guide who leads the way to wisdom and understanding.  It is fascinating to hear a rabbi speak so knowledgeably about Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism.

That was a truly unique Seder.   Even 10,000 miles from home it felt comfortable to retell the Passover story, eat traditional foods, drink kosher wine, and sing traditional songs.   Now I feel embarrassed that I have chosen to hide my beliefs from departmental colleagues.  At my university it is customary to send cards to everyone in the department, regardless of ethnicity, wishing them a “Festive Chinese New Year” or “Happy Id Al Fitri.”  I myself received many such greetings, even though my colleagues know I am neither Buddhist, Hindu, nor Muslim.   However, when we first arrived staff at the U.S. Embassy, being overly cautious, asked me to maintain a low profile due to the rigid anti-Zionist stance of most Malaysian officials.  I was told that while no one would do me any harm, it would be best to keep mum on this issue.

However, attending this multicultural Seder convinces me to end my self-imposed silence. Malaysia prides itself on being a society in which all traditions live together in harmony.  In that spirit I decide to “come out of the closet” and send cards to my colleagues wishing them a happy Passover and explaining the holiday’s significance.  Then I sit back and nervously await the repercussions. Thankfully, there are none.  Instead, I receive notes and emails from my Chinese, Malay, and Indian co-workers thanking me for the good wishes and telling me how much they enjoyed learning about my religion and about a holiday of which they knew little or nothing.  Their curiosity and questions about Jewish practices and traditions continue over lunch and coffee for many days.

(Read more about our cultural adventures in Malaysia in On The Other Guy’s Dime:  A Professional’s Guide To Traveling Without Paying.)

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The Endless Steppes

Within the soul of every Mongolian is the desire to live a rural, nomadic lifestyle unencumbered by the noise of the city and the smothering nearness of one’s neighbors.  On most summer weekends the capital of Ulan Bator, a city of well over one million, empties out as residents head to the mountains, the Gobi, and the steppes—those never-ending oceans of grasslands that cover well over half the country. Some people enjoy outdoor sports with horseback riding, hiking, and archery among the most popular. Swimming, boating, and water sports are a little more difficult in this frigid, landlocked country where water temperatures rarely rise about 55 degrees, even in mid-summer.

My Wife, Ruthann, Sitting On The Steps of Our Yurt

However, organized activities are not the primary purpose of these weekend outings. Many just relax in their yurts—felt covered tents—and enjoy the fresh air, endless vistas, and lack of cars, noise, and crowds. They join family and friends in groups that may total a dozen or more, eating; drinking vodka, beer, and ayrag (fermented mare’s milk); sharing stories; singing traditional folk songs; and experiencing a bit of the rural lifestyle that their parents and/or grandparents led before moving to the city and leaving the nomadic life behind–not unlike the dude ranches and campfire gatherings that try to recapture the spirit of  the American West.

The “Road” To The Yurt Camp. Which Way Do We Go?

On one July weekend my wife Ruth and I were invited to join Dr. Lkhagvasuren, the president of Genghis Khan University, his wife, Chugilma, and Nomiko, a young female student and translator, for a weekend holiday at a yurt camp 150 miles away. About one hour outside the city the paved road gave way to unmarked, rutted dirt tracks crisscrossing the grasslands in what appeared to be random geometric patterns. Lkhagvasuren, who had driven the route many times, navigated this vast, empty wilderness with a smile and an air of sureness that I took to be supreme confidence in knowing exactly where he was headed.  Fortunately, he did.

Dinner Being Prepared In Our Honor

Four hours later we arrived at the camp where a dinner was to be prepared in our honor, an honor that included selecting the sheep we would eat and watching it dragged kicking and bleating from its pen, slaughtered, and gutted in front of us so we might personally appreciate its girth and fattiness. After a few too many vodka toasts and the singing of some American folk songs at our host’s urging (I tried my hand at “Home, Home on the Range” and “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore”), we sat down to a very fresh mutton dinner. However, rather than the chops and roasts we were expecting, we dined primarily on the animal’s innards–stomach, heart, liver, and intestines. To Mongolians, these are prized delicacies and, as the guests of honor, it was presented to us as a special treat we were expected to consume with relish and gusto.

We ate (and kept down) as much as we could only to see the remaining offal brought to the table the following morning. As difficult as it was to eat this for dinner, a breakfast of cold sheep intestines soaking in milk exceeds even my ability to transcend cultural differences.  Fortunately, we were able to convince our gracious hosts that we would be quite content with toast and tea for our morning meal.

While I could not recommend the food, these amazing cultural experiences are what makes a working vacation so utterly unique and so totally different from your typical family vacation.  You really must try it.

(Read more about our Mongolian adventures in On The Other Guy’s Dime: A Professional’s Guide To Traveling Without Paying.)

The Three Wise (Business) Men

Mongolians have a saying “The Gobi is not one desert but a hundred.” It is the largest desert in Asia, covering 35% of the country, but unlike the Sahara it is a crazy-quilt mixture of mountains, steppes, and plateaus, but only 4% sand.

However, today that 4% is our destination as my wife and I enjoy a vacation from Genghis Khan University where we are both teaching.  We set out in an old, Russian-made Jeep for an area called Khongoryn Els (the “Singing Dunes” in Mongolian), a remote wilderness of rose-colored dunes, some reaching the height of a 60-story building.  The 40-mile drive from camp traverses a roadless, trackless terrain, containing not a single village, not a single farm, hardly a single person.  After an hour or so the landscape changes rapidly from flat gravel plain to a rolling seascape of sand, and the driver parks our vehicle just below one of these massive formations.  We jump out, like children at the beach, and gaze at the uninterrupted vistas and stark beauty of this place. We scamper up the dunes, run down, and climb back up again, taking endless photos and drinking in the utter and complete silence.  My wife and I look at each other fully aware that we are standing in the most sparsely populated region of the most sparsely populated country on Earth and quietly contemplate that isolation.    That is until…

Mongolians and Their Camels in the Gobi Desert

We turn around to see three Mongolians, three camels, and a dog lumbering up the dune.  They seem to have materialized out of thin air as a 360o scan of the area reveals no villages, no yurts, no dwellings of any sort.  Are they rangers?  (This part of the Gobi is a National Park.)  Do they need food or water? Are they part of a commercial caravan to Dalanzadgad, the only town of any size but well over 100 miles distant?  Worst of all, do they wish us harm?  (Our driver is relaxing in the Jeep at the base of the dune, quite far away and out of earshot.)   When they reach the top they dismount, smile, (we breathe a sigh of relief), open the pack carried on the back of one of the camels, and proceed to set up and display their wares–an impressive collection of handmade Gobi souvenirs!

Portable Souvenir Shop in the Middle of the Remote Gobi

Aside from our surprise at encountering anyone in this trackless wilderness, let alone three Mongolian entrepreneurs, we do not understand how they knew we were coming.  We saw no one on the drive, passed no telephone poles, saw no WiFi “hotspot” signs, not even a smoke signal on the horizon.  Yet, somehow our presence quickly and efficiently triggered their arrival and the creation of this portable tchotchke shop. My wife and I could only laugh at our earlier imaginings of being in the remotest place on Earth–true, but not too remote to conduct a little business.

We haggled, bought a stuffed camel for our grandson, paid for it, and smiled back at them, our only common language.  Once they realized we were finished buying, they bundled up their wares, loaded them onto the pack camel, and trudged back down the dune.  We wanted to see exactly where they were heading, but they passed out of sight over the next hill, probably to locate other tourists who will, like us, marvel at their unexpected appearance.

(Read more about our experiences living and working in Ulan Bator, Mongolia in my travel book On The Other Guy’s Dime.)