Tag Archives: Judaism

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 Jews of Kochi, India

Even though you know exactly where the water taxi is headed, the first glimpse of the sign at the end of the dock can be unsettling for any Jew steeped in the dark memories of Russian pogroms, the Warsaw Ghetto, and the Holocaust:

However, a name some might consider insensitive is actually giving directions to a fascinating and historically important neighborhood of Kochi (formerly Cochin), the capital of Kerala state in southwestern India.

Jews have lived in Kochi for centuries, although their precise arrival date is a matter of debate.  Some scholars argue that Jews first appeared following the reign of Solomon and the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE.  Others assert they were Spanish merchants of the second century BCE trading for pepper and other rare spices.  Some historians claim Jews settled in Cranganore, an ancient trading port near Cochin, after the sacking of the second temple by Roman legions in 70 AD.   Unfortunately, none of these historical arguments can be substantiated, and the earliest firm evidence of a Jewish presence in southwestern India is a set of copper plates dating to 1000 AD that record grants of privilege to the Jewish community from the Emperor of Kerala.  In 1524 Muslims attacked the Jews of Cranganore over a trade dispute.  They fled to Kochi where they flourished under the protection of the Rajah of Cochin who gave them liberty to practice their religion and deeded land near his palace for homes, shops, and synagogues. Residents called this area “Jewtown,” a name it maintains to this day.  In the early 1600s the Portuguese occupied the city and persecuted the Jewish community as part of the ongoing Spanish/Portuguese Inquisition. This abuse lasted until 1660 when Kochi came under the rule of Dutch Protestants who were accepting of this Jewish presence.  Again the community prospered, first under the Dutch and then, starting in 1795, the British.  By the 1940s Kochi was home to thousands of Indian Jews and a vibrant ethnic community of merchants, traders, and scholars.  However, with the creation of the State of Israel many in the community emigrated; those that stayed saw either their children or grandchildren leave. The population decreased rapidly and today only a few dozen Jews, most quite aged, still call Jewtown home.

Interior of the Paradesi Synagogue in Kochi, India

Although most Jews are gone, reminders of their 1,000-year presence still abound and offer insight into a religious community that few know anything about.  One of the earliest houses of worship in Jewtown, the Paradesi Synagogue, was completed in 1568, and it is the last functioning synagogue in the city.  (100 years ago Kochi had seven Jewish houses of worship.)  The word Paradesi means “foreigner” because at the time of its construction most members were “white Jews,” a term Indians used to identify first-generation Jews of European and Middle Eastern descent.  The synagogue is an exquisite building in the Sephardic style and houses historically important Torah scrolls, gold crowns, a floor of 18th century hand painted Chinese porcelain, and the original copper plates given to Joseph Rabban, the earliest known Kochi Jew, in 1000 AD.  On the outer wall is a tablet inscribed in Hebrew from an even older synagogue (no longer standing) constructed in 1344.

Religious services are held every Saturday morning, but as there are no longer any rabbis, services are led by elders of the community.  Jewish visitors are welcome as this is often the only way to obtain a minyan, the quorum required for conducting public prayer. Afterwards guides conduct tours of the building and describe the long and fascinating history of the Kochi Jewish community. In 1968 the synagogue celebrated its 400th anniversary with a ceremony attended by Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi.

Typical Religious Symbols Inscribed on the Windows of Buildings in Jewtown

Following your visit to the synagogue it is interesting as well as informative to stroll along “Jew Street” to see reminders of this ancient community etched into the architecture of virtually every store and home, even though for the last 60 years most merchants and residents have not been Jewish.

Store in Jewtown Selling Religious Artifacts and Souvenirs

An enjoyable way to complete your visit is to shop for a memento of this once proud community.  A couple of Jewish residents sell religious antiques, handicrafts, and souvenirs to the few Jewish tourists who make it to these distant shores.  The stores carry ceremonial objects used for the Sabbath celebration–e.g., tablecloths, wine glasses, challah covers, candle holders–as well as items used in Jewish festivals, including menorahs (candelabra) for Hanukkah, Seder plates for Passover, and groggers (noisemakers) for the raucous holiday of Purim.

Jewtown is located in the Mattancherry neighborhood of Kochi, a 30-minute boat ride from the main Jetty in the central city. Half-day (3-4 hour) tours of Jewtown are available from virtually every travel agent in Kochi, and they include boat transportation, meals, and English-language guides.  They often include other sights of interest in the Jewtown area, including the Rajah’s Palace, Fort Kochi, Bishop’s House, and the Chinese Fishing Nets of Kublai Khan.

(Read about our no-cost holiday to India following a six-month working vacation in Mauritius in On The Other Guy’s Dime: A Professional’s Guide to Traveling Without Paying.)