Friday, December 22, 2006

Sufganiyot in Saigon

Next of the "Tales of a Wandering Jew" series. This one will be in the Jpost, Jewish Herald Voice (Houston) and New Mexico Jewish Link.

While I was in Hanoi, I left my Hanukkah mark on my hotel. While the hotel staff were putting up Christmas decorations, I quickly drew a "Happy Hanukkah sign," complete with Jewish stars, to hang in the window next to Santa. I was on a train for the first night of Hanukkah, from Hue to Saigon, and I was unable to light candles. However, the next day I met two Israeli backpackers, Amir and Omri, in the lobby of my hotel. As it was the second night of Hanukkah, we decided to search for sufganiyot at the Beit Chabad. We arrived unannounced, but always welcome. Since it was the end of Shabbat, there were no sufganiyot, but we light candles with Rabbi Menachem Hartman, his wife Racheli and their son Levi. We were also invited to the Hanukkah party the next day.

The following day, I returned to Rabbi Hartman's house, which doubles as the synagogue for the Saigon Jewish community. The Hanukkah party was a festive affair, complete with candles, songs, latkes and sufganiyot. Of course, Hanukkah gelt and dreidels were present. The cast of characters at this Hanukkah party included Jews from all over the world: America, Argentina, Australia, Belgium, France, Israel and South Africa. Almost forty of us gathered together to celebrate the Maccabee triumph.

The permanent Jewish community of Saigon numbers around 200 people, from diverse backgrounds. Jews began coming to Vietnam about 15 years ago, as the Vietnamese government began opening its door to foreign development. Members of the permanent community include business people and doctors. Their numbers are buoyed by a steady stream of tourists, travelers and backpackers. Until recently, there was no Jewish infrastructure. Jewish families would get together for meals for the holidays, either in a hotel or home. But this all changed in the past year as Chabad made a permanent base in Saigon. Just a few weeks before Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Hartman and his family arrived in Saigon to serve, for all intents and purposes, as the "Chief Rabbi of Vietnam." For the first time, the Jewish community had a focal point for the High Holidays. Over 80 people came to the first Rosh Hashanah service held in Saigon in years. Many came as well for Yom Kippur services, and the community celebrated tashlich by casting their sins into the Saigon River. For Shabbat, there is usually a crowd of twenty five to thirty people.

Jewish communal life in Saigon is not easy. Rabbi Hartman shared an anecdote with me that when Rabbi Freundlich of Beijing is asked if he is crazy being the Chief Rabbi of Beijing, he replies "no, crazy are the ones in Vietnam." The closest Mikvah is in Hong Kong. Kosher meat is imported from Thailand and Hong Kong, while a container of dry goods is brought from Israel annually. Vietnam is rife with pork and shellfish, but there are some kosher products in the stores that come from Western companies.

At the Hanukkah party, I spoke with Dr. Dominique Meisch. She and her family have been in Saigon for five years, and she said she is grateful to now have Chabad there. Before Chabad arrived there was nothing. Now, her children go twice a week Chabad to learn Hebrew. Meanwhile, her son Julien is about to have his Bar Mitzvah, the first in Saigon since the French Colonial period. Her sentiment was shared with the other members of the community I spoke with.

I have since left Saigon, and I am currently in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I have been unable to light Hanukkah candles with anyone since I left Vietnam. I can appreciate a little of what the Saigon community must have felt for all those years. r. It really is a blessing to have an organization like Chabad to cater to the needs of the Jewish communities in far flung places.


sarala said...

These are wonderful stories. Thanks for helping preserve the past and present of Jewish life all over the world.
It is amazing to think of the Chabad houses in the Far East keeping Hannukah alive.

Leinad said...

more on Hannukah there. ENJOY!