Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Jewish Buenos Aires

With kosher steak abound, and tango music filling the air, Buenos Aires is home to one of the world’s most elegant communities. Argentina boasts one of the largest Jewish communities in the world, and the largest in South America; the community stands at roughly 250,000, with the vast majority living in Buenos Aires. It is a community with a rich history, yet has concurrently suffered through calamities that have punctuated the last half century.

Buenos Aires is home to more than 80 synagogues, including the magnificent Central Synagogue, with its stunning black and gold Toledo-style half-dome above the ark. The synagogue is lit with incandescent candelabras and light pours through the immaculate stained-glass windows that depict events from the Torah. Buenos Aires is also home to more than 70 Jewish educational institutions that cater to all levels of and stages of Jewish learning.

I spent Yom Kippur in Buenos Aires, and enjoyed a reform service at the Bet Hillel synagogue that could best be described as “theatrical.” The service took on a Broadway essence, as the prayers were sung by the Rabbi and cantoress dressed in white, and accompanied by a five-piece orchestra. The Argentine couple standing next to me at services remarked, “In Argentina, we have a style of worship that combines Jewish traditions with Argentine flair.”

The first Jews that arrived to Argentina were conversos, who came to escape religious persecution from Spain during the period of the Spanish Inquisition. However, Jewish immigration began in earnest following Argentina’s independence from Spain. Following its independence, Argentina carried out an open-immigration policy. During the 19th century, waves of Jewish immigration found their way to Argentina, first from Western Europe- primarily France, and later from Russia to escape the pogroms. There were also smaller waves of immigration by Sephardic Jews from the Ottoman Empire and Morocco. Jews settled throughout the country, and there were even Jewish gauchos (Argentine cowboys) that roamed the pampas and founded the colony of Moisesville with the philanthropic help of Baron De Hirsch.

While the Jewish community of Argentina has thrived throughout its long history, life hasn’t always been dulce de leche. The 20th century was bittersweet for the Jewish community of Argentina. The Jewish community thrived in the business, fur and textile sectors, and made considerable contributions to Argentina’s cultural life including in tango music and to Argentine cinema. Under the presidency of General Juan Peron, Argentina was one of the first countries to recognize the Jewish state. Yet also during this period, Peron halted Jewish immigration to Argentina and allowed Argentina to become a haven for escaped Nazi war criminals including Adolf Eichman and Dr. Josef Mengle.

Meanwhile, during the period of the “Dirty War,” when Argentina’s right-wing military junta ruled from 1976 to 1983, the Jewish community suffered considerably as many Jewish intellectuals, left-wing sympathizers and anti-junta activists were murdered or became part of the desaparecidos- the disappeared. A Jewish mother, Rene Epelbaum, helped found the group “Madres de La Plaza de Mayo,” an organization that stood up to the military junta and marched weekly to obtain information regarding their disappeared loved ones.

The Jewish community suffered further tragedies with the bombings of the Israeli Embassy in 1992 and the bombing of the AMIA (the Argentine Jewish Association) in 1994. The Israel Embassy bombing in1992 killed nearly 30 people, including members of the Israeli diplomatic mission and local Argentine employees. The AMIA attack in 1994 killed 85 people, and wounded another 230, as well as destroying the Jewish community’s archives. In the wake of the AMIA bombing, the Argentine community at large came out to demonstrate its solidarity with the Argentine Jewish community. The two attacks are believed to have been carried out by Iran- through Hezbollah; to this day no one has ever been prosecuted for the crimes. Argentina has issued international arrest warrants for those high ranking Iranians believed behind the attacks, last month, Interpol voted to issue red wanted notices -the equivalent of being placed on the Most Wanted list for the international police agency.
More recently, as Argentina suffered through the 2001 financial crisis, the Jewish community was especially hit hard; Jewish communities from around the world played a role in assisting the Argentine Jewish community to get back on its feet.

One such organization to play such a role has been the American Joint Jewish Distribution Committee. The Joint runs numerous social assistance centers, including a center for elderly Jews, as well as a Baby Help Center, where I volunteered for two months. The Baby Help Center assists Jewish families with child care support and basic pediatric needs, as well as providing the beginnings of a Jewish education for these toddlers. While I was there, my class of adorable two-year olds celebrated Hanukkah around the menorah, and received an extra-special surprise; a girl named Rachel from the United States had sent all the children wonderful stuffed animals as gifts for Hanukkah, personally addressed to each boy and girl.

Hanukkah was also celebrated with grand festivities by Chabad, which held a huge party at the Plaza Uruguay. Over 3,000 people came out to watch the largest menorah in South America be lit up, as a klezmer band played and people munched on kosher chorizo and hamburgers, while the night ended with fireworks flaring across the Buenos Aires skyline.

Despite the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish community of Argentina, it is a community that continues to move forward. As the scars of tragedy and travails continue to heal, the Jews of Buenos Aires are expanding the Jewish communal institutions that nurture the community, while Jewish teens eat their kosher Big Macs at the kosher McDonalds at the Abasto shopping mall, and their parents glide the night away to the tango melody.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Jewmaica: Mincha at the Blue Lagoon

(As it originally appeared before J-Post editing)

Nestled under the cover of clouds rolling over the majestic Blue Mountains, I arrived to funky Kingston, the capital of Jamaica, searching for a tale about the Jews of Jamaica. Like so many of my tales, the story found me almost immediately.

As is often the case, it all began when I was lost. I had been in Jamaica for all of an hour, and I was stopped on the side of the road, looking at my guidebook and trying to find my way to a guesthouse. A car stopped on the side of the road, and a woman asked where I was going. She was going nearby to my guesthouse, so she invited me in for a ride. As we were driving, I quickly found out that the driver, Deborah Binns, was a member of the small yet vibrant Jewish community of Jamaica.

In classic Jewish hospitality, Deborah took me back to her house to feed me, meet the rest of her family and to learn about the Jewish community of Jamaica. As I learned from Deborah and her mother Yvonne, as well as many other member of the Jewish community I spoke with, the tale of the Jamaican Jewish community is a long and storied one.

In speaking with Dr. Marilyn Delevante, who wrote a history of the Jews of Jamaica, entitled, The Island of One People, she noted, “the Jews of Jamaica were the first permanent inhabitants of the island.” Jews began coming to this island haven of refuge in the wake the Expulsion from Spain in 1492.

Legends contend that the Jewish presence in Jamaica stretches all the way back to Christopher Columbus’ second voyage in 1494, where he “discovered” Jamaica. The occupants of his ship consisted of a few Jewish marranos who came to the island to escape the Inquisition.

Jews continued coming to the island while it was under Spanish control, with reports of a boat full of Spanish-Portuguese conversos landing in 1530. When the British took over Jamaica in 1655, the Jews were able to practice openly and freely, and the community grew and flourished.

In the coming centuries, the Jewish community would prosper as they took part in the trade and commerce in Jamaica. Jewish entrepreneurs were involved in the sugar, banana, and vanilla trade. Jews were also involved in the rum business, with Jamaica’s most famous rum distiller, Appleton Estates, being once Jewish-owned.

Jews were even involved in piracy, as told by Dr. Delevante in a story about the pirate Moshe Cohen Henriques. She noted that Moshe Cohen Henriques was a Jewish pirate known for his cruelness; yet, as the legend goes, Henriques would never harm anyone on the Sabbath.

The Jewish community of Jamaica was also involved in cultural and literary endeavors, on the island including the founding of Jamaica’s largest newspaper, The Daily Gleaner by two Jewish brothers in the 19th century. In the realm of education, Jewish contributions include the Hillel Academy in Kingston- a prominent school founded by the Jewish community that today is open to all students. Jews were actively involved in politics; in 1848, 8 of the 47 members of Jamaica’s Parliament were Jewish, and the Parliament was closed for Yom Kippur.

The Jewish population of Jamaica once stood as high as 5-6,000, but immigration, assimilation and political instability during turbulent times in the late 1970s led to a decrease of the community.

Today, the Jewish community stands at roughly 250-300 people in the whole island. Most Jamaican Jews live in Kingston, but there are pockets of Jews throughout the island, including Israelis in Montego Bay connected with the Israeli construction company Ashtrom. Israel’s Zim shipping is also found in Jamaica, using its harbor in Kingston to ship throughout the Caribbean and Central America.

As Shabbat came, there was a tremendous rainstorm coming down (I was there the week preceding Hurricane Dean), and the streets of Kingston practically had rivers flowing through them. I gave up waiting for the rains to die down, so decided to “swim” my way to the synagogue. I waded my way through the rivers, and pools of water in the streets went up to my thighs, as I trudged my way to the Sha’are Shalom synagogue in downtown Kingston. I arrived, soaked but eager to welcome the Caribbean “Shabbas Bride.”

I entered the whitewashed Sha’are Shalom synagogue, and found a synagogue filled with Jews of many different hues. I was greeted with the rich baritone voice of the cantor Dr. Winston David, and the sound of the synagogue’s pipe organ. That Shabbat, there were 20 Jewish souls; during the High Holidays, the synagogue becomes full, with nary a vacant seat.

The Sha’are Shalom synagogue, the island’s only remaining synagogue, is complete with a mahogany bimah and ark. It is unique for the soft white sand that covers its floor. The sand is to serve as a reminder for the times during the Inquisition when Jews were forced to pray in their basements to avoid detection, and sprinkled sand on the floor to help muffle the sound.

Following services the next day, I perused the small Jewish museum beside the synagogue and spoke with the community’s spiritual leader Stephen Henriques (yes, same last name as the pirate). The community has been without a rabbi for nearly 30 years, but Mr. Henriques has helped fill the void for the community. Mr. Henriques was quick to note how well the Jews of Jamaica have gotten along with their neighbors and stated that there had been no significant anti-Semitism to ever plague the community.

Given the isolation of the island community, inter-marriage has been common. But Mr. Henriques noted that nearly all children of inter-marriage are brought up Jewish. He wanted the outlying Jewish world to know that the Jewish community in Jamaica exists, that it has a rich history and that it is still active today.

Given the separation of the Jewish community of Jamaica with the outside Jewish world, the Jewish Agency recently sent a shaliach to Jamaica to help strengthen the link between the Jamaican Jewish community and Israel and the outlying Jewish diaspora. Alon Gildoni, a 23-year old from Ramat Gan, has been ably serving in this position for the last 9 months, and has really connected himself with the community. Alon also helps provide the community with a Zionist perspective that can be offered only by someone who has lived in Israel, as well as presenting knowledge of Orthodox Judaism to the community. Alon also serves as an educator and resource to the Jewish community, helping prepare kids for their Bar Mitzvahs and teaching courses on Judaism and Zionism. Spiritual leader Stephen Henriques praised the young shaliach, and commented that having a shaliach around has enhanced the community significantly and made it more aware of what’s going on in Israel and the Jewish world.

There is another link that connects Jamaica to the Jewish world. Every year, Chabad sends two shilchim to Jamaica to ensure the smooth working of the community. While I was at the supermarket with Alon, his best friend Shidos- who was visiting from Israel- and David (a French Jew studying in Jamaica), we were able to observe the kosher food situation as we scoured the supermarket looking for kosher products to serve to the coming shilchim, who were fortuitously arriving while I was there.

While there is no kosher meat in Jamaica, there are imported kosher products that can be found in supermarkets, enough that we could make a nice spread for Levi and Sholom- the visiting Chabad emissaries. Levi and Sholom had landed in Montego Bay to visit with the Jewish community there, as well as visit the Israeli workers with Ashtrom, and had come to Kingston to meet with the community there.

With a little free time after the Chabad shlichim’s visit, the whole crew of Jews went on a road trip out to the Blue Lagoon in Northeast Jamaica’s Portland province. After a swim in the turquoise waters and Blue Lagoon, we chatted it up with some local Jamaicans, who were curious if Levi and Sholom were either “Muslim or Sikh.” The Jamaicans looked on with slight confusion as the Chabadniks rocked in their davening by the Blue Lagoon.

Despite the lack of recognition of Orthodox Jewish garb, Jamaica is a very biblically conscious society. Many Jamaicans can recite chapter and verse of the bible by heart, and there are multitudes of churches all over the island. Biblical passages can be found all over town- on billboards and signs above bus stops. There is even a taxi company called “El-Shaddai.”

Jamaicans attitudes to Israel seemed positive, and when my Israeli friends told people they were from Israel, the response was often simply a reply of “bless.” Meanwhile, Jamaica’s other religious sect- the Rastafarians- have cultural and religious links to Judaism and the Torah. Jamaica could prove to be a real untapped opportunity for the Israeli Ministry of Tourism to promote tourism to Israel. Meanwhile, there were surprisingly few Israeli backpackers that I encountered- a real surprise given the island’s mellow vibe.

My travels in Jamaica ended just days before Hurricane Dean hit it. As the tiny island paradise is struggling to deal with the after effects of the storm, my thoughts and prayers are with Jamaica and its extraordinary Jewish community.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Tales of a Wandering Jew: The Jewish state, abnormal as ever

In my travels across Asia, from Far to Middle East, I encountered Jewish communities in various stages of development. Some such as the one in Saigon, are just beginning to build the foundations. Others such as those in Beijing and Shanghai are rapidly growing in numbers and communal development.

And others, such as Cochin and Cairo, are in the twilight of their days, working to ensure that their cultural heritage will continue after their communities are no more.

These issues are only relevant where Jews are the minority. What of the only place where we form the majority? Where does this community stand? What are its people up to, and how are they getting on? What tales can be told of the Jewish community of Israel? Describing the Jewish State is a whole 'nother proposition.

I returned to Israel after four years; for almost three of those, I was honored with the privilege of speaking and writing on her behalf; promoting her wonders, her achievements and her diversity; ardently defending her during her travails.

As always, some things had changed, but most remained exactly the same; my two weeks traveling Israel from top to bottom showed me that life in the Jewish state was as abnormal as ever.

In my wanderings through Israel, I always found people who defied my expectations. One person I met on a beach in Tel Aviv, Nathan, was involved in the settler movement and had just returned from protesting against the army at Homesh in Samaria. Fascinating fellow, 'cause he sure didn't look like a Kahane-quoting settler supporter. He was wearing preppy Western clothes and no kippa. Interestingly, his views on the security services are similar to those of an uber-leftist guy I met on the bus in Jerusalem, who was involved in the International Solidarity Movement.

This guy was wearing a kippa and looked like a yeshiva student, and mentioned he was going to "the territories." Then he said he was in ISM and was going to a far different part of the territories than I expected. So the settler supporter is in Abercrombie & Fitch, while the super pro-Palestinian Jew sports a kippa. Only in Israel.

I arrived just in time for Pessah, and was reminded of just how special it is to be in the Jewish state for this holiday. It began with the bus driver who wished all his passengers, with all his heart, a happy Pessah.

It continued with the foods that can only be found here, such as the kosher-for-pessah burgers at McDonalds, the spongy-laffa wrapped shwarmas in Kikar Dizengoff, and the matza-wrapped deep-fried hot dogs at the kiosks. Meanwhile, the supermarkets had cordoned off the hametz aisles behind plastic wrap, as if there was some kind of pornography sitting on the shelves.
The Israel I returned to is far more bustling than during my previous visit. Four years ago, Israel was still grappling with the daily insecurities of the second intifada; today the security situation seems much more under control, the center of Jerusalem was more packed with life. Perhaps this is due to what feels like a stronger security presence.

Tourism also seems to be on the rise, with far more foreign faces wandering through the Old City, and far more people floating in the Dead Sea. And the Israeli girls were far more beautiful than I remembered. Cheers to the Foreign Ministry and Israel21c for promoting Israel through its bevy of beauties in Maxim magazine, truly a good way to show off Israel's best assets.
While security seems to have improved, the aftershocks of the Second Lebanon War are palpable. In Haifa and the Galilee, I saw places where the katyushas had rained down, and I heard in the voices of residents resignation that a new war was just around the corner. I found general pessimism toward the current government and its ability to handle the problems that Israel faces.

Israelis have an attitude I could perhaps best characterize as "optimistic fatalism," a sense that somehow things may be much worse in the future, so I better enjoy today. Israel remains as confidant yet unsure of itself as ever.

At times, I found Israelis so focused on the present that they seemed to lack a real sense of how far we have come as a people. As Winston Churchill said, "The farther back you look, the farther forward you can see."

This sentiment was echoed at the new Herzl Museum on Jerusalem's Mount Herzl, whose moving presentation showed how far the Jewish people have come in little more than a century, going from stateless wanderers to be being free in our historic homeland. The dynamism of the Jewish community of Israel, and the renaissance of Jewish life that is found only in a country that we can call our own, is a tale of wonder to this wandering Jew.

Paul Rockower served as the press officer for the Consulate General of Israel to the US Southwest in Houston from 2003 to 2006.
Read about all my misadventures on my blog at http://levantine18.blogspot.com, see the pictures from my misadventures at http://picasaweb.google.com/levantine18, and read my "Tales of a Wandering Jew" series at http://talesofawanderingjew.blogspot.com.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Jews of "Paris on the Nile"

After an amazing, wonderful two weeks wandering Israel from top to bottom, I made my way on to the Sinai for a "reverse exodus" with my already-overloaded backpack filled to the brim with matzah. In far less time than it took the Israelites to cross the Sinai, I arrived in 'Eretz Mitzrayim," and to Cairo- my final destination.

In the heart of Coptic Cairo, the oldest part of present-day Cairo, there remains the Ben Ezra Synagogue. Down a sunken staircase, and through a walled alleyway, Egypt's oldest synagogue can be found. There are several legends related to the Ben Ezra synagogue and its location. It is believed to be the site where Moses was found, lying in a basket amid the reeds, by Pharaoh's daughter. It is also believed to be site of the temple of the Prophet Jeremiah, and the location where he gathered the Jewish exiles following the conquest of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians.

The shell of the synagogue dates back to the 4th century, when it was a Christian church. In the 9th century, the Copts sold the church to the Jewish community to meet the tax demands of then-ruler Ibn Tulun. In the 12th century, Rabbi Abraham Ben Ezra of Jerusalem, who became the namesake for the current structure, restored the synagogue.

Over the centuries, the synagogue was subject to further renovations, and the final product is stunning. The two-story synagogue is complete, with swirling mother-of-pearl inlaid walls, and ceilings covered in geometrical patterns of stars, rectangles and pentagons, as well as floral patterns and a Star of David in the center. Just under the ceiling, black-and-white capped marble arches sit. Marble-coated columns line the synagogue, and a marble bimah sits in the middle. Two twisted metal candelabras stand just beyond the ark, which is intricately carved in wood and mother-of-pearl, under a gilded temple motif and "ten commandments" slabs.

Although the Ben Ezra Synagogue is no longer a fully functional synagogue, it is still used to celebrate some holidays, such as a recent Hanukkah celebration. It was also the sight of a recent Bar Mitzvah for the son of an Israeli diplomat. Meanwhile, nearly 1,800 tourists visit the Ben Ezra Synagogue each day.

Of the 29 synagogues that existed in Cairo, only 12 remain, with only 3 remaining in any functional use. Besides the Ben Ezra Synagogue, there is still a working synagogue in downtown Cairo known as the Sha'ar Hashamaim Synagogue and another in the suburb of Ma'adi.

Egypt was once home to one of the most storied Jewish communities, with the community reaching upwards of 80,000 in the early 20th century. For centuries, Egypt was a center of Jewish learning, with a number of Jewish luminary scholars such as Maimonedes and Rabbi Isaac Luria calling Egypt home. In the beginning of the 20th century, the Jews of Cairo played vital roles in the business, banking and retail sectors as Egypt slowly built a modern economy; in the days when Cairo was considered "Paris on the Nile," the Jews of Cairo thrived.

The Jews of Egypt were so entrenched in Egyptian society that in the early 20th century, many Egyptian Jews opposed the Zionist movement, and the Association of Egyptian Jewish Youth proclaimed in its manifesto, "Egypt is our homeland and Arabic is our language." One Jewish community leader, Rene Qattawi, went as far as to write a letter to the World Jewish Congress, urging them to cease the calls for a Jewish state, and rather advocated that Egypt be considered as a place of refuge for Eastern European Jewry.

Unfortunately, the latter half of this century saw a new exodus for Egypt's Jews. Agitation against the Jewish community in the 1940's, through to Israel's independence and later 1956 Sinai War lead to the rapid diminishment of the historic Egyptian Jewish community. Today there are between 100-200 Jews remaining in Cairo, as well as staff of the Israeli Embassy and other assorted Jews connected to various diplomatic missions. The remaining community is elderly, and mostly comprised of women.

I met the embodiment of the remaining Jewish community when I stopped at the gorgeous art deco/art nouveau-style Sha'ar Hashamayim Synagogue for Shabbat. I arrived on the Sabbath morning, and was the only one there except for Joumen, a lovely elderly Jewish matron at the synagogue desk. Joumen spoke Arabic and French, but no Hebrew or English. We briefly discussed the remaining community in Cairo. She said that the community gets its kosher food from Israel. The Shabbat services are sparse, but the community comes together to celebrate the holidays at the Sha'ar Hashamayim Synagogue, most recently for Passover. She had been to Israel before, and enjoyed her trip but considered Egypt home. "The situation was difficult at times, but it is fine now," she said. The peace process between Israel and Egypt had helped ease the situation for the Jews of Egypt, and led to restorations of Cairo's synagogues.

When the Jews began steadily leaving Egypt, they left many of their religious books behind at various synagogues. Following the Camp David Accords, protocols between Egypt and Israel stipulated for creation of Jewish Heritage Libraries. The first Jewish Heritage Library was inaugurated October 1988 at the Sha'ar Hashamayim Synagogue. I received a small tour of the library by an Egyptian guide who actually spoke Hebrew, which he studied in university in Egypt. The library holds 7,000 books in various languages and subjects- collected from synagogues, schools and homes. The library's prize possession is a 500-year old Babylonian Talmud, which was printed originally in Italy.

In addition, while I was at the Ben Ezra Synagogue, I spoke with Abdelhamid, a librarian at the Jewish Heritage Library located there. Interestingly, he also spoke Hebrew, owing to studies at Tel Aviv University where he learned about the Jewish people. He noted that the Ben Ezra Library, currently under renovation, was established in 1998 and holds 3,000 religious and historical books in Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino and Judeo-Arabic. He also mentioned a third library, connected to the Kariate community.

Abdelhamid also mentioned that the Ben Ezra Synagogue was made famous in the mid-1890's, for the discovery of a geniza, a cache of historical documents and letters. More than 100,000 documents were unearthed, some of which dated back to the earliest years of the synagogue, painting a clear picture of Jewish life over many centuries in Cairo; these documents are today found in academic institutions, museums and libraries throughout the world.

While the Jewish community of Cairo may be fading, the efforts to preserve this historic community's legacy and heritage as found in its synagogues and books help to ensure that the Jews of Egypt will never be forgotten.

O' Jerusalem

I was anxious with anticipation as I made my way to Israel. The journey through the hills and valleys of Jordan was stunning- verdant green and covered in olive trees. My shared taxi descended to the King Hussein/Allenby Bridge, and I cleared Jordanian customs. After I took a bus across the border, and I saw the symbol of my people flying proudly in the desert. My heart fluttered like the blue-and-white flag in the desert winds, and I sang "hatikvah" to myself.

Even if I were more eloquent, even if my pen was more obedient, even if my words did glow, I would be incapable of describing the sensation, when after 5 months of exhausting journey through lands foreign to me, after 4 years of absence, I made my accent to Jerusalem and spied her ancient walls. Of the 75 cities I have visited in my travels, none are more special or moving than golden Jerusalem. In the words of Amin Ma'alouf, in the book Leo Africanus, "Holy city, but full of impieties; idle city, but one which gives the world a masterpiece everyday."

I took the bus from the border to Jerusalem and trudged my way to the Jaffa gate, where I made my triumphant entrance. Only slightly less triumphant than Allenby himself, cause he didn't have to lug a 22 kilo sack. I wandered through the alleyways I know so well, and went directly to the Kotel. I went straight up to the wall, bag and all, took off my hat and put my head against the cold wall that is the last remnants of our holy temple. I was literally trembling as I said my prayers. While I was praying, a bird's white feather landed at my feet. I collected it and finished my prayers.

It has been nearly 4 years since I was last in Israel. Almost 3 of those years, I was honored with privilege of speaking and writing on her behalf; of promoting her wonders, her achievements and her diversity; of ardently defending her during her travails.

My words fail me because my emotions on returning are far too plentiful. I have joyously returned to the land of my forefathers. I return to a land where I have friends like family. A place where I constantly discover family that I never knew I had- family from the "old country." I return to a land where the people always amaze me with their joie de vivre, their joy in life. For a land tarred in the media as a war zone, I am always so amazed that so many still leave their front doors unlocked at night- something I would never dream of in America. It is a land where I hold no citizenship, but I am always one of its people.


As I welcomed my first Shabbat back in Israel, as I watched the night fall like a benediction over the eternal capital of our eternal people, all I could think of was the blessing that my father recites over his children each Sabbath and pray the same for Israel:

"May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord shine his countenance upon you. May the Lord be gracious unto you and grant you peace."

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

East Bank

I arrived in Jordan hoping to find a "warm" peace between Jordan and Israel; what I found was at times as cold as the snow that blanketed Amman's many hills.

Many Israelis hold affection for the late King Hussein, and respect for the incumbent King Abdullah II. I can't say I found much similar sentiment from Jordanians toward Israel. While I encountered considerable warmth as an American, and acceptance as a Jew, the general sentiment toward Israel was antagonistic.

Jordanians I met on a minibus to Madaba said, "In America, there are good people and bad people, but in Israel, there are only bad people."

I scoffed at them, and asked how many Israelis they knew. Not a single one, they answered. I did find a few Jordanians who replied to me in Hebrew when I mentioned I was a Jew. A friend's father surprised his own son as he conversed with me in Hebrew, thanks to his days studying in Jerusalem. He said he held warm affection for Israel. The range of feelings I witnessed could hardly be classified as black and white.

If peace is the absence of war, the treaty between Israel and Jordan is holding firmly, and there remain substantial ties between the countries. "We have a peace treaty since 1994, 12 solid years of peace. It is stable and important for both peoples and both sides, and helps bring stability to the region," says Lironne Bar-Sadeh, the deputy head of mission at the Israeli Embassy in Amman.

Since the peace treaty was signed in October 1994, links have expanded on many levels. In areas such as agriculture, the environment and business, there have been solid developments and considerable cooperation. Between Israel and Jordan, there are 13 Qualified Industrial Zones that host more than 50 factories, allowing Jordan to export goods duty-free to the American market. These symbols of cooperation boost Jordanian trade and employment.
Israel and Jordan have many common interests, notably regarding water. They share resources at the Dead Sea, and cooperate on the Red-Dead plan in an effort to preserve this common treasure. And MASHAV - the Foreign Ministry's development arm, is bringing a group of Jordanians to Israel for a workshop on water conservation and desalination.

Meanwhile, there are creative ideas for increased cooperation such as a shared airport that would allow tourists to land in Aqaba and take a train to Eilat. Another proposal being discussed relates to the shmita year, in which the Land of Israel is supposed to lie fallow, to allow the import of produce from Jordan.

Around 20 Israeli NGOs work with their Jordanian counterparts on areas ranging from the environment, cultural and sport exchanges, medical projects and empowerment for women; at least a half-dozen of these NGOs are involved in intimate people-to-people exchanges.
While I was in Jordan, I visited with many campers from Seeds of Peace, which I worked for as a counselor last summer. The camp brings together teenagers from across the region, as well as from India and Pakistan. They learn that the other side is not the monster they've been brought up to believe.

These Jordanians spending time with their neighbors from the other side of the Jordan River, were a wellspring of hope. Their words and sentiments were proof of the power of dialogue and the hope of better relations between neighbors. As personal connections slowly increase between Israelis and Jordanians, as well as ties on governmental and nongovernmental levels, we can hope for a more robust peace to slowly build.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Dubai- where Disneyland meets the Desert

Amid the swirling sands sweeping across the Gulf, I arrived to the United Arab Emirates. I found a kingdom of black gold shining above the golden desert. Awash in petrodollars, the Emirates is an oasis of avarice and opulence. Like Israel, the Emirates have also "made the desert bloom." Palmyra lines the roads, and there are lush green areas to picnic and play, under the ever-expanding skylines. Meanwhile, it is a cultural mosaic with people from all over the Middle East, Europe, Africa, the Americas and Asia, coming to shop, work and live out their champagne wishes and caviar dreams.

Dubai was unlike any city I have ever visited. It is a strange Middle Eastern combination of Miami glitz and Las Vegas surrealness; Disneyworld meets the desert. While I was in Dubai, I visited the Mall of the Emirates, a posh shopping mall where you can actually go skiing on a mountain of snow. Yes, you can ski in the middle of the desert. With its lavish stores, the Mall of the Emirates could make Rodeo Drive blush. Walking through the mall, I was as surprised by the shoppers as the stores they were patronizing.

Although many women were in veils and abbayas (cloaks), I started to pay attention to what is beneath them. When I stopped focusing on the black, I started noticing all the sequins that adorn the veils and abbayas. Veils with colorful patterns that sparkled, and even ones with fox-fur lining.

I noticed the mascara shading the eyes peeking out from behind the slits. I saw the fancy watches and jewels that adorned the wrists of these guardians of modesty. All the fancy high-heels and painted toes that treaded just below the black crape. Designer sunglasses sitting on top of veils, and designer hand bags that lay tucked under the arms. I even passed by a lingerie store, and saw these black veiled ladies shopping for lace and silk. Perhaps we have been focusing too long on the veils to notice the fashionistas hiding just beneath. There were teen girls with tons of makeup on their faces, wearing designer jeans and shoes, covered just slightly by veils that were more like cloaks than anything else. They were climbing the artificial rock-wall in the Mall's arcade area, and screaming from the heights of the indoor roller coasters.
Meanwhile, the super chic sheikhs treaded around in their impeccable white dishdashas (robe dress-shirts), with designer high-end sunglasses just below their keffiyahs and headdresses. Wires of the latest mobile phones wrapped out of their robes, or sat in wrapped around their fingers like prayer beads; a far different kind of call to prayer.

While I was in Sharjah, King Abdullah of Jordan was in Washington, DC, speaking to Congress and the White House about the Saudi Peace Plan. I decided to gauge people's feelings to this peace plan and the idea that if peace was agreed upon, Israelis could flock to the Emirates' multitude of shopping malls. I first spoke with a Bahraini man named Muhammad, who was staying at my hostel and visiting his daughter studying in Sharjah. His feelings were that with the resolution of the Palestinian question as outlined under the Saudi plan, he would have no issue or problem with Bahrain or any of the Arab states having ties with Israel. He stated, "Palestine is a symbol to the Arabs, and without coming to an agreement for a Palestinian state, it is not possible to move forward. But if the Palestinians have their own state, I have no issue with Israel."

A few days later, I was in Abu Dhabi, at the ritzy Marina Mall. I was sitting in Starbucks, sipping a cup of coffee next to a traditionally-dressed Arab man named Abdulrahman from Abu Dhabi. I spoke to him about the Saudi plan, and his views were diametrically opposed to my previous interview. He stated that it was not possible for peace between Israel and the Arabs. "The Saudi plan will fail like all the other plans before it because the Jews in Israel will never agree to a real peace. They will never allow a fully independent, viable Palestinian state with full sovereignty. There will never be a true peace," he commented. He said even if there was an agreement on the Saudi plan, which he didn't think possible, and even with normalization of relations between the Emirates and Israel, he didn't want Israelis coming to shop the mall we were now sitting in.

He went on to lecture me about the nature of the Jews, and "informed" me that the Jews of Europe were really descended from Gypsies. The look on his face was priceless when he then asked my religion, and I replied that I was Jewish. With that said, he went on to state that he wasn't an anti-Semite because he too was a Semite and that Jews but not Israelis were welcome in the Gulf, and shouldn't feel uneasy. Gee, thanks for the welcome.

When I was back in Dubai, I spoke with my fellow residents of the youth hostel. Speaking with a Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian, Egyptian and Palestinian, I discussed the Saudi plan with this veritable "Arab League." The general consensus of the group was that the Saudi plan is a way forward for all sides. While no one had any affinity for Israel whatsoever, no one had any qualms about their own respective countries having ties with Israel if the Palestinian question was resolved. No one was championing the destruction of Israel, or the Palestinian "right-of-return," but all felt strongly that peace and normalization with Israel centered on a Palestinian state.

As an American Jew in the Emirates, I really felt no problems. Granted it helps I speak some Arabic owing to studying in Morocco and learning the language in college. People were shocked first that an American spoke some Arabic, and doubly shocked when they asked my religion and I replied "ana Yehudi." Sadly, I can't say it would have been as easy if I was an Israeli. But with all my discussions with various people about the Saudi plan, and what the region would look like in its wake, over time things could possibly be different. I'm sure the naysayers, who "know the Arabs," will deride this piece as sheer naiveté, but how well can you really know the Arabs if you have never seen them skiing or shopping with reckless abandon.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Pulling away the veil over Pakistan: Kite-flying, lattes and suicide bombers

With great apprehension, I crossed the border from India into Pakistan, and made my way into Lahore. I quickly realized my fears and worries were misplaced, and my preconceived notions of what Pakistan would be like were quickly dispelled. Pakistan was utterly iconoclastic.

I expected to find essentially a "Muslim India," some combination of Saudi Arabia and India. Rather, most women were dressed either in Western style, or in a vivid display of colored and floral pattern veils and robes. While some were in black, eye-slits only veils, most guarded their modesty in a rainbow of colored ones that loosely covered their hair. Meanwhile, while some Pakistani men looked straight out of the Taliban, others looked straight out of a Pakistani GQ.

Lahore is an utterly cosmopolitan city, with all the trappings of Western life, including McDonald's, KFC, Dunkin' Donuts and even a Pizzeria Uno. Lahore also has a very developed cafe culture, with locals sipping lattes all hours of the night.

"Fortune favors the bold," as Jules Verne wrote in Around the World in 80 Days; this applied to my arrival in Lahore, as I came just in time for Basant, a huge spring kite-flying festival that Lahore celebrates with utter glee.

People fly kites, shoot fireworks and party royally. The night was aglow with lights and kites. Music was pulsating and people were dancing on rooftops across the city. Giant fireworks lit up the sky and raced across the purple horizon, and the crack-cracking of celebratory gunfire filled the air.

An Afghan introduced himself to me, and said he hated President Bush. I found similar attitudes among native Pakistanis. A cab driver named Tariq said, "I hate President Bush, but President Clinton was good. Maybe Clinton's wife will be the next president, and things will be better between America and Pakistan."

Next I visited Rawalpindi, the twin city of Pakistan's capital Islamabad. While I was there, Vice President Dick Cheney was in Islamabad for a meeting with Pakistani President Pervez Musharaf.

In the Western press, the meeting was characterized as Cheney pressuring Musharaf to do more in the war on terror. But every Pakistani I met said it was really related to Iran - US designs to attack it and demands for Pakistani support for such a strike.

Pakistanis I spoke with were uniformly critical of the war on terror and America's invasion of Iraq. One questioned how America could have blundered so badly in Iraq as to turn Saddam Hussein into a symbolic martyr. Moreover, when it came to 9/11, I heard conspiracy after conspiracy theory even from the most educated of Pakistanis.

On a night train from Multan to Karachi, I shared my sleeper berth with a Pakistani couple. We spent the ride discussing the relationship between the Islamic world and the West. They expressed their frustration that the West seems to think that all Muslims are terrorists. "There are fanatics in Christianity and Judaism too, but it seems that the media only wants to portray Muslims as terrorists," they said practically in unison.

The security situation in Pakistan was always looming in the background during my travels. As I was visiting Islamabad, two suicide bombers attacked the airport and a luxury hotel - far enough away from where I was wandering that I had no idea. I found out about the attacks the following day, noting also that four more suicide bombers in the cell were still on the loose.  Later in my travels, while I was visiting Multan and planning a day trip to another city, a bombing took place against an anti-corruption judge, and the police cordoned off the city, with no one allowed in or out.

With that said, the Pakistanis have an attitude that I would characterize as utterly Israeli when it comes to their security situation: they go about their daily lives and don't bother dwelling on the insecurities that exist within their society.

When the issue of Israel came up, I heard many different viewpoints. A Pakistani named Jad asked, "What does Israel matter to Pakistan? Has either country ever fired a shot at the other?" Others were more focused on the Palestinian issue - not questioning Israel's right to exist, but wanting to see the Palestinian issue resolved in a "just" manner.

I'm sure I could have found far more extreme opinions, but I spent a lot of time guarding my own identity and refraining from engaging in political discussions with people other than those I knew or with whom I felt more comfortable. The most ironic thing I heard from the Pakistanis is that they thought Israel to be a very dangerous country in which to live, based on what they saw on TV. I replied that there had been far more bombings in Pakistan during the two weeks I was there than in the last few months in Israel.

I found Pakistanis themselves critical of the situation in their own country. People said it seemed the only institution that really functioned was the army. Meanwhile, they spoke resignedly about the corruption that plagues their society.

Pakistan is a fascinating yet complicated place, filled with unbelievable hospitality and utter contradictions. The images we see of Pakistan are always of the little madrassas in the tribal areas, or anti-American/anti-Israel rallies, and never things like the Basant celebration or the cosmopolitan life of Lahore.

This wandering Jew had a fascinating two weeks there. And in a closing note, I would like to mention that my trip through Pakistan was conducted in honor and in the memory of Daniel Pearl, who will always remind me that "I am Jewish."

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Jewish India's crown jewel

In the days when the sun never set on the British Empire and Pax Britannia ruled the waves, the great port city of Bombay rose like a light in the East. With British Bombay's meteoric rise in the 19th century, the Jewish community of Bombay flourished. Now called Mumbai, the city still possesses a dynamic Jewish community.

Sir David Sassoon arrived in Bombay from Baghdad in 1833, and quickly built up a mercantile empire without rival.The company established branches in Calcutta, as well as in Shanghai, Canton and Hong Kong. Of his business empire, it was said: "silver and gold, silks, gums and spices, opium and cotton, wool and wheat - whatever moves over sea or land feels the hand or bears the mark of Sassoon and Company."

While I was in Mumbai, I had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Shaul Sapir, a professor of historical geography at Hebrew University. An expert on the Bombay Jewish community, he was there working on an upcoming book on the impact of the Jewish community on the city's landscape. He noted that Sassoon and his progeny were philanthropic to the highest degree. "What was Bombay, and is now Mumbai, still bears the imprints of the Sassoon donations and their landmark legacy," Sapir stated.

For his adopted home, Sassoon built the Victorian-style Mechanics' Institute, as well as a school for juvenile delinquents. He also endowed 60,000 rupees for a library, which was completed in 1870 and posthumously named after him. In appreciation for all his philanthropic deeds, the citizens of Bombay had a marble bust of him placed at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Meanwhile, Sassoon built the Magen David Synagogue, a beautiful blue synagogue complete with clock tower and frontal pillars, in the Byculla area in 1861. He built a second synagogue in Pune, his resort home, in 1863. He also built an elementary school on the grounds, dedicated to the study of Torah. The school was later expanded by his grandson Jacob Sassoon to a high school which is still in use today.

The Sassoon beneficence continued with David's son, Sir Albert Sassoon, who built the Sassoon Docks in the Colaba area, the first wet docks built on India's western coast. Sir Albert also gave contributions to Bombay academic institutions, as well as to the Jewish school his father founded.

The Sassoon legacy of philanthropy continued with Jacob Sassoon, who contributed greatly to the building of the Gateway to India, a triumphal basalt arch built in 1911 to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary.

While in Mumbai, I visited the Knesset Eliyahu Synagogue, a sky blue beauty in the Fort area of downtown Mumbai, built in 1884 by Jacob Sassoon in memory of his father Elias. I spoke with Ben Zion, the shamesh (caretaker) of the synagogue on the past and present of the community. According to Zion, 60 years ago the community numbered 15,000 members. "There was no place to stand in the synagogues for the holidays," remarked the caretaker. There were seven synagogues and two prayer halls to serve the community, and all are still in existence.

With the founding of both the State of India and Israel, the Jews of Bombay began leaving the country. Today the community numbers between 4,500 and 5,000 Jews. Mumbai is served by the Council of Indian Jewry, which is comprised of various organizations. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee serves the Mumbai community, while Chabad maintains a center here.

Mumbai has a ritual slaughterer to produce kosher chickens, and a mohel for circumcisions. There is also a kosher bakery, and kosher meals can be supplied to travelers. For those Jewish travelers requiring kosher food and a place to stay for the Shabbat, there is the Sassoon House, located on the Magen David Synagogue compound, which offers accommodation at nominal rates.

On the Jewish community's relations with its neighbors, Ben Zion stated "the community has mixed very well. We speak Hindi and Marathi, and we are all friends." This friendship was evident, as Ben Zion pointed out, in the riots in Mumbai in 1992-3, when communal violence was taking place between Hindus and Muslims while the Jews of Mumbai were safe.

Ben Zion casually mentioned that Israel's Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger was going to be in Mumbai that evening for a gathering at the Magen David Synagogue. No sooner had he mentioned this, than the chief rabbi walked through the doors and into the synagogue, flanked by Israel's Consul-General to Mumbai Daniel Zonshine.

I arrived at the Magen David synagogue, where the mood was festive. More than one hundred people packed the synagogue, to hear speakers from the community discuss the Bombay Jewish community's legacy, and to receive a blessing by the rabbi. Mumbai Jewish community leader, Solomon Safir, summed up the Mumbai Jewish community's essence in stating, "As small as the community might be, they are as small as diamonds and pearls." Mumbai's Jewish community will always remain a jewel in India's crown.

Paul Rockower served as the Press Officer for the Consulate General of Israel to the Southwest in Houston from 2003 until 2006. He is currently on a six month trek around the world. You can read more of his misadventures at his blog: http://levantine18.blogspot.com and see pictures at http://picasaweb.google.com/levantine18.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Ever-present Israelis in Goa

I knew Israelis were ever-present in Goa, when the first restaurant I stopped in, Shiva Cafe in Anjuna, Goa, had falafel, humous, schnitzel and shakshouka on the menu. I really knew Israelis were ever-present when the Indian waiter asked if I wanted my falafel in a pita or a lafa. Not bad falafel, humous, chips and salad in a pita for a place so far away from Ben Yehuda Street.
I really knew Israelis were ever-present in Anjuna, when at the famous Wednesday Market did I not only see tons of Israelis, and hear Hebrew throughout the air, but even found amid the bustling market a table with a yellow "moschiach" flag. Manning the table was a bearded young orthodox fellow, offering tefillin to the Israeli passers-by.

That young dati chap was Menachem Lenchner, who invited me back to the Beit Chabad. Wandering back from Anjuna's beach, lost on the back of an Indian friend's motorcycle, I passed by yellow signs in Hebrew for the Beit Chabad. I hopped off the bike and found my way to a large white house with a huge yellow "mosiach" flag hanging above.

Over fresh lemonade, I spoke with Menachem at the Beit Chabad. Menachem, from Rehovot, Israel, has been working as a shaliach in Goa for 2 months, with 3 more months on the itinerary. He showed me pictures of the different Chanukkah parties Chabad had throughout India; some of the Chanukkah parties were truly huge. Besides the Beit Chabad in Anjuna, Goa, there are eight other Chabad centers in India: Delhi, Dharmasala, Kasol, Manali, Mumbai, Pune, Pushkar, and Rishkesh. A few of the locations were cities that I had never even heard of.

I also spoke with Rebbetzin Maya Ephraim. Her husband, Rabbi Guy Ephraim was away in Florida, picking up a container of kosher goods. Jewish mothers the world over are all the same, and before I conducted the interview, the mother of 4 made sure I was well fed. After a delicious kosher Indian stew of chicken, potatoes and carrots, over rice with papayas and bananas on the side, I spoke with Rebbetzin Ephraim on Jewish life in Goa. This is the rabbi and rebbetzin’s second stint in India, a slightly more permanent one following a tourist season at the Beit Chabad in Kasol. The Rebbetzin discussed the importance of helping tend the flock of more than 100 families. In the Northern Goa area, there are more than 400 Jews presently residing, not to mention the scores of Israeli tourists and backpackers.

The Beit Chabad operates a gan for the Goan Jewish kids, and offers a weekly lesson for the children as well as festive holiday parties. Rebbetzin Ephraim stressed the importance of teaching the Jewish children who they are and where they come from, especially in a far away place like Goa.

The Beit Chabad also visits the local hospitals, to tend to the sick and also those injured motorcycle accidents. The Beit Chabad receives its kosher meat from the Chabad in Mumbai. Although there is no mikvah, the beautiful blue Goan sea offers a substitute. Between 20-25 people show up daily, for a little kosher food, to lay tefillin or just to relax in a Jewish environment; weekly Shabbat services run about 50-60, and draw as high as 80 people during the height of tourist season.

But the Israelis of Beit Chabad are only part of story of the Jews in Goa. Back at my guest house, where I had the penthouse suite, i.e. the roof with a mattress for 50 rupees, under the full moon and stars (easily the best accommodation in my long journey), the place was full of Israelis. Goa is so full of Israelis, that Goans I spoke with thought Israel was a huge country with 70 million people or so. Till late in the night, I hung out with a veritable minyon of Israelis- Israelis who had been in Goa for weeks and months, lounging and taking in the fun. The Israeli presence in Goa, and the Jewish life that surrounds it, is just part of the continuing story of our peripatetic people.

Friday, January 26, 2007

The Twilight of Cochin's Jews

Down the inverted pyramid that is India, nestled on the Spice Coast of Malabar, the Jewish community of Cochin resides. Sadly, it is a Jewish community in the twilight of its days. There are varied accounts of the history of Cochin's Jewish community. Some sources claim that the Jewish community dates back to the times of King Solomon, and after the division of the Kingdom of Israel. The earliest Jews to Cochin were known as the "Black Jews," while later inhabitants from Europe and the Middle East (Spain, Holland, Germany and Aleppo) were termed "White Jews" or "Pardesi." Later waves of Jews came in the 16th century from Portugal and Spain to escape the Inquisition.


Also during the 16th century, Cochin’s Jewish community was buoyed by the influx of Jews from Craganore, a port city that was home to one of the earliest Jewish settlements on the Malabar Coast. The Jews of Craganore fled to Cochin after they were attacked by Muslim inhabitants of Kerala backed by the ruler of Calicut, over their role in the lucrative spice trade. The Hindu Raja of Cochin offered the Craganore Jews protection and asylum in an area of town now famously known as “Jew Town.” In 1568, the Jews of Cochin constructed the Paradesi Synagogue, which is still in use today.

With the Portuguese takeover of Cochin, the Jewish community was subject to persecution. With the initial appearance of the Dutch, in the form of the Dutch East India Company in 1660, the Jewish community openly campaigned against the Portuguese Empire. When the Dutch were forced to withdraw from Malabar to Ceylon, the Portuguese carried out a campaign of retribution against the Cochin Jewish community, including the sacking of the Paradesi Synagogue in 1662. In 1663, the Dutch returned to displace the Portuguese, and ruled with tolerance toward the Jewish inhabitants. Meanwhile the Pardesi Synagogue was rebuilt in 1664. This tolerance continued after 1795, when the British East India took control and later under the British Empire.


After India gained her independence, the Jewish community of Cochin numbered approximately 3,000, and there were eight independent synagogues in Cochin. With the founding of the State of Israel, the exodus of the Jews of Cochin began, and increased after 1954. The majority of Cochin’s Jews moved to Israel, and there is now a large community of Cochin Jews in Moshav Nevatim, near Be’er Sheva.


In Cochin, the area officially named Jew Town still bustles with excitement and the smell of sweet spices. The block is littered with faded houses bedecked with Magen David ornaments in the windows and mezuzot on the doors. Stores like Sarah’s Handicrafts sells challah covers and yarmulkes. The elderly matron Sarah still runs the shop, and I spoke with her briefly as she gently kneaded her Shabbat challah.


Before we were greeted by the Sabbath, I spoke with Samuel Hellegua, an elderly member of the Cochin Jewish community. Of Sephardic descent, his family came to Cochin in 1592. In discussing communal particulars, since it is India, there is no kosher beef, but the community has kosher chicken. While there is no mikvah, Mr. Hellegua noted that the Cochin Jewish homes had wells that served as such. Although there is no rabbi in the community, he asserted that the congregation knew Jewish laws and customs, and is able to manage itself.


Mr. Hellegua stated that today only about fifty remain of the formerly sizable Cochin Jewish community, although I have read figures that the community is even smaller. Most of the community is elderly, and Mr. Helga painted a bleak picture of the community’s prospects for the future. He frankly surmised that within twenty years, there would be nothing left of this historic community and that the area that comprises Jew Town would probably be maintained by a foundational trust to preserve the legacy of this storied community.


Visiting the Paradesi Synagogue for Shabbat was truly a special experience. Over 70 Jews from all over the world came to celebrate the Sabbath at this unique synagogue. The floor of the Paradesi Synagogue is covered in blue-and-white tiles brought from China in 1762. Of the 1,100 hand-painted tiles, no two are alike. Crystal chandeliers and delicate colored glass lamps adorn the building, and illuminate the gilded ark. Over 500 Jewish tourists visit the synagogue every day during tourist season— the synagogue is not open to non-Jews or it would be overrun.
Yet according to Mr. Hellegua, tourism has been a double-edged sword for the community. The Cochin Jewish community is traditional, and conservative in its ways. Mr. Hellegua spoke of the frustration of the community at Jewish tourists’ inability to respect the synagogue and the community, by dressing immodestly or sneaking pictures— something that is prohibited. He bluntly stated that the community would rather not have a minyon than allow for someone immodestly dressed enter the shul. Sure enough, I watched Jewish tourists clad in shorts turned away, and frantically search for pants in the market. Meanwhile, I watched in shock as an Israeli next to me blatantly snapped pictures of the synagogue after the Sabbath had begun.


There was an unexpected surprise to the Sabbath evening in the form of one Israeli girl who was at the synagogue. In attendance that Shabbat was Etti Eleyahu, a mid-twenties Israeli of Cochin descent. Her father left Cochin for Israel in 1954, when he was 9 months old. She had returned to Cochin to visit, and to try to find remaining family. She said that although her place is Israel, it was wonderful to see the community and her own roots. Etti’s story is so much like the story of so many Jews; feet firmly planted in Israel, but a curiosity to see what once was hers. There was a time for the Cochin Jewish community, but that time has sadly passed; meanwhile the legacy and spirit of Cochin’s Jews will remain alive in Israel, in Moshav Nevatim and in Etti.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Post-Army Backpacking Israelis in Southeast Asia

In Israel, there are essentially three rights of passage: the bar mitzvah, the army and the post-army backpacking trip. When it comes to the post-army backpacking trip, the tiyul shehroor, Israelis go either "south" or "east." Going south entails a trip to South America, to places like Colombia, Brazil and Peru. Many more opt for east, as in Southeast Asia. In Southeast Asia, Israeli backpackers are ubiquitous. I have encountered Israeli backpackers all throughout Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and especially Thailand. Perhaps if the British had offered Thailand rather than Uganda, the offer would have been accepted.

The sound of Hebrew fills practically every hostel and guesthouse across the Orient. There are even places that cater to Israelis. I was in Vang Vieng, Laos, a pleasant town 150km north of Vientiane known for its relaxing tubing on the river. While I was there, I found a restaurant called "Sababa" (Groovy), complete with a Hebrew menu. They served chicken schnitzel that would make any kibbutznik homesick. Also ala carte were falafel, humus and Israelis salad.

Meanwhile Bangkok is chock full of Israelis. Kho San Road is complete with numerous guesthouses with not just signs in Hebrew, but also whole storefront windows in Hebrew offering rooms, tours and treks. There are restaurants like Shoshana's that cater to the Israeli diet. Shoshana's is owned by a Thai woman who speaks Hebrew and makes a mean shakshouka. Meanwhile, her wait staff of Thai girls all speaks a little Hebrew. Shoshana's was the original place in Thailand for Israelis, she predates the buildup of establishments that cater to Israelis. It used to serve as the focal point for Jewish life in Thailand. Now there is a Beit Chabad as well. When I stopped in, the Beit Chabad was abuzz with Israelis checking their emails and eating at the kosher restaurant.


Israelis come to Southeast Asia, not only because it is cheap, but also because it is neutral ground. Many in Southeast Asia have never heard of the conflict in the Middle East, and do not take sides. Whereas Israelis traveling to Europe or America can expect some discussion of the situation in Israel, in Southeast Asia it is beyond the scope of daily life.


I have met a few other travelers who did not speak as highly of Israeli backpackers. Those endearing Israeli qualities that some Israelis possess such as being straightforward and sometimes impatient have resulted in the creation of unfavorable stereotypes of Israelis. The most troubling example of this that I found was in a guesthouse on Kho San Road which had a sign at the check-in that said, "We don't accept Israelis (impolite and steal)." Notwithstanding these stereotypes, in reality, all of the Israelis that I have met have been warm, welcoming, and utterly respectful of cultural norms and values; even more than some Europeans and Canadians that I encountered (I haven't seen enough Americans out here to judge).


Backpacking Southeast Asia for Israelis equals an opportunity for freedom and a chance to decompress from army life. I have heard similar sentiment from many Israelis. Some compared their army service to the novel "Catch 22" by Joseph Heller, while others painted a much grimmer and more difficult picture of their service. This time for them represented a chance to leave it all behind.

On my way out of Thailand, I shared a minibus to the airport with an engaging Israeli named "Levi," who had just finished his army service and was on his post-army trip. He had been an officer in the intelligence division. Levi noted that the army is a very restrictive place, based on discipline and routine, while the life in Southeast Asia is the complete opposite. It is a life of freedom and opportunity for a little soul-searching. On the Israelis abroad in Southeast Asia, Levi stated that some come to travel for the sake of traveling, the chance to see new things. Some come to find themselves after an experience that stifles individuality; they come to find themselves after functioning as a soldier for multiple years. Others come for the party life, the drugs, drinking and dancing on a beach till the wee hours of the morning. Some simply come because it is the normal progression of Israeli life, and since everyone else is doing it, they come as well.

Levi asked a pointed question of himself and all Israelis doing their post-army trek, “why should I fly so far away to find something that is already in me?” The idea of looking for yourself in your travels is a question that I can acutely understand. The phenomenon of post-army Israelis backpackers will be a topic I return to, as I am now in India, the other favorite destination abroad.

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

A Wandering Jew in Luang Prubang

As I was searching for a place to stay in Luang Prubang, Laos, I passed by the Beit Chabad. As it was Friday night, I quickly stopped in to find out when Shabbat services started. After I dropped my stuff off at my $3 palace, I returned for Shabbat. When I arrived, I was the 8th person, not enough for a minyan. I thought I might be the last to arrive, but a steady stream of Israeli backpackers trickled in and we had more than enough.

After services, we gathered together for a lovely Shabbat meal. There were more than 30 people at the Beit Chabad, all of whom were scruffy Israeli backpackers, either coming over from Thailand or up from southern Laos as I had. Together, we enjoyed a lovely kosher meal of Israeli salads (including humous and matbouha), soup, challah and schnitzel. Songs of the Sabbath filled the air, as we sung "hennai mah tov" among numerous other melodies.

I didn't mean for my series to turn into a public relations piece for Chabad, but they are really the only ones out here maintaining any sort of Jewish communal institutions. The Beit Chabad in Luang Prubang serves as an outpost of Judaism, a place to find the familiar in a far-flung land. It is a beacon for Jewish travelers and Israeli backpackers, all of whom are quite thankful to find community and a kosher meal in the middle of Southeast Asia.

In Luang Prubang, there are 4 permanent Jewish residents, not including those connected with Beit Chabad. Because of the multitude of Jewish travelers as well as Israeli backpackers that pass through Luang Prubang Chabad Thailand opened a satellite branch in Laos. Luang Prubang was chosen over Vientiane, as travelers tend to spend more time in Luang Prubang while just pass through the sleepy Lao capital.

The Beit Chabad opened in Laos some nine months ago, just before Passover. For the first Passover Seder, there were 120 people in attendance. Nearly 70 people came for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Meanwhile, Shabbat services have a weekly attendance between 30 to 60 people.

The Beit Chabad provides Jewish communal services for the Jewish travelers that pass through. It offers a place of study, provides kosher food and assists travelers in numerous other ways such as contacting relatives abroad if need be. There is no mikvah for women, but there is a bamboo mikvah that men can use. The kosher meat is brought from Bangkok, where there is a shochat. A container of kosher milk products and other sundries is sent to Bangkok every year, and distributed to Beit Chabad in Laos. Meanwhile, some western kosher products can be obtained in the stores.

I spoke with Avraham Leiter, an amiable 22 year old from Tzfat. He has been in Luang Prubang for three and a half months, doing shaliach work at the Beit Chabad. Avraham explained the work that Chabad does, helping people without knowing them, as a basic precept and tenet of Judaism. He mentioned that the Beit Chabad would like to open a kosher restaurant in the future, and also possibly a tourist center. For now, the Beit Chabad in Luang Prubang ably carries out its mission as being a place of assistance for Jewish travelers, one that this wandering Jew happily appreciates.