Rabbis clad in the Orthodox suits stand upon chairs, clapping their hands with smiles on their faces as our makeshift congregation of travelers and expats clap along.
“Day-day-enu, day-day-enu, day-day-enu, dayenu, dayenu, dayenu,” we all sing together, accents melting into the chorus of the Passover song.
It’s the first night of Passover, the first seder, and instead of being with family or friends or out reveling in Songkran, which takes place simultaneously this year, I am sitting in a ballroom of the Centara Hotel in Chiang Mai’s red light district. I’m surrounded largely by Israelis who have come together on this special night to bring in Passover together.
It’s quite the interesting experience, particularly as someone who isn’t all that religious (read: not really at all) but is trying to find more meaning these days, thanks in large part to my Comfort Zone Project.
Sure, I’ve been bat mitzvahed, I’ve done the Birthright Israel trip (I highly recommend this trip for anyone who identifies themselves as Jewish, regardless of how religious or not religious one is). This May marks my third journey to my “home country.” I’ve always called myself a Jew, even though I don’t practice, and identify myself with the Jewish culture far more than the religion. After my first trip to Israel, I felt so connected to my religious heritage, I could not deny, even though I do not keep Sabbath or kosher, that my roots and my heart are planted firmly in Israel and Judaism.
Passover Seder isn’t my first experience being among other Jews in Thailand. Last summer, my best friends and I decided we wanted to visit the Chabad House for Shabbat one Friday night. The four of us headed there and spent a large part of the night unsure of what was going on — largely because only one of us spoke Hebrew. But still, it was an experience I was happy to have had. Surrounded by at least 100 others, we welcomed the Sabbath together.
It was unifying to sit with everyone and share this common bond, even though we were in a Buddhist country.
And, on the first night of Passover, I feel the same way. Within minutes, I meet and chat with Americans who are here on travel or teaching. While none of them are based in Chiang Mai, it is so comforting to sit together, getting buzzed on sweet kosher wine and talk about our lives and why we are at seder.
The event lasts nearly four hours. While the Rabbi who messaged me said to come at 6, we don’t even begin the service until well after 7. First, the men stand at the front of the room and pray for about 30 minutes, candles are lit, Hebrew conversations take place. We, the English speaking table, sit, waiting to start the seder.
Finally, we begin. The service is conducted in Hebrew and thankfully, we have a Rabbi who wanders between the two English-speaking tables letting us know where in the service we are. Then, we kind of wing it, taking cues from each other when to dip our fingers in the wine and let the droplets fall onto our plates to symbolize the 10 plagues, when to dip parsley (which is not parsley, but potatoes) into the salt water, when to drink the first, second, third and fourth cup of wine.
It is wonderful.
Even if the food isn’t what I expect. It’s Thailand. But, it is also my world. My memories which swirl in my head of seders past at my grandparents house, hiding the afikomen, driving home to my old house in Maryland just at the first sparks of spring when there is a slight dew in the air and crickets begin their warm weather songs … it is home.
We don’t get the horseradish or the homemade charoset, or even the matzo ball soup. However, we do get the experience of being a world away from our own family seders and having this new, makeshift family to share a special religious event with.
Chabad Chaing Mai: The Chabad House in Chiang Mai holds weekly Shabbat services and also doubles as a restaurant. Shabbat services are held Friday at sundown. During the high season, I suggest heading to Chabad at sundown so seats are still available for dinner. Prayers and the service last more than one hour. Expect to spend at least 2.5 hours there. Saturday mornings, Chabad also hosts a prayer service followed by lunch. While there is no charge to attend services or for the Shabbat meal, donations are encouraged. The rest of the week, Chabad is a kosher restaurant. Chabad is located at 189/15 Changclan Road, in between the Shangrila and Empress Hotels. For more information, contact Rabbi Yosef Pickel via cell +66 81 989 4438.