The Thing I Carried

Trip Start Jul 20, 2006
Trip End May 10, 2007

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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Politics and Religion Converge on Jewish holidays around the World

I carry my Judaism with me wherever I go, from Central America to South East Asia, the Jewish holidays have been the one thing packed in my trusty backpack on my travels around the world.  In college I took Philosophy 101 and we read Tim O'Briens, The Things They Carried. I knew I carried a few things with me wherever I went, but I never thought it was my Judaism.

 I began Hannukah '05 by throwing an annual fundraiser for Jewish World Watch benefiting the genocidal crisis occurring in Darfur, Sudan. Hours later I boarded a red eye headed for Managua, Nicaragua. From Central America I moved to South East Asia and in a spur of the moment decision, jumped on a plane for Bangkok, Thailand, only to arrive days before Rosh Hashana '06 and conveniently in the middle of a coup d'etat. Hannukah '06 was spent in Chiang Mai, Thailand teaching Jewish traditions to Buddhist's while making spicy potato latkes. Wherever I went, I carried with me that one thing - the unique trait of being a Jew in today's world.

I celebrated Hanukkah '05 with a Jewish family from South Carolina in Montelimar, Nicaragua. A beach resort once owned by the Nicaraguan dictatorial family, the Somoza's, until the successful Sandinista uprising which culminated in the late 70's. While, my visit was void of the raids, roundups, tortures, and murders that marked the Somoza regime, it hit close to home knowing that my people had too undergone similar brutal treatment for years under harsh dictatorships.

I moved to Thailand shortly after my trip to Central America as a World Partners Fellow working with American Jewish World Service (AJWS). AJWS is an international development organization that fosters civil society, sustainable development and human rights for all people, while promoting the values and responsibilities of global citizenship within the Jewish community. Motivated to pursue global justice in the international community, I left my job at a Southern California Reform congregation and moved to Northern Thailand.

Just days before the Jewish New Year, in a random act of spontaneity I left my hillside home in Chiang Mai for the bustle of Thailand's capital city, Bangkok. In America, Rosh Hashanah had always been a time for self-reflection and new beginnings. But, this year I saw Rosh Hashanah in a new light, in a new country, with a new government. For me, this years Rosh Hashanah came in the form of a coup d'etat, another new beginning for the Kingdom of Thailand and a completely new beginning for me as I carried my Jewish faith along for the ride from a Catholic country at Hannukah to a Buddhist country for Rosh Hashana.

It was September 19th, and I had flown to Bangkok to visit some Israeli friends. Later that evening, I witnessed a military take control over its democratically elected government. Tanks rolled past bars packed with people and soldiers began to line the streets in strategic locations. I was witnessing one of Thailand's coup d'etat's and I had a front row seat. Another chance at Democracy, or lack thereof, new beginning for Thailand, just as the Jews prepared for their new beginning.

When Hanukkah came around a few months later I lit the candles on the first night with my brother who was here visiting from the states. On the 5th night, a fellow AJWS volunteer from Boston and I celebrated with our Thai friends. We lit the candles together, explaining the festival of lights, and taught them how to make potato latkes. We watched as our friends experimented with the Latkes and made them uniquely Thai tasting. While they tasted the traditional latkes with apple sauce and sour cream, they found the taste too bland so, we added chili peppers to the batter and watched as they smothered theirs with wasabee paste and dipped them in soy sauce - a Japanese culinary addition. Just how far would my Jewish heritage expand through the world this year, I thought?

As Christmas day approached people started to wish me a Merry Christmas, and though I tried to accept the merry cheers for dear old St. Nick, I also struggled to teach the Thai people that I was Jewish and we did not observe this holiday. It was because I was a white westerner that it was assumed that I celebrated Christmas. I tried to explain to one Thai University student that I was Jewish.

"Jewish?" he asked. "Yes, Jewish - a major world religion," I said. He gave me a stumped look, "the state of Israel" I insisted. He still looked puzzled, "WWII and the Holocaust!" I exclaimed. He still did not get it. It was a white westerners holiday, "Merry Christmas!" he declared as he walked off from the conversation.
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