Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Yom Kippur in Bangkok - Part One - September 23rd, 2010

Yom Kippur In Bangkok Makes The Hard Man Humble

It has been an extremely strange ride.

In all fairness, I would have to make this into three post, and therefore three chapters: Getting there, Being There and Getting Out.

Getting There.

To leave Vientiane, my home sweet home, and go to Bangkok is simple and comfortable. A little too comfortable as I was able to see for myself on the way back. All I had to do was go to any one of the myriad of tourist agencies in the central core of Vientiane town (all of three streets…) and buy a ticket. That ticket included a tuk-tuk ride to the train station on the Lao side of the Friendship Bridge, a train ride across the Friendship Bridge, a short wait in Nong Khai on the Thai side of the border, and an overnight ride in an AC sleeper and when you wake up you are in Bangkok.

Already on the tuk-tuk I was befriended by an English teacher from England who, despite the fact that he had lived in some pretty exciting places, was one of the most boring people I have ever spoken with. I can understand why he has trouble getting his students’ attention.

The Thai railway system is amazing. In fact, the entire country is pretty amazing. You cannot help but wonder how a country can function with almost European standard efficiency at such a low cost. And yet it does. Service on the train is fast and quiet, meals are brought and served hot, fresh linen are placed on the sleepers which are folded out by uniformed workers. Policemen patrol the cars and distribute pamphlets warning of the dangers of accepting food or drink from strangers.

But it was here that I met the champion of boredom! An American who looked kind of groovy caught me in his web and spoke non-stop about his life for almost an hour. I finally had to pretend I had to use the toilets just to escape him. An hour of my life I will never get back.

Bangkok is big. It is huge. It is Manhattan. Entering it by daybreak is crossing across thousands of drowsy lives; there are those who live by the tracks in sordid metallic huts; their morning fires lit for breakfast. In the distance are imposing glass and steel buildings, office towers and condominiums where the people you see in billboards live.

The billboards are everywhere and they sell everything you could expect in a modern industrial society, everything that will make the consumer look nice and smell good and happy and clean and well-fed with clever children smiling white smiles. How the two societies co-exist is a mystery to me and this may explain the Red Shirt movement.

The day after Yom Kippur I had to cross Bangkok by taxi to get to the computer super store and I was caught in a traffic jam caused by Red Shirts rushing off to a demonstration somewhere. They sat on the back of pickup trucks, happy and elated and being clearly cheered on by the crowd. People on the sidewalks would rush out and give them food and water. If I were whoever is in power I would listen up.

At one point I just stopped the taxi and walked. I stumbled onto a popular market with real people and real food and real garbage and real pig snouts.

On the train I also met some Israelis who had been tubing up in Vang Vieng but who were heading back to Bangkok for Yom Kippur.

The modern Hebrew traveler never ceases to amaze me. They may dress like rebels and have nose rings and tribal tattoos on their arms, but come a Jewish holiday or even a Shabbat and they rush to find a Chabad House.

I guess not everybody knows about Chabad, so here is a crash course – Chasidism for Modern Man, to plagiarize Martin Buber.

Many years ago a Jew named the Ba’al Shem Tov created a movement within Judaism called Chasidism, roughly translated as The Righteous. The emphasis in this movement was joy, dancing and ecstasy, as opposed to the more serious bent of Judaism up till that point. Those opposed to the Chasidim were the Misnagdim (also called the Litvaks), a group my family was part of.

OK, to make a long story short, over there in Russia and the Ukraine and other miserable places in Eastern Europe, over time every little village and town and shtetl had its own Chasidish Rebbi, a wonder-working charismatic figure to whom the Chasidic community would turn for spiritual guidance. These Rebbis formed courts and dynasties; their sons or sons-in-law would inherit the title of Rebbi for that community.

But over time, one Chasidic Court rose to the forefront because of their outreach to secular Jews, beginning in America, to bring them back to the fold. This Court is called Loubavitch named after the town they came from in Europe, and their super charismatic Rebbi was Menachem Mendle Shneerson. (Menachem has since become the most popular boy’s name amongst religious Jews. An old joke has one mother asking another, “So, what do you call your Menachem Mendle?”)

At any rate, if you are still with me, this thing mushroomed and sent shock waves around the world. Secular Jews started converting to Chasidism on mass, and then the thing hit Israel and Rebbi Shneerson formed a team of emissaries to found Chabad Houses all around the world wherever a Jew might need another Jew. Some Chabadniks even thought Shneerson was the Messiah at one point, but that is another, even longer, story.

The Chabad house in Bangkok is amazing. One man, Rabbi Nehamiah, has turned the city of sin into a place of high spirituality. They serve kosher meals and Nehemiah has time to discuss Torah or any kind of problem with anyone who needs him. Attention is given to every detail of how to make an Israeli traveler’s life better. There are computers in Hebrew with free Internet connections and even a direct telephone line so Israelis can call home for free. A sign in Hebrew says: “Your parents are worried. Give them a call.”

To non-Jewish friends of mine who were surprised that I’d be going to Bangkok, of all places, for Yom Kippur and that there were Jews there, here is the answer.

For more information about Chabad, you can check out

For another, less generous view of the organization:

1 comment:

  1. Hello, My name is Bogdan from Romania!
    My blog address is:
    Can we be friends??
    Thank you!!