Thursday, September 9, 2010

Custard Apples and Honey

One might not expect that one could find Challah in Chiang Mai, I certainly had my doubts, and yet I need not have worried. Faced with my first year out of my twenty two where there would be no family, no service and no tradition surrounding me during the high holidays, I set out to some how still make it special. Every year at home we hold a Rosh Hashanah party – we invite tons and tons of friends, we cook absurd amounts of food and we process outside with a cake literally brimming with candles and sing Happy Birthday to the world. I wanted to recreate this celebration, but first I needed a cake. Recalling particularly delicious cinnamon buns I had sampled at 4th of July I tracked down the store promisingly called: “Butter is Better.” Email exchanges later I had in the works a chocolate cake with raspberries and two large Challahs! Things were looking good! I sent out a mass email to friends: PiA-ers, CMU teachers, Climbing wall staff.

Next I went in search of apples – I drove across town to my favorite local market to pick out red and golden varieties. To these, I added a pebbled skinned custard apple – I am in Thailand after all. I found egg-yolk hued oblong fruits to serve the tradition part of trying a fruit one has never had before – something that was actually hard to find as, being a fruit fiend, I have sampled practically every fruit I have come into contact with. (From internet research I think it is called a Canistel)
There are no reform services to be found in Chiang Mai unfortunately and I had already decided not to attend the conservative service. Instead I drove out into the night and into the outskirts of the city to a fellow teachers house where I had been invited to partake in a Rosh Hashanah party. At the table were: Westerners and Thais, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Germans, French, Americans, adults, kids. On the table was a gorgeous spread combining Jewish and Thai cuisine: Thai chicken meat ball and noodle soup, grilled chicken and fished garnished with a delicious homemade spicy Thai sauce, noodle kugel, challah, mangosteens, apples, honey, logans, halva.

Driving back hours later the wind picked up – indeed so much so that while driving through a dust storm the wind literally untied the knot on my dress and I ended up driving with one hand repeatedly checking my back to make sure I wasn’t suddenly speeding naked down a Thai highway! To top it off it began to rain, but really that only made the drive more ridiculously funny. And besides it was the first rain we had had in a week (when we are supposed to be entrenched in the rainy season) – in that way it really did feel like the world was celebrating too.

Rosh Hashanah morning dawned wet and gray, but out into the rain I drove singing parts of prayers and swerving between cars. Past the old city, past the market and out to the wide, brown Ping River where I climbed up to the foot bridge and stood in the rain contemplating a year. A year ago when I was just starting one of my best years in college, when I was immersed in thoughts about the Tanzania education system, when I was contemplating living in Indonesia the following year but worried if I would have the courage to do so, when I was on top of the school – a senior and confident – in my friends and in my classes, when I rode a mile along Lake Carnegie in Princeton and stood on a dam watching geese in the water. This year there were no geese. Instead I watched water snakes ripple black along the surface. This year it was not sunny, but grey and wet, and small Thai men and women trundled past me half hidden under umbrellas. To the leaves, twigs and occasional bottles I saw floating by, I added breadcrumbs – a Thai Tashlikh.

From there I stopped by the Chabad to hear the Shofar sound. While it was supposed to happen at 11:30 it was a full hour later before the rams horns were raised and I consequently spent an hour surrounded by davening Jews – a style of service completely alien to the joyous songs and prayers I am accustomed to.

Because of the late hour I literally zoomed school – shrinking a 25 minute drive into a 11 minutes of wind and curves. As we are nearing the end of the semester, the class was devoted to review and in the middle I decided I could allow my class a cultural digression. “What is the Thai New Year,” I asked. Songkran – the famous water festival was the reply. “And when is that celebrated?” April 13 – I was informed. “Does anyone know when the Jewish New Year is” (I had to briefly explain what Judaism was) – “Today!” I wrote. So yes I taught my freshman a little bit about my religion and they taught me in return. I taught them the name (Rosh Hashanah) and I taught them the greeting (La Shana Tova) and in return they taught me the equivalent Thai Greeting (Sawadee be mi).

That evening I piled my bike high with goodies and surrounded by friends on motorbikes we caravanned out to the river again off to a particular hide away restaurant Denali and I had enjoyed when I had visited her in January. Not going to lie it felt sort of like a PiA gang driving through the streets of Chiang Mai (not only was there the usual crowd, but we had in our mass a number of other fellows and post fellows from different countries). At the restaurant along the Ping we filled a long table down the middle and decorated the centerline with the fruit, Challah and honey I had acquired (and in addition a special bottle of mountain honey Denali had been given). Being the resident Jew I was wheedled into giving a brief summary of what the holiday was and then also how my family in particular celebrates. I taught the table round the traditional greeting, just as I had with my class, performed the traditional blessings and then we ate! Challah, tom kai gai, apples, penang curry, cashew chicken, saut̩ed mushrooms, custard apples and honey. We passed around the odd yellow fruit and discovered it to have a very dry very sweet texture Рlike someone pureed an apple and a pumpkin and then set it out to dry.
Finally at around 10:45 it was time for cake – we stuck it full with candles and we did actually all sing Happy Birthday to the World – I wonder what the Thais in the restaurant thought…

A high holiday pondering:
On any given day I consider Jews all over the world to be connected to share a common bound of tradition and history. The word Judaism is synonymous in my mind to family. And yet there are those rare moments where I feel completely alienated from my faith, from the people that I usually call family. One such moment was at Chabad – of course I realize that there are different levels, if you will, of observance and that Chabad weighs heavy to the right. Yet knowing that does not stop me from feeling more than irked that I must sit behind a screen shielded from viewing of the torah because I am a woman, that when the torah is given to one of us women to pass amongst the men do not continue singing, but rather chat and wait as if we were some how delaying things. I am more than irked when I kindly ask if I can have another Challah for my celebration, but that I have to go soon because I much teach my class and I am told that yes I certainly can and I should explain it to the Rabbi in the office, but I should not say I have to teach, but rather that I have a child at home I must return to. I am more than irked that I am told to lie rather than be accepted for the way I choose to celebrate my faith as well as my prior commitments.

And yet this is not meant as a rant, it is Rosh Hashana and it is rather a time of celebration and forgiveness – more this is a pondering on my faith. I do not mean to speak ill of Chabad – they were indeed very friendly and welcoming the day before when I stopped by and then did provide me with delicious Challah. Yet at the same time I felt in someway that my faith was some how inferior because I am reform (a feeling I never got from the Chabad I love so much back at Princeton). Rather these thoughts are more an acknowledgment of how, oddly, I felt more connected to my faith and heritage standing alone on a bridge across the muddy Ping river, than I did surrounded by men and women of my faith all praying at the Chabad house. How I felt more connected sharing a part of my heritage with my students and learning some of theirs in return. How I felt more connected to my faith sitting around a fellow teacher’s table with Jews, Christians, Buddhists, sharing Challah, muddling through prayers and teaching traditions. And how I felt more connected to my faith explaining it all to friends over a meal of curry, custard apples, challah and sweet mountain honey.

I guess this must mean that after three and a half months, Thailand has really become part of what I consider to be, in my mind, synonymous with “family.”


  1. Your celeb of Rosh Hashanah locally in Thai fashion this year albeit w/out your loving family with you present was terrific! Quite possible when there's the spirits!
    I follow your writing closely enjoying much.
    Hoping for next's year's RH for our first celeb with you and family perhaps for you think it possible?
    I think of you. Stay well for your hard work.
    Dahli B

  2. I'm sure you missed your family, but it sounds like you had a very meaningful celebration. You are used to your family's inclusive celebrations, and it's unsettling to find a religious group that defines itself by who's in and who's out. I've really enjoyed reading your thoughtful and beautifully written entries! Glad to hear you didn't have any complications from the dengue fever episode!
    Elizabeth Page