Yom Kippur in Bangkok


I was the only American in the room and definitely the most clueless. 

Standing at the back of the makeshift shul for Yom Kippur services in Chabad of Bangkok last year, I attempted to follow along in my all-Hebrew siddur pamphlet while observing other people in the room and trying to peep through the mechitzah just to try to figure out what was going on. 

Although well aware that taking a break from UC Santa Barbara to spend a semester abroad in Thailand meant that my Jewish identity would take a momentary backseat, I had cringed with good old-fashioned Jewish guilt at the thought of entirely snubbing Yom Kippur. No matter how far from home I was, it just didn’t feel right. 

So, having decided to fast and skip class, I set out unaccompanied to observe the Day of Atonement at the local Chabad, despite the hot, humid air that was so wet you could drink it. I took the sticky, sweaty, 20-minute walk up to Khao San Road for, well, I didn’t really know what for. I showed up 45 minutes late and — after a friendly reprimand by the Israeli security guards for my tardiness — found my way upstairs. 

The Chabad of Bangkok’s location is pretty ridiculous, like many things in Thailand. It sits smack in the middle of Khao San Road, which is the beating heart of Bangkok backpackers. Don’t visit if you’re claustrophobic; the streets are buzzing with motorbikes, heavily drinking travelers, people offering you scorpion-on-a-stick snacks, and street vendors selling everything from papaya shakes to pork balls. Just down the street is a restaurant called Shoshana where Thai waitresses who speak much better Hebrew than I do dish up hot pita and shawarma. 

The word “Chabad” itself appears on a two-story building squeezed between a restaurant with a massive aqua-blue Buddha in the back and a 7-Eleven, which in Thailand is more like the lovechild of CVS and Target. The Jewish outpost welcomes you with an intimidating guard post in front and a more inviting kosher Israeli restaurant on the bottom serving overpriced schnitzel and hummus. From what I perceived, the place attracts everyone from wandering Jews and ex-pat Israelis to international students who come for Wi-Fi and a quick breather from fiery Thai food. 

On that hot Yom Kippur day, I was greeted in Hebrew, to which I responded clumsily in my less-than-proficient Hebrew. I couldn’t find — or didn’t know — the right words. Yes, I was American, I admitted, somewhat pathetically. Yes, an American Jew. Yes, studying in Bangkok. 

And with that, I entered a small, simple space with folding chairs and temporary walls delineating a prayer area from the larger hall. Expecting to see some Chabadniks and maybe a few Israelis, I was astonished to find a place overflowing with Jews. There were a good 50-plus adults and small children in a makeshift Chabad synagogue in Bangkok on Yom Kippur! 

They were people like me, and yet not like me. To my left was a Russian high-schooler participating in an exchange program and living with a host family in a small village in Northern Thailand. On my other side was a beautiful, dreadlocked Israeli woman dressed in all hemp who had spent the past two years volunteering in and traveling through India. There were 20 Chabad kids running around, too — far less intimidating partners for practicing my Hebrew in preparation for an upcoming semester studying in Jerusalem. 

Although I lack experience with Chabad-style Judaism (I grew up attending a Conservative shul) and had nothing but my religion in common with anyone else present, the whole event felt unexpectedly natural. It wasn’t necessarily the service itself; it was the beauty of spending a Yom Kippur with strangers from around the world — surrounded by, of all things, the absurdities and wonders of Thai culture on Khao San Road. 

The diversity made me feel part of a larger peoplehood and expanded the sense of Judaism that I grew up with, which extended only from America to Israel. Realizing that I could probably find a Yom Kippur service no matter where I might be in the world made me feel a really beautiful sense of Jewish wholeness.

And just like that, my time in Thailand — something I thought would be a break from anything remotely Jewish — turned into a fresh peek into Jewish life abroad and an unanticipated puncture of my own small bubble of Judaism. Though Hillel at UC Santa Barbara Yom Kippur services are terrific, this alternative experience renewed my sense of belonging to a culture and peoplehood that extends across all seas — and relieved some Jewish guilt in the process. 

Ari Plachta is a senior at UC Santa Barbara from Woodland Hills.

Rabbi David Wolpe in Thailand: Have you ever seen a menorah dance?


Traveling reminds us that the old is distinctive and the new melds together. I had never been to Thailand, or indeed to any country in Southeast Asia. As the bus rolled through the streets, nothing in the facade of the 7-Eleven convenience store or the crushed muddle of Bangkok traffic proved startling. They were new phenomena, and modernity homogenizes the world: Golden Arches stretch from Boston to Bangalore. Suddenly though, rising from the Bangkok street was a reclining Buddha, long and languorous, golden and utterly unexpected. The old is distinctive and the new familiar: Buddhism is old. Rush hour is new.

The same question about what is truly old and what is new bubbles beneath the surface of Jewish life. Is it genuine or a newish fad to speak of Judaism as a crusade for economic equality? A traditionalist might say, in the manner of the paragraph above, tefillin old, social justice new. What is distinctive and therefore most precious about Judaism is its ancient legacy.

But that would be too hasty and censorious a judgment. Jews have never cared only for Jews. In the ancient Temple, the Priest would make 70 sacrifices, one for each nation of the world. Helping others mipne darchei shalom, because of the path of peace, is at least as old as the Mishna, a scant 600 years after the Buddha. Any cursory reading of the prophets teaches that economic justice and human rights may not be the sum of Judaism, but there is no Judaism without them. 

 So filled with ideas both old and new, incongruous as it may seem, a busload of Jews from across the United States rolled through the streets of Thailand arguing about the Jewish tradition. What does Judaism have to say about the equitable distribution of resources, or the rights to protection against violence and exploitation of sex workers? Is poverty in the village less onerous than poverty in the city? What was I, and the group from American Jewish World Service (AJWS) I was traveling with, doing in a nation with so little Jewish history? Jews have had a profound impact in numerous lands throughout the world, but the Jewish story of Thailand would fill, at most, a page — if the print were writ large. 

First there are delightful, surprising synergies. On my way into Bangkok, my guide was lamenting how the Buddhist calendar, because it is lunar, mandates a leap year every few years to balance things out. Crazy, huh? “Umm,” I said — thereby cementing Jews’ reputation for snappy repartee — “us, too.” 

We came during a 10-day festival of vegetarianism. Buddhists eat meat, the guide explained, but because they recognize that all meat eating involves death, they have regulations to remind them of that sad necessity of life. “Umm,” I said — invoking my now-familiar mantra — “us, too.”

Then he began to complain how little genuine Buddhist education most Buddhists receive. At this point I just kept quiet, because he was starting to think I was just copying everything he said. 

But perhaps nothing was quite so startling as seeing a traditional presentation, performed by a heavily made-up, costumed “queen” with delicate movements and slow, angled poses. The spectacle was a treat, but its name was better. “Menora” refers to the theater form and may have originated from a proper name. Still, however many Jews have lit a menorah, few can say they saw a menora dance.

AJWS is an organization whose stated aim is to realize human rights and help alleviate poverty in the developing world. But its mission is a specific kind of relief. Although traveling to some of the most bereft spots on the planet, its groups are instructed not to “give” anything to the people whom they meet. AJWS is not engaged in charity as traditionally conceived. The sole and significant exception is that we brought a bunch of T-shirts. That matters for reasons I will explain below.

A Thai woman from a group funded by AJWS offers hospitality to visitors. Photo by Angela Maddahi

Instead, AJWS identifies groups doing important work in their own countries, which are underfunded, and helps them with personal contacts and funds. The amounts are small by charitable standards — $15,000, $20,000 — but they can make a huge difference in the lives of struggling activists in poor countries.

Years ago, while I was teaching at Hunter College in New York in the 1980s, a rally to end apartheid in South Africa and a rally to free Soviet Jewry were both held on the same day. At the end of class, a Jewish student asked me which she should attend. I answered that she should go to the Soviet Jewry rally because, I explained, if you go to the Soviet Jewry rally, others will still attend the anti-apartheid rally. But if Jews flock to the anti-apartheid rally, who will be left to agitate on behalf of Soviet Jews? I added that at the next anti-apartheid rally, she should absolutely go. Ours are not the only causes worth fighting for. If we are only for ourselves we will never succeed in being ourselves.

The question of whom and how to help is urgent. Family first, but not only family. Helping outside your family is part of defining what kind of family you are. Additionally, the remarkable finding of recent surveys is that Jews who give to the Jewish community are also those most likely to give to general causes. In other words, giving is not a zero-sum game. The same people on the bus in Thailand who give time and money to remote villagers are deeply involved and invested in Jewish charities. The president of AJWS, Ruth Messinger, former president of the borough of Manhattan, is also a learned, involved and committed Jew. In her early 70s, she is still constantly traveling to the 19 countries AJWS serves, indefatigably shlepping, exhorting and instructing. Rabbis accompany the trips to provide Jewish perspective, teaching and values. The aim of AJWS is to help non-Jews as Jews.

Thailand is a place where the poverty is not as dire as in many other lands in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean served by AJWS. It is that rare country that was never colonized and, even in a fairly remote village, while there was no cell reception or Internet, we saw several people crowded around an old laptop playing a game and a delighted child with eyes fixed on an iPhone. This village’s livelihood, old and arduous, is the slow and painstaking accumulation of rubber from trees, which forms Thailand’s main industry.

But there is deep poverty, political oppression and an enduring need, and among the marginalized remains a yearning to be heard. Thailand is still a country where criticizing the king will land you in prison, and criticizing the government can get you “disappeared.” AJWS has sought out local groups that are working for human rights and fosters their efforts through encouragement and aid. A fishing village is trying to hold onto the profit from its labors and limit the coal production in its vicinity; a farming village seeks to retain the right to its land, held for generations. Funding does not decide these issues, but it helps to give the people a voice. 

Living conditions in the poor neighborhoods of Thailand can be seen in this makeshift house, yet the residents are generous and anxious to preserve their traditional customs. Photo by Angela Maddahi

In some parts of the world, encouragement means making alliances with people like Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee, an early recipient of AJWS grants who went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize. It means rehabilitating child soldiers; fighting human trafficking; opposing the practices of forcing children to marry, sell their bodies or lose their parents. It means supporting war widows and promoting literacy in some of the most forsaken and poverty-stricken lands on earth. 

Like its neighbors, Thailand was devastated by the 2004 tsunami. Our guide spoke to us of the courage of the women he knew who identified the bodies, row upon row, from the towns and villages where they lived. He did not want to leave his house until his son, a month after the tsunami, forced him outside and back into life. The undercurrent of trauma continues to ripple through Thailand. Think of 9/11, which took place a few years before the tsunami, and recall that more than twice as many people died in Thailand than in the World Trade Center Towers, in a country with a population roughly one-fifth that of the United States. 

It is not lost on anyone, from the groups we help to the guides we employ, that we are Jews. In a particularly dramatic moment on our trip, one man, through a translator, told Messinger that he had heard good things and bad things about Jews, but he now knew what we stood for because other groups came right after the tsunami and never returned. He said, in a moment of delicious incongruity, that he was going to show his children the Holocaust movie “Life Is Beautiful,” which he had seen, so they would know more about Jews. Another man, in a group that included many Muslims (who make up a mere 5 percent of the population of Thailand), said he knew that in the world there were those who had political divisions, Muslim and Jew, but what mattered was that we were there to help. We gave T-shirts to the group, and I like to think that across Thailand (and all the countries served by AJWS), there are children with “Jewish” emblazoned across their chests. 

These moments may not be crucial in themselves. But in addition to doing good, seeds are sewn. A child from that fishing village, who took a picture standing beside a rabbi with a kippah, may grow up to have influence in Thailand. A lesbian activist, who heard a judge in our group talk about presiding over the same-sex wedding of her own daughter in the United States, may feel less starkly alone. In many of the nations where AJWS works, from Chad to Cambodia to Burma to Haiti, this may be the only time people see a Jew in the flesh. And they see we are there to help them. In the metaphor of Piju, our Thai guide, translator and a member of the staff of AJWS, we were not fireworks who burn bright and then vanish. On subsequent visits, years later, people still ask after those whom they have met. 

For the guides and hotel staff, (who miraculously created a challah following pictures on Google) an image of our Shabbat celebration — from candles to Birkat ha-Mazon to Havdalah in the humid night — serves as a mental image of the beauty of our tradition. 

Of course ambassadorship, however precious, is not ultimately the point. To do good for instrumental reasons is politics, not mitzvah. AJWS is there to help organizations that are fighting for the rights of the marginalized, the disenfranchised, the scared, the lost, the thwarted, the abused. The index of a society’s health all across the world is in its treatment of women, one of the pillars of AJWS activism. An impressive and persistent theme throughout the trip was that many of the groups we met with chose women as their spokespeople. We met a lawyer who came to speak to our dinner with her husband and daughter. When asked why she pushes against the government to secure land rights, a woman known by the nickname Thik said, “I decided I did not want to be a lawyer; I wanted to make law.” To encourage her and amplify her voice is to change the world for the better.

Working with 500 NGOs in 19 countries, the individual donations from AJWS are small. But to a struggling group, these grants of anywhere from $15,000 to about $25,000 can be the difference between advocacy and oblivion. Saving a single life is saving a world, the Rabbis remind us. It is not much, in the scheme of our good fortune, when there are so many worlds to save. As Ruth Messinger likes to say, “We cannot retreat to the convenience of being overwhelmed.”

Naam, from Southern Farmers Alliance, summed it up this way: “If I don’t start, then others won’t follow, so it has to be me.” Somewhere along the way, the alchemy of intimacy changed all of us. We began, “I see you”; moved to, “I feel for you”; and ended, “I’m with you.” Turns out Hineni can be said in every language on God’s good earth.


David Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple. You can follow his teachings at facebook/RabbiWolpe.

Holocaust Exhibition opens at United Nations Hall in Bangkok


Courage To Remember, The Simon Wiesenthal Center's renowned Holocaust exhibition opened at United Nations Hall in Bangkok, Thailand  in commemoration of International Holocaust Memorial Day. Five hundred community and religious leaders were joined by the Ambassadors of Israel, Germany,( who both spoke) France and diplomats from Turkey, Bhutan and Ukraine. Also addressing the gathering, that attracted scores of  Thai students was the grandson of the late Japanese Ambassador Chinue Sugihara, who against his government's orders provided visas to to two thousand Jewish refugees desperate to escape the Nazis.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the Wiesenthal Center's associate dean pictured at podium, presented the keynote address: The Holocaust: Lessons for Asia

Indian police say Delhi, Bangkok blasts linked


Indian police have established a link between a bomb that wounded an Israeli diplomat’s wife in New Delhi and a fumbled bomb plot in Thailand, the city’s police chief said on Friday, adding that arrest warrants had been issued for three Iranians.

New Delhi police said one of the three suspects had been in touch with Sedaghatzadeh Masoud, an Iranian man arrested in Malaysia last month in connection with blasts in Bangkok.

“Houshang Afshar Irani, who had come twice to Delhi, was in touch with Sedaghatzadeh Masoud, thus establishing his links with the terror module that executed the terror acts in Bangkok,” police chief Brijesh Gupta told reporters.

Gupta said the three men were not Iranian officials.

Though somewhat clumsy, last month’s attacks raised concern that a “shadow war” may be developing between Israel and Iran over Iran’s nuclear program. At least four Iranian nuclear scientists have been killed in recent years in attacks believed to have been carried out by or for Israel’s intelligence services.

The attack in New Delhi has been awkward for the Indian government, which has close defense ties with Israel but is also a major buyer of Iranian crude oil. India has tried to work around U.S. and European sanctions aimed at damaging Iran’s atomic development, which the West fears is aimed at building nuclear weapons.

In New Delhi, a bomber travelling by motorcycle attached an explosive to the car of the Israeli diplomat’s wife as she drove to pick her children up from school on February 13, hours after an attack was foiled in Tbilisi, Georgia.

The next day in Bangkok, an Iranian lost his legs when a bomb he was carrying exploded in shortly after an apparently accidental explosion forced him and two other men to flee a house they had been renting.

The wounded man and a second Iranian, arrested at Bangkok’s main airport, are in custody. A third Iranian believed linked to the plot, Masoud, was detained in Malaysia.

Israel accuses Iran of engineering the attacks. Iran rejects that.

India’s foreign ministry said it was seeking an Interpol order for the three men believed to be behind the new Delhi attack, but added that “no conclusions could be drawn at this stage”.

“We have informed the Iranian ambassador of these developments so as to seek the cooperation of the Iranian authorities in bringing those involved in this dastardly attack to justice,” spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said in a statement.

Thai investigators say the same magnets were used to make the bombs in India and Thailand.

Last week, Indian police arrested a journalist called Mohammed Kazmi who did freelance work for an Iranian news agency in connection with the embassy attack.


Reporting by Frank Jack Daniel and Annie Banerji; Editing by John Chalmers and Robert Birsel

Another Iranian arrested in Bangkok bombing


Another Iranian national was arrested in connection with a bombing in Bangkok.

Thai police over the weekend brought in Madani Seyed Mehrded, 33, upon discovering that he was in Thailand on an expired visa.

Call logs showed that Mehrded had been in regular phone contact with two of the other suspects, including one whose legs were blown off in a Feb. 14 explosion outside a rented house in Bangkok in which another bomb had exploded, Reuters reported.

In addition, police said that Mehrded had been waiting in front of the building where the Israeli Embassy is located on the day of the explosions.

Mehrded denied involvement in the explosions.

Thai police have said the bombs that exploded in Bangkok are similar to the one used to attack the car of an Israeli diplomat’s wife in New Delhi, India, on Feb. 13.

Thailand bombs meant to target Jews, police chief says


Thailand’s police chief said bombs that exploded in the capital earlier in the week were meant to target Israelis.

“I can tell you that the target was specific and aimed at Israeli diplomatic staff,” the national police chief, Gen. Prewpan Dhamapong, told a Thai television station late Wednesday, according to the Associated Press.

An accidental explosion took place Tuesday at a rented house in Bangkok being used by a group of Iranians. One of the Iranians later lost both of his legs when he detonated an explosive after being confronted by police.

Three Iranians have been arrested in connection with the incident.

Dhamapong said that the Iranians had explosive devices similar to ones placed the previous day on diplomatic vehicles associated with the Israeli embassies in India and Georgia.

One of the detained Iranians was brought before journalists Thursday, according to the Associated Press. Prewpan said the Iranian, Mohammad Kharzei, had “partially confessed,” the AP reported.

One of the Iranians was arrested in Malaysia; it is unclear whether he will be extradited to Thailand.

An Iranian woman who rented the house that exploded in the Thai capital fled the country for Tehran, according to reports.

The Iranians face criminal charges including possession of explosives, attempted murder, attempted murder of a policeman and causing property damage.

Arrests made in New Delhi, Bangkok


Thai investigators believe they have found a link between this week’s bomb blasts in Bangkok and New Delhi, a senior security official said Wednesday, two of three attacks Israel has blamed on Iran.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, accusing Iran of targeting diplomats, said if the world did not stop Iran’s “aggression” the attacks would spread.

Iran, whose leaders had threatened to retaliate for Israel’s alleged car-bomb assassination of several of its nuclear scientists, denied involvement in the attacks Monday and Tuesday, including a bomb that failed to explode in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. Iran blamed them on Israel.

Asked whether the explosives used in India and Thailand were the same, a senior Thai security official said they both had the same “magnetic sheets.”

“The individual was in possession of the same magnets and we are currently examining the source of the magnet,” National Security Council Secretary Wichian Podphosri said.

A man carrying an Iranian passport lost a leg when a bomb he was carrying in Bangkok went off Tuesday after an earlier explosion, apparently accidental, at a house he was renting. His other leg had to be amputated.

The suspect, identified as Saeid Moradi, was in stable condition in a Bangkok hospital, although he remained unconscious after 10 hours of surgery, said hospital surgeon Suparung Preechayuth.

Police said he had been charged with illegal possession of explosives, causing explosions, attempted murder and assaulting a police officer. Two other men shared the rented house with him. One was arrested at Bangkok’s international airport on Tuesday but he has not yet been charged.

The other was arrested Wednesday afternoon at Kuala Lumpur airport as he tried to board a plane to Tehran, Malaysian police said. The suspect, in his 30s, had evaded authorities at Bangkok airport and flown to Malaysia.

Police inspector general Ismail Omar said he was arrested on intelligence from Thai authorities and was being investigated for “terrorism activities” related to the Bangkok bombings.

In the Bangkok attack, one bomb went off in the bombers’ home. Another was thrown at a taxi that wouldn’t take one of the men who left the house. The third blew off the man’s leg when he tried to throw it at police and it either went off before he could throw it or it hit something and ricocheted back at him.

The American, British and Australian embassies in Bangkok told their citizens to be vigilant in light of the explosions but did not advise against travel to the capital.

A day earlier in the Indian capital, a bomb wrecked a car taking an Israeli embassy official to pick up her children from school, police said. The woman was in stable condition on Wednesday after surgery to her spine and liver.

Her driver and two passers-by suffered lesser injuries in the attack.

On the same day, an attempt to bomb an Israeli embassy car in Tbilisi failed and the device was defused, Israeli and Georgian officials said.

SIMILARITIES

Israel’s ambassador to Thailand said the bombings in Bangkok, New Delhi and Tiblisi bore similarities.

“If you put together all the details that we have until now, including the disclosure of the explosives, they are very similar, if not the same as that were used against our diplomats and our people in India and Georgia,” he told Thai TV.

Prime Minister Netanyahu told parliament that world must draw red lines to stop Iran.

“It harms innocent diplomats in many countries and the nations of the world must condemn Iran’s terror actions and demarcate red lines against Iranian aggression. If such aggression is not stopped it will spread to many countries.”

Iran dismissed the allegations, saying Israel often made such accusations.

“We are not accepting, we are denying this and I don’t know how they can assume within a short time of one hour that to say who has done this. It has happened in India. If India’s security says something like that then we have to verify,” Iran’s envoy to India, Seyed Mehdi Nabizadeh, told reporters.

Iranian state TV quoted Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast as saying that Israel was behind the explosions.

“The main goal of the Zionist regime is to conceal its real essence in carrying out terrorist acts particularly assassinating Iran’s scientists,” the state news agency IRNA quoted Mehmanparast as saying.

Russia condemned the bomb attacks in India and Georgia and called on both countries to investigate but did not accuse Iran or any other country of involvement.

Moscow “decisively condemns these attacks by extremists,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “We are convinced there can be no justification for terrorism in all its forms.”

Russia has close ties with Iran and built its first nuclear power plant, which began operating last year, but invariably condemns any attacks it considers terrorism.

India also refused to be drawn into the blame game, saying it did not have enough evidence to reach a firm conclusion.

“The Indian government does not have any evidence pointing to any individual, entity, organization or country being involved in Monday’s blast, so far,” a foreign ministry spokesman said.

Police said it was the first time that such an attack in which a motorbike rider attached an explosive device to a car with a magnet had been carried out in India.

India has good relations with both Iran and Israel, so the attack makes its diplomatic balancing act between the two countries all the more difficult and has thrust the mounting tension between the Middle East rivals on to its doorstep.

Israel is the second-largest supplier of arms to India. But India is Iran’s biggest oil buyer, relying on it for about 12 percent of its needs, and it is Iran’s top supplier of rice.

Trade between India and Iran is unlikely to be affected by the bombing in New Delhi, Indian’s commerce minister said after a trade a association chief said he feared wary exporters would back away from deals with Iran.

Additional reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat, Sinsiri Tiwutanond and Alan Raybould in Bangkok, John Chalmers in New Delhi and Dan Williams in JERUSALEM; Writing by Nick Macfie and Sanjeev Miglani; Editing by Robert Birsel

Iranian national believed responsible for Thai blasts


Bombs that exploded in a Bangkok house being shared by an Iranian national were being prepared for a large-scale attack against an Israeli target, unnamed Israeli officials are quoted as saying.

The unnamed officials made their remarks to the Israel media on Tuesday.

The Iranian national, who shared the home in a residential neighborhood of the Thailand capital with two other non-Thais, was seriously injured by a bomb he was carrying shortly after the house exploded Tuesday morning. He had thrown a hand grenade at police as they pursued him following the home explosion, but did not throw it far enough and was caught in the blast, which tore off his legs, according to reports.

At least four Thai citizens also were injured in the blasts, which occurred several blocks from the Israeli Embassy in Bangkok.

The explosions came a day after Israeli diplomats were targeted by bombs in New Delhi and Tbilisi; the India blast injured the wife of an Israeli diplomat. Israel has blamed the attacks on Iran.

“The attempted attack in Bangkok proves once again that Iran and its proxies are continuing to perpetrate terrorism,” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in a statement from Singapore. “The recent attacks are yet another example of this.”

Barak, who spent a few hours in Bangkok on Sunday, also said that “Iran and Hezbollah are elements of unrelenting terrorism and are endangering the stability not only of the region but of the entire world.”

Last month, 400 boxes of bomb-making material were found hidden in boxes for electric fans in a shop near Bangkok. Police learned of the cache from a Lebanese man arrested Jan. 13 who was alleged to be working with Hezbollah to plan a bombing attack. He told Thai police that the material was to be smuggled out of Thailand and used in an attack in another country.

Blue and White in Bangkok


I had one night in Bangkok, and I was definitely feeling humbled by the traffic. My bus idled, stuck in one of this Thai capitol’s infamous daily snarls. I had little idea where in the city I was or how far there was to go, only a destination. And, most agonizing of all, I had less than an hour before Shabbat.

Shabbat in Bangkok? What business does a partisan of the 613 mitzvot have in a city of 1,000 temptations?

For the most part, jewelry. Though its first Jewish settlers were refugees from the Soviet Union in the 1920s and Europe in the 1930s, both groups mostly left after the war, according to the World Jewish Congress. During the 1950s and ’60s, a mixture of Sephardim from Syria and Lebanon and Ashkenazim, both groups drawn by the city’s bustling jewel trade, put down roots. Most of them pray and meet at the Even Chen [Hebrew for “precious stone”] Synagogue in the Jewel District.

But I was more interested in the other major Jewish group currently routing through Bangkok: backpackers. An estimated 15,000 Israelis come through here every year. Some, if not all, make their way to Khao San Road. Chabad has a house there, offering Friday night services and dinner. I was looking forward to both, if I ever got there.

Fortunately, my stop came soon. And immediately, I knew I had reached the fabled backpackers’ paradise. Khao San Road and its neighboring streets and alleys are like a college town without a college. Internet cafes jostle for space with international calling booths, five types of foot massage, cheap laundry drop-offs, and pushcarts bearing pad thai. Signs cater to every nonprurient desire of a college-age Western kid.

A lot of them also cater to the post-Israeli-Army kid. Many are in Hebrew, advertising everything from “kosher” falafel to travel packages to cheap phone calls to Israel.

My Lonely Planet guide book was comprehensive enough to list Chabad House for its kosher restaurant, but I wanted more than dinner. I wanted a place to stay where I could meet up with Israelis hitting Bangkok on their ritual post-Army world walkabout. Another look, though, revealed that the guidebook actually mentioned the Panang guest house as being “frequented by Israelis.” I made a beeline there, only to discover it was all booked up.

Drenched in sweat, I trekked over to Panang’s franchise operation, Panang II, only to find it was no longer a restaurant-cum-guest house (a typical arrangement here), but now just a restaurant. A few more inquiries, a few more minutes toward the swiftly approaching sunset, and I finally found a vacancy at the Marco Polo, a hostel with tiny, no-frills rooms.

After a quick shower, I hurried into the Chabad House building I’d passed repeatedly in my quest for lodgings. But there was neither signage nor sign of dinner or services. I went up to a local worker there and tried asking in my pidgin Thai about dinner. It didn’t work. I tried English. No luck. Finally, I said the word “Shabbat,” and she responded, “Malon Viengtai! Malon Viengtai!” [Hebrew for The Viengtai Hotel]. Apparently, she was prepared only for Hebrew inquiries.

The Viengtai was easy to find, but the specific location of Shabbat still eluded me. Nothing Jewish in Bangkok is easy to find. I’d learned that earlier while looking for the Chabad kosher shop and bakery that mainly services its restaurants and school. The Web site information had seemed to put the bakery, as well as the Jewish Center, at an address that numerically didn’t exist. Finally, a phone call brought out an employee to guide us into the alleys and sub-alleys where the places nestled.

Under the halachic supervision of Chabad Rabbi Yosef Kantor and the culinary supervision of his wife, former Angeleno Nechama Kantor, the bakery/shop contains an eclectic smattering of Jewish essentials (wine, challah), luxuries (liqueur, fresh-baked rugelach) and local Asian exotica (rice noodles, coconut milk).

Finally, I located the upstairs ballroom set aside for the night’s festivities. Gathered there already were some 60 young Israelis, wearing everything from tie-dyed T-shirts to cut-off jeans to nose-piercings and hair wraps.

No sooner had I sat down, though, than the Chabad rabbis and leaders, who were definitely dressed for shul, announced Minchah services. They announced it only in Hebrew; in fact, the night’s proceedings all took place in Hebrew. I guess the assumption was that everyone here was Israeli.

Before dinner was over, the rabbis handed out song booklets, and soon the room roared with tunes, some familiar, some unfamiliar. Then a rabbi gave a d’var Torah, and it was here, quite frankly, that my Hebrew reached its limits.

Before the evening was over, I had met a handful of young Israelis, as I’d hoped. Some had been traveling for a month, some for a year. All had plans for continuing on in Asia and beyond. All thought it was self-evident, when I asked, that Shabbat at Chabad was what you did on a Friday night in Bangkok, even if that wasn’t the only thing you did with the evening. Their day of R&R was just beginning, even as mine was drawing to a close.

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