Bomb in Thai capital kills 16, wounds 81 in bid ‘to destroy economy’

A bomb planted at one of the Thai capital's most renowned shrines on Monday killed 16 people, including three foreign tourists, and wounded scores in an attack the government called a bid to destroy the economy.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the blast at the Erawan shrine at a major city-center intersection. Thai forces are fighting a low-level Muslim insurgency in the predominantly Buddhist country's south, but those rebels have rarely launched attacks outside their heartland.

“The perpetrators intended to destroy the economy and tourism, because the incident occurred in the heart of the tourism district,” Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan told Reuters.

Several media outlets had earlier reported that 27 people were killed but national police chief Somyot Poompanmuang told reporters the death toll was 16 in an attack he said was unprecedented in Thailand.

“It was a pipe bomb,” Somyot said. “It was placed inside the Erawan shrine.”

The shrine, on a busy corner near top hotels, shopping centers, offices and a hospital, is a major attraction, especially for visitors from East Asia, including China. Many ordinary Thais also worship there.

The government would set up a “war room” to coordinate the response to the blast, the Nation television channel quoted Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha as saying.

Two people from China and one from the Philippines were among the dead, a tourist police officer said. A rescue agency said 81 people were wounded and media said most of them were from China and Taiwan.

“It was like a meat market,” said Marko Cunningham, a New Zealand paramedic working with a Bangkok ambulance service, who said the blast had left a two-meter-wide (6-foot-) crater.

“There were bodies everywhere. Some were shredded. There were legs where heads were supposed to be. It was horrific,” Cunningham said, adding that people several hundred meters away had been injured.


At the scene lay burned out motorcycles, with rubble from the shrine's wall and pools of blood on the street.

Earlier, authorities had ordered onlookers back, saying they were checking for a second bomb but police later said no other explosive devices were found.

Authorities stepped up security checks at some major city intersections and in tourist areas. The city's elevated railway, which passes over the scene, was operating normally.

While initial suspicion might fall on Muslim separatists in the south, Thailand has been riven for a decade by an intense and sometimes violent struggle for power between political factions in Bangkok.

Occasional small blasts have been blamed on one side or the other. Two pipe bombs exploded outside a luxury shopping mall in the same area in February, but caused little damage.

Police said that attack was aimed at raising tension when the city was under martial law.

The army has ruled Thailand since May 2014, when it ousted an elected government after months of at times violent anti-government protests.

The shrine intersection was the site of months of anti-government protests in 2010 by supporters of ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Dozens were killed in a military crackdown and a shopping center was set ablaze.

Are Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims the world’s ‘least wanted’ people?

Abu Tahay, a Rohingya Muslim activist who lives in Myanmar, says his people face a simple calculus when deciding whether to remain in their western Myanmar homes or escape via the Andaman Sea on overcrowded, hopelessly equipped fishing boats:

“Do — or die.”

Rohingya Muslims number around 1 million in a majority-Buddhist country of more than 53 million. Tahay is the leader of Myanmar’s Union Nationals Development Party — an all-Muslim party prohibited from running candidates in elections. Speaking on May 30 by telephone from Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, Tahay offered up a grim checklist of what life is like for the vast majority of Myanmar’s Rohingyas (pronounced ro-heej-ah):

No economic rights. No citizenship. Overt state persecution. Violence by Buddhist extremists that’s sanctioned and sometimes assisted by the government. Horrifying levels of poverty, starvation, lack of medical care and more. 

“They know they might sink and die” in the sea, Tahay said. “They know the danger. But circumstances forced them to leave.”

The plight of the Rohingyas — a small Muslim sect that lives primarily in Myanmar’s Rakhine state and in neighboring Bangladesh — has suddenly become international news in recent weeks after The New York Times, in particular, ” target=”_blank”>denied entry into Cuba and Florida and forced to return to Europe. Although Great Britain, France, Belgium and the Netherlands took in all the St. Louis’ passengers, 532 of them came under German occupation during the war, and 254 were murdered by the Nazis.

Today, Hudson said, Western European countries are unwilling to allow the Rohingya crisis to impact the growth in business that European businesses have seen thanks to greater access to Myanmar’s economy after the end of the European Union’s economic sanctions in 2013. 

Hudson traveled to Myanmar in March and there, he said, he saw Rolex stores, new casinos and hotels, and Mercedes and Porsche dealerships — direct results of the end of the EU sanctions. “All the trappings of new money are just flooding in, and that’s really difficult to turn off,” Hudson said.

And although the Obama administration continues to raise the issue of the Rohingyas' persecution in meetings with Burmese officials, a senior State Department official told the Journal that the Rohingya issue is just one of several items on Washington’s agenda as it watches Myanmar’s slow transition from authoritarianism to democracy. 

Sowing hatred’s seeds

The story of the animosity toward Myanmar’s Muslims, particularly toward the Rohingyas, from the central government and the nation’s Buddhists, particularly by the Rakhine Buddhists, goes back centuries and, in modern history, has certain notable flash points. 

But it’s a history that started in relative harmony.

The Rohingyas were first recognized in Myanmar by the Buddhist government of U Nu, the country’s first leader after Burma gained independence in 1948. Some Rohingyas even served in Nu’s administration and, to win the support of potential Rohingya voters, some government officials granted instant citizenship to Rohingyas who entered the country from Bangladesh.

The past three decades, however, have seen a quick dissolution of Buddhist-Muslim relations, which had already been disintegrating for decades because of Buddhist fears of Muslim domination. Myanmar’s central government has used those fears to strengthen its own power, and a handful of attacks by violent Muslim and Rohingya separatists have reinforced the notion that Rohingyas are not to be trusted.

Myanmar’s 1982 citizenship law stripped most Rohingyas of Burmese citizenship and left them with few, if any, legal rights under either Burmese or international law. It also gave credence to xenophobic rhetoric from the government and Buddhist monks, including claims that the Rohingyas are not indigenous Burmese at all, but economic migrants who crossed illegally into Myanmar from Bangladesh with the intent of creating a separatist radical Muslim state. It was an overblown claim, but nevertheless contained some kernels of truth.


Gregory Stanton is a professor in genocide studies and prevention at George Mason University in Virginia and the founder and president of the group Genocide Watch.  In 1996, he created what has become the defining list of the eight stages of genocide (now expanded to 10): classification, symbolization, discrimination, dehumanization, organization, polarization, preparation, persecution, extermination and denial.

Using these standards, the racist elements within Rakhine Buddhist society and the flame-fanners within the Burmese government have pushed the Rohingyas into the eighth stage (persecution) and on the doorstep of extermination, Hudson said.

“The regime is playing on people’s fears that without this current leadership in power, the country will be overrun by Muslim minorities and Muslim extremists, and they are the enemy, and we have to get the enemy before they get us,” Hudson said. “It’s a common narrative in pre-genocidal societies and it’s a common narrative for regimes that are facing an existential threat on their hold on power.” 

That potential threat to the government’s rule isn’t existential, but political, and it stems in part from its recent introduction of greater political and social freedoms — pushed hard by internal democratic parties and by Western governments — and the upcoming democratic elections in the fall. 

In March, Hudson traveled for 10 days to Myanmar and Thailand, along with staff from the USHMM’s Simon-Skjodt Center, on a fact-finding mission — an attempt to witness firsthand the human rights crisis that they’d previously only heard about through anecdotes and news reports.

They visited Rakhine state, spent four days in Rohingya internment camps and ghettoized villages, and traveled to Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital. The group chronicled its trip in a disturbing report available online, ” target=”_blank”>description of Aung Mingalar read like that of a sort of post-apocalyptic village — buildings falling apart; shops closed; and doors, windows and signs either crookedly hanging by their hinges or missing entirely.

Hudson described “row upon row of barracks” in Aung Mingalar, which reminded him of the most infamous Nazi concentration camp. “The camps are so large and spread out along this road that runs out into the jungle,” Hudson said, “it’s just eerily reminiscent of a tropical sort of Auschwitz in some ways.”

Food and medicine in Aung Mingalar are scarce, and without sufficient electricity or farmland or basic government services, earning money to live on is all but impossible. To survive, Rohingya residents depend on the generosity of aid groups and the occasional shopping trip to markets outside the ghetto — trips that can require cash to bribe the government guards at Aung Mingalar’s entrance and to pay for a security escort through the potentially hostile surrounding Rakhine Buddhist area of Sittwe.

The destitution and poverty that engulfs Aung Mingalar and its approximately 4,000 Muslims are the norm, not the exception, for Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state, even in towns that are not as obviously ghettoized and sealed as Aung Mingalar.

Nora Murphy, a physician in Chicago who has traveled several times to Rakhine state on aid missions, described life in Maungdaw, a majority-Muslim town 60 miles northwest of Sittwe, as well as other Rohingya towns in Rakhine state:

“The markets were devoid of vegetables and fruit. The poverty was so blatant,” Murphy said via telephone from Chicago. Given the region’s tropical climate, she said the Rohingyas ought to be in a position to have strong agricultural production and the resulting nutritional and health benefits that would follow. 

“During the hot season, kids were always running around having colds, for an area where their nutrition should be good,” Murphy said. She spoke on the condition that the dates of her trips and her sponsoring aid group would not be published, out of fear that the Burmese government would restrict their future ability to deliver aid, as it has done in the past to humanitarian organizations.

Like Aung Mingalar, most Rohingya villages cannot economically sustain themselves. The government’s restrictions on the Rohingyas' freedom to travel outside their towns, and its denial of basic services, along with the surrounding Buddhist population’s hostility, force the handful of Rohingyas who have been permitted limited travel to navigate the government’s complex and arbitrary checkpoint system.

“Even if you paid money, you waited, and when you got the permission to go out, there were checkpoints, and only the Rohingyas were searched,” Murphy said. 

The lack of basic medication and health care for many Rohingyas is so severe, Murphy said, that once she even had to give emergency medical advice via Facebook chat from Chicago to a Rohingya Muslim who had managed to find an Internet connection and needed immediate advice on how to stem extreme bleeding in a pregnant Rohingya woman who had just had a miscarriage.

“People who have their rights respected and enjoy basic freedoms don’t usually feel desperate enough to flee in such dangerous circumstances,” said David Scott Mathieson, Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher on Burma. “All of the root causes of this problem start in Burma and Bangladesh, and that’s where long-term solutions should be found,” Mathieson said.

More than 25,000 people, most of them Rohingyas, have taken to the Andaman Sea since January, and thousands are thought to still be stranded aboard fishing boats, many abandoned by smugglers who charged hundreds of dollars — a fortune for the Rohingyas — for passage. A spokeswoman for the Pentagon told the Journal on May 29 that since May 24, U.S. Navy aircraft have conducted “regular maritime surveillance missions over the Andaman Sea, for the purpose of searching for vessels carrying Rohingya refugees.” That intelligence, the official said, is then shared with regional governments. She said the Pentagon has no official estimate for how many boats or people remain stranded in the Andaman Sea.

Meanwhile, even as Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand recently agreed to offer temporary shelter to those Rohingya trafficking victims who make it ashore, decrepit refugee camps and graves filled with Rohingya refugees have been found in Thailand and Malaysia. A 2014 Reuters report revealed that some Thai officials had been complicit with smugglers in detaining and extorting Rohingya refugees, demanding more money from their families back home if they wished to survive.

“Much like the Jewish ghettos set up by Nazis around Eastern Europe during World War II, Aung Mingalar has become the involuntary home of thousands of families.” — George Soros

In a prerecorded address broadcast at the Oslo Conference on Rohingyas in late May, billionaire investor, philanthropist and political activist George Soros said that when he visited Myanmar in January for the fourth time in as many years, he went to Aung Mingalar and recognized a ghetto similar to the one he lived in as a child in Budapest in 1944.

“In Aung Mingalar, I heard the echoes of my childhood,” Soros said. “Much like the Jewish ghettos set up by Nazis around Eastern Europe during World War II, Aung Mingalar has become the involuntary home to thousands of families who once had access to health care, education and employment. Now, they are forced to remain segregated in a state of abject deprivation. The parallels to the Nazi genocide are alarming. Fortunately, we have not reached a stage of mass killing.”

Echoes of 1939 — on land and at sea

Ruth Mandel is the longtime director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey. She’s also a member of the USHMM’s Committee on Conscience, and, as an 8-month-old in May 1939, was likely the youngest passenger aboard the MS St. Louis trans-Atlantic ocean liner, which carried 937 passengers, nearly all Jews from Germany and Eastern Europe fleeing Nazi persecution. Mandel was traveling with her mother and father, and the family ended up surviving the war in Great Britain.

The ship and its Jewish refugees were turned away from Cuba on June 2 and soon thereafter from a port in Florida. On June 6, out of options, the ship’s captain, Gustav Schroeder, took the St. Louis back to Europe. About half of the passengers fell under Nazi occupation during the war, and about half of those were murdered by the Nazis.

Does anyone care?

In an email exchange, analyst Joshua Kurlantzick, the Southeast Asia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, made an obvious, yet ultimately unhopeful point, when asked which country — Malaysia, Thailand or the U.S. — should be leading the way in helping the Rohingyas.

His one-word response: “Myanmar.”

The diplomatic tragedy for the Rohingyas is they have never had a critical mass of sympathetic supporters within Burmese society — not even Aung San Suu Kyi, the world-renowned leader of Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement and a Nobel Peace Prize winner. Suu Kyi has remained silent on the issue, despite a plea the dalai lama made in an interview with The Australian, in which he said Suu Kyi should do more on the Rohingyas' behalf. 

And even as the Burmese government’s gradual movement toward democracy, which began in 2011, has prompted the United States to ease some of its economic sanctions and the European Union to restore full economic trade with Myanmar, Hudson believes the EU is squandering its opportunity to use its leverage to help the Rohingyas. 

“We met with European embassies and, frankly, they are so interested in the bonanza of investment in Myanmar right now that they aren’t doing anything to slow down the access of their companies to get into the Burmese market,” Hudson said. 

Meanwhile, Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand, Malaysia and Bangladesh are focused on the immediate boat refugee crisis, but not on its cause. “They are not asking Myanmar to deal with the disease. They are simply trying to manage the refugee crisis,” Hudson said.

In 2011, Obama became the first U.S. president since Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1955 to send a secretary of state to Myanmar, when Hillary Clinton traveled there. The next year, Obama became the first U.S. president to visit the country, a sign of Washington’s pleasure at the Burmese government’s political reforms, which to date include greater media and economic freedoms, anti-corruption laws and elections. 

Hudson commended the Obama administration for continuing to discuss the Rohingya issue in private discussions with Burmese officials and in public speeches, but the USHMM’s report on its visit to Myanmar called on the U.S., EU and United Nations to use their economic leverage to make future agreements with the Burmese government dependent on its meeting humanitarian and civil rights benchmarks vis-à-vis the Rohingyas. “They’ve gotten a taste for it [foreign economic investment],” Hudson said. “They want more.” 

But beyond economics, for Mandel, who traveled on the St. Louis and went on to serve on the USHMM’s conscience committee, the ongoing tragedy in Myanmar is just the most recent example in a long history of powerless groups that can’t find help from those in power: “The human race doesn’t have a very positive history of arms wide open, reaching out to people who are not in their clan.”

Saw Yan Naing is a Burmese journalist for The Irrawaddy magazine who is currently an Alfred Friendly Fellow at the Jewish Journal.  Jared Sichel is a staff writer for the Journal.

Retrieving a family’s thread in Poland

Louise Steinman's The Crooked Mirror: A Memoir of Polish- Jewish Reconciliation, interrupts the two universes of meaning hanging on the phrase: “it's history.”

For many, the words ” it's history” connote something is unimportant, forgotten, and irrelevant.  But for many Poles and Jews to assert “it's history” means, something is of vital, existential importance — that the past commands attention and understanding.  Polish and Jewish relations are complex. Even historical accounts differ. There are many issues, attitudes, distorted perceptions that demand careful study, hence the crooked mirror. The task of addressing and making ourselves aware of the distortions of history/memory is an arduous task.

The yawning chasm of distrust impedes conversation.  The unseemly competition among Poles and Jews for the status of chief victim is carried out with little compassion for the other. Steinman challenges that paradigm by chronicling her own initial avoidance of the subject and eventually an assertive search for dialogue partners.

Appropriately, the book begins with Louise Steinman's own story as she reluctantly accepts the Jonah-like mission to seek conversation and understanding with Poles that is assigned to her by her Buddhist influenced rabbi, Don Singer. With a strong initial sentiment of being sent on a fool's errand to meditate in Auschwitz with Jews and non-Jews, Steinman begins her journeys.  Along the way, Steinman meets many others who are skeptical or reluctant, even averse to the notion of reconciliation. This is the task of reconciliation, which is greatly advanced by Louise Steinman's new book.

In successive trips to Poland and the Polish lands (Vilnius — now in Lithuania, and Kolomay — now in Ukraine) a 10-year chronicle unfolds.  Steinman uncovers traces of her past from the city of Radomsko, and her aunt who stayed behind in Poland. A persistent search uncovers a Wilhelm cousin in Los Angeles who shares photos of pre-World War II Radomsko life. Another source to Steinman's work is and English Internet translation of the Radomsko memorial (Yizkor) book that allows the author to connect with the stories and the survivor's testimonies. These books were originally written in Yiddish or Hebrew by landsman, fellow residents from a particular town or region.

 Among the Radomsko landsman, Steinman finds a quirky Holocaust survivor who becomes a key informant. Eventually, the informant's testimony gives way to the story of a brave rescuer from Radomsko, who saved the survivor and four others. Both the rescued Jews and the Polish rescuer made a pact after the liberation not to disclose the events of the rescue because of a prevalent climate in Poland of suspicion and jealousy toward rescuers. (Did they enrich themselves? Did they endanger their fellow Poles for Jews? Are they secretly Jewish too, for siding with the Jews?) Steinman plays a key role in bringing the rescuer to the attention and to recognition of Yad V'Shem as a Righteous Gentile. Steinman's telling of that story brought me to tears.

The role of Poles who are now the major guardians of the history/memory of Jews in Poland is a key theme in the book. In Radomsko, the work of a journalist Maciej, leads to the serialization of a Polish translation of the Radomsko memorial book. The interest of locals in knowing something of the past of Radomsko's former residents is balm on the soul. During the publication of the memorial book the phones ring off the hook because the serialization is on hiatus for Christmas holidays.  With patience, knowledge, and enthusiasm the “Maciejs of the world” diminish the distrust on the Jewish side. They are precious to us for their efforts that translate to making a symbolic bridge to a past that belongs to both Poles and Jews.

The book eloquently and graciously reproduces many of the voices from this many-sided conversation that grows through the power of the long-term personal experiences, encounters and confrontations of the author.

The complexity and sensitivity displayed by the anecdotes advances the cause of dialogue but also gives a full-throated expression to the anguish of the survivors and their children, especially Cheryl – Steinman's sometime traveling companion. The pain and the personal anger borne by Jews betrayed by neighbors encounters the reality of the passage of time, the new internal reality of Polish society wedged between two factions — the Polish ultranationalist's sentiment of virtuous victims and the aspiration for a society dedicated to building a Polish civic society that integrates itself into the European Union.

I read this book seeking a comprehensive summary that would introduce Jewish visitors to Poland, not only to the Jewish issues but also to hearing the Polish ones. Last summer I led my first tour of Poland. I was surprised that the standard “Jewish” tour did not include the museum of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising led by the remnants of the Polish Army against the Nazi Germans. The Soviet army, the liberators watched from the other side of the Vistula. The museum profoundly demonstrates the betrayal that Poles felt from both their allies and their enemies.  

Understanding some of the basic realities of Polish experience requires the awareness of the loss of Poland's independence in the 1790's. Except for a brief 20-year period of independence, Poland remained in captivity until 1991. Prussian/German imperial forces, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Russian (Soviet) empires were the dominant powers in a Poland occupied and dismembered for nearly 200 years.

We are in Louise Steinman's debt for helping us move to another conversation that will continue the process of reconciliation. Not all matters will be settled, nor are there easy resolutions, but the sense of connection will grow.

As a rabbi working with the renewal of Progressive Judaism in Poland through the umbrella organization of Beit Polska (sponsored by Friends of Jewish Renewal in Poland and the World Union for Progressive Judaism), I would have wanted a chapter on the surprising phenomena of people seeking to identify with Jews and Judaism. The phenomena of people seeking to rejoin the Jewish people, or even to know more about Judaism, is very moving to me. This difficult process is another part of the reconciliation.

 The efforts by the municipal government of Warsaw, the national Polish national government and survivors to build the Museum of the History of Polish Jews point to a world seeking a new horizon.  A persistent question “The Crooked Mirror:  A Memoir of Polish-Jewish Reconciliation” asks is: Do the Poles miss us? Indeed, some of us Jews miss some Poles.

Louise Steinman will be featured in conversation with Jack Miles about The Crooked Mirror, and will sign copies of the book, at 7:15 p.m. on Thursday, November 7, 2013, in the ALOUD program at the Central Library, 630 West Fifth Street, Los Angeles, CA 90071. For tickets and information, visit

Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak has devoted himself to the revival and flourishing of Jewish congregations around the world, most recently Beit Warszawa in Poland and Neve Shalom in Parimaribo, Suriname. He also served for 19 years as Chaplain and Hillel Rabbi for The Claremont Colleges.

Conversion: Kimia Sun

Kimia Sun was born a refugee. 

Her parents were survivors of Cambodia’s Khmer Rogue, which claimed nearly 2 million lives in the late 1970s. The couple was among the lucky ones and escaped to a refugee camp in Thailand, where Sun was born and spent her first months. Next, the family traveled to the Philippines, where Sun’s parents learned English and purchased plane tickets for America.  

When Sun was just a toddler, she arrived with her family in Memphis, Tenn. Her parents were Buddhists and her father had been a Buddhist monk for 14 years, but they converted to Christianity. Sun was raised a Southern Baptist, but at age 13, she decided it wasn’t right for her. “It just didn’t gel with me,” she said. “I asked my parents if I may stop going to church. I just didn’t understand or agree with what I was learning in Sunday school. ”

At that point, she essentially disconnected from organized religion. “From then on, I called myself a universalist, and that lasted all the way through college. I didn’t have a religious home. I believed in God and the goodness of people.”

Then, when Sun moved to Los Angeles six years ago, she lived with and worked for an Israeli family in the Hollywood Hills. She shared Shabbat dinners with them and picked up on some Hebrew words. “They were so open to all my questions,” she said.

Living with the family sparked Sun’s interest in Judaism, and that interest was solidified after she dated a Jewish man and read books about the religion. Although she was intrigued, converting initially didn’t cross her mind. After she and the man broke off their relationship, however, one of her friends persuaded her to look into becoming a Jew. “He said I have a Jewish soul,” she said. 

Sun, who today lives in Hollywood and works at Sunrise Brands, which assists apparel companies, began to take classes at Rabbi Neal Weinberg’s Judaism by Choice program. The lessons she learned prepared her to pursue a Conservative conversion. 

“I remember the first day of class he broke down the etymology of the three main religions,” she said. “For example, the Christian people are ones who adhere to God or want to please God, Muslims are people who serve and fear God, and Jews are those who struggle with God. That caught my attention. Sometimes my prayers are more like debates or arguments with God, and I never knew if that was acceptable or not. I just knew that this was my relationship with Him.” 

For a year, Sun took classes and learned Hebrew with the rabbi’s wife, Miri Weinberg. Sun started preparing her own Shabbat dinners and put together a Rosh Hashanah meal. Temple of the Arts became her synagogue, and she spoke to the congregation there about her conversion. In June 2010, Sun completed her conversion at American Jewish University with the West Coast Rabbinical Assembly. “My experience in the mikveh was almost indescribable,” she said. “It was so unique, so special and uplifting. I felt really aligned with God.”

Since her parents had undergone their own conversion, they understood Sun’s need to find to herself spiritually. Her dad revealed to her that in the refugee camps, where a day’s worth of food consisted of a handful of rice and a chicken wing, an Israeli United Nations worker had given her pregnant mother extra food. The worker also helped them learn English. 

Out of all the Jewish traditions she’s learned about over the past six years, Sun said one of her favorites is honoring the Sabbath. “It’s super important to me, because it’s a time to acknowledge all of the hard work that you’ve done all week long and then you rest. I think that can be taken for granted. I love all the traditions. Everything has a specific meaning and purpose on Shabbat, and I love how it centers around your family and friends.”

The holiday she connects to most is Passover, because of her family history, she said.  “I really connect to the symbolic meaning of this holiday. [You] remember to be thankful for your freedoms and also to remember and pray for those who are still in oppression or in captivity. Maybe I relate to this most since my family and I survived the terrors of the Khmer Rouge.”

Before Sun discovered Judaism and took it on, she said she, like a lot of people, was a spiritual wanderer. “A lot of people feel a little bit lost or disconnected. I was one of those people.”

Now, however, that has changed. “Judaism brought me closer to God. I feel connected, grounded and complete,” she said. “In a way, it gave more meaning and purpose to my life.”

Poem: Religion

I wish I could become a Buddhist,
Accept how life is
Wish everyone well.
Too late too Jewish
For that.

From “God Is a Tree” (Pleasure Boat Studio)

Esther Cohen is a poet, cultural activist, novelist and book doctor. She lives in New York.

Poem: Here Today

God is here today
She is a spectacular god,
Good company and magnificence. She sings, barks,
And is an able contortionist (she learned this in India.)
She does splits when you don’t expect them,
Has a big vocabulary, is part Jewish
Part Buddhist part wind.
She plays excellent piano, speaks Urdu,
Breathes deeply, and does the sun salute.
This god knows words to many songs.
She bakes bread, and often makes strawberry shortcake.
She turns her small mountains so green
You want to eat them and then
She just hands you a long light yellow porch
Where you can sit and sit and sit
To watch her move so slowly
You’d miss her if you weren’t really watching.

From “God Is a Tree” (Pleasure Boat Studio)

Esther Cohen is a poet, cultural activist, novelist and book doctor. She lives in New York.

Artist Siona Benjamin brings Hindu and Muslim motifs to portrayals of biblical outcasts

In the space of a single painting, Siona Benjamin juxtaposes feminism, Indian mythology and Jewish imagery.

On a three-foot canvas, she’ll paint a portrait of a blue-skinned figure, usually a character from the Bible, with nods to Persian miniatures, Talmudic fables and Vishnu gods. Often there's a message in Arabic.

“I want people to realize there can be a universal message in Jewish art,” Benjamin told JTA. “I didn’t want to just be a Jewish artist, explaining my culture in my paintings, because it’s deeper than that. I’m a Jewish woman of color and a feminist with Islamic and Hindu influences, and they are all a part of me.”

Benjamin, 52, was born in Mumbai and her artwork combines the various influences in her life. Her favored subjects are biblical outcasts, and she aims to redeem them by presenting an alternative narrative.

In her home studio in this northern New Jersey township some 15 miles west of mid-Manhattan, Benjamin is wearing a modern version of a shalwar kameez, the traditional Indian dress of blossomy pants and tunic top. Her shelves are lined with books about Islamic leaders, Asian art and Jewish sacred texts. Doodles of Bollywood pop art and Buddhist statues serve as inspiration. But it has taken Benjamin years to grow comfortable with all the diverse elements of her art.

“I’m trying to use my Jewish heritage as a vehicle to create a universal message for their stories,” Benjamin said. “People think they know a full story, just like they see me as an Indian Jew and believe stereotypes. But there is so much more to these characters.

“If you look at biblical characters, there are deeper stories than what meets the eye. And I paint them blue because I’m redeeming myself through them, too.”

Benjamin grew up in the suburb of Bandra, the product of a wealthy family who enjoyed a comfortable and privileged life with cooks, servants and chauffeurs. As a child, she was envious of Indian friends who had large, boisterous families. Benjamin was an only child whose family lived mostly in Israel and the United States.

A ninth-generation Indian Jew, Benjamin's parents sent her to Catholic and Zoroastrian schools. Surrounded by this multireligious influence, Benjamin often found herself wrestling with questions of self-identity. Her mother lit an oil lamp every Friday for Shabbat, but she also believed in the Zoroastrian God Ahura Mazda and practiced Buddhist meditation.

At 24, Benjamin left India for America to pursue an education in fine arts, but found herself feeling even more lost and lonely.

“At that point, I was ashamed of being so different, of fitting into so many categories,” Benjamin said. “I spent so many years wondering what I was going to paint: Jewish themes of my ancestors or Buddhist ideas from my childhood? Where was home? Was India home to me? Or Israel? Or America? I think the estranged characters in the Bible felt just as confused as I was because I belong nowhere.”

Benjamin eventually drew comfort from her embrace of the Bible's lost characters. She paints characters such as Lilith, the mythological first wife of Adam, or Vashti, the dethroned queen from the Book of Esther. Benjamin often uses their stories to highlight feminist themes. Their faces are presented usually in blue in a nod to Benjamin's Indian heritage, which typically presents its gods in blue hues.

In one painting, Benjamin paints Sarah hugging Abraham's handmaiden Hagar as a suicide bomb explodes behind them. In another, Benjamin portrays Lilith wearing a prayer shawl and worshiping God as she catches fire.

Benjamin’s artwork has exhibited in museums across the United States, Europe and Asia, but she is most excited about an upcoming project featuring the Indian Jewish community, which she fears is slowly disappearing as its members immigrate to Israel.

Following the 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai, in which a Chabad rabbi and his wife were among the murdered, Benjamin said many people approached her with questions about the city's Jews and what they looked like. In the course of several trips, Benjamin took photographs. Her project, a photo collage of Indian Jews titled “Faces: Weaving Indian Jewish Narratives,” will go on display at the Prince Wales Museum in Mumbai in September.

“Siona’s work has been recognized as extraordinary in the contemporary art world, in that she combines Judaism with a Persian-Muslim stylistic departure,” said Matthew Baigell, an emeritus art history professor at Rutgers University who has authored several books on American Jewish art.

Baigell has written that contemporary Jewish art is experiencing a “golden age,” and he points to Benjamin's interpretive paintings as one example.

“She’s provided one-of-a-kind perspective on female characters from the Bible,” he said, “and is part of a group of artists who are not afraid to expose their Judaism in a creative way.”

Interfaith program an intersection of religious leaders

Jewish, Christian and Buddhist religious leaders discussed their respective faiths’ support for reproductive choice during a recent program at the National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles’ (NCJW/LA) Fairfax headquarters on July 28.

“Choice: An Interfaith Perspective” included a panel discussion with Rabbi Jill Zimmerman, formerly of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills; Chandana Karuna of the International Buddhist Meditation Center; the Rev. Frank Wulf of the Methodist congregation United University Church; and the Rev. Carissa Baldwin of All Saints Church in Pasadena.

“As with all things Jewish, there is a wide range of opinions,” said Zimmerman, adding that the “Reform movement for decades has supported women’s right to choose.”

The California Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, Miracle Mile NOW, Planned Parenthood of Los Angeles and NARAL Pro-Choice America co-sponsored the event, which included workshops on lobbying legislators and other hands-on advocacy.

Approximately 40 people attended the program.

Leanore Saltz, vice president of advocacy at NCJW/LA, said that this year, “We’re putting even more of an effort into the pro-choice movement … because the opposition is absolutely breaking down doors to chip away at Roe v. Wade, and each state has figured out how they can go around Roe v. Wade and do it on a state basis.”

Like Zimmerman, the other clergy members stressed their support for the pro-choice movement.

Wulf dismissed what he sees as misguided views on Christianity’s abortion stance.

“We need to put out in public that Christians aren’t unanimous in opposition to abortion … so Christianity doesn’t come off looking like some monolithic, anti-abortion religion,” he said. “It’s not that.”

Karuna said, while one of the basic precepts of Buddhism is not to take a life, it’s critical to examine the intentions of the person seeking an abortion.

“If somebody is choosing to go for an abortion, do they responsibly look at it? Is it to stop suffering?” she said, adding that Buddhist precepts are not fixed and that its adherents shouldn’t judge others. 

Zimmerman welcomed the opportunity to hear voices of other religions weighing in on the issue, saying, “I think it is always inspiring to work with prominent people of different faiths and different traditions who share common values.”

Music lovers get presents for composer Reich’s birthday

Sometime in the 1970s, composer Steve Reich found himself looking for spiritual sustenance.
“Like many people in the ’60s,” he says, “I got involved in Hatha Yoga and Northern Buddhist meditation and Southern Buddhist meditation. It did a lot of good for a high-metabolism New Yorker like me. But after about 10 years, I felt ‘something is missing.'”
Reich, who turned 70 this week with elaborate celebrations in New York and London, grew up in Reform Judaism, at a time “when Big Bad Reform was really Big Bad Reform,” he jokes. “Religiously speaking,” he says, he was “a blank slate.”
At a certain point, however, he felt that the spirituality he sought might, in fact, be “in my own backyard.”
An ardent admirer of oral transmission of cultural traditions, Reich suddenly realized he was “a member of the oldest tradition on earth,” and didn’t know anything about it.
So he set out to fill that gap.
Today Reich is an observant Jew. He keeps kosher, observes the Sabbath and studies Torah weekly. And his growth as a Jew has filtered into his music in works like “Tehillim,” “Different Trains,” “You Are (Variations)” and his collaborations with Beryl Korot, a video artist who is also his wife. But he is adamant that he is not a Jewish composer.
“I am Jewish, and I am a composer,” he says. “I don’t write Jewish music. The only true Jewish music is hazanut [cantorial music].”
“Setting a Hebrew text is very important to me,” Reich says. “But that’s concert music using a religious text. Stravinsky wrote a mass, and that’s religious music because it’s used in the Catholic Church, but to me Jewish music is one man chanting Torah. The rest is folklore.”
Still, Reich won’t downplay the significance of his Jewishness in his life.
“This has made a tremendous improvement in my life,” he says emphatically.
Is there a New York component to his music to match the Jewish component? Reich acknowledges, “Everyone is shaped by when they’re born and where they live,” yet he doesn’t have an easy answer to the question. “Fish swim in the water but they don’t know much about the water. But if you take it away, they’re dead. I think the energy, the rhythmic energy in the music is me — Hashem’s plan for me included that — but New York certainly fueled it. It’s a city of enormous energy.”
And true to its form, in October, Reich’s hometown will be resplendent with birthday tributes, including programs at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), the Whitney Museum, Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall, and a retrospective of his video work with Korot at the Whitney.
In addition, Reich’s new opus, “Daniel Variations,” written in memory of the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was murdered by terrorists, will have its world premiere Oct. 8 at the Barbican Centre in London.
Reich admits that he is dazzled, amused and delighted by the fuss.
“If you’re going to turn 70, that’s the way to do it! I’ve been very fortunate,” he admits. “So many wonderful things have happened.”
But Reich is hardly resting on his birthday laurels. Where is he headed next musically?
The answer to that question is, he says, a bit complicated.
“‘You Are (Variations)’ was written after ‘Cello Counterpoint,’ which is a highly tooled, precision piece,” he says. “When I started ‘You Are,’ I said to myself, ‘I’m just going to do what I know how to do and follow it wherever it leads. I’m going to see what happens.’ I had never consciously had that attitude composing. In the past I always felt I had to set a problem for solving. Lo and behold, the harmonies begin to get very dissonant, and you end up doing something you didn’t know you knew how to do. That is only possible after years and years of work. And it’s one of the best pieces I’ve ever written.”
As an example of the way that his working methods continue to evolve, he offers both, “Daniel Variations,” the vocal piece he wrote for the Daniel Pearl Commissioning Project of Meet the Composers, and “Sinfonietta,” a recent instrumental piece.
“Daniel Variations” uses four texts, two from the Book of Daniel, one from Daniel Pearl himself and a fourth that is Pearl’s paraphrase of a jazz song title from the ’20s.
Reich explains, “Whenever you choose a text, the text forces you to do things you might not otherwise do. The whole idea of a four-movement piece came out of choosing those texts, and the fact that it’s about a person who was murdered affects the way I wrote. With a text, you find yourself asking, ‘Bach did this, Stravinsky did this, what have you got in mind?’ And you are forced by the text to make [musical] decisions that if you were writing instrumental music, you might not do.”
By contrast, he continues, “The Sinfonietta piece is completely instrumental, a bit closer to my earlier pieces. It’s more repetitive, does things I haven’t done in years. But it fills out the harmonies in ways I wouldn’t have done when I was younger.”
In December, Reich will begin working on a piece for Eighth Blackbird, a contemporary music sextet based at University of Richmond in Virginia and the University of Chicago.
“They are a flute, clarinet, viola, cello, piano and percussion,” he says. “That is an instrumentation I would never write for, ordinarily. I’m going to have them do a recording of themselves, then play against it. I’ve been working in these interlocking pairs for [decades], and I’m still married to it, but I’ll be working with strict contrapuntal ideas that I haven’t thought about for a long time.”
Reich’s formula for keeping the music and him fresh after all these years is simple.

Torah Portion

An unusual Buddhist-Jewish dialogue took place inSeptember 1989, when the Tibetan Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama, metwith a group of six Jewish leaders. The Dalai Lama requested themeeting, not because of an academic interest but, rather, because ofa practical need. He wanted to learn the Jewish “secret technique”for survival. “We always talk of Jewish people scattered in so manycountries, speaking so many languages, yet the Jews keep theirtraditions. It’s something remarkable,” he said.

Faced with the Buddhist challenge, the Jewishleaders debated what constitutes our secret survival technique. Amongthe numerous answers offered, the one that caught everyone’s fancystated that Jews survive because they know how to argue.Historically, the Jew could defend his faith because he was trainedto inquire, to probe, to question.

That answer seems particularly apropos, assurvival, once again, is high on our agenda. Indeed, how successfulis modern Jewish education in training our young to ask probing,life-sustaining questions? And what better time to raise this issuethan Passover, which focuses on both education and questions — theMa Nishtana, the four questions of seder fame? As everyone knows,youngsters in Jewish schools throughout the world learn to recite thequestions letter-perfect. Some children even learn them in more thanone language, dazzling their audiences with their multilingualtalents.

But does learning to parrot the questions in theHaggadah provide our children with survival techniques? At least onegreat medieval sage thought it did not. According to Maimonides (Lawsof Chametz and Matzah 8:2), when it comes time for the Ma Nishtana,”the son asks his own questions, and the reader says, ‘Ma Nishtana.'”A revolutionary idea. No more parroting of questions, and no morelittle children asking the Ma Nishtana. Rather, a free flow of ideastakes place. Maimonides thus advocates stimulating our children toprobe rather than programming them to parrot. Let them observe forthemselves why this right is different, and let them inquire in theirown way, creating their own set of questions. The seder is a time forquestions, for only those who question will find answers.

From this vantage point, we can now understand whyMaimonides insists that the seder leader recite the formal MaNishtana. He appreciated that the role of a good educator is to teachhis students to question. In order to achieve this goal, the teachermust first demonstrate the value of questioning, and what better waythan by asking questions himself?

But the teacher can’t stop there. He must teachhis students how to question, and the Ma Nishtana serves that purposeas well. Precision inquiry and intuitive thinking are present inthese four questions. They note all phenomena at the seder, and theyobserve all changes in behavior that deserve analysis.

On seder night, we all become teachers, and it isour responsibility to ignite our children’s imaginations. We willcommit a grave injustice to our children if all that we expect anddemand of Passover is a rote recitation of the Ma Nishtana.

Let us not waste the opportunity, and let us teachour youngsters that Judaism is only appreciated by those whoformulate their own questions and search for proper answers.

Rabbi Elazar Muskin is spiritual leader ofYoung Israel of Century City.

Thai Tikvah

While that may sound like an old Jewish joke, it's an arrangement that well suits a community which feels at home in this overwhelmingly Buddhist nation but keeps a low profile.

The three synagogues serve as a rough guide to the makeup of the permanent and transient Jewish community here.

Worshipers at the showpiece Bet Elisheva synagogue tend to be wealthier suburbanites. The three-story building serves as community center and houses the sanctuary, the meeting and recreation rooms, the mikvah, and the living quarters of the youthful Rabbi Yosef Kantor and his family.

There are daily preschool classes for six children, and a Sunday school for older kids is in the planning stages. The preschoolers are taught by two young women, still in their late teens, who arrived two months ago from Kfar Chabad in Israel.

Bangkok, as the gem-trade capital of the world, has attracted a large number of Israeli businessmen. They, along with tourists staying at the more expensive hotels, pray at the appropriately named Even Chen (Precious Stone, in Hebrew) in the center of the city.

Serving the lower end of the economic scale is the Ohr Menachem synagogue, which, with a kosher kitchen, is part of Bet Chabad. It caters to the stream of backpackers, an estimated 15,000 a year from Israel alone, who stay at the nearby cheap hostels and guest houses.

Rabbi Yosef Kantor, with wife, Dvorah Leah, and son, has been spiritual leader of the Bangkok Jewish community for four years. Photo by Tom Tugend

The first contingent of Jews arrived in Thailand at the turn of the century, mainly from Middle Eastern countries.

These Sephardic Jews were joined in the 1920s by groups of Ashkenazim, said “Jacob,” whose father arrived here from Russia, via Italy, in 1920.

Jacob, who requested that his real name not be used, represents what is now the oldest Jewish family in Bangkok. He is president of the Jewish community, as his father was a generation earlier.

Besides the Israeli businessmen, the community includes a sizable segment of American Jews. The men, mainly lawyers, got to know Thailand while serving with the U.S. military or the Peace Corps, liked what they saw and decided to stay.

Jacob's request for anonymity is grounded in his sense of vulnerability to terrorist attacks. In 1973, the Palestinian Black September group seized the Israeli Embassy here — although Thai authorities were able to defuse the situation without bloodshed.

Four years ago, Jacob says, police apprehended a terrorist “by a stroke of luck. He had enough explosive material to level everything within a mile radius in the heart of the city.”

Surveying his constituency, Jacob notes that, “basically, all of us are Orthodox; we have no Reform or Conservative Jews here.” The community gets together for Purim and Chanukah parties, and, during the past year, celebrated one wedding, one bris and a few bar mitzvahs, and welcomed one young Thai woman as a convert.

As for the burden of the presidency, Jacob confides that “just because it's a small community doesn't mean it's an easy one.”

What attracts Jews to live in Thailand?

“It's a nice country with friendly people. All religions can function freely, and there are good business opportunities,” says Jacob.

There is also no anti-Semitism, perhaps because “the Thai have no idea what Jews are,” as one resident put it.

In the past, the community had a hard time attracting and then keeping rabbis. “We had one who stayed for a year, and then a second one who left after six months,” says Jacob.

Four years ago, community leaders turned to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who dispatched Rabbi Kantor. The 28-year-old native of Australia has “done a terrific job,” according to Jacob.

Kantor and his wife, Dvorah Leah, who hails from Los Angeles, are now well-settled and are raising a family. He relies primarily on e-mail to stay in touch with Chabad headquarters in Brooklyn and with the rest of the world.

Some things about Thailand, though, are hard to get used to, including the extremely hot and humid weather. “Sometimes, I dream of just taking a pleasant walk, like in Los Angeles,” says the rebbetzin. “Now [in February], it's the middle of the winter, and the temperature is 100 degrees.”

Mindi Gerlitzky, one of the two young teachers recently arrived from Kfar Chabad, is struck by other phenomena.

“I was shocked to see so many Israelis here,” she says.

Israeli tourists now flock to Thailand at the rate of 50,000 a year, according to Yaakov Avrahami, the No. 2 man at the Israeli Embassy.

Besides the 15,000 backpackers, there are some 35,000 mostly middle-aged visitors, attracted by cheap package tours and the regular El Al flights between Tel Aviv and Bangkok.

The Israeli Embassy was opened in 1957, but the Thai reciprocated in opening an embassy in Tel Aviv only last year. One reason for the latter move was to serve the estimated 20,000 Thai nationals now working in Israel, mainly in the agricultural sector.

Trade between the two countries runs at $500 million a year, with the balance almost 2 to 1 in Israel's favor. Thai exports are mainly in diamonds and gemstones, and imports from Israel include machinery, electronics and communication equipment.

Diplomatic relations between Thailand and Israel function smoothly, says Avrahami, and, judging by the three English-language dailies in Bangkok, Thailand's people and government seem well-disposed to the Jewish State.

Entrance to Bet Elisheva, one of three synagogues in Bangkok which also serves as community center. Photo by Tom Tugend