September 22, 2019

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.