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Friday, 06 February 2009

A Malaysian Passover - Page 2

Written by G. Michael Schneider
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In our first few months in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, my wife Ruthann and I have celebrated Id al-Fitr, the Muslim festival ending Ramadan; Chinese New Year; and the Hindu full moon festival of Thaipusam. Now it is our turn to host a celebration. Passover is next week and my wife and I, Reconstructionist Jews from Minneapolis, are determined to have a real Seder, complete with Haggadoth, matzoth, and charoseth. The problem is, in this city of Muslims (62%), Buddhists (24%), and Hindus (8%), we can't find the fixings and, except for one visiting American couple in our building, we can't locate any Jews.

At the Seder, the audience is just as fascinating as the rabbi. There are 35 to 40 people, but only six Jews—Gary, the rabbi, my wife and I, and the other American couple from our building. Those that remain are Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists, who are Gary’s friends and employees, plus curious strangers who saw the newspaper ad (and perhaps a few who simply want a free meal). Gary is prepared for all of them. There are Haggadoth (the Passover text) for everyone, including comic book Haggadoth for the children. Using these texts, the rabbi performs an explanatory Seder rather than a rigorously religious one, describing the history of the Jews, the story of the Exodus, and the reasons behind symbols like the matzo and the four cups of wine. The attendees are fascinated and listen intently. In true Passover spirit, they ask numerous questions—from "What is this strange writing?" (Hebrew), to "What are those things on the plate?" (shank bone, egg, and bitter herbs), to "How did Moses really part the Red Sea?" (tradition says with the help of God). The rabbi thoroughly answers each question in a manner worthy of a skilled professor.

After the ceremonies, we enjoy a delicious dinner of fresh fish, hard-boiled eggs, potato salad, tomatoes, cucumbers, and kosher wine. We have salmon for the main course since, according to Jewish law, its distinct orange color let's you know with confidence that you are eating the flesh of a kosher animal. With other species it is difficult to distinguish between kosher and non-kosher and the nearest kosher butcher is in Singapore, over 200 miles away. The Muslim women preparing the meal use newly-purchased pots, pans, and chopsticks to ensure they meet the Jewish dietary rules for cooking utensils.

We eat until well past 10 p.m.—it appears the enjoyment of good food is universal. When it is time to leave, our host presents all attendees with a gift—a bronze coin from The Franklin Mint bearing a likeness of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. He also gives the Jewish attendees a box of Streit's matzoth so we can have matzoth brie (fried matzoth) for breakfast the following morning.

ImageFor all of us, this was a unique and truly enjoyable Seder. Even 10,000 miles from home it felt comfortable to retell the Passover story, eat traditional food, drink kosher wine, and sing the Passover song “Dayenu.” After such a celebration, I feel embarrassed to have followed the Embassy’s warning to hide my religious heritage. At the school where I teach, Multimedia University, it is customary for faculty to send holiday greeting cards or emails to everyone in their department, regardless of ethnicity, wishing them a "Festive Chinese New Year” or “Happy Id al-Fitr." I have happily received many such greetings.

I decide to send emails wishing my coworkers a happy Passover and explaining the holiday's significance to Jews. After all, Malaysia prides itself on being a society in which all religious traditions live together in harmony. A Malaysian Passover, Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, celebrated Id al-Fitr, the Muslim festival ending Ramadan, Chinese New Year, Hindu full moon festival of Thaipusam, Passover, Gary Braut, Reconstructionist Jews, Seder, Haggadoth, matzoth, charoseth, Jews living abroad, G. Michael SchneiderEven so, I sit back and nervously await the repercussions of the email. Thankfully, there are none. Instead I receive dozens of responses from my Chinese, Malay, and Indian coworkers thanking me for the good wishes and telling me how much they enjoyed learning about my religion and this unfamiliar holiday. To my delight, their curiosity about Jewish traditions continues over lunch and coffee for many days. Anti-semitism may be practiced by some, but it was not reflected in the attitudes of the many Malaysians–Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist–with whom I worked. For them, Malaysia is a society in which all beliefs, including Judaism, are welcomed and celebrated.

© G. Michael Schneider

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Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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