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Friday, 06 February 2009

A Malaysian Passover

Written by G. Michael Schneider
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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 SchneiderIn 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. In fact, the staff at the U.S. Embassy cautioned me to maintain a low profile during my stay because of the anti-Zionist stance of some Malaysian governmental officials. They told me that while no one would do me physical harm, it might be best to keep quiet and let my coworkers assume I was Christian—the religion that Malaysians believe all Americans practice.

We decide to contact the cultural attaché at the U.S. Embassy who, after numerous phone calls, manages to locate a single Jew! In this modern, bustling Asian city of 1.4 million, there are no synagogues, no Jewish schools, no kosher butchers, and exactly one permanent Jewish resident—Mr. Gary Braut from Brooklyn, New York. While serving a tour of duty in Southeast Asia in the U.S. Merchant Marine, Gary had shore leave in Kuala Lumpur. 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 SchneiderHe liked what he saw of the city and eventually returned to start a new life. He opened a successful auto parts business, Precision Automotive, which provides him with the wealth and comfort to live an observant religious life in a city with no Jewish resources.

We call Gary and learn that he will be hosting a Seder. Proud of his heritage, Gary enjoys sharing this holiday with other Jews and with people unfamiliar with Judaism–just like our friends and neighbors who hosted us at many Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist festivals. A few weeks back Gary placed the following ad in the New Straits Times (the English-language newspaper of Kuala Lumpur):

Passover Seder. Let’s Break Matzoth Together. Everyone Invited. A Young Rabbi from Brooklyn Will Officiate. Call 03-61361246 for Details.

His Seder sounds interesting, so my wife and I decide to go. As we drive to the specified location, we realize that Gary’s Seder is not at his home but in his factory, which is easy to identify from its 20-foot-high menorah made entirely of used auto parts. Entering the factory, we pass an unusual sequence of photographs: Yang di-Pertuan Agong, the King of Malaysia; Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad, Malaysia’s past Prime Minister; and Menachem M. Schneerson, the Grand Rebbe of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement of Orthodox Judaism. Celebrating a Seder in a foreign country is a strange experience, and made even stranger by the machine tools, compressors, and ball bearings surrounding us in the factory.

Gary spares no expense at his Passover table. There are boxes of Streit's matzoth and bottles of Kedem’s kosher wine from the United States. There is homemade charoseth and matzoth ball soup prepared by Muslim women in burkas and headscarves who don’t know the meaning of these ceremonial foods but, nevertheless, do an excellent job. What is most unexpected is the rabbi—a 23-year-old rabbinical student from Crown Heights in Brooklyn, complete with the payess (side curls) and tzitzis (fringes) worn by Orthodox Jewish men. He flew the 10,000 miles from New York for this one evening, and afterwards would continue on to Surabaya, Indonesia to minister to their dozen or so Indonesian Jews.

 

On his journey here, the rabbi would not fly the direct route over the Pacific Ocean, but insisted that he come via Europe and the Mideast. I couldn't understand what possible difference a route could make until he explained that he was observing the Omer--the Biblical commandment to formally count the 49 days from the second day of Passover to Shavuot. If he flew over the Pacific and crossed the international date line it could confuse his count, and he might have to celebrate the Shavuot holiday one day early when he returned to New York!


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

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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