2010 Chanukah in Bangkok
What Was the Rabbi Thinking?
06 December 2010
29 Kislev 5771
What was the Rabbi thinking as he was staring off in the distance towards the huge menorah?
Was he pausing for a moment to relax? Was he composing his remarks for this Hanukkah celebration? Was he praying silently?
Moments before, Rabbi Kantor greeted me as he always does – with his warm smile and gracious hospitality. He greets the entire congregation as we enter this large Infinicity Hall located next to the cavernous cinema lobby on the fifth floor of the Siam Paragon Mall.
Yes, Rabbi Kantor greets everyone, and there must be several hundred of us – bearded old gentlemen, bearded young Hasids and their children, and many more Jewish families and single Jewish men and women who have chosen Bangkok as their home.
I met my friends Eli Savranski and Harry Sharbat and Bill Deutsch and Tibor Krausz - men always so enthusiastic and energetic. I made two new friends – Avi and his charming Thai girlfriend Jet. Avi, an American from Long Island teaches English here. Jet is in the printing business.
I meet my new Israeli friend Rafael "Rafi" Krakauer. He is a retired physician who has spent his adult life in Denmark. Rafi plays the violin and is a member of an amateur civic orchestra here.
(Actually I first met Rafi at the Hanukkah celebration at the Beth Elisheva Synagogue last Wednesday. I played “Jewish Geography” with him. Rafi related that in 1953, he sailed from Haifa to Genoa accompanied by my cousin Moshe Lauer. Rafi was on his way to medical school in Switzerland and Moshe was on his way to see his brother at the same school. Of course, Rafi also remembers Moshe’s brother and sister-in-law – both retired physicians.)
I met my old friend Jeffrey Wachtel, his partner Neng, and their 19 month old son Dylan. Jeffrey, 60+, and a solidly confirmed bachelor, it turns out, is a doting and playful father.
All the while Rabbi Kantor is circulating the hall, greeting the congregants and conferring with Mrs. Kantor, the behind the scenes organizer-in-chief for this very public Hanukkah candle lighting ceremony and celebration.
What must the Rabbi be thinking as he mingles with this crowd of more than two hundred Jews from every continent in the world – a crowd he himself has gathered here? Or, is he thinking humbly - only He Himself deserves the credit?
At last, Rabbi Kantor ascends the stage at the front of the hall. He reminds us of the significance of this eight day holiday. He elaborates on the “other-worldliness” of the number Eight. He congratulates us on our devotion. We are all so very far from home, living in the midst of a very different culture. Finally, the Rabbi reaches up and lights the wicks dipped in oil on the menorah as he chants the Hanukkah blessings.
Middle Eastern salads, hummus, pickled vegetables, meatballs and chicken on skewers, and every Israeli’s favorite Chanukah desert, sufganiot filled with jelly or chocolate and sprinkled with powdered sugar. (Why do I always get heartburn?) For the rest of us there was chocolate pudding. Sorry, no latkes. The venue does not allow hot-cooked food on the premises.
Then, we sang.
Gad Elbaz, an Israeli singer led the congregation in a variety of upbeat Chanuka –Israeli songs, including one mournful melody dedicated to fallen soldiers. Every night during this holiday period, Gad has led the Hanukkah singing in a different city in Asia - from Hong Kong to Singapore.
Then, we (they) danced.
The music was loud and inspiring as the men grasped arms and circled the open floor. Several men had their kids on their shoulders. The Rabbi joined in with his youngest son aboard.
I couldn’t help but wonder what he was thinking as he danced with the other men, arms flailing, tsitsis flying. The Rabbi was particularly pleased with my photo of him dancing, his hands waving in the air in celebration of the event. “You’re good,” he said.
I refrained from dancing and defaulted to my usual custom of taking photographs. I found two charming women dressed in traditional Indian clothing. When I showed them their photo, they asked me the question I have been asked several times before, both here and in India: “Sir, are you from India?” I always take that as a compliment. My assumption about them was also incorrect. One lady was a Hindu, the other a Christian. We all had a good laugh.
I spent the remainder of the evening chatting with my friends and watching Jeffrey play with Dylan. The kid has spilkes. Just like his old man, he couldn’t sit still for a moment. We reckoned he was high on the music and the soda and the pudding.
I looked up from the table and saw the Rabbi standing alone as he watched the singing and the dancing from afar. I wandered over for a final chat. “I am envious of you,” I said. “You have brought us all together for this beautiful evening. If I may be secular for a moment,” I added, “You have a great profession!”
“I was wondering, Rabbi, what you are thinking and feeling now? Is it a sense of pride? Of joy? A feeling of accomplishment?”
(My own sense was that Rabbi Kantor was giving thanks to HaShem for guiding him to perform this mitzvah – this Light Up the Night Grand Chanukah Party.)
Of course the Rabbi smiled at me. He suggested that I write about what I thought he was thinking and feeling.
And so, I have.
Light up the night! Every night.