Thailand Shabbat

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Thailand Shabbat
By Rabbi Lynnda Targan

“Let us be thankful, as we light these candles
like eyes of holiness, for this moment of peace.”
Marge Piercy

The tiny embroidered symbol barely caught my eye as we gazed in wide-eyed wonderment at the dazzling, bejeweled architecture of the Grand Palace in Bangkok. A kippah in Thailand? It seemed as incongruous as a lotus blossom in Times Square. But there it was –visible, centered and comfortable atop the figure that turned, and instantaneously slipped away into the crowd, disappearing.

Two days later, it surfaced again on the head of the same man on a bus we boarded headed for Ayutthaya, a former capital of the country. This time I engaged the man in conversation. I learned that Murray, an attractive man in his forties, was a Jew from Montreal, touring the Far East with his beautiful wife Karen in celebration of their wedding anniversary, just as we were.

Shabbat in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Along the way, they’d befriended a young Jewish couple from Belgium, happening on the same route, now also on our bus headed to the countryside. A chance meeting of six Jews from three different countries on the Asian continent, brought together by the black kippah Murray had only two months earlier committed to wearing all the time as his connection to Judaism deepened.

The six of us had a wonderful day together, and we discovered that by a sweet twist of fate we were all holding reservations for the upcoming weekend at the same hotel in Chiang Mai, Thailand’s popular unofficial northern capital. We agreed to create Shabbat dinner together, unsure of how it would unfold in this extraordinary environment, a third-world country nearly devoid of Jews, but challenged and delighted at the prospect.

Several days later the event was synchronized. We all met on one of the scenic patios of the fabulous Regent Chiang Mai Hotel, where the backdrop was spiritually alive and inviting. As the sun began setting in a glorious blaze of color behind the Himalayas, where we gazed at eye level above the foothills, we ambled across and inside to an elegant restaurant for our Shabbat dinner. Cantilevered over the rice paddies, situated in the splendid Mae Rim Valley, the teak paneled restaurant, with its high vaulted ceilings and large glass windows afforded a breathtaking panoramic view. Except for one other couple in the restaurant, and an abundance of fascinated, hovering staff, our party was alone in the tranquil enclave.

As Shabbat entered as a natural oasis of serenity after a hectic week of touring, I lit the candles in the traveling brass Shabbat candlesticks that always accompany me on trips. The three women recited the traditional prayer, and we all continued the Shabbat rituals together, led by Murray with his Siddur. In absentia, we blessed our four children, who were continents away from us, and sanctified the day as we recited Kiddush with the Rothschild wine Murray had arranged for the occasion. We began to sing, noisily, giddily, welcoming the Shabbat angels with a harmonious rendition of Shalom Aleichem. We said the blessing over the bread, two round soft rolls that the kitchen made especially for us as a substitute for the two conventional braided challot required for Shabbat.

The Thai vegetarian dinner was spicy and delicious on our Shabbat table. The conversation was a healthy mélange of food, politics, Jewish issues, and travel stories with an appropriate mix of Torah. Camaraderie between the new friends was natural, spontaneous and intimate as we sat soaking in our serendipitous Shabbat together in a remote location far away from our respective homes.

Years later, the vivid memory of Shabbat in Chiang Mai has evanesced into a mellow vignette through the passage of time, but Shabbat wherever we are, continues as an essential mainstay of our lives, for which we are always deeply grateful. Each week Shabbat affords us the opportunity to pause, inhale deeply, take stock in our reflective juices, deviate from our frenetic lifestyles and ruminate about our blessings and possibilities, with family, friends, good food, music and the presence of the Shechinah.

Though some people have told us they characterize Shabbat as restrictive, we find it liberating, mind expanding, spiritually rejuvenating and physically restful. Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel writes in his seminal work, The Sabbath, “There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord.” Shabbat is the unique coalescence of sacred time and space, and it is how we regard it.

As Jews, we were given this precious gift of Shabbat every seven days, modeled by God, making it a window into the pivotal nadir of our souls. Shabbat in an exotic isolated landscape may or may not ever again be a reality, but Shabbat in our homes can be every bit as exquisite and mystical an experience—if we resolve to accept God’s invitation to observe it…

Ken Y’hi ratzon…May it be so…

Shabbat Shalom.