A Chiang Mai Chanukah

However, due to the fact that the Chabad Houses are run by very orthodox rabbis, the secular Jewish communities tend not to mix with them.

By | Mon 23 Nov 2015

There will be a very special Chanukah celebration here in Chiang Mai this year. Chanukah is the eight-day festival of light that begins on the eve of the 25th of the Jewish month of Kislev. It “celebrates the triumph of light over darkness, of purity over adulteration, of spirituality over materiality” according to Chabad.org. This year the celebrations will be held on the 6th December.

When the Holy Land was ruled by the Seleucids over two millennia ago, a small band of faithful Jews managed to defeat their army and drive the rulers from the Holy Land, reclaiming the holy temple in Jerusalem and dedicating it to the service of God. Upon attempting to light the temple’s menorah (seven branched candelabrum), “they found only a single cruse of olive oil that had escaped contamination by the Greeks; miraculously, the one-day supply burned for eight days, until new oil could be prepared under conditions of ritual purity.”

Chanukha is celebrated every year to honour this miracle.

“Chanukah customs include eating foods fried in oil – latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiot (doughnuts); playing with the dreidel (a spinning top on which are inscribed the Hebrew letters nun, gimmel, hei and shin, an acronym for Nes Gadol Hayah Sham, “a great miracle happened there”); and the giving of Chanukah gelt, gifts of money, to children.”

Most of you may not know that Chiang Mai has a Chabad House, it sits on Chang Klan Road and is a centre for disseminating traditional Judaism by the ultra-religious Chabad movement (there are 3,000 centres in 65 countries around the world). Traditionally the Chabad House here, as in many locations outside Israel, serves to offer support to Jewish travellers or tourists in terms of religious council and practice, religious services, Shabbat meals and community events. Counselling services is also provided for Jews in need, all at no cost.

However, due to the fact that the Chabad Houses are run by very orthodox rabbis, the secular Jewish communities tend not to mix with them.

For the past eight years there has been an informal gathering of resident Jews of Chiang Mai at a Canadian expatriate’s house. Barry Wasserzug has been opening his home for many years to his Jewish (and non Jewish) friends to come together in celebration on special occasions. A friend of his cooks the main favourites, and anyone else who is able to brings along a dish to share. A small ceremony is held, candles are lit, prayers whispered and a convivial party ensues. The expats include Israeli military types, retired gay Jews from New York, families from Europe, the odd visitor and their friends and families. In the past few years his event have grown larger and larger as Chiang Mai’s Jewish community expands.

“For the past seven years I have extended invitations to the Chabad Rabbi and his family to attend my annual Chanukah Party,” said Wasserzug. “They have always declined.”

“Last year I attended a Chanukah Party at the Rabbi’s home in Chiang Mai, and the Head Rabbi (Rabbi Kantor) from Bangkok was there as well. I asked him why Chabad won’t mix with the Jewish community outside of the Chabad House. He told me that we didn’t follow the religious laws or keep kosher. But in actual fact he sends out in his weekly email to the community that Chanukah is a very special holiday and we should invite neighbours, non-Jews and whomever we can find to participate in the lighting of the candles and eating of foods. I reminded him that I indeed do that but that Chabad wouldn’t come. I told him that I would purchase kosher food for them, or serve vegetarian, but they still declined. Eventually Rabbi Kantor said to wait until next year and he would see if he could get a sponsor and provide the food and participate outside of the Chabad Community.”

“So this year, I contacted him again, and he agreed to provide the food at Chabad’s expense. They seem to want to mingle with the existing secular community here, rather than catering to visiting Israeli tourists. So, the joint Secular/Chabad Chanukah party is about to take place in Chiang Mai. It is a first for Thailand, and perhaps the universe!”

The story of Chanukah will be told at the lighting of the candle at 7pm and everyone is encouraged to bring their own menorah.

“It will be a social-eating-schmoozing evening open to families and singles. There will be Jews, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Atheists and everything in between coming. We will light the Chanukah menorahs at 7:15 pm and Bernard Davis will explain an abbreviated version of the celebration to the young ones lasting no more than five minutes. We will ask Rabbi Kantor and Rabbi Pickle to say a few words. Chabad will be providing all the food at no charge. They will have chicken, beef, all kinds of Israeli salads and dips, potato latkes, and desserts. There is no charge, but I am putting up a Tzedakeh Bok (Charity Box) which people can donate money for the less fortunate – there is no pressure to give. Last year there were about 70 guests, the last guests left at one in the morning!!! People are asked not to bring anything except beer, or whiskey/alcohol. The Rabbi will provide kosher wines free to all.”

“The idea is for people to get together to celebrate one of the eight nights of Chanukah in a multicultural community.”

Barry promises that no one with go hungry with a mouthwatering menu that includes falafel balls, hummus, 4 or 5 different kinds of eggplant salads, potato latkes, coldslaw, vegetable sticks, grilled vegetables, tahini dip, pita bread, chicken skewers, beer skewers, chicken wings, cabbage dishes, fruits and cakes.

If you wish to share a ride from the city centre as well as to give the organisers a heads up regarding numbers please email Barry Wasserzug at yyzbarry@gmail.com.

189/130 Moobaan Chonladda
Land and House Park, Mae Jo Road, San Sai