Celebrating Chanukah in Thailand

Written by Roland Leiser on . Posted in Travel

It’s an annual tradition that goes back decades, but I first joined the celebration of the Festival of Lights in Bangkok, Thailand, during a visit in December last year. The idea was to give my Thai niece by marriage an experience from the Jewish side of the family, and it did not disappoint!

The event took place at the plush Pullman Bangkok Grande Sukhumvit Hotel in the central part of the capital. Approximately 500 guests attended, according to Rabbi Yosef Kantor of the Jewish Association of Thailand (JAT), which sponsors the annual celebration. The crowd included Southeast Asians, Africans, and of course Israelis. (Two Israeli tourists, a burly man and his wife, shared the elevator with me to the grand ballroom. To make small talk, I asked the husband, “Chanukah party?” He grunted back, “Yes.” Conversation over.)

For those unfamiliar with Chanukah, there were handouts to explain the history behind the holiday and how to observe it. At the hospitality table, boxes of small white candles were for sale for lighting chanukiahs. While there was no charge to attend the party, donations were welcomed.

Dozens of children thronged the cavernous hall, as rambunctious as kids anywhere, and they were offered a space with coloring books and dreidels to keep them occupied.

And at the huge buffet, visitors could choose from an array of food that included skewered chicken and beef, fried rice, Israeli-style salads of tomato and olives, grilled eggplant and green pepper, hummus and pita, and raw vegetables with dip. (My niece said she didn’t like “Jewish food” when I asked her opinion of the buffet, but I pointed out that this cuisine was largely Israeli/Middle Eastern; there is no one style of Jewish cooking, I said, and Jews have their own style of cooking wherever they live.)

I found a spot with a few empty seats and our table began to quickly fill up. Jordan, a Jewish American, sat down on my left, and my niece Apinya (or April, as she went by when she was studying in the U.S.) was on my right. Jordan looked to be in his early 30s, and had a neatly trimmed beard and mustache. Surprisingly, he recognized me from Friday night services a week earlier; we had both been at the temporary home of Beth Elisheva synagogue, which is waiting on completion of a new facility in mid-2020.

As the party got underway, April nudged me. “That’s a superstar,” she said in a low voice, indicating across the table. I looked over at an attractive woman about the same age as Jordan, who was in fact her husband. Singers Simcha Friedman and Liebele Lipsker and their backup music were so exhuberant, normal conversation became impossible. It was only by exchanging written notes with Jordan that I discovered his wife Fon was a Thai TV actress. I felt a little starstruck myself!

I flagged down the rabbi’s wife Nechama and then the rabbi himself to introduce them to April. When the third branch of the electric chanukiah near the stage was “lit” at sundown, I explained to April the meaning of the holiday. Rabbi Kantor also addressed the children at the gathering, inviting them on stage and explaining that they are “our future” before the crowd broke into circles of dancing once more.

This year’s party at the Pullman Bangkok Grande Sukhumvit Hotel will be Dec. 3. If you are traveling to other Thai cities during Chanukah, check out the celebrations at Chabads in Chiang Mai, Phuket, and Koh Samui, with menorah-lighting ceremonies each night with music, dancing, and those traditional jelly doughnuts!

By Roland Leiser

Roland Leiser is a local freelance writer and member of the Society of American Travel Writers.