Working in high net worth marketing for financial services firms has been truly exciting and interesting career, and has also brought me many opportunities to work, speak and consult in a variety of banking centers in the United States beyond New York City, and even globally in cities like Toronto and Hong Kong.
One day not long ago, I opened an e-mail which invited me to present a financial services marketing program in a truly exotic locale: the important Asian banking center of Kuala Lumpur! Because I am adventurous at heart, I was thrilled. And then, I paused. Where is Kuala Lumpur, I thought? I quickly consulted a map, and then began researching Malaysia. As I looked over the dates which I was to work, I realized that to meet my obligation, I would need to spend Yom Kippur in Kuala Lumpur.
Oy vey. What might that mean? How might that feel to be the lone Jewish woman in a Muslim country?
I grew up in Detroit, and being Jewish there made me feel a bit like a "bagel" in a doughnut shop. Also, Detroit has one of the largest Arab population outside of the Middle East. At age 30, I relocated to New York City where I was surrounded by so many Jewish people that I was a bit taken aback. I remember being surprised to even hear Rosh Hashanah discussed on the radio! Everyone in NYC ate bagels and used Yiddish expressions like "nebbish" or "chatchkes" -- whether Jewish or not. But not everyone was a bagel I was to learn. There were many "flavors" of the Jewish people. Some were bourekas, lamb tangine, and others were falafel, babaganoush and hummus! Yummy!
The Sephardic Jews seemed exotic to me as their families originated from countries like Iraq, Iran, Turkey, etc. Their food was clearly more interesting than the Polish, Austrian, Hungarian, etc. Ashkenazi Jewish food on which I raised. I remember once even telling my grandmother that everything on one of the holiday tables was beige: matzo balls, noodle kugel, kasha varnishkes, brisket, gefilte fish, challah, etc. Moving beyond the food, for me being Jewish can easily be summarized by the Hebrew expression, L'dor v'dor, which means from generation to generation. I found it intensely important to teach my own two sons (now ages 19 and 17) about Jewish customs and traditions so that they in turn could teach their own children. It was much more than about the food -- although that is always part of a Jewish holiday! Except Yom Kippur. While it is a fast day, it does end with a stupendous "break fast" meal at most households after sundown when the observance has ended. Many times, it ends with bagels as a "breakfast" of the first meal of the day.
In doing my research, I googled "Jewish + Kuala Lumpur" and found the lone Jew of Kuala Lumpur, Gary Braut (a former NYC'er), who gave me some interesting history about the Jews of Asia. He has lived in KL for the past 24 years. I learned that the last Malaysian Jew who was buried in the Penang Jewish Cemetery one year ago. He told me about many interesting Jewish families which shaped the Asia in a variety of ways including Michael Kadorie, who owns a majority interest of CLP (China Power and Light), the Peninsula Hotel group and many other businesses. According to Gary, the Kadorie family originated in Bagdad but went through Calcutta to Bombay to Shanghai before settling in Hong Kong, One of the most interesting facts about the Kadorie family is that they have pig farms which are used for research and are "pig experts" while never eating pork as it is not kosher! He also told me of an important Lubavitch Rabbi Mordechai Atzvon, and his wife, Goldie who were early Jewish pioneers in Asia 1987. They came to Hong Kong via New York City. Now, in fact, Rabbi Atzvon and others now have created Chabad synagogues and support Jewish life in such exotic places like Nepal, Cambodia, Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand, Singapore and more.
But no synagogue in Kuala Lumpur.
Yom Kippur is a solemn fast day on which Jews from around the world gather in synagogue to repent for the past year's sins, ask G-d for forgiveness and eschew the "daily activities" of eating, showering, brushing teeth, etc., to focus in repenting, prayer, and reflection on what has happened during the past year. It is believed that repenting, praying and giving charity and performing charitable acts will seal you in the "good book" of life. It is the holiest day of the year of the Jewish year.
But what if there were no synagogues, no fellow Jews nor Jewish life, no prayer books, etc? What's an adventurous Jewish girl to do? Be ingenious and innovate. I set about deciding how best to celebrate my Judaism in my own fashion: be solemn, fast and pray, while honoring (L'Dor v'Dor) those Jews of Malaysia who are long gone and to learn more about the Jews of Asia. As I am writing this, I am flying to Kuala Lumpur on Emirates Airlines, the official airline of the United Arab Emirates. What better way to begin my Asian adventure!
As I am "bring your own," I have in my suitcase candles, wine and a challah roll to bless along with a Yom Kippur prayer book (Machzor) wrapped in my leopard scarf, a passport with an Israeli stamp, some modest clothes, and a few Jewish sights to visit once my work is finished. One son will observe Yom Kippur at college (in Bethlehem, Pa., of all places), and the other will observe Yom Kippur with his father. As is tradition, I have "forgiven" my sons for their "many" sins and they have forgiven me in advance of the holiday.
Soon, I will be landing in Kuala Lumpur and settling into my hotel room to observe the holiest of Jewish days while amongst the Islamic people. I am looking forward to my "Yom Kippur in Kuala Lumpur" adventure, and for what Jewish New Year 5773 holds in store for me. I only know one thing for sure: I will NOT be breaking the fast this year by eating a bagel with lox.
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