Will the world’s largest Seder be canceled this year?


The sanctions and now full strike at Israel’s Foreign Ministry have already wreaked havoc with the country’s diplomacy. First, a planned trip by the Pope to the Holy Land appears to be on the verge of cancellation. Next, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s historic visit to Latin America also looks likely to fall to the editing room floor. There are even more serious problems waiting at the United Nations Human Rights Council, which is set to vote on five anti-Israel resolutions this week, which will apparently go unchallenged by an Israeli diplomatic corps or total lockdown.


Despite the international urgency, most Israelis have been basically blasé about these developments. If it doesn’t hurt them with increased prices at the supermarket or a slow down on the shiputz of that new kitchen, goes the thinking, let the foreign ministry workers strike to their heart’s content.


Chabad House in Kathmandu, 2011 (photo credit: Brian Blum)


But the news this morning that the world’s largest Passover Seder in the world was at risk of being shelved certainly got my attention…and I imagine will be pulling on the heartstrings of some of the tens of thousands of Israeli backpackers who have enjoyed the chametz-free hospitality of Chabad of Kathmandu.


Rabbi Chezki Lifshitz has been a fixture on the post-army tiyul scene for years. His laid back Nepalese Chabad House is a meeting place for young Israelis at all times of the year, but on Pesach, Kathmandu’s Jewish population swells by up to 2,000 as Israelis (and a few Jews from other countries too) make their way to the city to participate in what is rightly known as the mother of all group Seders.


The problem is not that Rabbi Lifshitz doesn’t have the cash or wherewithal this year to plan the Seder. It’s just that the kosher supplies being sent from Israel – including thousands of shmura matza and other foodstuffs not readily available in Nepal – are stuck in a container in Calcutta, and the striking Foreign Ministry staff are not cooperating with the Indian authorities to release that container from customs.


Calcutta is already a two and a half day drive from Kathmandu, if there isn’t an avalanche blocking the winding mountain roads, so if a miracle is going to happen, it can’t be at the last minute. (As of this writing, we are exactly 3 weeks away from Seder night.)


Rabbi Lifsthiz has expressed hope that the Foreign Ministry could make an exception and allow the container to continue on its way, but a Foreign Ministry spokesman was playing Pharaoh, hardening his heart. “What can we do? We’re on strike,” said Yigal Palmor, a spokesperson for the ministry. “The Seder will be canceled….we’ve been pushed into a corner by the Finance Ministry” which the diplomats say has cut their salaries to intolerable levels, hence leading to the sanctions and strike.


The Seder in Kathmandu has personal resonance for me: my family and I were among the 1,100 Israelis attending Chabad’s Kathmandu Seder in 2011 (it was a relatively small year) as part of a combination 50th birthday and bar mitzvah trek in the land of the rupee, and I have strong memories of the experience, albeit not entirely fond.


The Seder, I wrote on my blog, was a decidedly mixed experience, with the rabbi racing through the Haggadah “as if it were a ‘greatest hits’ album, speed reading the entire story in under 50 minutes, including ‘breaks’ for the most popular songs such as Ma Nishtanah and Dayenu.”


It was, I felt, a missed opportunity: the intention it seems was not to make the Seder meaningful to the uniquely captive audience, but to yotzei the assembled multitude – “that is, as long as they’ve ‘heard’ the entire Haggadah, they’ll have ‘fulfilled’ the mitzvah.” Indeed, the most exciting moment was not Pharaoh’s release of the Jewish people or a river of blood, but a very contemporary lottery in which, amazingly, my wife Jody won the top prize – a free bungee jump from the tallest bridge in the world. (She passed, as we were leaving the country to return home only a day later.)


But, personal experience aside, it would terribly sad if Chabad’s annual Kathmandu extravaganza were to be passed over due to the Foreign Ministry strike. Sadder than not getting to see the latest Pope? For the Israelis winding their way down the Annapurna trek from Muktinath, or flying back from Mount Everest, without cell phone or Internet coverage on the trail to keep up with the news, this could be worse than frogs in their beds and lice in their heads (as one cheerful Pesach ditty goes).


And it’s not like the tie died, dreadlocked and multiple pierced young Israelis who will, as in years past, rendezvous at the upscale Yak and Yeti Hotel in Katmandu can dine out on those newly kosher Ritz crackers with artificial bacon flavor that have been all over the news this week – not because of the impressions of pork, but because they’re chametz on Pesach. Fortunately, there’s always plenty of leaven-free daal baht on every street corner, although the dumpling like momos are a definite no-no.


Rabbi Lifshitz hasn’t given up entirely. Channeling Moses from a pivotal point later in the Exodus story, he says “We’re not raising our hands yet.”