Elijah in Kathmandu

How a tradition leading to 1,000-strong Passover Seders may have started 30 years ago in the Nepalese capital

Pessah in Kathmandu521 (photo credit: COURTESY RABBI CHEZKI LIFSHITZ)
Pessah in Kathmandu521
Each year a container of kosher supplies travels by ship from Haifa through the Suez Canal, crosses the Arabian Sea, skirts Sri Lanka and navigates the Bay of Bengal to dock in the port of Kolkata.
From there the goods – 2,500 bottles of kosher wine, 1,100 pounds of matza, 180 pounds of oil, 3,000 pieces of gefilte fish and a sundry mix of other kosher goods – are trucked 650 kilometers at an average speed of 20 kilometers per hour on cratered roads through north India to Nepal.
The destination is Kathmandu for what is billed as the largest Passover Seder in the world where more than 1,000 young Israeli backpackers in Nepal after their military service, as well as Jews from other countries, celebrate the ancient Jewish rite of redemption.
Every year I listen to radio reports of how many attend the Seder, taking personal pride at the growing numbers. This year is the thirtieth anniversary, almost to the day, of the impromptu Seder that I organized in Kathmandu that I like to think helped start this tradition.
Crates of 2,500 bottles of kosher wine are on their way to Kathmandu and 30 years ago I couldn’t find even one bottle. I scoured every market, every liquor shop, but my chances of finding a bottle of kosher wine were about the same as encountering the Yeti. Looking back, I like to think that it was Elijah the prophet who turned up at my door an hour before the Seder with a bottle of kosher for Passover wine in his travel bag.
But that’s getting ahead of the story.
We were six months into a year-long trip around the world and my ex and I had carefully planned to arrive in Kathmandu three days before the Seder, which was to fall that year (1983) on March 28. We knew there was an Israeli Consulate in Kathmandu where surely there would be room for two more.
Not so.
The Consulate Seder was meant exclusively for Jews who live in Kathmandu year round, folks who work for the United Nations and other international organizations. There would be a party the following night for Israeli travelers.
After the trip to the Nepalese capital that took two days on local buses vintage 1940s, a jeep that broke down several times, a night spent at the Nepalese border in a room with no electricity or running water, and a bus trip from the border that took 19 hours, the disappointment was as bitter as the bitterest herbs.
The invitation in the Haggada is explicit: “Whoever is needy let them come and join.” I had my heart set on a traditional Seder .
In those days there was no Skype, there was only the Poste Restante. In a stroke of luck friends had sent us a small package with a box of matza and a Haggada. We had the makings of our own Seder . That morning I put up a notice on the bulletin board of the Kathmandu Guest House, our $4-a-night hostel. “Seder – Anyone interested, please contact, etc. etc.”
The first response came almost immediately.
In a twist of Jewish geography it turned out that he and I had attended the same yeshiva day school in New York City and he and my ex the same high school. He was there with his girlfriend. Five people studying Buddhism in the nearby Kopan Monastery said they were interested. We were nine.
I reserved a small room at a nearby restaurant that could comfortably hold 12 people. This was Friday and I was optimistic that by Monday evening a few more would join.
News of the impromptu Seder swept through Kathmandu. March is still before the monsoons and the town was filled with travelers who had come to catch the end of the Himalayan trekking season. Sunday morning I sat in the guesthouse garden receiving a steady stream of people who wanted to sign up. I returned to the restaurant and asked the owner to move us to the main room. I told him to expect about 23 people and asked if he would let me cook the chicken soup and a few other traditional dishes in his kitchen. No problem. The cost per person would be $3. I declined his offer of free bread and butter.
There was something magical in the way things were falling into place. I even found a long-stemmed cup for Elijah with four Stars of David carved along the rim. I saw it in a souvenir shop and explained to the owner that I would like to rent it for one night.
“Just take it and bring it back the next day,” he said.
”I’ll give you a deposit.”
“No. Just take it.”
Wine proved to be an insurmountable problem.
The liquor stores in Kathmandu carried rum, whiskey, brandy and beer, but no wine, let alone kosher wine. We went to the exclusive Yak and Yeti Hotel and found a bottle of French wine too expensive at $18. The barman directed us to a hole-in-the-wall shop on the other side of town where we found two bottles of California Cabernet Sauvignon for $10 each. There was no rabbi to consult if it was OK under such circumstances to make a Seder with non-kosher wine. We reluctantly decided to make do.
Monday morning, the day of the Seder, Kathmandu was in the midst of one big, boisterous water fight. The Hindu holiday of Holi was in full swing coinciding with Passover since we both follow a lunar calendar. Water balloons are thrown at passersby from rooftops, buckets of water from windows and balconies. Crowds of teenagers armed with water pistols prowl the streets spraying each other with colored water. I put on a raincoat, pulled the canvas top of the bicycle rickshaw over my head and headed to the Israeli Consulate.
I had called ahead to tell them about the burgeoning Seder and they promised help.
The consul’s wife gave me 10 Haggadot and several boxes of matza. She also graciously offered real horseradish from her garden and a bouquet of flowers. On the way back, I protected the matza from getting wet.
By four the chicken soup was done, the charoset paste of fruit and nuts was made and the tables were set. I rushed back to the guesthouse to shower and change. It was almost five by the time I was finished. We had told everyone to arrive at six.
A knock on the door. Two young, bearded travelers stood side by side. I wasn’t sure there would be any more room at the restaurant but it was unthinkable to turn them away. “Welcome,” I said and smiled.
Now if this was a Yiddish folk tale about Elijah the prophet who returns to earth in disguise, he would offer blessings and perform a miracle now that I graciously welcomed him to the Seder even thought there was no more room.
“Do you have wine for the Seder ?” asked one of the newcomers.
“We found some California wine,” I said.
He reached into his backpack and pulled out a bottle of Manischewitz kosher-for- Passover red wine.
I don’t know his name. I like to think of him as Eliyahu. He had just arrived in Kathmandu after a trek in the Himalayas and had brought the wine, a box of matza and one Haggada thinking he would hold a Seder alone.
By the time we sat down an hour later, there were 29 of us, Americans, Israelis and Canadians, all Jews tied together by an ancient bond. Outside as the sun set, the laughter and revelry of Holi was dying down. We read and sang the entire Haggada. We asked questions, we discussed. As it is written: “The more one tells about the Exodus the more it is praiseworthy.”
Nepalese children attracted by our singing stood outside the restaurant, faces pressed into the window. They had seen Westerners and the hippies that had inundated Kathmandu since the 1960s do all kinds of strange things, but never something like this. The king and queen of Nepal looked at us from their portrait on the restaurant wall. We opened the door for Elijah. Surely he would come, even to Kathmandu.
Does Elijah still come to Kathmandu? I pose the question to Rabbi Chezki Lifshitz who runs the Chabad House in Kathmandu for the past 14 years with his wife Chani.
“Eliyahu comes every year because every year we need a miracle to put together a Seder for more than a thousand people,” says the affable 39-year-old rabbi. “One year the container overturned and I had to send a Russian M-17 helicopter and a small plane to fly everything to Kathmandu. Another year there was a military emergency and curfew restrictions. We sent a fax to Brooklyn, using the only fax machine in town, to ask whether to cancel the Seder .
The rabb i said everything would be alright.
The next day the curfew was lifted.
Sometimes there is no gas so we have to cook by burning wood. There are only six hours of electricity a day and one year the five-star hotel in whose refrigerators we had stored all the cooked food did not turn on the generator and everything spoiled. We called in dozens of Israeli volunteers and cooked everything from scratch making it just in time. Every year there is another story.”
The interview with Lifshitz takes place in Israel where he is visiting a few weeks before Passover. With a bearded, cherubic face, he is articulate and surprisingly mellow, perhaps induced into shanti, tranquility, after so many years in the East. It doesn’t faze him that the truck can get held up at the border, or that Kathmandu can plunge into darkness by one of the frequent power outages. He is confident that in a country with no basic infrastructure and frequent political upheavals, it will always work out.
“It always does by some miracle,” he says.
The first Chabad-led Kathmandu Seder took place in 1987 with 300 participants.
The number grew to a high of 1,800 in 2002 and stabilized at more than 1,000 each year. Chabad organizes two other Seders in Nepal, one in Pokhara, a city at the base of the Annapurna Circuit. The second Seder, in Manang, is billed as the highest Seder in the world, 3,590 meters up in the Himalayas.
Two young volunteer rabbis from among the 10 or so that come each year to help, are flown in by helicopter along with provisions.
After all these years of experience, Lifshitz has it down. The first two of the four traditional cups of wine are grape juice to keep things calm. Towards the second half of the Seder, after two cups of wine, more than 1000 Israelis pound on the tables and stand on chairs bringing the house down with a giddy, boisterous, full-throated rendition of “Ehad Mi Yode’a.”
At the appropriate time Lifshitz opens the door for Elijah. Surely he will come, especially to Kathmandu.