The King, the Rabbi, and I

At 85 and barely five feet tall, Father King Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia still inspires awe that only a god-king can.

16tibor (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Liveried ushers and valets drop to their hands and knees in the presence of King Norodom Sihanouk, and his private photographers kowtow in gratitude for letting them capture his image on film. Suddenly, as he draws closer on the thick carpet where we're waiting in line, my own knees, too, begin to buckle. It dawns on me just how ill-prepared I am apropos royal protocol, especially the Khmer variety. Rabbi Yosef Kantor, the head of Chabad's Bangkok-based regional operations who is standing in line before me, doesn't seem to suffer from such doubts. He greets the elderly monarch by reciting an ancient Hebrew blessing reserved for meeting royalty. I sure could use such a handy icebreaker, too. But then, Sihanouk clasps both my hands in his and bows his head, smiling cordially. "Welcome, welcome, so nice to see you!" he says. I mumble pleasantries of the inane "Thank you for having me, sir" variety. I'm at a private, gold-lettered luncheon in Phnom Penh's Royal Palace on the invitation of the American Jewish philanthropist Bernard Krisher, a close friend of King Sihanouk, largely on account of an article I wrote about Krisher's manifold activities in Cambodia for this magazine (December 25, 2006). Krisher - or simply Bernie, as everyone from statesmen to foreign moneymen to local taxi drivers calls the short, energetic septuagenarian - introduces me to King Sihanouk and Queen Monique as a "famous writer," which I'm not. (Then again, why quibble over one's inflated reputation... especially as I'm wearing one of Krisher's dinner jackets borrowed for the occasion?) Before a phalanx of photographers and cameramen, the diminutive king decorates Krisher with the medal of Grand Officier de l'Ordre royal du Cambodge, the country's highest honor. He also presents gifts to the two dozen foreign invitees present, most of them American donors underwriting some of Krisher's myriad schools and educational projects across this war-torn, impoverished land. Kantor and I receive identical silver elephant statues - tokens, King Sihanouk explains, of "prosperity and longevity." I take his word for it. Sihanouk's own long life on the throne (and off it) has had more picaresque twists than Dustin Hoffman's character in "Little Big Man." He has at turns been king, prince (in that order), prime minister, Buddhist monk, chief of state, exile, prisoner, exile again, king again, and finally King Father - earning himself a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the world's most versatile officeholder. The gift elephants are exquisite works of traditional Khmer artistry; still, the rabbi later ponders swapping his statue for a cigar holder, given that an elephant is not a kosher animal. The same religious considerations prevent Kantor from partaking in a sumptuous lunch laid on by the king, a gourmet and legendary host who once entertained guests by playing his own compositions of swing jazz on a saxophone, or showing them the movies he wrote, directed, produced and starred in. "This is where I have to ad lib," Kantor whispers to me before the fine but decidedly non-kosher meal. Complicating matters for the Lubavitcher hasid - who was asked at the entrance by an usher to remove his hat in Their Majesties' presence, which Kantor did, only to reveal his skullcap -- he's seated right across from the king and queen. Several courses into the meal, it becomes painfully obvious to the royal couple that Kantor doesn't fancy a single dish. Mistaking him for a fussy eater, Queen Monique orders the French chef out of the kitchen to see if a special meal could be swiftly cooked up for the fastidious foreigner's benefit. "I'm feasting with my eyes," Kantor quips. He hastens to apologize for not eating by claiming to be fasting for religious reasons. A few days earlier, Kantor was indeed fasting. Invited by Krisher on behalf of foreign Jewish donors staying in town for the holidays, the rabbi oversaw Cambodia's first-ever ultra-Orthodox Yom Kippur services, which were held in a five-star hotel's lobby - with all the decorative sandstone reliefs of bare-breasted Apsara dancers chastely covered for the event. "We have to raise a cup to the rabbi," Krisher proposes a toast, "for not succumbing to temptation!" Sihanouk chuckles. Once a famous womanizer, he certainly knows a thing or two about temptations, culinary or otherwise. He knows about divine prerogatives, too. The elderly monarch is regarded by his subjects as quasi-divine with his illustrious lineage of Khmer kings stretching back to the great medieval builders of the colossal Angkor monuments. He's also thought to be imbued with mystical powers that manifest themselves in such abilities as stimulating annual crop fertility and reversing the flow of rivers. So even when Sihanouk shakes my hands cordially for the third time (the second being when he unexpectedly handed me his gift), on my way out of the palace, I'm still entirely not at ease. It's not every day, after all, that I can hang out with a divinity - or at the very least, with a man whom the ancient Hebrew blessing Rabbi Kantor just recited deems a "flesh-and-blood" beneficiary of God's "glory on earth."