Tales of a Wandering Jew: Sufganiyot in Saigon

Jews began coming to Vietnam about 15 years ago, as the Vietnamese government began opening its doors.

dead sea 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
dead sea 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
While I was in Hanoi, I left my Hanukka mark on my hotel. While the staff was putting up Christmas decorations, I quickly drew a Happy Hanukka sign, complete with Jewish stars, to hang in the window next to Santa. I was on a train for the first night of Hanukka, from Hue to Saigon, and was unable to light candles. However, the next day I met two Israeli backpackers, Amir and Omri, in the lobby of my hotel. As it was the second night of Hanukka, we decided to search for sufganiyot at the Chabad House. We arrived unannounced, but always welcome. Since it was the end of Shabbat, there were no sufganiyot, but we lit candles with Rabbi Menacham Hartman, his wife Racheli and their son Levi. We were also invited to the Hanukka party the next day. The following day, I returned to Hartman's house, which doubles as the synagogue for the Saigon Jewish community. The Hanukka party was a festive affair, complete with candles, songs, latkes and sufganiyot. Of course, Hanukka gelt and dreidels were present. The cast of characters at this Hanukka party included Jews from all over the world: America, Argentina, Australia, Belgium, France, Israel and South Africa. Almost 40 of us gathered together to celebrate the Maccabee triumph. The permanent Jewish community of Saigon numbers around 200 people, from diverse backgrounds. Jews began coming to Vietnam about 15 years ago, as the Vietnamese government began opening its door to foreign development. Members of the permanent community include business people and doctors. Their numbers are buoyed by a steady stream of tourists, travelers and backpackers. Until recently, there was no Jewish infrastructure. Jewish families would get together for meals for the holidays, either in a hotel or home. But this all changed in the past year as Chabad made a permanent base in Saigon. Just a few weeks before Rosh Hashanah, Hartman, with his family, arrived in Saigon to serve, for all intents and purposes, as the "chief rabbi of Vietnam." For the first time, the Jewish community had a focal point for the High Holidays. Over 80 people came to the first Rosh Hashanah service held in Saigon in years. Many came as well for Yom Kippur services, and the community observed tashlich by casting their sins into the Saigon River. For Shabbat, there is usually a crowd of 25 to 30 people. Jewish communal life in Saigon is not easy. Hartman shared an anecdote with me that when Rabbi Freundlich of Beijing is asked if he is crazy being the chief rabbi of Beijing, he replies "no, crazy are the ones in Vietnam." The closest mikve (ritual bath) is in Hong Kong. Kosher meat is imported from Thailand and Hong Kong, while a container of dry goods is brought from Israel annually. Vietnam is rife with pork and shellfish, but there are some kosher products in the stores that come from Western companies. At the Hanukka party, I spoke with Dr. Dominique Meisch. She and her family have been in Saigon for five years, and she said she is grateful to now have Chabad there. Before Chabad arrived, there was nothing. Now, her children go twice a week to Chabad to learn Hebrew. Meanwhile, her son Julien is about to have his bar mitzvah, the first in Saigon since the French colonial period. Her sentiment was shared with the other members of the community I spoke with. I have since left Saigon, and I am currently in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I have been unable to light Hanukka candles with anyone since I left Vietnam. I can appreciate a little of what the Saigon community must have felt for all those years. It really is a blessing to have an organization like Chabad to cater to the needs of the Jewish communities in far-flung places. Paul Rockower served as the Press Officer for the Consulate General of Israel to the Southwest in Houston from 2003 until 2006. He is currently on a six month trek around the world. You can read more of his adventures at his blog: http://levantine18.blogspot.com http://levantine18.blogspot.com/> and see pictures at http://picasaweb.google.com/levantine18.