April 12, 2012
KATHMANDU, Nepal — It was three hours to sundown before the first night of Passover and the kitchen in this Kathmandu hotel was a steamy mess. Bath tub-sized pots bubbled with matzo ball soup, 900 chicken hunks in lava-like tomato sauce, and the googly eyes of a thousand boiled eggs.
Nepali helpers wearing flip-flops and shalwar kameez grated long fingers of horseradish and cut cauliflower into snowy mounds. Plastic barrels overflowed with cabbages resembling pale green bowling balls. Young Israeli volunteers in cargo pants and Teva sandals sliced squash into orange arcs.
The night before, a team of them had chopped onions and peeled vegetables until one in the morning to help prepare the world’s largest Passover Seder, which takes place in Nepal’s capital. More than a thousand guests, mostly Israeli backpackers who flock to Nepal after their military service, were expected for the holiday dinner that commemorates the Jewish exodus from ancient Egypt.
Alon David, 24 with dark hair pulled into a ponytail, was volunteering for his second Passover Seder in Nepal. “If you’re not in Israel, you should still make the atmosphere,” he said, squinting through oniony tears.
I minced cautiously over the kitchen floor, which was dangerously slick with water, grease and food scraps. Cauldrons of oil boiled menacingly at knee level on extra gas burners set on the floor. Big plastic basins, the kind used to wash clothes or babies, were piled high with diced purple onions and tomatoes.
The chef, a 23-year-old Israeli with bright blue eyes, needed another kosher pot. A young rabbinical student from France wearing a kippa skullcap fired up a blowtorch attached to a large gas tank. Israel Negar, also 23, zapped a cauldron to incinerate any traces of leavened ingredients, forbidden to eat during the eight days of Passover, which ends this Saturday.
Aviv Hayun, the chef, had another problem. The oven hadn’t been made kosher. How, then, to keep the food warm? “Where to put a thousand people’s food?” he lamented. Moments later, the kitchen plunged into darkness. Kathmandu, plagued by 12-hour power cuts, had shut out the electricity unexpectedly.
When the hotel’s generator kicked in, the cooks resumed their race against sundown. Hayun works in catering in Israel, so the dinner wasn’t his largest event. “But it is the biggest mess I’ve seen,” he sighed, pushing back his hair.
The 1,100 people who attended the Seder in the hotel’s cavernous, chandelier-lit ballroom enjoyed endless plates of food – seven kinds of salad, curried potatoes, stewed vegetables, fish, soup, chicken — that emerged from the kitchen. It was a massive guest list for a dinner that is usually celebrated intimately at home. (In addition to young backpackers, some older Israelis and families attended too).
Celebrants faced the extra challenge of making a kitchen kosher in third world conditions, not to mention getting Passover supplies and kosher ingredients to Nepal from Israel and the U.S. This year, 1,000 bottles of kosher wine, 1,100 pounds of matzo, 150 pounds of salami, 180 pounds of oil, hundreds of cans and jars of gefilte fish, tuna, olives, pickles, and other kosher fare arrived from Israel and New York days before Passover.
Each year, a container of kosher supplies departs Israel a few months before Passover. It travels by ship through the Suez Canal, chugs around Sri Lanka, and arrives in the ports of Kolkata. From India, the goods are trucked to Nepal.
In the days of Nepal’s 10-year civil war from 1996 to 2006, trucks of matzo en route to Kathmandu were routinely stopped by rebel and government roadblocks. One time, rickety Nepali trucks broke down and kosher supplies had to be helicoptered to Kathmandu in time for the holiday.
The tradition of the Kathmandu Seder begins with the steady influx of young Israeli backpackers. They usually travel after their required stint in the army, from age 18 to 21, and before university. About 10,000 Israelis visit Nepal each year, said Hanan Goder, Israeli ambassador to Nepal, in a phone interview. They tend to travel in groups, often for months at a time, and are a close-knit community. Israeli influence is apparent in Nepal, from restaurants that serve hummus and falafel alongside rice and dal, to the aspirated sounds of Hebrew commonly heard in tourist areas.
There are two other seders in Nepal for Israeli and Jewish travelers. One is in Pokhara, a city popular with tourists and trekkers at the base of the Annapurna Circuit. The other Seder is in Manang, up in the Annapurna Circuit, 3,540 meters high in the Himalayas. Boxes of matzo, wine, and other provisions were helicoptered to trekkers in Manang from Kathmandu.
Rabbi Chezki Lifshitz, a 38-year-old with a bearded yet cherubic face, heads the Kathmandu branch of Chabad, the Jewish organization that organizes the Seder. In 1988, Chabad in Kathmandu organized the first community Seder outside of Israel. Three hundred people attended. That number swelled to a high of 1,800 in 2002. Globe-trotting Israelis and Jews “are trying to keep their traditions with them even if they go far away,” explained Lifshitz.
But why Nepal? As the gateway to the Himalayas, Kathmandu has for decades catered to climbers and backpackers on a budget: $6 a night guesthouses and $2 liter bottles of Everest beer still abound. Backpacking in Nepal is practically a rite of passage for young Israelis and is often sandwiched between travels to Thailand and India. (Another draw of Nepal, as well as India, is locally grown marijuana.) Israel is not too far from south Asia, which is relatively safe for traveling, yet distant and different enough to be an exotic interlude from home.
Israelis come to Nepal to hike, river raft, bungee jump, hang out in cafés, and generally let down their hair, often literally. During military service “we have a crazy reality,” said Yosi Saranga. The 22-year-old Israeli was strumming a guitar and crooning Radiohead on the patio of Chabad House, the Jewish community center here.
But in Nepal, “sab kuch milega” he said brightly, translating the common Hindi phrase as “Anything is possible,” which could have been the motto in the lead-up to the Seder. The preparations began the afternoon before at the Chabad House, when its modest kitchen was made kosher by splashing hot water on countertops and stoves, and papering surfaces with tin foil.
When an unseasonably heavy rain burst from the sky, rabbinical students helping with the Seder from Israel, France, Brazil, and the U.S. mounted cauldrons on plastic lawn chairs to blowtorch them on the roofed porch. Vegetable peelers clicked like insects as big-haired Israeli backpackers stripped carrots and football-sized zucchini under a leaking lean-to.
Inside Chabad House, lavender walls, red paper lampshades, and napping Israelis sprawled on sagging couches, gave the place a college clubhouse vibe. Buckets scattered across the floor caught leaks dripping from the flimsy, corrugated roof.
At midnight, the newly kosher cauldrons were piled into tiny Nepali taxis and taken to the hotel kitchen for the next day’s cooking. The pots clanged like bells as the taxi lurched into the rain-filled potholes cratering Kathmandu’s streets.
Early the next morning, food and supplies were ferried to the hotel in those tiny taxis — at least 35 trips back and forth.
By evening, the grandeur of the hotel’s ballroom belied the chaos in the kitchen earlier that day. Bottles of wine sat on tables covered with white cloths. In the sea of Israelis, dreadlocks and hands covered with henna designs were not uncommon. Those who didn’t have kippas to cover their heads wore traditional Nepali topi hats instead (a bin of spare topis stood by the door).
Toward the end of the Seder, the dinner grew festively raucous. Rabbi Lifshitz, dressed smartly in a black cap and knee-length coat, jumped and gestured on the stage like a rock star as he led blessings and songs.
After a few cups of requisite wine, many Israelis stood on their chairs, singing and cheering. A young Jewish man from New Jersey surveyed the rowdy crowd of young Israelis, who enjoy their reputation of knowing how to party. “This is so Israeli,” he said with amazement.
In an adjacent, smaller room, ornately decorated like a Viennese ballroom, a more sober Seder was held in English for about 35 non-Israeli Jews. They hailed from New York, New Jersey, San Francisco, Colorado, Vancouver, and beyond. Toive Weizman, a Brazilian rabbinical student studying in New Jersey, led.
Shamir Waldman, a 33-year-old Brazilian Jew working in Hong Kong, was surprised at the Seder’s customization for non-Israelis. “I’ve never seen anything like that.” He smiled, as if remembering he was in Nepal. “You have to be flexible so everyone feels at home.”
By the end of the evening, table cloths were bruised with wine stains and heaped with plastic plates of leftover food. As the last guests trickled from the room, the rabbinical students were tipsy from wine and relief. In their dark suits and broad-brimmed hats, they milled around Rabbi Lifshitz. He reposed horizontally across a few chairs, jacket off, collar loosened.
Another year, another Passover Seder in Kathmandu.
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