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Hosting a Passover Seder in Jakarta

“Please, come sit and have some tea,” Peri said, in his raspy smoker’s voice. I politely declined, insisting that I still had many errands to run. Seder was, after all, starting in a few short hours and I had only dropped into the Indian restaurant Peri owns to place a last minute order for more papadum, the Indian cracker that would serve as our matzo stand-in.

But he would not take no for an answer. So there I sat, drinking chai and chatting with my new friend Peri, the Pakistani owner of one of my favorite Indian restaurants in Jakarta. Several sips into our conversation, I asked Peri if he knew of a print shop nearby as I still needed to print the Haggadahs, or Seder booklets, we’d be using that night. “How much do you have to print?” he queried. I explained that I had to print 30 copies of a 26-page packet. “Oh, that’s fine—you’ll just use my printer.” My protestations proved futile. He led me to his office in the back of the restaurant, sat me at his desk, and directed me to use his printer. I pleaded with him to let me pay since I’d be using so much paper and ink. “You’ve obviously never met a Pakistani if you think I’m going to let you pay,” he quipped. He never even asked what I was printing. I wish I had told him.

If I had to sum up this year’s Seder in a word, it would be substitutes. The papadum was just the beginning. Jakarta is not exactly a haven for facilitating Jewish ritual. There is no Chabad here, no synagogue, no kosher meat, and certainly no matzo. But there was no way I was going to pass over Passover. Parsnips filled in for maror (sprinkle a bit of chili and your parsnips will go from mild to mind-blowing), lamb chop for shank bone (my mother approved!), water crackers for matzo meal, and halal meat for kosher.

Though many Jewish rituals have fallen to the wayside this year, my resolve to hold a Seder was borne of an ever growing desire to give voice and credence to a tradition and religion that is virtually absent here. Two days prior to the Seder, a couple of friends and I embarked on an adventure we dubbed “Find the Jews of Indonesia.” We devoted a day to winding our way through mountains in North Sulawesi in a quest to discover some of the only physical symbols of Judaism in Indonesia, hoping to speak with at least one or two of the 20 or so Jews left in this country of 240 million people. We were successful on one front but not the other.

Two hours after giving our driver the very specific directions of, “help us find orang yahudi” which may as well have been translated as “help us find a needle in a haystack,” we pulled up to a small, fairly inconspicuous structure with a sign in Hebrew and English that read Beit Knesset Shaar Hashamayim. But the gate was locked and the building shuttered. There were no signs of life. After inquiring with a neighbor nearby, it turns out the synagogue is rarely used—the Jews have moved to the city, she said.

We then resolved to find the 62 foot menorah erected on a mountaintop back in 2009 and paid for by the government of the North Minahasa regency. Again, we found the menorah but no Jews. At first, I was exhilarated to discover such obvious Jewish symbols in a country where it often feels Judaism has little to no place (dancing around the menorah to Fiddler on the Roof songs may have also contributed to the initial exhilaration). And yet, the structures seemed to mean little without people. A synagogue is simply a shell for communal spiritual cohesion, for gathering together in spiritual unison. Families are meant to gather around a menorah on Hanukkah and light the candles together, to share in the tradition that emanates from the flames—to sing and eat together. In that way, it was heartbreaking to come across these symbols and see them absent of people.

The Seder remedied that absence, if only for a night. Packed into the apartment of two dear friends, 21 people from all walks of life sat cross-legged on the floor and for six hours shared together in the retelling of the Exodus. Amid the most nontraditional of circumstances, a tradition unfolded. We read the four questions, drank four cups of wine, dipped parsley in saltwater, munched on charoset, opened the door for Elijah, ransacked the apartment in search of the afikoman, sang dayenu. But most importantly, we challenged notions of slavery, historical and modern, and the role of God in the epic. We each dug into the recesses of our backgrounds and personal histories to relate to the “wicked” child and questioned the roles of the oppressor and the oppressed.

Before the Seder began, I skyped with my mom as I prepared to substitute my Jakarta family for my American family. “Just remember who you are, Sarah” she said as I stood chopping walnuts for the charoset. In many ways, being in Indonesia, in a place so devoid of Judaism, where it’s often so easy to forget, urges me to do just that.

The views expressed above are the author’s own and do not represent those of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.

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