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Kosher pad-thai?

By | Jewish Travel, Thailand | No Comments

New Chabad facility in Phuket, Thailand opens its doors to throngs of Jewish travelers — February 2018

PHUKET, Thailand — It was a Thursday night last August when Rabbi Mendy Segal, the chief Jewish emissary, or shluchim, of this island off the southwestern coast of Thailand, received a phone call every rabbi dreads but must deal with on occasion.

Phuket Rabbi Segal

Rabbi Mendy Segal on the rooftop of the new Chabad Phuket House

Two Israelis were in a Thai jail on drug charges and needed the rabbi’s help to bail them out.

The call came at the worst possible time.  Chabad Phuket had a series of events planned that coming weekend in conjunction with the opening of a swanky new $4 million facility and people were coming from all over the world to celebrate.  Rabbi Segal barely had a second to spare.

Still, he planned to go down to the police station the following morning to offer his assistance.  When you’re the only rabbi in a popular tourist destination where there are so many Jewish visitors, it’s an unpleasant – but necessary — part of the job.

Then, he learned that the two men arrested were actually Arabs with Israeli passports.

Should he go, or should he stay and plan for busy weekend ahead?  He sought counsel from the chief rabbi of Thailand in Bangkok, Rabbi Yosef Kantor.

“And he said, ‘Mendy, you go,’” recalls Rabbi Segal.  “You have to be a mensch.  God wants you to be there.”

Hebrew in Phuket

There are several Israeli-owned businesses near the Phuket Chabad House

So Rabbi Segal went down to the jail Friday morning and helped get the two men released on bail.  In the process, he met one of their friends, another Israeli named Vadim.

“I started to talk with him and learned his mother is Jewish.  I was so happy.  I found out the reason I came.”

Vadim, whose father was Arab, had never set foot in a synagogue before.  He was afraid it would cause tension in the family back in Israel.  But after some coaxing from Rabbi Segal, Vadim came to Chabad.

“He put tefillin on for the first time in his life,” says Rabbi Segal.  “And then he came for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.  We didn’t see a happy ending in this type of situation.  But then we found out he was a Jew.  This is the purpose of Chabad – to help another Jew without thinking about getting anything back.”

In Phuket on vacation, I recently wanted to learn about Jewish life on the island and check out the new Chabad campus, now one of the largest facilities of its kind in all of Asia.

Phuket Chabad House

The new six-story Phuket Chabad House is located on a quiet side-street

I walked 30 minutes from my condo down one of the main thoroughfares in Patong, Phuket’s busy tourist hub known for its white-sand beaches, water sports and bawdy nightlife.  I had heard Patong was popular with Israelis but had no idea what awaited me as I got within a few blocks of Chabad.

There were several signs in Hebrew marking Israeli-owned businesses, including travel agencies, restaurants and car/motorbike rental outlets.

Miracle of miracles, in this island paradise in the Andaman Sea, I found myself strolling through a Jewish neighborhood.

Just two blocks from the beach, a “Chabad House Thailand” sign directed me down a side-street lined with parked motorbikes to the six-story building called the Dimenstein Family Campus.

But I had made the cardinal sin of forgetting my passport and the guard at the entrance understandably wanted to ascertain that I was telling the truth when I said I was an American Jew and not a potential security threat before letting me inside.

“Can you say the Kiddush?” he asked.

Fortunately, I rose to the occasion.

Although I rarely attend services as an adult, my post bar-mitzvah years as the oldest son reciting the blessing of the wine at our family Shabbat dinners back in Arizona came in handy and I quickly launched into the prayer to prove to the guard that I really was a Jew, albeit a mostly secular one.

Kosher pad-thai in Phuket

Kosher pad-thai for lunch at the Chabad House restaurant

He stopped me well before I got to “borei p’ri hagafen,” smiled and nodded for me to go inside.

Upon entering, I was introduced to Rabbi Segal.  The 40-year-old Israeli has been leading Chabad’s chapter here for nearly three years, along with his wife and co-director, Miriam.

Inaugurated this past August – the weekend when the two Israeli Arabs were arrested — the new Chabad Phuket building offers an array of facilities and amenities of which some larger and less transient Jewish communities would be envious.

In addition to a synagogue that can hold up to 300 worshippers, the 26,000-square-foot facility features a mikvah, rabbinical quarters, a social hall that can seat 400 people, and a busy Kosher restaurant that serves everything from hamburgers to Middle Eastern fare to Thai dishes.  Kosher meat is imported from Argentina.

I tried the pad-thai, a local noodle dish that was a bit on the bland side.  Rabbi Segal explained that Israelis, who make up about 70 percent of the clientele, tend not to like their food too spicy.  And kashrut law puts limitations on the Israeli chef’s use of certain spices.

“Could be the regular pad-thai tastes better, but to make it Kosher, you have to make it in the right way,” says Rabbi Segal.

Chabad Phuket synagogue

The synagogue can accommodate up to 300 worshippers

Phuket is not a large island.  The population is less than 400,000 and it’s only about 200 square miles, which makes it less than half the geographic size of my hometown of Phoenix, Arizona.

But more than 5 million tourists visit each year, including a large contingent of Israelis, many of whom fly nonstop from Tel Aviv to Bangkok (Phuket is a 75-minute flight from Bangkok) and spend weeks or even months travelling around the country after completing their military service.

Rabbi Segal says it’s impossible to determine how many Jews live in Phuket year-round, although he guesses that it’s likely only “a few hundred.”

In 2004, Phuket was ravaged by an Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami.  While Indonesia was hit the hardest, Thailand also was in the path of destruction.  The tsunami struck the west coast of Phuket, causing about 250 fatalities and extensive damage to the island’s hotels and beaches.

Many tourists, including young Israeli backpackers, were stranded without food, water or shelter.  That was the genesis of Chabad Phuket.  The group dispatched a group of emissaries that offered assistance.

Patong Beach

The popular white-sand Patong Beach is just a five-minute walk from the Chabad House

“They helped not only Jews, but non-Jews” says Rabbi Segal.  “They came here to give food, a place to sleep and to help find Jews who had passed away.  The tsunami woke people up to let them know that this place needed a branch.”

Chabad quickly outgrew the small building in which it started.  In August 2015 ground was broken for the new facility; it opened two years later.  About $4 million was needed for construction.  Thus far, about $3.25 million has been raised, thanks in part to a generous donation from a Swiss family, the Dimensteins. (To make a donation, visit and click on “donate” or email Rabbi Segal at

When the additional funds are raised, there are plans to install a sukkah and chuppah on the building’s rooftop for weddings and other special events, a venue that would offer spectacular views of the Andaman Sea and surrounding mountains.  Rabbi Segal, who works 15-16 hours a day, seven days a week, needs help and plans are underway to add living quarters for rabbinical students from Israel to help carry some of the load.

Already, the new building has brought a 50 percent increase in visitors.  During the winter high season, Rabbi Segal says about 500 people typically come for Friday Shabbat dinner.  Two seatings are needed to accommodate everyone.  About 700 worshippers attended Rosh Hashanah services last September.

What’s it like to be a rabbi in an island paradise?  Rabbi Segal says the demands of the job give him virtually no time to enjoy the weather, scenery and attractions that bring so many tourists to Phuket.

“When you’re in Chabad, you’re on a mission,” he says.  “You’re not here to enjoy the beaches because the job is inside the Chabad House.  This place is open from the morning to the night and we’re here all day, so we don’t have the time to go out and enjoy it.  The rabbis of Chabad don’t really get to enjoy the beauty of the places they stay.”

Andaman Sea

Day cruises on the Andaman Sea near Phuket offer spectacular scenery

When the rabbi does get out into the community, he has found the Thai people warm and welcoming of Jews, with no hints of anti-Semitism.

“We respect them. They respect us,” he says.  “It’s something you don’t see in different places in the world.  They are really nice people.”

Even though I’m not particularly religious, whenever I travel, I make an effort to connect with the Jewish community – no matter how large or small.  It greatly lessens the culture-shock of visiting places so far from home.  There is a sense of comfort derived from being with other Jews, even if our religious views might be widely divergent.

While I don’t keep Kosher or wear a kippah outside of synagogue, I’m always looking for ways to intertwine my sense of Jewish identity with my travels.

When I told Rabbi Segal that my visit to the Phuket Chabad Center happened to coincide with my deceased father’s 94th birthday, he was kind enough to recite the Kel Maleh Rachamim, a remembrance prayer for the soul of the departed.  After reading the prayer in Hebrew, he took the time to explain the meaning behind it in terms I could understand.

Chabad now has about 3,500 chapters in more than 85 countries.  The Hasidic group, which I’ve grown to appreciate over the years for its hospitality and acceptance of non-religious Jewish travelers like myself, has a presence in four different Thai locations – Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Koh Samui and Phuket.

All offer an oasis of Jewish values and relative tranquility in a country with a reputation for being one of Asia’s most boisterous party spots.

There is an old Hasidic saying:  “Every descent is for the sake of a future ascent.”

Such is the case with Chabad Phuket.  It was born 14 years ago following a deadly tsunami.  It has now ascended to heights even few shluchim would have imagined possible.


Editor’s postscript:  On one of my final Friday evenings in Phuket, I accepted Rabbi Segal’s invitation to attend Shabbat services.  The synagogue was packed; men and women were segregated by a wall.  It was a very different service than what I’ve experienced in the past.

Afterward, I sat down to Shabbat dinner with about 500 people (there had to be two seatings as the social hall only has space for 400).  The food was traditional Jewish fare — salads, fish and chicken — and plentiful.  In between courses, there was a lot of clapping, singing, dancing and praying.  Some people even stood on their chairs.

Rabbi Segal couldn’t have been more gracious.  He made sure I had an English prayer book during the service and sat me next to a fellow American at dinner so I’d have someone with whom to converse.  I emailed him a thank you note a couple of days letter.

His reply summed up Chabad’s overriding mission: “Thank you very much for coming,” he wrote. “It is our pleasure to make another Jew happy.”

© 2018 Dan Fellner

The Magical Mekong

By | Cambodia, Cruising, Vietnam | No Comments

River cruise offers unique glimpse into Vietnamese, Cambodian cultures

The Arizona Republic — February 18, 2018

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – “Can you please pass the tarantula?”

Deep-fried tarantula

Deep-fried tarantula is a Cambodian specialty

I was joking – sort of – at a restaurant in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city, after the waiter brought two of the large and hairy deep-fried arachnids to the table following the main course.

At first, I mainly just wanted to photograph the dish popular in rural Cambodia, attractively presented on a serving plate with a lime and spicy dipping sauce.  But the rest of our group dared me into taking it a step further.

I bit.  Literally.  In two bites, I downed the creature – eight legs and all – to the laughter and applause of the group.

Welcome to the Mekong River in Vietnam and Cambodia, which offers an unvarnished and fascinating glimpse into the fabric of an exotic and welcoming culture that has changed little over the centuries.

Scenic Spirit

The Scenic Spirit anchored on the Mekong River near Tan Chau, Vietnam

I recently spent a week cruising the Mekong River in Vietnam and Cambodia aboard the Scenic Spirit, a 2-year-old 68-passenger ship owned by Scenic Cruises, an Australian-owned high-end line with a growing presence in North America.  Most of our passengers were from Australia and England; I was one of five Americans on the trip.

Mekong cruises offer a chance to sail past ancient hilltop pagodas, floating villages and seemingly endless fields of rice, fruit plantations and sugar cane.  And you’ll do so in relative solitude compared to cruises on more heralded rivers in Europe like the Danube, Seine and Rhine.

Indeed, during the Vietnam portion of the trip, we didn’t encounter even one other cruise ship, a pleasant difference from river trips in Europe where there are often so many ships parked in port at one time, you need to walk across several other vessels to reach your own.

View of Mekong River

View of the Mekong River from the Wat Hanchey Monastery in Cambodia

Known as Southeast Asia’s “rice bowl,” the Mekong is the lifeblood of hundreds of millions of people in the region, who use the river for trade, transportation, farming and fishing.  The river traverses six Asian countries – starting in China’s Tibetan Plateau before meandering through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, where it empties into the South China Sea.

We leisurely covered about 180 miles over seven days on a small portion of the river, sailing upstream from My Tho, about a two-hour bus ride southwest of Ho Chi Minh City, and disembarked in Kampong Chan, Cambodia.  Most of the ship’s passengers also booked post-cruise land tours of Angkor Wat, the world’s largest religious monument, in northwestern Cambodia.

Aside from the tarantula, I sampled rice wine infused with a venomous cobra snake (the locals call it “Vietnamese Viagra,”) and a fiery red chile-pepper I picked right off the vine that made a jalapeno from back home taste like a bland cucumber in comparison.

As most of the villages we visited didn’t have docking facilities for large boats, the Scenic Spirit would drop anchor in the Mekong and we would take sampans – long, narrow wooden boats – into towns along the river.  Once on land, we rode rickshaws, tuk-tuks and ox carts to see the sites.

Cambodian monks

Monks chant a blessing at the Oudong Monastery in Cambodia

We visited an outdoor market in Sa Dec, Vietnam, where they peddle everything from live roosters to fresh red snapper to roasted rat meat.  It’s where the locals go to buy their dinner each day, unlike the touristy floating markets you’ll find in Thailand.

There was a trip to a rural school, a silk factory and the opulent Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, where the country’s 64-year-old King Norodom Sihamoni resides.

I especially found meaningful a visit to the home of a 70-year-old man who had fought in the South Vietnamese army alongside Americans.  After the war, he was sent to a “re-education camp.”  It was a stark reminder of the region’s tragic past.  Despite all they have endured, I have found the Vietnamese some of the friendliest people on the planet, always quick with a smile.

As far as any lingering anti-American sentiment from the war years, we never experienced the slightest hint of it.  Duc Ho, one of our Scenic tour directors, says attitudes of the Vietnamese people changed dramatically in 1995 when – thanks in large part to the work of Arizona Sen. John McCain — the two countries re-established diplomatic relations.

Sa Dec market

Produce vendors at the outdoor market in Sa Dec, Vietnam

“Before, people were really angry toward Americans,” says Duc. “The younger generation now thinks differently.  It’s over.  It’s history.”

While we waited on the Mekong to clear immigration at the Vietnamese-Cambodian border, Scenic brought onboard a local dance troupe, which performed a traditional acrobatic Vietnamese lion dance. It’s believed the dance brings good luck and fortune, not to mention a chance for the ship’s passengers to admire some delightfully animated costumes (see video shot by the author: Vietnamese lion dance).

At Phnom Penh, we veered off the Mekong to the Tonle Sap River to visit Oudong, the former capital of Cambodia and home to the country’s largest monastery.  Cambodia is a devoutly Buddhist country and it was fascinating to learn about the lives of the hundreds of monks and nuns who live in Oudong.

In fact, one of our Scenic guides, Mao (nicknamed “The Chairman,”) had spent six years himself as a monk and offered our group unique insights into the faith and the integral role it plays in Cambodians’ lives.

Mekong sunrise

Sunrise on the Mekong River in Vietnam

At the monastery, we sat on the floor of a temple for a private blessing as two monks wearing traditional saffron robes chanted Buddhist prayers and tossed jasmine flower petals at us (see video shot by the author: Buddhist monks chant blessing).

We also visited a monastery on a hilltop overlooking the Mekong called Wat Hanchey, home to novice monks, most of whom are teenagers.

The Mekong is ideal for travelers looking for a less-crowded, more authentic experience than is found on many other river cruises.  This year just 19 ships catering to foreign tourists are cruising the river; most hold well fewer than 100 passengers.

As for the tarantula, I survived without even a hint of a stomach ache.

More importantly, after a week on the Mekong, I’ve had a memorable taste of rural life in a culture so remarkably different from our own.

© 2018 Dan Fellner

Boise’s Surprising — and Splendid — Historic Synagogue

By | Idaho, Jewish Travel | No Comments

Idaho’s capital home to the oldest temple west of the Mississippi

Jewish News Service/Jewish Week of New York — December 2017

BOISE, Idaho — Sometimes you’ll find the most splendid synagogues in the places you least expect.

Boise synagogue

Boise’s Ahavath Beth Israel, the oldest continuously in-use synagogue west of the Mississippi

Such was the case during my recent three-day trip to Boise, Idaho, a popular gateway for skiing, river rafting and hiking that isn’t exactly known for being a hotbed of Jewish life.

Yet, there at 11 N. Latah St., just a five-minute drive from downtown, sits the oldest continuously in-use synagogue west of the Mississippi River.

And it’s far more than just a beautiful wood building.  As I learned, Congregation Ahavath Beth Israel is the centerpiece of a surprisingly robust Jewish community with a fascinating history.

I was able to meet Nina Spiro, the synagogue’s director, who was kind enough to show me around the building on the busy day before Yom Kippur eve.

“People love this building,” she said.  “We can’t believe how blessed we are.  It’s cozy, it’s homey and the acoustics are great.”

Boise, a city of about 200,000 residents at the base of the Rocky-Mountain foothills in southwestern Idaho, is the state’s capital and largest city.  Rooted in the potato industry, the area has recently emerged as a budding high-tech center and growing destination for tourists.  The locals pronounce it Boy-see, not Boy-zee.

Nina Spiro

Nina Spiro, the synagogue’s director

Before my visit, I had read about Ahavath Beth Israel and knew a little about its history.  It was built in 1895, when there were only about 25 Jewish families in Boise.  Many had emigrated to the U.S. from Germany and worked as merchants, farmers and ranchers.

One of the original members of Beth Israel – as it was known at the time — was Moses Alexander, who became the mayor of Boise and later was the first elected practicing Jewish governor in the entire country.  He served two terms, from 1915-1919.  There is a display at a museum inside the Idaho State Capitol in downtown Boise trumpeting that historical distinction.  To this day, Alexander remains the only Jewish governor in Idaho history.

Today, more than 120 years later, Moses’ grandson, Nathan Alexander, is still a member of the congregation.

For several decades, Boise actually had two synagogues.  After World War II, with the arrival of more Jewish families in the area, Congregation Ahavath Israel was built.  The two congregations merged in 1987 to become the present-day Congregation Ahavath Beth Israel.  Both buildings continued to be used; one as an education center, the other for religious services.

Ahavath Beth Israel stained-glass windows

An original stained-glass window inside Ahavath Beth Israel

But by the end of the 20th century, the congregation had grown to more than 200 families and needed to expand.  Because of the lack of land available where the existing buildings were located, the congregation decided that the original synagogue would need to be moved to a different site.

So, in the middle of a cold October night in 2003, members of the congregation were joined by some 500 people from the Boise community to walk alongside the synagogue while it was slowly moved by truck about three miles to its new location on Latah Street.

Today, the synagogue sits on a beautifully landscaped campus that also includes a 100-student religious school that meets weekly, a social hall, library and administrative offices for the synagogue’s full-time rabbi and other staff.

The interior of the synagogue still features the original wood columns and stained-glass windows.  It is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Because the community is so diverse in its religious orientation and the ages of its members – from retirees to young families — Spiro describes Ahavath Beth Israel as “reconservadox.”  While it tries to meet the needs of both religious and not-so-religious members, the congregation is affiliated with the Union for Reform Judaism and emphasizes music in its services and events.

In fact, the synagogue has its own klezmer band called “The Moody Jews,” a popular group that performs monthly at a temple event called “Shabbat Unplugged” and at community interfaith events.

Unfortunately, Idaho has a reputation for being a haven of extremist hate groups.  Indeed, about 10 years ago, the Aryan Nation leafletted some Boise neighborhoods with anti-Semitic and racist literature.  Spiro’s home was among those that received the offensive literature.

Anne Frank Memorial

The Anne Frank Memorial near downtown Boise

“It was pretty shocking,” she recalls.  “Since then, a lot of work has been done.”

To demonstrate its tolerance, Boiseans have erected the Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial, which occupies a prominent place adjacent to the 25-mile Boise River Greenbelt, a tree-lined paved pathway that follows the Boise River through the heart of the city.

The memorial first came to Boise in 1995 as a traveling exhibit but the response was so overwhelming by Idahoans, community leaders decided to build a more permanent tribute.  In 2002, the Anne Frank Memorial opened to the public.  Featuring a life-sized bronze statue of Anne Frank, it’s an inspirational and contemplative site in a beautiful setting.

Despite the small pockets of anti-Semitism in Idaho, Spiro describes Boiseans as “welcoming” and interested in learning more about their Jewish neighbors.

“We’re constantly hosting tour groups and church groups,” she said.  “They want to visit the synagogue.  They want to know about Jewish history.  They want to learn about Judaism.”

Spiro says visitors to Boise are welcome to attend Shabbat services, which are held Friday evenings and Saturday mornings, and other temple events as well.  For information, visit the congregation’s website:

Even if you’re not able to attend services, just driving by and marveling at this magnificent, historic structure would undoubtedly mark a highlight of any Jewish traveler’s visit to Boise.

© 2016 Dan Fellner

Exploring “The Graduate’s” History in Berkeley

By | California | No Comments

Fifty-year anniversary of groundbreaking movie presents sightseeing opportunities for the film’s fanatics

The Arizona Republic — October 22, 2017

BERKELEY, Calif. – Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson.

December marks the 50-year anniversary of the release of “The Graduate,” named the seventh best American movie of all time by the American Film Institute.  The film, which won an Oscar for director Mike Nichols, defined the zeitgeist of a generation starting to rebel against convention and pre-ordained life paths.

Downtown Berkeley

View of downtown Berkeley from the Graduate Hotel

The spirit of the groundbreaking movie, immortalized by Anne Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson seducing an angst-filled Dustin Hoffman, still survives in this free-thinking college town in which parts of the movie were filmed.

To mark the anniversary, the Berkeley Historical Society is offering a walking tour Nov. 11 to see the sites shown in the film, many of which are still in use.  Steve Finacom, a past president of the society, will guide the tour.  He said interest is strong and more tours might be added.

“I think people are interested in seeing places from history — even fictional history,” Finacom said.  “The ‘60s has a hold on the imagination.  Berkeley did really capture the attention of the nation in that era.”

I recently spent a long weekend in Berkeley on my own self-guided tour into cinematic history.  I was too young to see the movie when it first came out, but I’ve seen it numerous times as an adult.  “The Graduate” spoke to me on so many levels. 

Graduate poster

“The Graduate” movie posters hang in each of the 144 rooms at the Graduate Hotel Berkeley

I also wanted to learn more about Berkeley, a city of about 120,000 people just north of Oakland and across the bay from San Francisco.  It’s known as a boisterous epicenter of left-wing political activism.

Appropriately, I stayed at The Graduate Hotel, which made a brief appearance in the movie and is one block from the University of California-Berkeley campus.  Hoffman’s character, Benjamin Braddock, pursued Elaine — a Cal-Berkeley student and Mrs. Robinson’s daughter — in hopes of winning Elaine’s heart.

But the hotel’s name has nothing to do with the movie.  Known as the Hotel Durant when the movie was filmed, it became The Graduate last summer when it was acquired by a company that owns a chain of 10 hotels in university communities around the country. (The Graduate Tempe is on Apache Boulevard across the street from Arizona State University’s campus.)

Nevertheless, the hotel has capitalized on its name, hanging “The Graduate” movie posters in each of its 144 rooms and offering occasional “vinyl nights” in the hotel bar, in which the movie’s famous soundtrack — recorded by Simon and Garfunkel — spins on an old turntable.  Berkeley’s quirky counterculture is represented by bong-shaped lamps in the guestrooms and a restroom urinal painted with the logo and colors of Stanford, Cal-Berkeley’s arch-rival.

As I took a short walk from the hotel to Telegraph Avenue to explore the filming sites, I passed the types of shops one might expect to see in Berkeley — a Buddhist bookstore, a restaurant selling “America’s first USDA certified organic fast food” and tie-dyed shirt stalls.  A man known simply as “The Wizard” gazed into a crystal ball while predicting the futures of passersby on a busy street corner.

Graduate boarding house

The Victorian boarding house in which Dustin Hoffman’s character rented a room while pursuing Elaine

My first stop was a stately Victorian house built in 1895 at the corner of Channing Way and Dana Street that served as Ben’s boarding house in the film.  This is where a crotchety landlord played by Norman Fell (who later starred as Mr. Roper on TV’s “Three’s Company”) accused Ben of being an “outside agitator” before evicting him.

Today, the building is divided into six apartments.  Finacom is petitioning the city to have the building designated as a historic landmark, noting that it’s “already an informal landmark; it should be an official one.”

Two blocks away, I stopped at the now-closed Caffe Mediterraneum, where Ben sipped a beer while surreptitiously watching Elaine emerge across Telegraph Avenue from Moe’s Books, a Berkeley staple known for its eclectic selection of used books and posters.

Moe Moscowitz, who founded the store in 1959, passed away 20 years ago.  His daughter Doris Moscowitz runs the business and proudly displays a large photo of the storefront seen in “The Graduate.”  She said it’s a point of pride that Moe’s Books appeared in such a landmark movie, adding that Nichols did a wonderful job of capturing “Berkeley’s iconic funkiness.”

Sather Tower

Sather Tower, located on the UC-Berkeley campus, is the third-tallest bell-and-clock tower in the world

Just down the block from my hotel I found the Theta Delta Chi Fraternity house, where Ben frantically parked his red Alfa Romeo Spider convertible and rushed inside to find out where Elaine was getting married.  It’s still an active frat house but no one answered the door when I repeatedly knocked on a Saturday morning.

Cal-Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza, the main square on campus, also was shown in “The Graduate,” although parts of the movie were also filmed at USC and UCLA in Los Angeles.

Today, Cal-Berkeley remains a hotbed of student activism.  Free campus walking tours are offered every morning at 10:00, leaving from the football stadium.  Indeed, the tour I took was briefly interrupted by a passing march for women’s rights.

There aren’t a lot of typical tourist attractions in Berkeley.  Perhaps the most noteworthy landmark is Sather Tower, located at the center of campus.  At 307 feet, it’s the third-tallest bell-and-clock-tower in the world.  For $3, you can take an elevator to the top, where there is a 61-bell carillon, not to mention stunning views of downtown San Francisco.

Country Joe McDonald

The legendary Country Joe McDonald performs at the Berkeley Historical Society

But visitors typically don’t come to Berkeley for the sites.  They come to experience the vibe.

A sample of the city’s energy and rich musical history is now on display at the Historical Society, which recently opened an exhibit – which runs through April — called “Soundtrack to the 60s: The Berkeley Music Scene.”

My visit happened to coincide with the exhibit’s opening, featuring a performance by the legendary Country Joe McDonald, a Berkeley fixture who has lived here since before “The Graduate” was made.  As the lead singer of Country Joe and the Fish, McDonald, now 75, wrote and recorded one of the most famous anti-Vietnam War anthems of the ‘60s (see video shot by the author: Country Joe McDonald performs anti-Vietnam War song).

Like a 50-year-old suede vest with bright psychedelic trim, Berkeley is a bit frayed at the edges.  The city has a serious homeless problem.  But Berkeley’s charm, vibrant spirit and retro-feel more than compensate for some of its dinginess.

Just like Ben experienced with Mrs. Robinson 50 years ago, once you get past the brazen exterior, you’ll likely be seduced into wanting more.

© 2017 Dan Fellner

Cruising Russia’s Volga River

By | Cruising, Russia | One Comment

Despite political tensions, cruising gaining steam on Europe’s longest river

The Arizona Republic — August 13, 2017

MOSCOW, Russia – A political pariah?  Perhaps.

Scenic Tsar

The Scenic Tsar docked on the Volga River

But are Russia’s geopolitical controversies, heightened tensions with the United States and reports of election meddling keeping Western tourists away?

If you look at the recent surge in cruising on the Volga River, the answer is clear.


Traffic on the Volga, Europe’s longest river, has rebounded sharply in the past two years, as we learned on a recent two-week cruise from Moscow to St. Petersburg.  Travelers looking for a more adventurous trip than is offered on Western European rivers like the Danube and Rhine are finding the Volga a compelling alternative.

We were sailing on the Scenic Tsar, a 112-passenger ship chartered by Scenic Cruises, an Australia-based line that also markets its trips to North Americans and Europeans.

Volga River

Scenery on the Volga between Moscow and St. Petersburg

Scenic, along with Viking, Uniworld and other cruise lines, is increasing its presence on the Volga.  Last year, Scenic offered four cruises on the river.  This summer, the number jumped to 10 with passenger capacity close to 100 percent.  And next summer, Scenic will have 12 sailings from May through October; 60 percent of the cabins already are sold.

The growth in the Volga’s popularity is easily visible.  There were as many as nine cruise ships at one time in some ports along the route.  Indeed, to return to the Scenic Tsar after a day of sightseeing we often had to cross through the lobbies of several other ships that were triple- and quadruple-parked by the pier.

Diana Lapshina, our Russian-born cruise director who has worked for Scenic since it first started sailing the Volga in 2012, says travelers aren’t deterred by negative media coverage of Russia.

“You go, you see, you taste, you experience, and only then you can tell whether the mass media was right or wrong,” she says.  “You have to see it yourself.”

River cruising makes a lot of sense in Russia, where English is not widely spoken and getting around by bus or train can be challenging.  Moscow’s hotels are some of the priciest in the world.

Red Square

Moscow’s Red Square on a rainy afternoon

The trip started with three days in the Russian capital, Europe’s most populous city with 18 million residents in its metropolitan area.  Traffic is a mess as Moscow’s infrastructure is undergoing extensive construction in preparation for next summer’s FIFA World Cup soccer finals.

We visited the Kremlin and walked past the office of President Vladimir Putin, then dodged the rain in nearby Red Square with its iconic St. Basil’s Cathedral.  We saw the internationally renowned Russian circus, attended a show featuring 50 dazzlingly costumed folk dancers and toured the State Tretyakov Gallery, which houses one of the largest collections of Russian art in the world.

I especially enjoyed the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics, where the Russians trumpet their many accomplishments during the space race with America, including putting the first man into orbit in 1961.

After touring the museum, we were given a private audience with Alexsandr Leveykin, a former Soviet cosmonaut who spent six months on the Mir space station in the 1980s.  I asked what his reaction was in 1969 (he was 18 at the time) when he heard the news that U.S. astronauts had landed on the moon.

Peterhof Palace

The upper gardens of Peterhof Palace near St. Petersburg

“I did not have any disappointment and was very happy people made it to the moon,” he said through an interpreter, adding that America’s achievement received little coverage in the Soviet media.  “With no competition, there is no progress.”

After leaving Moscow, we stopped at several villages along the Volga and its tributaries, where we experienced a more tranquil side of Russian life.  In Uglich, a town of about 35,000 people believed to be more than 1,000 years old, we attended a mesmerizing concert at an Orthodox church in which a small choir was accompanied by Russian balalaikas (see video shot by the author: Uglich church concert).

Onboard the Scenic Tsar, we took Russian language classes, learned how to paint matryoshka (nesting) dolls, attended lectures on Russian history and sampled vodka and caviar.  As much as I tried, I just couldn’t develop a taste for borscht, a bright red beet soup that’s a Russian staple.

The cruise ended with three days in St. Petersburg (called Leningrad during Soviet times), considered Russia’s cultural capital.  A popular stop on Baltic Sea cruises, St. Petersburg is home to the Hermitage, one of the largest art museums in the world.

Lake Ladoga

Sunset over Lake Ladoga, Europe’s largest lake

We also visited two of the most magnificent palaces outside of Versailles — Peterhof and Catherine’s Palace, the summer residence of Russian tsars.  Scenic also treated us to a private ballet performance at a downtown theater, complete with a champagne and caviar reception.

All told, we sailed about 1,100 miles between Moscow and St. Petersburg.  Along the way, we visited four UNESCO World Heritage sites, traversed the largest lake in Europe — Lake Ladoga — and did our best to more fully understand a country that continues to be a source of angst and fear for many Americans.

“This is a trip about learning, not sunbathing,” cruise director Lapshina says.  “Here, you have to see something and contemplate it.”

© 2017 Dan Fellner

Diplomacy Needed in Indonesia — Not Military Might

By | Indonesia | No Comments

Fulbright program important way to counterbalance extremism

The Arizona Republic — August 1, 2017

DENPASAR, Indonesia – The world’s most-populous nation with a Muslim majority doesn’t typically garner much attention in the United States, other than when there’s a tsunami or terrorist attack.

But it should.

This country of more than 260 million people in Southeast Asia is vitally important to American strategic interests as it decides what type of country it wants to be in the coming decades.

Fulbright Indonesia

Lecturing as a Fulbright Specialist about America’s media system at a university in Surabaya, Indonesia

Even though Indonesia has a relatively secular constitution, there are hardline Islamic elements who are pushing the country toward Sharia law.  Already, a province called Aceh on the northern tip of Sumatra Island has formally adopted Sharia law.  In Aceh, “offenses” such as homosexuality, adultery and selling alcohol are now punishable by public whipping.

In May, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a Christian with Chinese ancestry who was the former governor of Jakarta, was sentenced to two years in prison.  His crime?  “Blasphemy against Islam” for allegedly referencing a verse from the Quran in a heated political battle with a Muslim opponent.

Indonesia is at a crossroads and sits precariously on a line between religious extremism and a tolerant, inclusive and democratic society.  The battle for the hearts and minds of Indonesians will likely be determined more by the power of persuasion than military might.

Enter the foresight of Sen. J. William Fulbright, a forward-thinking American statesman who realized the importance of diplomacy. In 1946, Sen. Fulbright created the landmark program that still bears his name.  Passed unanimously by the Senate and funded by the State Department, the Fulbright program sponsors Americans and foreigners for exchanges in endeavors such as the sciences, business, academia, government and the arts.

Since the first Fulbrighters went abroad in 1948, the program has had an extraordinary impact around the world; there have been more than 250,000 Fulbright students, scholars and teachers.  Each, in his or her own way, has led to the overall goal of advancing mutual understanding between the U.S. and other countries.

In my case, I had the privilege of lecturing at six different universities in Indonesia this spring.  At two of the institutions, I was the first American to have lectured in person in the university’s history; both were schools more than 30 years old.

Dan Fellner on Indonesian TV

Appearing as a guest on Indonesian TV

The administration, faculty and students and faculty welcomed me with open arms and were truly interested in hearing my thoughts about our political and media systems.  Most of my talks were standing-room-only; one lecture at a university on the island of Java attracted more than 400 people.  My lectures were widely covered by the Indonesian media.

While questions and comments from the audience indicated Indonesians didn’t always agree with American foreign policy, they did seem overwhelmingly positive toward Americans and receptive to the values I espoused — the importance of a free press and the formal separation of religion and government.  I experienced similar open-mindedness to American ideals in prior Fulbright teaching stints at universities in Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova and Bulgaria.

The Fulbright program has faced potential budget cuts in recent years, which could cripple its ability to preserve and enhance America’s leadership abroad.  This year is no different.  The administration has proposed a 47 percent cut in Fulbright funding.

It’s vital to our country’s national security that Congress supports funding at the continued level of about $235 million, a relative drop-in-the-bucket compared to the money spent on our military.  Indeed, the entire Fulbright budget is approximately the cost of one-third of just one B-2 Stealth Bomber.

In this uncertain world of grave threats from numerous fronts, winning hearts and minds in places where some want to do us harm has never been more important.  In this respect, the Fulbright program is every bit as valuable to our national security as a tank or fighter plane.

© 2017 Dan Fellner

Moscow’s preeminant Jewish cultural site

By | Jewish Travel, Russia | No Comments

Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center chronicles Jews’ up-and-down Russian history

Jewish News of Greater Phoenix — July 28, 2017

MOSCOW, Russia — It’s been open less than five years but the venue already has been labeled by some as the most important Jewish cultural site in all of Europe.

Moscow Jewish Museum

Entrance to the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, which is housed in a former bus garage

After spending a July afternoon inside Moscow’s tastefully designed, informative and high-tech Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, the moniker seems well-deserved.

The museum, housed inside a former bus garage built in the 1920s in a northwest Moscow neighborhood, opened in 2012 at an estimated cost of $50 million.  It’s a must-see for Jewish visitors to Russia’s capital city who want to learn about their ancestors’ complex, up-and-down history in a part of the diaspora that once was home to the largest Jewish population in the world.

My visit to the museum was a highlight of a two-week Volga river cruise on the Scenic Tsar that began in Moscow and ended in St. Petersburg.  On my first free afternoon in Moscow, I toured the facility and met with Anna Sokolova, the head of the museum’s research center.

She told me that the museum was built with the strong support of the Russian government.  Even President Vladimir Putin personally donated one month of his salary – about $10,000 – for construction.  Since the opening, Putin has visited the museum several times.

“It showed that it’s really important to the Russian government to fight anti-Semitism and that the Jewish community is a very important part of the country,” says Sokolova, who speaks five languages, including Hebrew.

Jewish Museum in Moscow

The museum attracts about 300,000 visitors a year

Last year, the museum attracted 300,000 visitors, up a whopping 50 percent from the prior year.  Even more growth is anticipated in the coming year.  With the approval of Russia’s Ministry of Education, the museum is launching a program in September in which all middle-school children in Moscow will be required to visit the venue as part of a school fieldtrip.  It’s a huge leap from an era in which Jewish history and culture was rarely discussed in public schools.

“It was mainly forbidden during Soviet times, so it’s really important to speak about it now,” says Sokolova.

Using panoramic films, interactive screens and numerous artifacts, the museum chronicles Jewish history dating back to the rule of Catherine the Great in the 18th century.  There are exhibitions devoted to the origins of Russian Jewry, the role Jews played in the 1917 revolution, the Holocaust, and a section called “Perestroika to the Present.”

I especially enjoyed strolling through a recreated shtetl from the 19th century, which included a small synagogue, Shabbat table, Jewish school and marketplace. It’s one of the museum’s most popular exhibits.

Jewish Museum exhibit

Exhibits are high-tech and interactive

“The shtetl became the heart of Judaism and it helped people to keep their traditions alive,” says Sokolova.

The shtetl even included an exhibit in which visitors could have their photos taken and then digitally integrated with the costume of a profession of their choice, such as a tailor, matchmaker, musician, teacher or blacksmith.  I chose to digitally don the garb of a 19th century rabbi.

Indeed, the museum was designed to keep visitors as engaged as possible with most exhibits featuring some type of interactivity.

“The idea was to create something in the form of ‘edutainment’ – education and entertainment together,” says Sokolova.  “The format is designed to be very interesting for every age.”

In a partnership with the Russian State Library, the museum also houses the “Schneerson Collection,” which includes significant and once inaccessible works of the Lubavitcher rebbes dating back to the late 18th century.  The collection was nationalized by the Russian government during the Communist period; it was moved to the Jewish Museum in 2013.

In addition to its permanent collection, the museum houses about a half-dozen temporary exhibits a year, some of which are on non-Jewish topics.  Exhibits are mostly in Russian, although some also contain English descriptions.  The venue is open every day except Saturdays and Jewish holidays.  For more information, visit the museum’s website:

Accounts vary about the current size of Russia’s Jewish population as many people with Jewish roots don’t practice their faith and have intermarried.  But it’s estimated that about 200,000 Jews remain in the country, making it the third-largest Jewish community in Europe.  Most Jews live in Moscow and its surrounding communities, where there are about 20 working synagogues.

St. Petersburg synagogue

The Grand Choral Synagogue in St. Petersburg, the second-largest synagogue in Europe

“We are seeing since the 1990s many people are coming back to Jewish traditions and to their roots, which were almost killed in the Soviet Union,” says Sokolova.

Two weeks later, at the end of the Volga River cruise on the Scenic Tsar, I had the chance to visit St. Petersburg’s stunning Grand Choral Synagogue. It’s the second-largest synagogue in Europe (Budapest is home to the largest).

Consecrated in 1893, the Moorish-styled building is a registered national landmark.  It can accommodate up to 1,200 worshippers at one time; the complex also houses a kosher restaurant and supermarket.

My grandparents immigrated from Russia, so the Jewish sights in Moscow and St. Petersburg held special meaning.  Despite the challenges my ancestors and other Jews faced in Russia, it was especially heartwarming to learn that Jewish life in the country has not only endured over the centuries, but now even seems to be enjoying a modest revival.

“We can see that the Jews managed to keep their traditions despite all the pogroms and despite state politics, which was quite often pretty anti-Semitic,” says Sokolova.  “The situation in Russia has changed drastically.  The Jewish community feels free now.”

© 2017 Dan Fellner

Taipei: Four Must-See Sites

By | Taiwan | No Comments

Taiwan’s capital city emerging as a popular Asian vacation spot

The Arizona Republic — April 30, 2017

TAIPEI, Taiwan – As visitors enter the world’s second-fastest elevator to take them to the top of the world’s eighth-tallest building, a sign tells them to prepare for a “journey that’ll change your life.”  The sign calls the elevator “the greatest vertical road to instant urban tranquility.”

Taipei 101

Taipei 101 is built to resemble a bamboo tree rising from the Earth

From its impressive skyline to its massive metropolitan population of 7 million, to a state-of-the-art mass-transit system as clean and efficient as any in the world, to its unconventional street markets that offer everything from pig’s blood rice cake to duck tongue, Taipei is anything but understated.

This capital city of Taiwan, an island just over 100 miles east of mainland China, offers a fascinating mix of exotic Chinese culture topped by a heavy dose of Western capitalism.

Long overshadowed by more well-known East Asian destinations like Hong Kong, Tokyo and Shanghai, Taipei is emerging as an up-and-coming vacation spot.  In fact, it is now the 14th-ranked city in the world in terms of attracting foreign visitors, with more than 9 million tourist arrivals in 2015, up 5 percent from the prior year.

It takes a full week to seriously explore Taipei and its environs.  Here are my four favorite sites from a recent visit:

Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall

Taiwan, officially named the Republic of China, has a complicated political history with an uncertain future.  The best place to make sense of it all is the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, which honors the island’s first president.  Chiang was a military and political leader in mainland China before being defeated by the Communists after World War II.  He retreated to Taiwan in 1949 and led the government there until his death in 1975.

Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall

The iconic Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall

The memorial, surrounded by a large park, has 89 steps, representing Chiang’s age at the time of his death.  There are three floors, where visitors can examine historical documents, photographs and films.

The centerpiece of the facility is a large bronze statue of Chiang, watched over by two military guards.  There is an hourly rifle-twirling changing-of-the-guard ceremony that draws big crowds (see video shot by the author at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial: Changing-of-the-guard ceremony).

China claims Taiwan as its own territory and wants the island unified with the rest of the country.  Even though it has the 22nd largest economy in the world, Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations.  It was expelled from the U.N. in 1971 – due to Chinese pressure — and hasn’t been allowed to return.

Taipei 101

View from Taipei 101

A youngster enjoys the view from the 89th floor of Taipei 101

Built to resemble bamboo rising out of the earth, this skyscraper has more character than many of the world’s other superstructures.  Taipei 101, so-named because it has 101 stories, was certified as the world’s tallest building from 2004-2010.  It has now slipped to 8th on the list (Burj Khalifi in Dubai is the tallest), but still boasts the world’s second-fastest elevator, behind a tower in Shanghai that opened last year.

For such a speedy ride, the trip to the top is surprisingly relaxing.  While listening to new-age music with the lights turned off, visitors are smoothly whisked to the 89th-floor observation deck in just 37 seconds (about 38 miles-per-hour).  It may not be a “life-changing” event, but it’s certainly worth the 600 New Taiwan dollar admission price (about U.S. $20).  Needless to say, the views of Taipei’s skyline, ringed by a volcanic mountain range, are magnificent.

Designed to withstand typhoons and earthquakes, fairly common occurrences in the region, Taipei 101 houses an upscale mall, restaurants and offices.

National Palace Museum

National Palace Museum

The National Palace Museum houses nearly 700,000 artifacts spanning 8,000 years of Chinese history

Originally founded in Beijing’s Forbidden City in 1925, much of the museum’s collection was moved to Taiwan in 1948 to protect it from China’s civil war.  It now houses nearly 700,000 artifacts encompassing 8,000 years of Chinese history.

Among the most popular items on display is a 3,000-year-old bronze ceremonial cauldron called Mao-Gong Ding.  The inside surface is inscribed in 500 ancient Chinese characters arranged in 32 lines, making it the longest bronze inscription in the world.

The National Palace Museum annually attracts more than 6 million visitors.

Northern Coast

A day-trip to the island’s northern coast can be a welcome respite from the densely-populated city.  Keelung City, just a one-hour drive from Taipei, is a fishing village known for hiking and outstanding seafood.

Queen's Head

The famous Queen’s Head rock formation at Yehliu Geopark

Just outside Keelung is the Yehliu Geopark, which features a cape with several remarkable hoodoo rock formations created by centuries of wind and erosion.  The most famous formation, known as the “Queen’s Head,” is 4,000 years old and was named for its supposed likeness to England’s Queen Elizabeth I.

The elements continue to nibble away at the formations and some geologists think they may not survive more than another 50-100 years.

Travel Tips

Taipei is easy to traverse, whether by subway, bus, reasonably priced taxis, or just plain walking.  It’s one of the most pedestrian-friendly cities in Asia.  I stayed at a centrally located business hotel called Palais de Chine, located next to the central bus and train stations.

Taipei street vendor

A street vendor prepares traditional Chinese dumplings in downtown Taipei

The hotel also is within easy walking distance of numerous noodle shops and food stalls selling outrageously cheap – and tasty – bowls of Taiwanese cuisine.  You won’t go hungry in Taipei, which is said to have one of the highest densities of restaurants in the world.

There are direct flights to Taipei from several American cities, including San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle.  Visas are not required for stays of less than 90 days.

Aside from its unsettled political status and tensions with China, Taipei used to be known mainly for its championship Little League baseball teams and as a quick stopover for North American and European tourists on their way to more trendy Asian destinations.

Now – due to its culture, history and urban delights — it’s rightfully earning a reputation as a memorable vacation spot in its own right.

© 2017 Dan Fellner

Preserving Jewish Life in Taiwan

By | Jewish Travel, Taiwan | No Comments

Taipei’s Jewish Center meets the needs of locals and foreigners alike

Jewish News of Greater Phoenix — May 5, 2017

TAIPEI, Taiwan — When you’re the only full-time rabbi in a relatively small and isolated Jewish community – like that found on the Asian island of Taiwan — you’re expected to do much more than lead religious services.

Rabbi Shlomi Tabib

Rabbi Shlomi Tabib in the sanctuary of the Taipei Jewish Center

Among the many duties performed by Rabbi Shlomi Tabib, director of the Taipei Jewish Center, are hand-delivering Kosher food to visiting Israeli Knesset members, leading a weekly discussion group on Jewish-related topics, and working with the Taiwan Minister of Education to develop Holocaust education in the local schools.

And, while it’s not his favorite part of the job, the rabbi will occasionally even slaughter a chicken in accordance with strict kashrut law.

Such is the busy life of the Chabad rabbi, who moved to Taiwan in 2011 from Israel with his wife Racheli to open the Taipei Jewish Center, the only synagogue on this island of about 24 million people that is just over 100 miles east of mainland China.  At 13,855 square miles, Taiwan is slightly bigger than the state of Maryland.

Tabib estimates the Jewish population in Taiwan to be about 1,000, 85 percent of whom live in Taipei, the capital and largest city. Taipei, which features the eighth-tallest building in the world, Taipei 101 (so-named because it has 101 stories), is a densely populated metropolitan area with about 7 million residents.

Unlike China, where the Jewish community can trace its roots back to the 10th century, significant numbers of Jews didn’t arrive in Taiwan until the 1950s.  Many of the first wave of newcomers were American soldiers.

Taipei Jewish Center

The Taipei Jewish Center is located in the Daan District in downtown Taipei

In subsequent decades, American troops left Taiwan but Jews in other fields arrived.  Some work in the country’s thriving high-tech industry, while others are employed as diplomats, in the diamond business, banking and education.  Additionally, there are numerous Jewish tourists who visit the island.

Regardless of their age, occupation or level of religious observance, Jews wanting a chance to connect with other Jews and celebrate Shabbat and other holidays are always welcome to visit the Taipei Jewish Center.  Tabib says Friday night services and dinner typically attract 30-40 people, most of them visiting tourists and business people.  However, getting a minyan for Saturday services can often be a challenge.

“There are not many observant people residing here,” lamented the rabbi, who added that “a large percentage” of Jews living in Taiwan have intermarried.

Nevertheless, the Jewish Center is busy catering to the needs of both locals and visitors alike.  It houses the sole Kosher kitchen on the island, importing most of its food from Israel and the United States.  Aside from serving food at the facility, an average of 10-15 meals per week are delivered to hotels, businesses and convention centers.

View of Taipei

View of Taiwan’s capital city from the 89th floor of Taipei 101

The Jewish Center also offers a Sunday Hebrew school, coordinated by Racheli, with assistance from two volunteers from Israel.  About 25 children are currently enrolled, aged 3-10.

Tabib said being an isolated community with a small staff has both its pros and cons.

“It’s kind of challenging being far away from everything — any other synagogue or any other rabbi,” he said.  “It gives a lot of responsibility on our shoulders being here, and with that, we also have a lot of satisfaction when things go well.”

The 33-year-old Tabib, who spent three years in Hong Kong as a rabbi, said the Taiwanese people have – for the most part – been quite welcoming.

“Overall, their approach is very positive,” he said.  “The Taiwanese people are known to be very generous to foreigners.  It is embedded in their culture that the Jewish people are smart and successful and I think most of them look to us in a positive way.  That said, many people here don’t know much about Judaism.”

Unfortunately, there was an incident in December involving a high school parade in which students dressed as Nazi soldiers and carried swastika banners.  As a result, the principal of the school resigned.  A few years earlier, a restaurant with a concentration camp theme opened but soon closed due to controversy.

The rabbi attributed the incidents more to ignorance than blatant anti-Semitism.

“People don’t really know about the Nazis,” he said.  “I’m not saying this is an excuse, but these people have no intention to go against the Jewish people or the state of Israel.”

Still, the rabbi is working with the Taiwanese government to enhance Holocaust education in the schools.

“We are working on a plan where people will have more education to learn what happened during World War II,” he said.  “Once they are given the facts, they will back off and say ‘this isn’t something we stand for.  This isn’t something we want to endorse.’”

The Jewish Center is located in a building on a side street in a commercial district of Taipei called Daan, not far from the city center.  Tabib said visitors are welcome to contact him for information about services, other events and obtaining Kosher food:

Ultimately, he would like to see a permanent synagogue erected, the first in Taiwanese history.

“The problem is we want to buy land, but land here is really expensive,” he said.  “You wait for a big donor.  You wait for a lot of things for something like this to be possible.”

In the meantime, Rabbi Tabib goes about his daily business – doing whatever needs to be done to preserve Jewish life in Taiwan – even if that means slaughtering a chicken every now and then.

“There are many challenges for us, so we need to do a lot of things on our own,” he said.  “I think telling our story and showing that we have a thriving community here demonstrates that there is a future for the Jews in Taiwan.  If there is anybody who is thinking of moving here because of business reasons, they should know that they will be in safe hands.”

© 2017 Dan Fellner

Beautiful and Mystical Bali

By | Indonesia | No Comments


Traditional dance reflects Indonesian island’s unique and devout culture

The Arizona Republic — February 26, 2017

JIMBARAN BAY, Bali – Ask a local here about the island’s population (about 4 million), and they will most likely answer in terms of “souls” rather than people.

Bali Hindu temple

One of the most scenic Hindu temples in Bali, Puri Ulun Danu Bratan is on the shores of Lake Bratan.

It reflects the deep spirituality of Bali, where there are Hindu temples on virtually every street, shrines in most homes and businesses, and where many Balinese present offerings of flowers and candy to the Gods each day before going to work.

Yes, Bali offers beautiful beaches, high-end resorts, world-class surfing and spectacular sunsets that are found on many tropical islands.  But what sets it apart from other warm-weather destinations is the devoutness of its unique culture, which permeates all aspects of Balinese life and envelopes tourists as soon as they arrive.

Appropriately known as “Island of the Gods,” Bali is one of more than 17,000 islands in the Indonesian archipelago and – by far – the country’s most popular tourist destination.  Its 2,200 square miles – full of rice paddies, volcanic mountains and traffic-clogged cities — make it approximately the same size as the state of Delaware.

Bali dancing

A traditional Balinese dance performance in the courtyard of a Hindu temple at the Four Seasons Resort

While Indonesia’s population has a Muslem majority, Bali is a pocket of Hinduism; more than 80 percent of the island’s population identify as Hindus.  The Balinese speak their own language, although most also are fluent in Indonesian.  English isn’t widely spoken beyond tourist areas.

Regardless of the occasional difficulty in communicating, I found the Balinese to be welcoming, quick with a smile, and rightfully proud to show off their island.  Even mispronouncing the Balinese word for thank you – suksma – which I did repeatedly, would bring a cheerful grin (it’s pronounced sook-sum-uh).

I was especially fascinated by the beauty and elegance of traditional Balinese dancing, which isn’t only considered an art form, but an inseparable part of the Hindu faith.

My first exposure to local dancers came at an interactive class at the Ganesha Cultural Center in Jimbaran Bay in the southern part of Bali. Located inside the grounds of the posh Four Seasons Resort, Ganesha (named after a Hindu god) also is open to visitors not staying at the hotel. It was inaugurated last summer to showcase the work of local hand-picked artists and preserve Balinese culture.

Bali dancer

A Balinese teenager demonstrates the finger contortions and intense facial expressions of traditional Balinese dancing

At the Ganesha dance class, two 15-year-old girls from the local village demonstrated some of the techniques that make Balinese dancing so compelling – intense facial expressions, rhythmic head-bobbing and fluid hand movements.  There are other traditional dances around the world – the Ukrainian hopak comes to mind – that may be more acrobatic, but few are as pleasingly graceful and exquisite.

That’s not to say, though, that being agile and dexterous isn’t an asset.  In addition to mastering some pretty tricky head and foot movements, Balinese dancers can contort their fingers in a way that makes Mr. Spock’s Vulcan salute seem pedestrian.

“It’s all about practice,” said Ni Luh Gede Suryatini, assistant manager of the Ganesha Cultural Center.  “You need to start learning from a very young age.”

Some Balinese dances are like watching a play with a plotline.  When the plot calls for it, facial expressions can involve eye-bulging and scary snarls.  Other dances – based on humorous stories — can veer toward slapstick.

Balinese priest flooding

A Balinese priest presents an offering to Hindu Gods in a ceremony at the Hindu temple at the Four Seasons Jimbaran Bay

“We have dances about war, we have dances about love, we have dances about how to welcome our guests,” said Suryatini.  “That determines the expressions of our dancers.”

That evening, I was treated to a dance performance in the courtyard of the Four Seasons’ onsite Hindu temple, which has its own resident pemangku, a Balinese priest who blesses visitors and demonstrates Hindu rituals.

Backed by an eight-piece, percussion-heavy band playing traditional Balinese instruments, a group called Teba Banjar from Jimbaran village performed five classical dances in brightly-colored costumes and intricate gold headdresses (see video shot by the author at Four Seasons Jimbaran Bay: Balinese dancing at Jimbaran Bay).

The Ganesha Cultural Center offers classes in other traditional Balinese art forms, including woodcarving, ceramic painting and hand-weaving.  There’s also a class on how to make a canang, a small palm-leaf basket used by Balinese to present daily offerings – such as candy, coins and flowers — to the gods.  The Four Seasons donates all proceeds from the cultural center back to the local artists.

I also took a daytrip to Ubud, a town in central Bali that is considered the spiritual and cultural center of the island.  Full of art galleries, spiritual healers and meditation centers, it’s vibe is somewhat evocative of Sedona. There’s even a popular spa in Ubud named Sedona.  A portion of the 2010 movie “Eat Pray Love,” which chronicled writer Elizabeth Gilbert’s quest for inner peace and starred Julia Roberts, was filmed in Ubud.

There are no direct flights to Bali from the United States, but there are easy connections from major Asian hubs like Hong Kong, Tokyo and Singapore into Denpasar, Bali’s largest city.  Balinese food is flavorful, spicy and reasonably priced.  Unlike in India, which practices a different strain of Hinduism, beef is on the menu in many Bali restaurants.

Bali sunset

Sunset over Jimbaran Bay in southern Bali

When Bali first began attracting significant numbers of tourists in the 1930s, Indonesia was a Dutch colony.  Many visitors came to experience a culture with a diverse mixture of Chinese, Polynesian, Indian and European roots that was unlike any other in the world.

Nearly a century later, more than 3 million tourists visit Bali each year.  The hotels now are far ritzier and the traffic is in a seemingly perpetual state of gridlock.  But the tourists still come for the same reasons.  That’s why Suryatini said it’s vital that the culture is preserved through dance and art.

“We know the tourists are coming to Bali because of its culture” says Suryatini.  “If we don’t save this culture from now on, who will do it?”

© 2017 Dan Fellner