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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

Atlantic City’s Famous Boardwalk

By | New Jersey | No Comments

Guest post by Gabe Miller

Atlantic City may have the reputation of a city in decline, but its boardwalk remains a sought-after destination. The city is actually attempting to bounce back from some severe financial difficulties radiating outward from unsuccessful casino and real estate deals, and a little bit of life is coming back to it.  Even during the worst of times though, the boardwalk held a certain charm – despite portions of it having something of a lighthearted ghost town vibe.

Many don’t fully grasp the history of the Atlantic City boardwalk as – almost ironically – a symbol of American progress and grandeur.  It may actually help to know that it is this same boardwalk that, along with other locations around Atlantic City, inspired the board game Monopoly (in which the Boardwalk is famously the most expensive and lucrative property on the board). It’s just a game, but in a way this gives you an idea of how the area was once perceived, in its heyday.

Atlantic City

But what is it actually like to walk the Atlantic City boardwalk today? You can’t get quite the right idea from playing Monopoly of course, nor from watching the famous drama Boardwalk Empire. Furthermore, most travel articles focusing on Atlantic City revolve exclusively around the casinos, and neglect to convey the boardwalk’s appeal. Here, though, are a few things you can still enjoy about this particular attraction, regardless of any decline the city around it may have experienced.

For one thing, you can get a strong sense of history. There remains a sort of intangible, late-19th or early-20th century vibe on the boardwalk, such that you can almost imagine it as a thriving hot spot in simpler times. The very idea of a boardwalk such as this is less and less common, particularly in the American Northeast, so if you like to have a sense of the past when you travel, this is something you can really cherish.

In a more active sense, you can also enjoy easy access to the beaches and the surf that run alongside the boardwalk. Atlantic City’s beaches don’t have the most glowing reputation around the country, though most who have spent time there would agree that there’s some complexity to the perception. Surfers have called the ocean dirty, sketchy, and beautiful simultaneously. The Netflix comedy Friends From College spent a whole episode more or less mocking Atlantic City as a destination before showing characters on the beach at dawn admitting that from the right angle, the place is kind of beautiful. Basically, it’s a beach area you have to experience the right way and gain an appreciation for, but in its own way, it’s quite nice.

Atlantic City

The Boardwalk also gives you quick access to some of the main casinos of Atlantic City. Now, as implied previously, these aren’t quite what they were once upon a time. Casinos played a role in largely bankrupting Atlantic City, and the comeback of the gaming industry has taken place largely online, with New Jersey’s sites for legal gaming attracting a great deal of activity and revenue. With all of this said though, the actual casino venues of Atlantic City are, if anything, nicer than their reputation. They are not shabby, poorly maintained traces of what they once were; they’re simply not quite as glamorous as some would like them to be. If your goal is a nice meal at a fancy restaurant, a few cocktails in a casino lounge, or the games themselves, you’ll still have a nice time.

Lastly, but maybe most importantly, you can enjoy the establishments that line the boardwalk itself. Little shops and cafes are still operational along the boardwalk, and there’s just something charming about being able to make your way along a wooden walkway on a nice day, popping in and out of these establishments and enjoying the ocean views. Candy shops, clothing stores, souvenir shops, and even places for fresh fudge and salt water taffy are among your options.

All in all, though it may not be quite what it once was, the Atlantic City boardwalk remains interesting and, in its own way, charming. It’s worth a stop on any vacation to the general area.

Gabe Miller is a freelance writer and travel enthusiast.  He writes about popular landmarks, exploring new cities, and various other adventures around the world.

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

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

72 Hours in Boise!

By | Idaho | No Comments

Idaho’s capital city offers visitors much more than potatoes

The Arizona Republic — October 23, 2016

BOISE, Idaho – Idahoans take their spuds seriously.

Boise Fry Company

Lunch at the famous Boise Fry Company; Idahoans take their potatoes seriously

It was our first meal in Boise and we walked two blocks from the Grove Hotel in the heart of downtown to the Boise Fry Company, perhaps the city’s most famous restaurant and a popular tourist attraction.

“Would you like burgers on the side?” our server Brad Walker jokingly asked as we browsed the menu board showing fries made from six different types of locally grown potatoes — russet, purple, gold, sweet, laura and yam.  They come in five different cuts and are offered with a choice of nine types of house-made sauces and 10 varieties of salt.

We opted for heaping bowls of home-style purple and laura fries topped with garlic salt and accompanied with raspberry ketchup.  And we got grass-fed bison burgers on the side, but more as an afterthought.  We had come for the potatoes.

“Our fries are really the showcase main course,” said Walker, who doubles as the restaurant’s interim CEO.  “That’s how we like to play it, since we’re in Idaho.”

As we learned during a recent 72-hour visit to Boise, Idaho’s capital and largest city offers visitors a menu of activities, sightseeing and food much more diverse than its large variety of potatoes.

Downtown Boise

Boise is home to about 200,000 people

We found a city with a vibrant nightlife, arts community, plenty of trendy, farm-to-table restaurants serving locally made craft beers and wines, and enough outdoor venues to please any hiker, skier or biker.

It wasn’t the boring, northern plains dullsville I had been anticipating.

“We hear that all the time — ‘I had no idea,’” said Carrie Westergard, executive director of the Boise Convention and Visitors Bureau.  “People are surprised, and in a positive way.”

Westergard said tourism is growing in Boise: 400 more hotel rooms will open downtown by the end of 2017, a 35 percent jump from the current total of 1,100.

The city, nestled at the base of the Rocky Mountain foothills in southwestern Idaho, is home to about 200,000 people.  If you want to sound like a local, pronounce the city Boy-see, not Boy-zee.  In case you forget, shirts and hats are for sale in the souvenir shops to remind you.

I decided to spend three days in Boise during Arizona State University’s fall break in early October.  It was a wonderful time to visit as temperatures were still mild with highs in the upper 70s and the leaves were just starting to change.

Why Boise and not a more conventional fall-break choice like Rocky Point or San Diego?  Like a lot of travel addicts, I’ve got an atlas-based bucket list, including visiting all 50 U.S. states.  Idaho was the only state missing from my collection.

Boise River Greenbelt

The Boise River Greenbelt is popular for bikers

But a 72-hour trip to Boise turned out to be much more enriching than perfunctorily completing a checklist.  Here are the top five highlights of my trip to a place that rightfully calls itself “the city of trees.”

Biking the Boise River Greenbelt

Boise’s name originates from the French word boisé, which means “wooded.” Take a bike ride along the 25-mile Boise River Greenbelt, and it’s easy to see why the French came up with that moniker.

The tree-lined paved pathway follows the Boise River through the heart of the city and provides scenic views and access to many of the area’s riverside parks.  The Greenbelt also serves as an alternative transportation route for commuters.   Bike kiosks offering rentals are located throughout downtown.

For those wanting more strenuous exercise, there are 130 miles of roads and trails in the foothills just northeast of the city.

Basque culture

Boise's Basque Block

The Basque flag is displayed on Boise’s Basque Block

Idaho has long been a popular location for immigrants from the Basque region, which straddles northern Spain and southern France.  In fact, Boise is home to the largest per-capita population in the world of Basque people (about 10,000) outside of the Basque region, including Boise’s current mayor.  Basque people first began arriving in Idaho in the late 1800s; many worked as sheepherders.

A “Basque Block” in downtown Boise showcases the Basque culture.  There is a museum, including a historic Basque boarding house, several Basque restaurants, a Basque market that hosts cooking classes and wine tastings, and a Basque community center.

I tried my hand at a Basque sport called pala, played with a wooden racket and hard rubber ball on an indoor court known as a fronton.  I found it to be somewhat similar – but much more difficult – than American racquetball.

Idaho State Capitol

While it’s not the most breathtaking capitol you’ll see, Idaho’s center of government offers an interesting glimpse into the state’s history.

Idaho State Capitol

The Idaho State Capitol

Built from 1905-1912, the architect designed the capitol with skylights and reflective marble surfaces to capture natural sunlight.  The intent was to create a building that was a metaphor for an enlightened and moral state government.

Entrance to the building is free; there are self-guided tours and a museum chronicling Idaho’s history on the bottom floor.

Outside, at the base of the stairs, there’s a replica of the Liberty Bell.  Visitors are welcome to ring it, although the bell is so heavy, it took two of us – using all of our strength – to push it hard enough to earn a couple of chimes.

Dining and arts

This was perhaps Boise’s biggest surprise.  There is a dynamic and bustling downtown full of chic and diverse restaurants.  A chef at the popular Wild Root Café on 8th Street – otherwise known as Boise’s “restaurant row” – aptly described her cuisine as “craft, comfort food.”  We never had a meal we didn’t enjoy.

Boise's Freak Alley

A street mural in Freak Alley

Before or after dinner, there are plenty of places to gaze at art without ever setting foot in a museum.  Freak Alley, in the heart of downtown adjacent to a service alley, is the largest mural gallery in the Northwest.  Each year, murals are painted over and replaced by new ones.  The city also has commissioned local artists to paint street art on electrical boxes, transforming eyesores into eye-catching metal canvasses.

Boise State’s blue turf

The locals simply call it “The Blue.”  It’s the famous turf at Albertsons Stadium, home to Boise State University’s football team, and the first non-green artificial football field in the country.  Originally considered a gimmick when it was installed in 1986, the turf has come to symbolize the football program’s blue-collar work ethic.

Boise State blue turf

The famed blue turf at Boise State University’s football stadium

Visitors can see the blue field by entering the Allen Noble Hall of Fame, at the southwest corner of the stadium.  One of the museum’s displays features the football used in perhaps the most famous play in Fiesta Bowl history – the 2007 game in which Boise State’s Ian Johnson scored a two-point conversion on a statue-of-liberty play to beat Oklahoma in overtime, 43-42.

Boise is a safe and affordable city for visitors.  Restaurant prices are about half of what you’ll typically pay in Scottsdale.  There are non-stop flights every day from Phoenix to Boise on American and Southwest.  Roundtrip fares are about $250.

While many tourists fly into Boise as a gateway to Idaho ski resorts, hiking trails or national parks in neighboring states, it’s well worth spending a few days in the city before heading to points beyond.

Boise offers more than enough options to keep you active, engaged and sated — even if you opt to skip the fries.

© 2016 Dan Fellner

India’s Jews: Curry and Kreplach

By | India, Jewish Travel | No Comments

Contributions of country’s Jewish community far outweigh its size

Arizona Jewish Life Magazine — September, 2016

MUMBAI, India — Numbering only about 5,000 in a country of more than 1.2 billion people, Jews constitute a minuscule fraction – 0.0004 percent — of the inhabitants in the world’s second-most populous country known far more for curry and cricket than kreplach and kippot.

Gateway of India

The Gateway of India greets visitors to Mumbai

Yet the unique historical legacy and important contributions of India’s Jews have far surpassed their size ever since they first began arriving in this south Asian country more than 2,000 years ago.

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to visit five functioning synagogues in India and learn more about the Jewish presence in a country that historically has experienced little anti-Semitism and in which Jews continue to practice their faith; where raditional Judaic roots are entwined with colorful facets of Indian culture.

My trip to India was part of an 18-day Asian cruise on the 650-passenger Oceania Nautica that began in Hong Kong and included stops in Cochin and Mumbai, where the cruise concluded.  In both Cochin and Mumbai, I took tours arranged through the ship that included visits to Jewish-related sites.

Perhaps the country’s most famous Jewish attraction is found in Cochin, a port city on the Arabian Sea located on India’s southwestern coast. Jewish traders from Judea first arrived in Cochin in 562 BCE, making it India’s oldest Jewish community.

Even though only a handful of Jews now live there, an older section of Cochin is still commonly referred to as “Jew Town.”  Its centerpiece is the oldest functioning Jewish house of worship in the former British Commonwealth – the Paradesi Synagogue.

Cochin Synagogue

The historic Paradesi Synagogue in Cochin

Built in 1568 by Spanish and Dutch Sephardic Jews, Paradesi (which translates to “foreigners” in several Indian languages) remains an enduring symbol of what was once a thriving Jewish community that had seven working synagogues.  For much of its early history, the synagogue served a community of foreign-born Jewish spice dealers.  In 1968, the 400th anniversary of the synagogue was celebrated in a ceremony attended by Indira Gandhi, the Indian prime minister.

Since there aren’t enough male Jews living in Cochin to form a minyan, Paradesi only has services when enough foreigners join with locals to celebrate a Jewish holiday.  In accordance with Hindu tradition, visitors are required to enter the synagogue barefoot.  Other facets of Paradesi that are the result of Hindu influence include the wearing of brightly colored clothing and the distribution of grape-soaked myrtle leaves during various festivals.  Unfortunately, our ship was in Cochin on a Saturday, when the interior of the synagogue was closed.

But we were able to admire the synagogue’s exterior in a courtyard at the end of Jew Street, which includes a 45-foot tall clock tower that was added to the complex in 1761 and was restored a decade ago with funding from the World Monuments Fund.

Cochin Jew Town

Busy street in the “Jew Town” section of Cochin

“Jew Town” remains a popular tourist attraction in Cochin and the busy street on which the synagogue is located is full of shops selling everything from Judaica to t-shirts to Indian spices.

Two days later, the Nautica docked in Mumbai, the 13th largest city in the world with a population of about 18 million.  Known as Bombay until 1995, the city is home to most of the country’s Jews and has eight active synagogues.

I was fascinated to learn about a historic community of Indian Jews called Bene Israel (“Sons of Israel”), who arrived in India several hundred years ago and comprise a majority of Mumbai’s Jews to this day.

Some believe that the Bene Israel are one of the disputed lost tribes and migrated to India after centuries of travel through western Asia from Israel.  The 12th-century Jewish philosopher Maimonides mentioned in a letter that there was a Jewish community living in India; historians think he may have been referring to the Bene Israel.

Shaar Harahamim Synagogue

Mumbai’s oldest synagogue, Shaar Harahamim, built in 1796

Under British colonial rule, many Bene Israel rose to prominence in India.  Later, they became leaders in the country’s new film industry.

At its peak in the late 1940s, the Jewish population of Bombay reached nearly 30,000.  But it has since dwindled to about 4,000, as most Indian Jews have immigrated to Israel.

I was one of 16 passengers on the Nautica who signed up for a half-day tour in Mumbai called “Jewish Chronicles of India.”  The excursion was led by Yael Jhirad, a Bene-Israel who has been conducting tours of Jewish sites in Mumbai for more than 20 years.  Jhirad, whose husband, Ralphy Jhirad, is a prominent leader of the Indian-Jewish community, says Jewish tourists are often surprised to learn about the very existence of Jewish life in the country.

“Jewish visitors are most fascinated by the presence of Jews in India for the past two millennia,” she says, adding that what makes the community especially unique is “its survival in spite of being disconnected with the rest of the Jewish world for centuries.”

Jhirad took us to four synagogues in Mumbai, including the oldest – Shaar Harahamim (“The Gate of Mercy”), built in 1796 by a Bene Israel, Samuel Ezekiel Divekar.  The street on which it is located is named Samuel Street in his honor.  We later visited Magen David, a tall blue Orthodox synagogue that was built in 1864 by David Sassoon, an Iraqi Jew who became the leader of the Mumbai Jewish community.

Inside Shaar Harahamim

Tour guide Yael Jhirad shows visitors the interior of Shaar Harahamim

Jhirad says Jews have encountered little anti-Semitism in India and get along well with the majority Hindu population as well as Mumbai’s large Moslem community.  However, there was a terrorist attack in 2008 by a militant Islamic Pakistani group in which several Mumbai sites were targeted, including the Chabad House.  The rabbi and his wife were among the more than 160 people killed in the attacks.  Chabad reopened the facility in 2014.  Despite the attacks, Jhirad says relations between Jews and Moslems in Mumbai remain on solid footing.

To arrange a tour with Jhirad of the Jewish-related sites in Mumbai and other attractions in the area, including the famous Gateway to India that was built to welcome King George and Queen Mary during their visit in 1911, send her an email at:

India is not an easy place to visit, especially for inexperienced travelers.  Mumbai is congested, loud and just crossing the street can be a dangerous challenge as cars and motorbikes rarely stop for pedestrians.  What you’ve likely heard about the country’s wretched poverty is not an exaggeration and difficult to witness firsthand.  The food, while tasty, is often substandard in terms of sanitary conditions.  In short, for many Western visitors, the place epitomizes the term “culture shock.”

Perhaps that’s why seeing the Jewish sites in India was so comforting and enriching.  In a sea of crowded chaos and confusion, walking through Cochin’s “Jew Town” and visiting Mumbai’s splendid surviving synagogues brought much-needed solace and a meaningful connection with a little-known, resilient and historically remarkable Jewish community on the other side of the world.

© 2016 Dan Fellner