A Seder in Singapore

That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Jewish

“The cook says we have grapefruit jews, apple jews and grape Jews, but not Chinese Jews.”

–Punchline from one of my favorite puns. 

Singapore Synagogue

My stepfather, a World War II veteran, used to tell the story about how he ended up in China during the Jewish high holidays, and was searching for a synagogue where he could attend services. Each time he told the story he expressed shock at finding a synagogue and even more incredulity that congregants wore traditional Chinese garb with prayer shawls and yarmulkes.

When the service was over, the congregation greeted my stepfather warmly, thanked him for coming and asked why an American would visit a synagogue. When he told them he was Jewish, they were shocked.

“That’s funny,” the rabbi responded, “You don’t look Jewish.”

Although his search had taken place years before, I understood how he felt after I found traces of Singapore’s Jewish community because I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would they be Asian? Would they be expatriates from other Jewish communities?  As far as I could tell, the answer is somewhere between.

The city’s tiny Jewish community does have numerous natives, but they aren’t Asian. Instead, many still bear a strong resemblance to their Iraqi ancestors who came over after the British opened the area for trade in the 1880s. These merchants did well enough to send for their families and the Jewish community grew to 1,500 where it remained until World War II when many followed British troops out of the country before it fell to the Japanese. The ones who didn’t make it were considered British sympathizers and faced harsh treatment in internment camps. Understandably, many survivors fled after the war. Many younger Jews moved to Australia and Israel in search of larger Jewish populations, until the community had dwindled to 200 families. 

Much of the rest of the Jewish community is made up of ex-pats working for corporations or the diplomatic corps. I learned how transient the community was when I went to a first night seder at the rabbi’s house and learned that most of the guests were in town on business and weren’t staying long. 

The size of the community seemed far more substantial the following night when I attended the congregation’s Seder. No matter where I looked there were children underfoot, families looking for enough chairs at a table so they could all sit together and young singles jockeying for position so they could avoid the clutches of well-meaning, meddlesome matchmaking seniors while trying to find colonies of cool people their own age. The Social Hall across from the city’s privately owned synagogue was so packed I considered myself lucky to find a seat.  

I wasn’t fast enough to find a seat at the cool table and sat at a table with the older crowd. In a misguided attempt at match-making, the lady who invited me to the table found a woman about my age, then guilted her into joining us. Like me, the woman was unhappy about having been talked into sitting at this table. Unlike me, she had friends who were saving her a seat, but she was ready to stay until I let her off the hook. I also asked her to let me know if there were any seats at the other table, but she didn’t come back. I can’t say I was surprised.

The social hall was such a madhouse throughout the seder that a synagogue official kept interrupting the retelling of the Passover story to telling people to quiet down or shut up. Not only was this something I’ve never heard anybody yell at a Jewish gathering, it’s also about as futile an undertaking as herding cats. Everyone ignored his entreaties and the social hall became so noisy it was hard to tell where we were in the service. The craziness reached its height during the ceremonial washing of hands just before dinner. At that point some of the men ended up using the sink in the women’s’ room, some of the women used the men’s room and then a small boy came into the men’s room, walked over to the urinal, dropped his pants and got down to business. 

My tablemates all had interesting stories to tell. Some even gave me new perspectives on the community. The editor of the Jewish newspaper, for example, told me about the history of the city’s Jewish community. The two Christian Chinese women sitting at the table also showed me a different take on the holiday. Neither of the women had ever been to a Seder before, but had been invited by a Jewish woman in their bible class. As a result, I spent most of the service showing them where we were in the Haggadah (the prayer book that recounts the story of the Jews exodus from slavery in Egypt) so they would be able to follow along in English. And when it came time to sing the prayer “Diyanu” I told them that the phrase meant “It would have been enough,” but they didn’t believe me so I had to show them in the English where the translated phrase was repeated again and again. (The phrase “it would have been enough” is repeated numerous times because the prayer thanks God for each of the miracles leading up to the Jews arriving in the Promised Land. If God had led us out of slavery, but not to the Red Sea, the prayer says, it would have been enough. If God had led us to the Red Sea, but hadn’t parted it and allowed us to cross, it would have been enough, the song continues).

“See?” I said as I pointed to the translation, “It says it would have been enough here, it would have been enough here as well, it would have been enough there and two for $10 there.”

I figured if they were going to accuse me of making stuff up, I might as well oblige. 

Once dinner rolled around, the women spent much of the meal trying to convince me to sample the local tropical fruit garnishing many of the serving plates. I have an adventurous palate, but I wasn’t excited about trying many new things following my last food disaster. They got me to try a few morsels, but I told them there was no way in hell I was going to sample durian no matter how hard they tried. 

For the uninitiated, durian looks like a green, squat, spiky pineapple but smells like sewage. And not that good honest stench of sewage, either. No, this is the sneaky smell of shit that is just starting to ripen and smells somewhat sweet until the last moment when you get near and it turns on you as if it were saying, “April Fool!” People not only eat this stuff, they have durian-flavored ice cream, candy and popsicles. And the women I was sitting next to described it as “brilliant,” even though there are hotels that won’t allow guests to have the fruit in their rooms and Singapore subway stations are decorated with official signs featuring a picture of durian with the international no symbol — a red circle with a line through it — superimposed over the fruit.

“I’m sorry,” I shot back. “But I won’t eat any fruit that’s expressly prohibited from the Singapore subway.”

Once the dinner plates were cleared away, people couldn’t leave fast enough before the second half of the service started. I’ve never been able to make that mad dash out before the resumption of the festivities. Maybe it’s guilt. After all, my family was so strict about Jewish dietary laws when I was young that we drove three hours across Florida to Miami or Tampa just to buy a month’s worth of kosher meat. Regardless, I was still hanging around talking to people after the service ended when I ran into the woman who had fled my table. So I struck up a conversation. 

The editor of the Jewish newspaper said she was a journalist. She had written for CNN Headline News in Atlanta before moving to Boston where she was working for the Boston Jewish Film Festival. Once she returned from visiting her father, she planned to quit. Her real love was documentary filmmaking.

I don’t remember when I noticed she had beautiful green eyes, but I do recall telling her so. I know we talked more as the evening ended, but I can’t remember what we said. I recall asking her out, but I still can’t believe it. Although she hesitated, she said yes, leaving me to figure out what we would do the next day. The only thing I was sure of was that our date would have to be a daytime one because I had reserved a 10:30 p.m. bus to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I tried to get a seat on the 10 p.m. bus because Mari and Jamie told me they had booked tickets and I enjoyed riding with people I knew, but it was sold out so I had to hope that I would run into them once I got there. 

How was I to know I wouldn’t leave the country for another three days?

Those Singaporeans, they don’t mess around when it comes to durian…or pretty much anything.