Alef Betty: Modern Hebrew Arts

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Seder in Cambodia

This story comes from Katie Hisert, who has also shared some family lore here.

No, this isn't matzah. Colorful food from a year in Phnom Penh. Left: traditional desserts. Right: street food.

It was the spring of 2005 and I was living in Cambodia, working on a research project at Institut Pasteur du Cambodge. The closest Jewish organization was Chabad in Bangkok, and they didn't know of anyone holding a seder in Phnom Penh. They did, however, promise to send me matzah. I stopped by the Cambodia Daily and wrote a short ad that would run 2 days before the first night of Pesach, looking for other folks who wanted to celebrate the holiday.

My first response was a jackpot: a guy named Peter said that he and friends were in the process of organizing a seder, and that I would be welcome to join. Fabulous! I was told to bring wine, charoset, and the infamous Chabad of Bangkok matzah, if it arrived on time. I received 2 more emails in response to my ad. A British man who was in town for a short visit wanted to join our seder, and an Israeli tourist and some other Israelis she had met were also looking for a place to break matzah. I forwarded their emails to Peter, who responded, "The more, the merrier!"

Thanks to the miracle of Fedex International Priority mail, a package of matzah arrived the day before the seder. The box contained both familiar, square machine made matzah, as well as special, round shmurah matzah, which is made in Israel by hand.

The dinner was hosted at a local Russian restaurant, and was part potluck, part restaurant catered. While children ran around and adults introduced themselves and mingled, the seder plates were assembled. One person had brought eggs, another karpas, another lamb shank. I contributed the charoset and matzah. Wine bottles accumulated. The person who was supposed to bring the bitter herbs (wasabi, because horseradish is not easily found in Phnom Penh) had forgotten, so we asked the restaurant if they had a substitute; they came up with ginger root. On the table was an assortment of Haggadahs, incuding the time-honored Maxwell House edition. One of our esteemed leaders, Uriel, had put together a Phnom Penh edition of the Haggadah made from photocopies of other editions.

The crowd was eclectic: American Jews and honorary Jews were highly represented. The British man who had contacted me was in attendance, as was the young Israeli woman, who brought a group of Israelis she had met in Phnom Penh over the previous few days. She said, “I can just tell an Israeli when I see one on the street,” and had picked up about 6 or 7 Israeli tourists with no seders of their own. Most of the other guests knew one another, and had participated in seders together during previous years.

The ceremonial reading part of the seder was great: abbreviated, but with all the right spirit and mood. I got to read my favorite part aloud, “Lo, this is the bread of affliction.” The afikomen was hidden for the children. The Israelis were happy to provide the Hebrew versions of prayers, as well as sing all the songs. We discussed the meaning of the 4 questions. The shmurah matzah was a big hit. We made Hillel sandwiches with matzah, ginger, and charoset: a good combination, but I still like horseradish better. And then we ate.

True to tradition, the food was abundant. One of the guests had convinced her mother to mail her matzah ball mix from the States several weeks before, and she made the most delicious, traditional matzah ball soup, with enough matzah balls for all 30 of us to each have one. This was followed by the restaurant’s tasty Russian fare: their version of gefilte fish, stuffed cabbage leaves, dolmades, latkas, beet salad, garden salad, and steamed fish in a cream sauce. I ate until I could eat no more. Like many seders, the ceremony deteriorated after dinner. The children searched for the afikomen, and we said, “Next year in Jerusalem!”

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