Kosher, Gluten Free Bahn Mi? Wandering Jews in Vietnam – Summer 2017
I don’t eat pork. Or shellfish. Or, thanks to a recent diagnosis of Celiac, bread. It’s hard enough to explain persnickety eating habits to a surly Tastee Diner waitress, but try explaining it to a tiny hunched-over woman preparing food over a stove that is reminiscent of the Bunsen burners we used in high school chemistry. And who doesn’t speak a word of English! (Let me assure you, there is not enough pantomime in the world for “gluten.”)
The ultimate “strangers in a strange land,” this summer two Congregation Beth El moms became “Wandering Jews” for a month, as we schlepped, schvitzed and noshed our way through Vietnam. We were joined by another Jewish mom from Bethesda and a Jewish friend from Chicago. We were a wild and crazy bunch ready to hit the road for adventures!
The list of adventures worth having in Vietnam is long. The list of Jewish adventures to be had is short. But Jacqui (Chicago), Liz (Bethesda), beloved Beth El preschool teacher Sara Greenbaum and I (we met when she taught my daughter) sought out both while backpacking (well, roller bagging) Vietnam. My kids and Liz’s: away at sleepaway camp. Sara’s: grown. Jacqui’s: dog with a dogsitter. We were off!!
Letting go of Jewish parenting habits: Turns out when you remove Jewish moms from their kids, the “helicopter” tendency gets left behind too. We rode on the back of motorbikes (don’t tell my own mother!). We ate spicy unlicensed street food (don’t tell Rabbi Harris). We jaywalked. We got in boats older than we are. We got scarily close to bats. And bugs! (Making a minyan would not have been hard if you counted the really big bugs.)
Yet other Jewish habits die hard. In other ways, we stayed the Wandering Jewish Mothers we are at heart. On a hiking excursion through dramatic rice terraces and colorful vegetable markets, we became “yentas,” setting up the 20-something backpackers with each other and counseling them to “make good choices.”
Commissioning Kippahs: The atmospheric French Colonial old town of Hoi An is known for its tailoring. Hundreds of tailor shops line the streets, tucked between Chinese temples or in converted tea warehouses and selling hand-made clothes in the latest current fashion. I put them to work on a different endeavor altogether: kippahs. 100 of them – in colorful Chinese brocade fabrics – for my daughter’s bat mitzvah next year. The women curiously handled the samples I brought from home, as they have never seen a hat like that before. But copy it they could. Each kippah is admittedly a little funky in its size, shape, or fit. But the fact that the material was hand cut before our eyes by a team of young Vietnamese sowers happily chatting and drinking tea and asking us questions all the while, makes them wonderfully exotic and traditional at the same time.
Adventures in rice noodles: Are you really Jewish if you don’t have some sort of eating mishuggas? Between us, we had kosher issues, gluten issues and food allergies. Ultimately, the ubiquitous rice noodle dishes worked for everyone. We had them in soup, pan fried, stir fried, wrapped in rice paper, cold, hot, the list goes on. We even tried our hands making rice noodles at a local “factory” (aka, the back room in someone’s home.)
Finding Chabad on the road to Halong Bay: There are few corners of the world untouched by Chabad (baruch hashem!). At a bus stop enroute to visit the scenic limestone cliffs in the bays of the South China Sea, we found the one couple that stood out more than two Wandering Jewish Mothers. He was in black and white with long tzitzit; her head was covered. The Jewish geography started quickly – he of course turns out to be a distant cousin of Rabbi Gezinsky here on Bradley Blvd. Photos were taken. No difficulty in ordering kosher for them, they had a car full of food imported from Israel and a portable kitchen!
So what did we learn?
One of the wonderful things about the Washington DC Jewish community is that it enables vibrant friendships and encourages people to seek. The spirit of our Jewish community is to take is our tradition with us when we go wandering, and to bring our experiences home to make our lives and our kehillah richer. For the years ahead, come join us as we enjoy the Vietnamese lanterns decorating our sukkah!