Being Jewish in Thailand

Authored by:
Zelda C.

Zelda C.

I would not consider myself to be a very religious person but I would say that my Jewish identity, at least culturally, is a big part of my life. Growing up, I didn’t keep kosher or attend synagogue every single week, but I did go to Hebrew school, attend synagogue for major holidays and was a Bat Mitzvah. I provide this background  so it makes sense when I say that when I was moving to Thailand I was not particularly concerned with not being able to regularly attend services or practice my religion. So while being able to “practice Judaism” was not on my list of things I had to figure out when I moved here, I am fairly confident that had it been, it would have been difficult but, as with everything else I’ve tried to do here, probably not impossible.  

Before I left, I was honestly not very concerned with how my religion would affect my time in Thailand. I did not really think there was a major Jewish population in Thailand but that was not a huge concern for me; I did not grow up in a large Jewish community so I figured I would be used to it. I thought that I would maybe meet few other Jewish people or be surprised that there was some sort of Jewish community in Thailand. I knew that Thailand is a fairly homogenous culture and that there was not a lot of religious diversity but I thought that there would be some sense of different religions. This perception would change within my first few days at school.

My very first day at school, my director was showing me around my school and asked me two questions to start the conversation: what religion are you and what vaccine did you get? I thought these were odd icebreakers but said Jewish and Pfizer. She looked confused and immediately asked me what Jewish was. This response took me by surprise. I had no idea how to explain what Jewish was. I tried to say it was just another religion.  She then said “oh like Christian?” to which I said “no,” to which she then said “oh so like Catholic?” to which I, again, said “no.” I tried to explain that Judaism was one of the big three religions, but she had no idea what I was talking about and we moved on. I brushed this off as a one off weird conversation until a few weeks later when I tried to explain Hanukkah to my grade four students. While they knew about Christmas, they had absolutely no idea what Hanukkah was. Then a few weeks after that my co teacher asked me  about my religion. I tried to explain that it was one of the oldest religions but she was not understanding either.  I was not sure how to begin to explain Judaism to a person who has zero idea what I am talking about. Growing up in Maine, I’ve certainly had people be fuzzy on the details of what it means to be Jewish but I had never encountered someone who had never even heard the term, much less this many people. The lack of understanding of what being Jewish means resulted in my school deciding that I was the best person to teach lessons on Christmas. I have never celebrated Christmas.  I really don’t know a lot about Christmas beyond what the anecdotes I have heard from my friends, movies and TV shows.  I would never have thought that I would be anyone best suited to teach about Christmas but in Thailand, that was the case.

To be sure, the fellow teachers at my school are not mean or rude about my religion. They just have no knowledge of it. So there are no stereotypes to be had. I hope that I can help to educate about my own religion but the various cultural and language barriers make it difficult to explain. 

This experience made me realize that  there was a big gap in religious knowledge here. That realization snowballed into the realization that if the people at my school have never heard of Judaism, then they probably do not really know about the Holocaust or the impact of the Holocaust on Jews worldwide.  That was a very startling realization for me. It was kind of a lonely feeling to realize that so many people at my school just had no perception about something that I consider to be an important aspect of myself. 

Thankfully, I am not totally alone. Weirdly enough, by total coincidence, one of my friends in my city is also Jewish. So while I have not met any local Jews (not really sure there are any), it is comforting to have someone who I spend time with every week who shares this aspect of my identity. There is also a Chabad, a type of international Jewish organization, in Bangkok which helps to orchestrate events for Jewish people living in Thailand. The family who runs it offers Friday night Shabbat dinners and celebrations for major holidays and I do plan on attending one of these celebrations before I leave. 

So being Jewish in Thailand is strange. It’s definitely different than I expected it would be. but it has not created any major issues for me here. My impression, informed by my (admittedly limited) experience is that the Thai people are respectful and tolerant and find me more of a curiosity than anything else.  I do hope to be able to teach my fellow teachers about being Jewish and hope that they come away from their time with me having gained some additional perspectives about the diversity of religions elsewhere in the world.

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