Jewish Celebrities in Myanmar

Day 5 in Myanmar. I have grown weary from the diet of yak meat and chicken guts. The sun scalds during the day but darkness quickly purges all warmth, leaving us huddled beneath a mountain of blankets and sleeping bags. Hotel rooms, devoid of heating, seem to trap in the cold rather than repel it; nighttime cuddling suddenly ceases to be gender discriminate.

After a particularly unproductive conversation with a hotel employee given the enormous language barrier, I wander alone on the streets of Kale. Before long, a young man stops his motorbike and inquires about my destination. I tell him I’m simply wandering. “Come to my village,” he invites, motioning to the back of his motorbike. Stranger danger my mother always warned. But given that I have twelve inches and 70 pounds on him, I think. what’s the worst that can happen and climb aboard. We arrive at his village, a thick layer of dust settling over the houses as trucks lumber along the dirt road. His house rests on stilts, an assortment of animals, hammocks, and baskets adorn the shaded area below. I sit with his family and eat a putty-like snack, much to the amusement of his parents. We go swimming in the river, watch the putty cooking process, and meet with his English teachers (whose English skills barely exceed those of my guide). When I’m finally dropped back off at my hotel, I can only reflect on the generosity and hospitality of these people; not once have I felt threatened—gawked at, yes. But never unwelcome.

We wander around cities largely Christianized by missionaries. The Chin people of Northern Myanmar were Christianized before Buddhist monks reached the area. Instead of monasteries, makeshift churches line the streets, each advertising their particular brand of Christianity. Bikkhu is out of place here in his Buddhist robes—monks aren’t as welcome here.  “Are you Christian?” we are frequently asked. No, “we’re Jewish,” we respond. Instantly, we are celebrities. This must be what Brad Pitt feels like in America. “JEWISH!? G-d’s chosen people! You are very very special; we LOVE the Jews…you’re also the first Jew I have ever met.” I am told by one missionary that I “look very different than he imagined I would look.” I can’t help but feel like a spectacle—a child’s favorite zoo animal. “I LOVE Elephants!”

We even come upon synagogues, led by Rabbis with last names like Kim and Khai. They are messianic Jews, believing that the Chin people are members of the long-lost Jewish tribe, while also embracing the sanctity of Jesus Christ. We meet with one Rabbi, discussing his religion through an interpreter. Having never met a Jew before, he asks my dad (Abba) to “bless their synagogue.” My dad is understandably hesitant. I stifle a laugh as I try to imagine how he can possibly finagle himself out of this one. I try to convince him to let me lead my own “prayer”; in this case, a dramatic rendition of the Israeli pop song, “Derech L’Shalom.” Abba tells it would be sacrilegious and politely describes how it’s not within his power to do so. I can barely contain myself.   

The time with Bikkhu is special. Our evenings and breakfasts are filled with teachings and lessons and stories. I feel like a child, trying to absorb as much as I can, desperate to remember it all. He tells me much that is profound, but one, in particular, stands out. He asks me why we get married. “For companionship?” I suggest. “Close,” he says. “Comradeship is better. Comrades together against the suffering and obstacles of life.” We discuss how one decides on a lifelong partner. “I always tell my students to not look at the good things, but to look at the bad things in their partner and ask themselves, can I live with this forever?”

The other sound piece of advice is acquired one afternoon during lunch as Bikkhu describes the health benefits of his morning routine: a tablespoon of “cow’s urine.” Autumn and I grimace. “It’s probiotic,” he assures. We are all in hysterics as he tells of a friend who, blindly following his advice, decided to drink a cup’s worth of the stuff. “He was sweating urine!” Bikkhu laughs.

Tomorrow we set out again on a dusty and windy road to our next destination. Until next time.

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