Shabbat Saigon

By

Leonard Zwelling

If Hanoi is amazing, Saigon is otherworldly. It’s Paris with motor scooters. Eight million of them in a population of 13.6 million. They all seem to be riding their scooters on the street at once. And traffic lights? Few and just a suggestion anyway. This town is really hopping. Communism? What Communism? This looks like New York before Christmas on steroids.

We went to Parkson Department Store and it was rolling at 9 PM with every brand name the West could muster and a very active food court on the basement level of another center next door. Cookies though? Hard to find. They don’t eat chocolate chip cookies much in the malls of Viet Nam.

Within 30 minutes of getting to the hotel on Friday we were in a small green taxi headed to whatever was going to be the Chabad House of Saigon. That’s right. The Lubavitch Jews of Brooklyn, New York have an outpost in Saigon. Down a small alley, we came to an apartment front where wooden and glass doors led to several set tables in a large dining area with a kitchen staffed by Vietnamese women getting ready for the Sabbath. It’s Friday afternoon at the Chabad House of Saigon.

We are directed upstairs to a small worshipping area with an ark and chairs lined up. We are stunned by the number of chairs, at least 50 on the men’s side and half that many on the women’s. People drift in. A few introduce themselves. There’s the candle merchant from Israel who comes on Friday nights when he is in town once a month. He works for a large Chinese firm that has established offices in Saigon. The black-robed young rabbi with a red beard is from Phnom Penh, Cambodia. He drove in over eight hours for the bris tomorrow. The moyal is a tall rabbi flown in from Israel to do the ceremony tomorrow morning.

The service is free form. It just starts. It takes me a while to figure out who the rabbi is. It is the tall, young man who looks like Mandy Potemkin with the beard, of course. His kids are circulating around him tugging on the fringes of the black belt of his coat. He has five children. There are many helpers in Chabad dress and Vietnamese nurse maids gathering the children who seem to circulate among the worshippers on both sides of the partition that segregates the women from the men.

The service and the prayer books are in Hebrew only. There is no sermon and it ends with not a word of English or Vietnamese having been spoken. Then everyone, and this has now morphed to about 60 or 70 people, none of whom were Vietnamese, most of whom were Israelis, file downstairs for the dinner. There aren’t enough chairs for everyone. Do some get turned away? As if! They just set up another table back in the room that was used as a synagogue upstairs ten minutes before and everyone gets fed. It is amazing!

I have been staggered by the efficiency and effectiveness with which the Chabad rabbis and their wives spread across the globe bringing Judaism to Jews who, without the rabbis and their wives, might have none. But this was unique. I was in downtown Saigon, praying with my fellow Jews and then enjoying a meal trying to communicate with many Israelis who do not speak English well, and actually doing pretty well. We had a great experience thanks to Rabbi Yossi Zaklikofsky who set it all up via email from Bellaire. We have another similar date in Bangkok next Friday.

The following day we motored through the traffic of Saigon to a boat dock and began a trip up the Mekong River to learn about how the native population turns coconuts into just about anything from wine to food to decorative statues to fuel for a kiln to make bricks. The people making a living along the Mekong are not wealthy. But all of the local color was not what moved me. It was the very thought that fifty years before, boats manned by American GIs were patrolling these waters and fighting along the banks against Viet Cong.

Lunch on the banks of the Mekong River at a small inn run by Mango Cruises, the ship line that brought us up river, was excellent. We had had to traverse the river in a boat, the trip from the bus to the boat on a modified scooter-truck, and the trip from boat to the home of the coconut wine in yet another modified scooter through back roads, some barely paved, but again, commerce was everywhere and so were people who seemed unphased by politics and focused on making a living.

This evening, December 15, the national Viet Nam soccer team won the AFF Suzuki Cup indicating soccer dominance in Southeast Asia. Saigon had stopped at 7:30 as most of the populace was glued to television sets watching the final game in Hanoi. The Vietnamese won 1-0 and won the cup. Saigon rejoiced.

So did we. This is one amazing city. It will be hard to forget.

Leonard Zwelling