"Now Nineveh was an enormously large city--a three-day walk across." --from the Book of Jonah
I wonder what Jonah would have thought of Jakarta. It took an hour and forty-five minutes to drive from the airport to our hotel. Part of that was traffic, and a remarkable disinterest in the usual practices of staying in one's lane or giving way. But part of it is simply that Jakarta is a city of 20 million people, very nearly the entire population of Australia. The internet is too slow here for me to post photos, so I can't yet show you the view from my window of skyscrapers, low buildings, and little shacks all jumbled together. A permanent haze hangs over everything, the result no doubt of too many cars stuck in too many traffic jams.
We have definitely upgraded our accommodation here. The beds in our hotel in Manado were quite comfortable (although I was astonished to realise on my first night that there was no top sheet on the bed--just a blanket). But the hotel was decidedly humble, and even on the fourth floor, the noise from the traffic below made it difficult to sleep past 6:00 a.m. In Jakarta, we've been promoted to the Batavia Apartments in the most expensive part of the city. We are sharing a three-bedroom suite on the 28th floor with stunning views. Unfortunately, the mosque below has its loudspeaker system turned up enough that the voice of the muezzin still carries all too well at 4:30 a.m. Still, it's a lovely place.
Our apartment has a reasonably-large living area, and that has been transformed into prayer space and fellowship hall for Shabbat. The food for the thirty or so attendees is stored in the kitchen, and we are using the different bedrooms for private meetings and get-togethers of like-minded people.
Yesterday we had a day of touring--an hour visiting Jakarta's historic district, an hour shopping, another 45 minutes or so for lunch, and about 2 1/2 hours in traffic. Indonesia became a Portuguese colony in the sixteenth century and was ruled by them until the Dutch set their eyes on this lush agricultural land and conquered it from the Portuguese. They were cruel rulers. The first act of new governor of Jakarta was to raze the Indonesian city to the ground in order to build his dreamland of Batavia. In 1740 when Chinese residents rebelled against the government, the Dutch massacred an estimated 10,000 people and threw their bodies into the canal. To this day the canal is known as the place of a bad smell. A number of Dutch buildings still stand, including the stately city hall, which has been turned into a museum. Just down the path from the city hall is the old women's dungeon, a dark space with a ceiling too low to allow for more than an uncomfortable stoop. As many as sixty women at a time were housed here, at least for as long as they survived. The men's dungeon is just as uncomfortable, except that the men were chained to cannonballs. I used one of my limited Indonesian words--sadi, meaning sad. Definitely not a place to tarry too long.
We drove back towards the hotel to go shopping. Our destination was a cavernous seven-story shopping mall packed absolutely full of little stalls selling shoes, clothes, handbags and watches. Lots of watches. The prices are cheap, the quality is often mediocre, and the place is enormously popular. Rabbi Kunin commented several times that he imagined this might be what hell would look like. In the middle of the mall is a shop selling Indonesian batiks for about 1/5 of their usual cost, and I went on a bit of a shopping spree.
Then off for a quick lunch and then a very long 90 minutes stuck in traffic to get back to the hotel. The few stoplights have cycles of at least five minutes, which allows hawkers time to walk through the traffic selling Indonesian flags and children's toys. Buses run on a parallel track that moves much faster, and I'm surprised that more people don't use the buses instead of spending hours sitting on the road. But it's not my country.
I have been overwhelmed by the kindness and piety of our hosts here in Manado. They extended their generosity to us long before they even knew us; with their very meagre resources, they paid for our airfare from Jakarta and our hotel here. They've fed us lavishly, serving us tuna grilled on a wood stove in their front yard both nights, along with a choice of other lovingly-prepared local favourites. They have been generous with their time, giving up all of yesterday to spend with us. I can only say terima kasi—thank you so much for hospitality far beyond any expectation.
Last night Rabbi Kunin and I led a traditional-style evening service while Benny filmed us to train service leaders. One of the sons Vikki has created a prayerbook in Hebrew, transliteration and Indonesian translation. We discussed how he essentially transferred prayers from an Orthodox prayerbook into his own photocopied siddur. He assures that the next edition will incorporate egalitarian values, naming God as “God of our mothers” as well as “God of our fathers.” I was quite moved when we reached the Shema--the declaration of faith—and these voices rang out their affirmation from such a remote corners of the world. And I thought Adelaide was far-flung. At the end of the service, I suggested that we sing the hymn Adon Olam that some of us had sung earlier in the day. A request was put in for the traditional Germany melody, and everyone sang along with gusto and joy. I taught about the evolution of Shabbat from the Torah through to the rabbinic texts all the way to contemporary non-Orthodox understandings of the spirit of Shabbat. A family member asked for advice about dealing with his employer, who sometimes asks him to work on Shabbat. Certainly this is not a unique situation, and we talked about balancing the ideals of Shabbat observance with the realities that are sometimes beyond our control.
Benny believes that a significant percentage of the Manado population actually has some Jewish ancestry. The city was founded by Dutch traders, a large number of whom were Jewish. For now, there are only enough Jews here to fit into one room. Perhaps on a future visit, I won't find them quite so lonely.
Manado wakes up early. The morning light and the sound of scooters and horns woke me up at 6:00 a.m. I covered myself with mosquito repellent, grabbed my camera, and went for a walk. There are no sidewalks in much of Manado, so pedestrians play a crazy game of chicken with cars and scooters. I survived to tell the tale and find a lively market.
At 8:30 a.m., our host family arrived and nine of us crammed into a car built for seven. We headed off first for a traditional Manado breakfast featuring vegetable porridge along with odd but very delicious fried fish fritters and banana chips, washed down with coffee with a heavy dose of sweetened condensed milk.
From there, we piled back in the car and headed UP. In 2009, an eccentric governor of Manado who had an inexplicable love of the Jewish people decided to construct the world's highest menorah. It stands at about 500 metres above sea level high above the city. It was an epic journey --an hour each way, including a heart stopping 1.7 km as we closed in on the top. Here it is:
After many photos, we drove back down into Manado. My favourite part of the trip was an exchange of tunes to the beloved hymn Adon Olam, including lots of rousing singing in the crowded van. Delightful!
We are back at the home synagogue tonight to lead evening services and for me to have a turn at teaching. Tomorrow we head back to the airport for the trip back to Jakarta, where we are looking forward to a very busy Shabbat.
Poor Rabbi David Kunin. He flew seven hours from Tokyo to Jakarta yesterday and only arrived at the hotel at 9:00 p.m. And then he had to be ready to head back to the airport at 4:30 a.m. this morning. I did the same, but at least I had all day to adjust to Jakarta. We rushed off to the airport along with Benny's wife Rachel and their youngest child Meir to catch another plane—this time to Manado. The good part of it was that David and I got to spend an engaging five hours on the flight catching up and sharing our thoughts with each other about what we are doing here. We looked at some important questions: What expectations do we have of those students we assist in conversion to Judaism? Is it fair that we make these demands of conversion students, while those who were born Jewish have no knowledge requirements at all? If being Jewish doesn't look the same everywhere in the world, where are the boundaries that we name as within and beyond Jewish life? All of this as a starting point to consider the task that we have set ourselves: to learn as much as we can about what being Jewish and Judaism look like to the different communities here in Indonesia.
We flew first into Macassa, at the southern tip of Sulawesi, and then took off again with a nearly complete change of passengers for an additional ninety minute flight to Manado at the northern end of the island. Sulawesi from the air is a breathtaking land of palm trees, thick vegetation, and simmering volcanos. Manado on the ground boasts some beautiful vistas, but also crazy traffic—trucks, cars and scooters all competing for the same narrow lanes—thatched huts and lots of churches. Benny explained that the island is split in two—Macassa is a Muslim centre, while Manado is dominated by evangelical Christianity. Central Sulawesi, which has been identified as a danger zone by the Australian government, is where the two religious traditions clash, sometimes violently.
The Jewish community in Manado consists of one extended family--elderly parents, at least five of their seven adult children, the children's spouses, and grandchildren. A number of family members live in a sprawling house on one of the town's many hills. They have turned their front room into a little synagogue, complete with reader's table and ark. We had the evening service there, and then Rabbi Kunin taught very slowly as Benny translated his words into Indonesian. They are devoted to the path they have chosen, even as it has complicated their lives considerably: one son lost his job when he asked not to work on Saturdays. They have lost a number of friends who are upset that they have abandoned their Christian faith. It can be very lonely and isolated, but they all seem to draw great strength and joy from their practice. Their dedication is inspiring to me who has always lived places where being Jewish was easy.
Hopefully tomorrow I'll get around to posting some photos of the places I have visited so far. We have another full day in Manado before we retrace our steps back to Jakarta.
I spent exactly twelve hours in Denpasar. Including time spent trying to sleep (between the abrupt change in climate, the Muslim call to prayer, and the roosters, I didn't get much), checking out and in at the airport, and packing, I had a grand total of 30 minutes to walk around. That thirty minutes was really wonderful. I have some fabulous photos of the little Hindu shrines that were everywhere on the narrow streets near my hotel. Sadly, the Aerofans Inn near the airport has wifi that does not appear to support Windows 8, so you'll need to wait for another day to see them.
I was picked up from the hotel by Sarah Louis-Ford. Sarah's maternal grandmother was a Moroccan Jew, and Sarah has proudly reconnected with her heritage. Sarah lives in Bali but travels to Jakarta to the little Indonesian Jewish community there. Now that she is expecting a baby, she won't be traveling for a while. She does visit the strictly Orthodox Chabad centres which are all over Bali, but does not appreciate how unbendingly rigid they are. We had a lovely and lively chat at the airport Starbucks (where there was also a tiny Hindu offering!) before we said goodbye and I headed off for my next flight.
I hereby retract all the dire predictions I made about Lion Air. The airline is very professional, and my flight to Jakarta was absolutely fine. I was surprised at the Denpasar airport to see women wearing the niqab, with only their eyes visible through their black veils. On the plane, I sat next to a young Muslim couple with an adorable baby daughter. As the plan taxiied to take off, the baby's mother pulled open her blouse to nurse her without making an effort to cover up in front of their female co-passenger. The two hours to Jakarta went by a lot faster since I had a baby to play peek-a-boo with who rewarded me with gorgeous smiles showing off her two little teeth!
At the Jakarta airport, I was met by Benny Verbrugge, head of the United Indonesian Jewish Community. He is so excited to have me here! We drove miles and miles past the enormous airport to our hotel, which bears an uncanny resemblance to a very large state prison--at least from the outside. Jakarta so far is hot, steamy and a bit grungy. I'm only here overnight; tomorrow we fly out early to Manado in the centre of the country. I'll get to see much more of Jakarta when we return on Thursday. Hopefully by then I'll have figured out how to post photos!
On Sunday evening, if the volcano on Bali cooperates, I will be flying to Bali. I've had all my shots and am armed with doxicycline and insect repellant to ward off malaria. The flight leaves Adelaide at 7:00 p.m. and arrives in Bali five hours later. By the time I work my way through customs and immigration and make my way to my hotel, it will be close to 1:00 a.m. Adelaide time and I'm sure I'll be ready for a well-deserved sleep. The next morning, I'll board what I'm sure will be a pristine Lion Air jet at 10:50 a.m. for a 1 1/2 hour flight through to Jakarta. That's when the adventure begins.
I will be met in Jakarta by Benjamin Meijer Verbrugge. Benny is the head of the United Indonesian Jewish Community, an amazing organisation comprising Jewish communities stretching from Jakarta in the west to Papua more than 1500 miles to the east. Hundreds of Indonesians have come out of the woodwork over the last five years or so, expressing a desire to connect with Judaism and the world Jewish community. Some of them are descendants of Dutch Jewish traders. Others have stumbled upon Judaism and decided that it is the faith tradition for them. My job, along with my colleague Tokyo Rabbi David Kunin, is to get a sense of what exactly has been happening in Indonesia. Why are so many people drawn to a faith tradition which has no legal recognition in the world's largest Muslim country? What does Judaism look like in Indonesia? What kind of support are they seeking, and what can we offer them? On those days when I'm not completely and utterly exhausted by our busy schedule, I'll hope to fill you in as our adventure unfolds.
Rabbi Shoshana Kaminsky
I've been the rabbi of Beit Shalom Progressive Synagogue in Adelaide since 2006. As part of the Council of Progressive Rabbis of Australia, New Zealand and Asia, I'm preparing for my second trip to Indonesia to meet with Jewish communities there.