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Friday, November 7, 2014

 A Word From the Weiss

Bangkok Grand Palace October 2014.JPG       I can honestly say that I’d wanted to visit Thailand for my entire life, or ever since I first saw the 1956 movie version of The King and I starring the iconically bald Yul Brynner.
        What I cannot honestly say is that it ever even crossed my mind to see what it would be like to spend Yom Kippur there. But my daughter is living in Asia right now, and there was nothing I wanted more than to be with her, especially around the High Holy Days. So my husband and I found ourselves marking the most solemn day of the Jewish calendar in the land of golden idols and pad Thai.The King and I with Yul Brynner.jpg
        We flew there after brief sojourns in Hong Kong and Beijing. Nice Jewish Dad
 had seemed mildly annoyed on this multi-city jaunt when he learned that I had shelled out for private escorts to and from every airport we’d visit. But when we arrived inBangkok airport 2.jpg Bangkok after midnight and the man meant to retrieve us was nowhere in sight, that annoyance turned to seething madness with a side order of rage. By the time we finally found the fellow and were whisked off to our hotel downtown, it was going on 2:30 a.m., and that rage? There was nothing mild about it.
But this feeling soon turned to bewilderment on both our parts as we noticed that the streets were still glutted with traffic and people out partying on a Wednesday night. Was it a national holiday, perhaps?
Nope. No holiday. Just a night. That is to say, pick a night. Any night. It will all be the same. Bangkok, it turns out, is that proverbial destination: the city that never sleeps.Bangkok partiers.JPGBangkok skyline by Harlan Levy.JPG

        Over the next few days, we’d get little shut-eye ourselves as we tried to take in the many wonders and diversions that this ancient yet oh-so-modern metropolis has to offer. Good thing I’d hired another private guide to drive us wherever we wished to go.Our driver Yong.jpg
Our friends Amy and Rich had recommended Yanyong Makepoowadol to us, having engaged him on their own trip to Bangkok in 2009. "Yong" (as he advised us to call him in lieu of that mouthful of syllables) was a taxi driver, but he was happy to become our private escort for 2,800 baht per day. And lest you think that sounds extravagant or hoity-toity, let me point out that this amounted to a measly 85 bucks.Bangkok Reclining Buddha 1.JPG
Starting on the afternoon after we arrived, he drove us to many a temple. And when I say “temple,” I don’t mean anything related to rabbis, cantors, or reading the Torah. We saw sitting Buddhas, standing Buddhas, and the world’s largest reclining Buddha. There were golden Buddhas and also a big green jasper one known as the Emerald Buddha.
        Yes, i
f there’s one thing you can say about Bangkok, it’s that they have a whole lotta Buddha going on!Bangkok Golden Buddha and admirers.JPG
Our first stop was Wat Traimit – the Temple of the Golden Buddha – which houses a 5,500-kilo, solid gold statue of Guess Who that is over 700 years old.
This would be the first place on our trip that we would be obliged to remove our shoes before entering the building – a Thai custom – and it would surely not be the last.Bangkok button.JPG
It would also be the first place that we would discover another Thailand tradition – not one reflecting the country's rich, respectful culture, but rather the booming Thai tourist industry. The moment we arrived, a guy with a camera surreptitiously snapped our photos, and when we exited the temple he proffered two kitschy photo buttons depicting us at the site. This, of course, was not a gift. He wanted 150 Thai baht (about $4.50) for the pair.Bangkok's Grand Palace.JPG
Never mind that we already had taken plenty of selfies while inside. How could I resist?
From there we hastened to the Grand Palace, an immense complex of ornate structures that served as the official residence to the kings of Siam starting in 1782.Harlan and friends at Grand Palace.JPG
To be honest, I can’t tell you too much more about this because Yong – not being a licensed tour guide – declined to take us in and show us around the premises. He merely dropped us off, and we proceeded to spend an hour or two oohing and ahhing at the golden parapet-topped pavilions and doing what everyone else there was  – taking photos of each other mimicking the poses of the various golden idols on guard.Pattie at Grand Palace in Bangkok.JPG
But Yong later did corroborate one key fact that made all the difference in the world to me. He said that this palace probably had been where the real-life events that inspired The King and I had transpired.
        Shall we dance?King and I dancing scene.jpg Shall we dance?
A couple more Buddha sightings and we were all set to sample some of the authentic Thai cuisine I’d been longing to taste. (Although Jews and Chinese food go together as well as lox and bagels, Thai is my hands-down take-out of choice.)
So I am sorry to report that our first glance at a local menu did little to whet our appetites. Although I don’t keep kosher, these dishes were not for the faint of heart (or stomach):
    Bangkok pad Thai.JPG         
 Spicy Raw Fermented Pork Salad
 Fried Fermented Chicken Knuckle
ried Serpent-Head Fish in Sweet and Sour Sauce
Grilled Pork Neck
Thai Papaya Salad with Raw Shrimp
Bangkok Pattie eating dinner.JPG
Yet we still dared to venture beyond the standard pad Thai to sample such delights as Tom Yum soup, green curry chicken, Massaman curry, and stir-fried morning glory (a green leafy vegetable similar toThai iced tea in Bangkok.JPG broccoli rabe). After washing this down with a Thai iced tea, I was ready to praise Buddha!
Although there was plenty more to eat and do in downtown Bangkok, we wanted to explore more of the country and decided to venture outside the city on our second day.Bangkok floating market.JPG
Our first stop with Yong was the famous floating market at Damnoen Saduak, about an hour’s drive south. There we paid around $60 to be conveyed for about two hours through a murky, narrow canal in a small wooden motorboat. On either side, vendors were hawking Thai clothing, figurines, handbags, spices, and other such souvenirs.Damnoen Saduak floating market.JPG
These goods were lined up right alongside the water, so that we could pull up close enough to buy anything to our liking without ever having to leave the boat. Prices, as we'd been told, were a concept as fluid as the waters in which we floated. So I soon found myself hondeling for a small “jade” elephant which was probably just green plastic, a bag full of fragrant, burnt-orange saffron, and a pair of colorful Thai silk scarves with elephant designs. (For the last of these, the merchant wanted 500 baht, or about $15 apiece, but my husband managed to negotiate down to two for that amount.)Bangkok floating market photo we bought.jpg
The excursion also gave us an opportunity to observe the Jewish ritual of Tashlich, customarily performed between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, in which you cast bread crumbs into a body of water as a means of symbolically casting away your sins.Chocolate croissant we used for Tashlich.jpg
My husband and I did this as the boat sped along using the only bread product that we had on hand, a small chocolate-filled croissant that I had sinfully filched from breakfast.
Sadly, at our next stop, we already would commit a brand new sin to atone for next year.Feeding the elephant in Bangkok.JPG
All things touristy in Thailand are embellished with images of elephants, but our next destination let us get up close and personal to the real thing. Barely a stone’s throw from the floating market was the Chang Puak Camp, where we were able to not only see many towering, tusk-toothed mammoths, but actually ride on one.
First, we got to feed one of these behemoths a full basket of bananas, which she seized with her bristly, serpentine trunk and Hoovered three or four at a time, peels and all.Bangkok elephant ride.JPG
Then we climbed aboard a small, canopied bench suspended atop another beast’s back while our driver – a tiny Thai man in a red and yellow circus-like uniform – straddled her neck and led us amid palm trees along a series of narrow paved paths.
        This was not the most romantic ride I’ve ever taken, but it was surely the most aromatic. I kept wondering if anyone had ever fallen off… or fainted from the fumes. And when our leathery, lumbering steed plunged neck-deep into a wide, running stream, it was all I could do not to scream.
        Yes, sir, that's my baby.JPG
For a small additional fee, the camp also offered the chance to pose with an adorable baby elephant who was performing tricks in a fenced-in ring. This deal included a second photo op with an even cuter critter, a baby monkey who went bananas upon being placed in what he clearly recognized as a nice Jewish mom’s lap.Baby elephant in Bangkok.JPG
Only later did I learn that riding elephants is extremely inhumane and, as at least one website noted, "should be removed from your bucket list." They are not built to carry people (let alone three at once), and this could potentially damage their spines. They also may be subjected to many forms of abuse at these riding camps (although not necessarily the one that we visited).
I certainly never would have done it if I had known… and it is with more than a little regret that I display photographic evidence of my grave transgression here.Tea for two at the Bangkok Mandarin Oriental.JPG
But I have no regrets about visiting our next venue, the incomparably luxurious Mandarin Oriental Hotel.
        This elegant and tranquil haven is widely reputed to be the best hotel in the world. And even if it is not within your budget to stay there (make that a big NOT for us), I had read that it was recommended while in Bangkok to at least stop there for a drink.
Arriving a bit early for cocktails, we opted to forego the special drinks on the menuMandarin Oriental Hotel pastries.JPG (including a Thaijito made with Mekhong rum and fresh lemongrass and lime). Instead, we took a seat in the exquisite lobby and ordered pastries and small silver pots of tea.Macarons at the Mandarin Oriental.JPG
These elegant confections (a mini blueberry cheesecake and Coffee Caramel Nougat Delight) may have been the most delicious things I have ever tasted in my life. Or would that be the Mandarin’s own French macarons, which came in 20 tempting shades and flavors, including mojito, tiramisu, salted caramel, and squid ink, as well as one called Elvis (flavored with the King’s ultimate not-so-secret passion, peanut butter)?
Of course, we were destined to soon go from this feast to famine, for the next day was Yom Kippur. We woke up to grapple with one of those proverbial Jewish dilemmas. No, not pork at half-price. Rather, a free hotel breakfast on a day when you are supposed to fast.
I will not tell you how my husband fared, faced with the obligation to forego the lavish buffet provided each morning at our trendy hotel, The Aloft. But he readily agreed to accompany me to services at the nearest temple, the Chabad House in Sukhumvit.Bangkok Chabad House Pattie.JPG
As in Hong Kong on Rosh Hashanah, we struggled mightily to locate this synagogue, sequestered on a side street far from the main road. But we finally found our way into the sanctuary of the Beth Elisheva Jewish Center, where about 60 men and 18 women (none of whom appeared to be Asian) were already in the midst of a holiday service.
In keeping with Orthodox tradition, the two sexes were separated, with the men seated around the rabbi in front and the women secluded in a balcony up above. It was bad enough that I had to observe the most sacred day of the year in a foreign country, away from my family, friends, and regular shul. Did I really need to sit all alone in the back, only able to view my husband way across the room through the sheer white lace of the mechitza?mechitza separating women from men.jpg
No matter. I was relieved to be among my people and able to daven in this distant land. And I felt immediately welcome when the rabbi’s wife hastened over to greet me.
Hearing that I was from Connecticut, she asked if I knew Rabbi Joseph Gopin, head of the Chabad House in my town.
“Of course!” I replied. OK, as a Reform Jew, maybe I didn’t exactly know him personally. But I received regular emails from him, as well as from his wife, Miriam.
Hearing this, the rebbetzin grew very excited and noted that, although she hailed from L.A., her first job as a teenager had been as a counselor at the Gopins' summer camp.
Once again, small world when you’re a Jew. Nu?Bangkok Chabad House sanctuary.JPG
Assuming that we’d be separated, my husband had made me agree in advance to a plan to leave after exactly an hour. But that hour came and went without him making a move or so much as trying to catch my eye, so engrossed was he in the rabbi’s sermon.
I was pretty enthralled myself. The rabbi, whose name was Kantor, had not only a very down-to-earth, haimishe manner, but also much to say that really struck a chord. One thought that still reverberates to this day had to do with the world’s first Jew, Abraham.
I can’t give you his exact words because it is verboten to write in an orthodox shul. But the gist of it was this: Too many people today remain stuck on therapists’ couches for years, decrying their miserable childhoods and ill treatment at the hands of bad parents. But it doesn’t have to be that way. It is always possible to rise above your upbringing, misfortunes, and other past experiences and take charge of your life.Bangkok idol.JPG
Abraham, after all, grew up with a father who sold idols. No, he didn’t just sell them. “In his day, he was the Walmart of idols – or the IKEA of idols, you might say,” Rabbi Kantor said. But instead of dwelling on this fact, he came up with the concept of there being one G-d and one G-d only and became the most influential figure in history.
Yom Kippur was the time to reflect on your life in the past year and try to do better. And if you really resolved to do better, despite anything that had gone before, you could.
Well, we may have been barred from food that day, but this was food for thought.
The actual food would come later. Or would it?Purse stool at Breeze in Bangkok.JPG
When our friends Amy and Rich had told us about their own trip to Asia, they had repeatedly raved about one thing and one thing only. If we did nothing else on this entire three-week trip, we needed to eat at a restaurant atop a posh hotel in Bangkok.
Not only was the view magnificent from this place, on the 52nd floor of the Lebua hotel, but the service was so attentive, Amy said, that when she had placed her purse on the floor beside her, a waiter had instantly brought over a white leather stool and placed her purse upon it.  
The name of this lofty restaurant was Breeze.
        Alas, it was NOT a breeze getting up there.Pattie breaking the fast in Bangkok.JPG
After temple, we waited around until close to sunset (although I must confess that I broke my fast late that afternoon because the oppressive heat and humidity made me feel like I was going to faint).Lining up for Skytrain in Bangkok.JPG
        Then we boarded the Skytrain, the city’s ultra-modern raised subway line, which highlighted to me just how much more civilized Thai society is than, say, anyone you’ll ever meet in New York. (These people are so polite that they not only bow to each other endlessly night and day but also line up in single file just to board the subway!)Bangkok Arts and Cultural Center sculpture.JPG  
We took this to the Bangkok Arts and Culture Center (Thailand’s version of the Guggenheim, with a similar corkscrew-like interior) and ogled the surprisingly modern art.
There was more than enough there to keep us enthralled until it closed at 8 p.m. Then we set out by Skytrain for Breeze.
We got a little lost, and by the time we arrived it was already around 9:30 pm. By now, I was starving, but an elegantly dressed hostess in the lobby looked us up and down and said that we could not go up in the elevator. Although my husband had brought a fresh shirt to change into from the decidedly damp and dangerously loud Hawaiian one he was wearing, he still didn’t pass muster. His open-toed sandals were prohibited by the restaurant's dress code. So we were given the boot.The hostess at Breeze gave us the boot.JPG
We were a 45-minute drive from our hotel. It was too late to go back and change. But after the way our friends had kvelled about the place, I said that I was going up there come hell or high water. I told the hostess we’d go buy a pair of shoes and be back.
"Madame, the kitchen closes at 11:30 p.m.," she said. I assured her we’d be back way before then.
"Where the heck am I going to find shoes at 9:30 on a Saturday night?" my very sweaty and beleaguered husband asked in exasperation as we exited to the street.
"I don't know,” I admitted, making no effort whatsoever to conceal my own mounting exasperation. “But I can promise you that we are BUYING THEM!!!"Bangkok Hindu festival.JPG
, he had a point. All of the nearby stores were closed. But after trudging for many blocks, we came upon a raucous annual Hindu festival underway in the surrounding streets that was jam-packed with gazillions of people.Bangkok Hindu festival slippers.JPG
This was lined with booths at which they were selling all sorts of hazzerei, including Indian food and figurines, jewelry, baby shoes, colorful children's slippers, and yet more sandals.
        No actual shoes, though.Dancing dragon at Bangkok Hindu festival.JPG
Soon we heard deafening music approaching, and I was nearly run over by a band of crazed dancing men in bright yellow garb flailing around a giant paper dragon. My husband ran ahead to snap a photo of this spectacle. I merely tried to get out of the way, but failed miserably. One of the dancing men crashed into me, nearly knocking me down.
        When I pulled myself together and dusted myself off, I realized that my husband had vanished in the crowd. We had no cell phone service or way to contact each other. It was past 10 and I’d barely eaten all day. What now? Taxi back to our hotel all alone?
I nearly began to cry.Bangkok Harlan with rubber shoes.JPG
       Then, as I made my way through the crowd, I saw him. He was at a booth selling... men's shoes!
        They were black rubber loafers that were practically weightless and cost only 100 baht (about 3 bucks, that is).Bangkok rubber loafers.JPG
He quickly found a pair in his size that fit perfectly! They had open backs, but his pants would cover that. They looked like real shoes and for our purposes were just fine.
When we returned to the hotel lobby at 10:45, the hostess seemed happy to see us and said that she'd reserved us a special table. She brought us up to the 52nd floor personally.
        Our friends were right. The view at night was breathtaking!Breeze waiter and free appetizers.JPG
The service was also impeccable. (Just ask my handbag, which was placed on the promised stool.) We were served complimentary appetizers (amuse-bouches, as they say en francais), including peeled cherry tomatoes marinated in plum sauce, flanked by four colorful sauces.Bangkok's Breeze friend noodles.JPG
        Then came THE BEST Chinese food we have ever had! EVER!
Altogether, it was truly a meal to remember... And although our friends had warned us that it might run over $100 apiece, it cost only $146! (Plus 100 baht for shoes.)
After dinner, a waitress took photos of my now happy and well-shod husband and me posed arm in arm against the twinkling skyline of a vast and beautiful, sophisticated city that truly never sleeps.Harlan and Pattie happy at Breeze.JPG
Then we were sent up to Skybar, the world’s highest open-air bar, which boasted an even more spectacular view ten stories above breathtaking Breeze.  
I don’t know if the rabbi was right – that you can break free from the past, become a different person, and achieve your dreams. But I certainly achieved mine that night.
        It just goes to show-- where there's a will there's a way! Or at the very least... shoes!

8:24 pm 

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That's me. The redhead on the right. But that is NOT my baby.

     No, sir, that's not my baby. How could any mother smile beatifically while her own child wailed? Never mind that neither of my offspring ever cried so plaintively, as far as I recall (not while I was there to nurture them through their every perceptible need... although my son still complains that I often dressed him in garish and girlish color schemes, scarring him FOR LIFE).
     Besides, I'm distinctly beyond prime delivery age ("Kitchen's closed!" as my mother might say), and my kids had departed the diaper stage by the dawn of the Clinton Administration. Now in their 20s, both are currently living on their own, in not-too-distant cities, although each manages to phone me daily. In fact, to be exact, several times a day, then sometimes text me, too. (That may sound excessive, and emotionally regressive, but I subscribe to the Jewish mother's creed when it comes to conversing with kinder: Too much is never enough.)
     Two demanding decades spent raising two kids who are kind, highly productive and multi-talented, who generally wear clean underwear (as far as I can tell), and who by all visible signs don't detest me are my main credentials for daring to dole out advice in the motherhood department.
     Presenting myself as an authority on all matters Jewish may be trickier to justify.
     Yes, I was raised Jewish and am biologically an unadulterated, undisputable, purebred Yiddisheh mama. I'm known for making a melt-in-your-mouth brisket, not to mention the world's airiest matzah balls this side of Brooklyn. My longtime avocation is writing lyrics for Purim shpiels based on popular Broadway productions, from "South Pers-cific" to "The Zion Queen." Then again, I'm no rabbi or Talmudic scholar. I can't even sing "Hatikvah" or recite the Birkat Hamazon. Raised resoundingly Reform, I don't keep kosher, can barely curse in Yiddish, and haven't set foot in Israel since I was a zaftig teen.
     Even so, as a longtime writer and ever-active mother, I think I have something to say about being Jewish and a mom in these manic and maternally challenging times. I hope something I say means something to you. Welcome to my nice Jewish world!   
In coming weeks, I will continue posting more personal observations, rants, and even recipes (Jewish and otherwise). So keep reading, come back often, and please tell all of your friends, Facebook buddies, and everyone else you know that NiceJewishMom.com is THE BOMB!
The family that eats together (and maybe even Tweets together): That's my son Aidan, me, my daughter Allegra, and Harlan, my husband for more than 26 years, all out for Sunday brunch on a nice summer weekend in New York.

Comments? Questions? Just want to kvetch? Please go to GUESTBOOK/COMMENTS.