Jewish joy in Cambodia
It’s a holiday in Cambodia; It’s tough, kid, but it’s life
It’s a holiday in Cambodia; Don’t forget to pack a wife”
— Holiday in Cambodia by The Dead Kennedys
On January 31, 2017, I attended the first Jewish wedding in Cambodian history.
The Cambodian construction workers across the street momentarily put down their nail guns, rested their welders, and leaned forward on their scaffold. We must have looked like quite the curiosity to them. There were nearly 80 of us seated on elegantly decorated chairs on the rooftop of the Chabad house in Phnom Penh. We were separated by gender, of course, the women wearing elegant sundresses and the men a motley arrangement of what passes for wedding attire in a tropical climate.
At that moment, all eyes were on the bride, resplendent in a simple elegant white dress. She had just made her way up the aisle, and was beginning to walk the traditional seven circles around the groom. Almost nobody at the wedding knew the bride or the groom personally, but it felt natural to be there to celebrate them.
I wondered if this was similar to the weddings of my own ancestors in Ukraine. Perhaps they too were community-wide events meant to celebrate the continuity of the Jewish people, just as much as the bride and groom beneath the chuppah.
Most of the guests at the wedding that night were Jewish expats, who lived and worked in Cambodia and made the Chabad house their second home. Many, in fact, had attended more Shabbat dinners during their brief stay in Cambodia than they had in their entire lives previously.
The cast of characters included Martin, a veteran of the American legal system, who came to Phnom Penh to share his experience with the fledgling Cambodian courts. There was also Dara, a journalist who works on the communal processing of traumatic collective memory, and Eli, who runs a series of factories that set the standard for worker treatment and labor conditions in Cambodia. I was in Phnom Penh to conduct research on the prosecutions of the genocidal khmer rouge leaders.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, I was about as far away from home as geographically possible. But Rabbi Butman’s Ashkenazi enunciations and rhythms as he made his way through the prayers reminded me of my earliest memories in the synagogue. As a small child, even when I couldn’t understand what was being said or why, I took comfort in the knowledge that Jewish communities across the world were saying it too. And that’s what made it important.
Very few expats in Cambodia bother to learn the language, but Rabbi Butman and his wife Mashie have. Fun fact: According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Cambodian boasts the longest alphabet of any living language with 74 letters.
Rabbi Butman’s daily life is not all joyous occasions. He visits the Phnom Penh hospital weekly and scrolls the patient lists for Jewish sounding names that may have been admitted for drug overdose or alcohol poisoning or other indiscretions. When he finds such a person, he encourages them to come to Chabad for a hot meal and a judgment-free conversation about taking better care of themselves.
Not unlike the Jewish people, Cambodia remains a nation of contradictions; it is a desperately poor country populated by warm people with easy smiles. The enormous temples of Northern Cambodia continue to pay tribute to the mighty Khmer emperors centuries after their demise. The many faced temple at Bayon is unnerving and inspiring. The labyrinth of Ta Phrom is a unique example of nature reclaiming man’s handiwork. The trees have grown through the stone walls for so many centuries, that it is sometimes difficult to tell what are tree roots and what is man-made.
Of course, the most famous temple in Cambodia, the colossal edifice of Angkor Wat impresses with its sheer scale. But sadly, the temples are not all there is to see in Cambodia. In Phnom Penh, the nation’s capital, no itinerary would be complete without visits to the chilling Khmer Rouge prison and torture facility, Toul Sleng, or the killing fields at Cheung Ek.
Somehow smack in the middle of this slowly healing nation, a group of Jews, most of whom had come to help Cambodia regenerate, were performing an ancient ritual.
The guests that evening shared the pride of being a part of the Jewish story. We danced the horah, lifted the happy couple on chairs, and sang the seven blessings. And we knew that while a wedding like this had never occurred in Cambodia, the very act of bringing together a community in a foreign country to celebrate a happy couple was precisely what our ancestors would have done.
In a few weeks, Chabad of Cambodia will be hosting an upshern (ritual haircutting) for Moishe Butman, Bentzion and Mashie’s first child to be born in Cambodia. Notes of congratulation can be sent to: [email protected]
David Benger is a Brandeis University alumnus and a Schwarzman Scholar in Beijing.