For the Wandering: Seder Finder

Many years ago, I was living in a very small town in central Austria. It was spring, and for those of my (personally tenuous) faith, this means Passover. Passover is my favorite Jewish holiday. It combines good food and a story that I interpret as being about travel at its heart. It’s the annual retelling of the story of Exodus – the flight of the Jews from their oppression by Egyptian pharaohs, their miraculous crossing of the Red Sea and their entry into the Holy Land. It’s fun, too; there are games and songs and plenty of wine. it’s the only holiday I’ll go out of my way to celebrate. In this small town in Austria, I was devastated with the possibility that there would be no Seder. There were, after all, no Jews nearby. In a move that was either hopeful or desperate, I emailed the nearest synagogue, approximately 125 miles away in Graz, explained my situation and asked if they were hosting a community Seder. “I apologize for not writing in German, but do feel free to respond in German; I can read well enough; I just can’t write.”

The answer I received was in English from an American expat who’d grown up not far from where I lived as a small child. “Yes, we have a community Seder, but why don’t you just come to my house? Really, I mean it, you would be very welcome.”We went, and it was as I expected, which is to say nothing short of magical. It was all the familiar things: the story, the laughing, the strangers who genuinely feel like friends after a long evening at the table sharing this thread that binds us all together no matter where we are from.

I’d started my hunt for a Seder with Chabad’s Seder Finder. I don’t know that it’s the most comprehensive, but it’s international. While Chabad is too conservative for me, it’s as good place as any to begin your search. Contacting the closest synagogue is a good way to go, as is Hillel – the Jewish student organization – if there’s a university near you. There’s also @globalrabbi — send a tweet for help connecting to a nearby Seder. It’s worth the minimal bother — a Seder with strangers in a far away place is a memorable and moving experience.

I had blogged about my Graz Seder experience, and now, nearly every year, I get an email from a Seder stray asking me for help in finding their own. I always answer and include an invitation to my table, should the stray end up in my hometown. This year, the message came from a man from Berlin looking for contacts in Graz. By the time I replied, he’d received an invitation to a stranger’s home. With his heartfelt holiday greetings, he returned my invitation. “Should you be in Berlin for the holiday, ever, any time, you are welcome at our table as well. And happy holidays!”

[Photo: Passover Table by atl10trader via Flickr (Creative Commons)]

Visiting Synagogues Around The World

Places of worship have long been points of interest for travelers. Solemn and usually quite ornate, these buildings provide a window onto a community’s history and values and often give visitors a much-needed pause while pounding the sightseeing pavement. Cathedrals are typical for this kind of touring. But have you ever thought to pay a visit to a synagogue?

My fascination with exploring synagogues began on a trip to Willemstad, Curaçao, home of Mikvé Israel-Emanuel, the oldest active Jewish congregation in the Americas built in 1651. Several years later, I had the opportunity to visit the Paradesi Synagogue in Cochin, Kerala, India. Constructed in 1568, it is the oldest “active” synagogue in India – “active” because there are fewer than 20 Jews left in Cochin, most having emigrated to Israel. Coincidentally, I learned about the Jews of Cochin from an exhibit at the 6th and I Synagogue, a historic synagogue in Washington, DC, that is now used primarily as a community center and arts space.

The Jewish diaspora is thriving in many parts of the world. Yet in places like Cochin and Mumbai, the local Jewish community is dwindling, giving impetus to visiting some synagogues before they are shuttered or left to become museums. The following are some of the synagogues I have seen or wish to explore on my travels.


Retail therapy: Istanbul ShoppingFest begins March 18

Every year, many people visit Istanbul to shop in the historic Grand Bazaar to haggle over carpets, Turkish tea glasses, and souvenir t-shirts. But most locals do their shopping in Istanbul’s many malls, markets, high streets like Istiklal near Taksim Square and Bağdat on the Asian side, and neighborhoods such as posh Nişantaşı and funky Çukurcuma. This year, from March 18 to April 26, travelers can take advantage of the best of all worlds with the first Istanbul ShoppingFest, also celebrating the 550th birthday of the Grand Bazaar. For 40 days, shoppers can get special discounts and win prizes, shop late into the night (with bigger discounts after 10pm), and be entertained with performances and events. Each Saturday, one mall each on the European and Asian sides will stay open until 2am, and all malls will be open until 11pm daily during the fest. In addition to sale prices, foreign travelers can get tax back on purchases at various malls around the city and enter raffles with each 40 TL (about $25 USD) spent.

Already established in India, Singapore, and Dubai in usual sale seasons, Istanbul’s promotion will hold a special draw as discounts will apply to new season merchandise and take place over several major holidays including Easter, Passover, and Iranian Nowruz. With this festival, Turkey hopes to carry over some of the momentum from last year’s European Capital of Culture designation, and become the destination of choice for travelers from nearby countries such as Russia, Iran, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Saudi Arabia, Greece, Rumania, Syria and Iraq.

Check out more details and events at and follow their Facebook page and Twitter @istshopfest. See also the March issue of Time Out Istanbul in English for feature guides to the fest and the Grand Bazaar.

[Photo courtesy Flickr user antonystanley]

South Florida hotels offer Passover packages

What’s a Jewish family to do when Passover falls during Spring Break and all the flights to Florida are packed with college kids eating carbs?

While the debacherous enjoy their binge, some South Florida hotels are offering Passover packages to help families celebrate the ancient Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, while on vacation.

Our friends at the Miami Herald scoured South Beach (and beyond) and found hotels offering “Passover without the hassle” packages. For the thousands of religious families who make their own trek from New York to Miami every year, these hotel offerings are a great way to combine faith and festivity.

The Fontainebleau Resort in Miami Beach is serving kosher cocktails, gourmet sushi lunches and elaborate dinners perfect for a Passover feast while keeping in the tradition of no leavened bread or grains. Other hotels offering Passover packages include the Biltmore in Coral Gables, which the Herald reports is completely booked for 600 Passover guests; the Hyatt Regency Bonaventure in Weston, which will host 1,000 Passover vacationers; the Doral Golf Resort and Spa; and the Fairmont Turnberry Isle Resort in Aventura.

Sipping kosher wine never tasted so good.

A Passover Seder in Taiwan (and other places)

One of the more interesting aspects of living in another country, I think, is going to a cultural event that is not part of ones own culture or the culture of the host country. In each place I’ve lived, there have been people from other countries who are also transplants who have brought aspects of their own cultures with them. Such was the case with the Passover Seder I went to at the American Club in Taipei. I’m not Jewish, but a good friend that I taught with in Hsinchu is, and she asked if I wanted to go.

The American Club was merely the location of the event. One didn’t have to be an American to go, or a member of the American Club. There were Jewish folks from all over the world. If I hadn’t been living in Taiwan, I wouldn’t have had this experience–not because there haven’t been Seders that I could have gone to before this, but because it’s so easy to become routine in ones habits. Living overseas gets one out of the routine and, at least to me, opens up other possibilities for cultural exchange.

With Passover coming up, April 19-27, I was reminded of this experience. Here’s a Web site of the Chabad-Lubavitch where you can find Seders to attend all over the world, as well as, a variety of activities and info about Passover. The International Seder Finder lists 2,000 Seders. This link leads to descriptions of the cultural significance of each of the foods shown in the picture.