Asia might not see as much Jewish travel as Europe and the U.S., but the gap is narrowing. Every year, more Jewish and kosher resources are available at destinations across the vast continent, from the antiquities of the Caucasus antiquities to the beaches of Southeast Asia.
Asia-Jewish experts praise the region’s historical lack of anti-Semitism, along with abundant vegetarian-friendly cultures that are comfortable for observant Jewish travelers. And then there’s the simple reality that Asia is a huge, diverse continent whose surprising pockets of Jewish heritage remain largely unknown to Americans. For experienced Europe travelers, Asia represents a series of frontiers.
For retirees with time on their hands and a sense of adventure in their hearts, here are some of the newest ways to experience the East from a Jewish perspective:
Kosher comfort along the Great Wall
Next year in Shanghai? Passover in China has been a surprise hit for Kesher Tours, a family-owned, New York-based kosher travel outfit. Spokesperson Tzipor Gabbay said China is the newest destination for 34-year-old Kesher, and so far, it’s among the most popular, both for the holiday and otherwise. “You know what people love? Everything is big over there,” Gabbay said with a laugh. “The rooms are big, the meals are big, everything is big.”
China is more welcoming than ever for American Jewish travelers, Gabbay added. The country’s booming economy has attracted a recent influx of foreigners — including numerous American Jews, Israelis and Jewish exchange students — who, along with new Chabad houses, have enhanced local Jewish life. As the communist nation has liberalized, travelers are getting a warmer welcome, Gabbay said, with fewer regulations and more touristic (even kosher!) infrastructure.
Visitors are unfailingly wowed by the forests of skyscrapers and dizzying architectural mosaic of Shanghai, whose 26 million people make it the world’s largest city; less known is its Jewish quarter, a refuge for Europeans fleeing the Holocaust. Kesher travelers cruise the HangPu River, take China’s famous bullet train to Hangzhou, fly over the Karst Mountains and scale Mount Yao by cable car for one of China’s most Instagrammable views. They also shop the markets in ethnic villages, stroll the Great Wall and ogle imperial sculptures in Beijing, the capital.
Shabbat is a day to chill in the parks with locals doing tai chi and playing badminton. Despite having more than a billion people, “China is really safe,” Gabbay noted. “There’s not much crime.”
In Thailand, Jewish amenities on the beach
Thailand has no shortage of Jewish visitors. But until a few years ago, it had virtually no kosher hotels. That changed when the Centra (officially the Centra by Centara Avenue Hotel) opened, in Pattaya, a beach resort about 90 minutes south of Bangkok, the capital city. Centra is among the few places in Asia where travelers won’t need reservations to ensure a hot kosher meal. They also don’t have to worry about securing a room on a low floor; the eight-story lodging has a Shabbat elevator (and a menorah in the lobby, at least part of the year).
A spokesman for Bangkok-based Centara Hotels & Resorts told me Israelis are the main clientele for Centra’s on-site kosher restaurant and synagogue. A quick scroll through online reviews reveals that more than a few Russian Jews are also taking advantage of Centra’s rooftop pool, tropical landscaping and other perks.
Tikkun olam in India, through the eyes of a Jewish native
Each November, Long Island-based writer Rahel Musleah offers travelers a uniquely intimate glimpse into her family’s Indian-Jewish heritage — a legacy that is slipping away, as fewer Jews remain in Musleah’s native Calcutta.
Along with Joshua Shapurkar, a member of Mumbai’s Bene Israel community, Musleah leads Jewish heritage trips with Explore Jewish India. Jewish tours of the subcontinent are proliferating, but few offer the personalized take of Musleah: She leads Shabbat services at Calcutta’s Maghen David Synagogue, where her father — the descendant of Baghdadis who arrived in 1820 — was once the rabbi.
The group dines in flower-scented courtyards with Jewish community members, learns about notable Indian Jews like the Sassoon family (the “Rothschilds of the East”), rides elephants and plays with peacocks. Touring historic synagogues, the Americans are often joined by local school groups — because in multiethnic India, the 2000-year-old Jewish legacy is considered national patrimony, Musleah said.
New for 2020 is a tikkun olam-themed social justice tour; highlights include the 100-member Jewish community of Ahmedabad — a UNESCO World Heritage city — and Rajasthan, a region that includes the palaces of Jaipur.
“There’s so much religion in India, and yet so little anti-Semitism,” observed Musleah. Another perk for Jewish travelers: India’s tradition of vegetarianism means that most kitchens “have never seen meat,” said Musleah (hotels typically have separate kitchens for meat and vegetable dishes). With gastronomy a highlight of Indian tourism, Musleah added, “people won’t feel they’ve missed out on cuisine just because it’s a Jewish tour.”
India will always be fascinating, of course, but Musleah urges those interested in Jewish heritage to visit now — “while there’s still a chance to interact with members of the community,” she explained. “And to bring life, and music, and prayer to the beautiful and magnificent places that remain.”
From Mongolia to Singapore, all in kosher style
Pacific Delight Tours, an Asia travel specialist, has been coordinating kosher tours for decades in conjunction with China-based Lotus Tours and Rabbi Marvin Tokayer, the much-revered specialist in Jewish Asia (and the author of more than a dozen books on the topic).
New Lotus offers a kosher window onto destinations that are rarely explored by Americans. Summer 2020 brings an itinerary that will include Mongolia, Manchuria, Siberia and South Korea. Upcoming Southeast Asia tours include not only traveler favorites Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, but also less-visited Singapore, home to a sizable Jewish expat community (PJ Library has a program here!) and Myanmar.
Lotus also offers a Jewish India Experience tour with Professor Nathan Katz and his writer-photographer wife Ellen Goldberg, who have lived, traveled and written about Indian Jewish life for decades. The tour includes big-city Jewish communities in Mumbai, Kolkata, Kochi and New Delhi; little-known rural Jewish settlements; and immersive cultural activities like traditional music, dance and spice markets.