Chanukkah in Sumatra

A few things to know before reading:

  • In Indonesia, there are six officially recognized religions. Judaism isn’t one of them.
  • According to Wikipedia and Google, there are just a handful of Jews left in Indonesia, and they live either in Java or a remote part of Sulawesi. Not on Sumatra.
  • Israelis are not allowed to visit Indonesia on an Israeli passport.

Upon arriving in Berastagi, I immediately met an American couple at my guesthouse who invited me to join them on a trip to the local hot springs. On the way, I found out that Ady (Arkady) and Tanya are from New York, are both Jewish, and that Arkady was born in Russia (of course). They also graduated from SUNY Binghamton, my mom’s university. A chance encounter of Russian-American Jews in the middle of Sumatra on the third night of Chanukkah… we decided we should celebrate and say shehechiyanu that evening.

After sitting in a local minivan for an hour waiting for it to fill up with passengers, we were finally off to the hot springs (more like hot swimming pools) – there are several of them in Berastagi thanks to the nearby volcanoes. We soaked for a while and were ready to go around six. Unfortunately, six is also when the last bus heads back to town, and we missed it. So we walked along the road and saw a (nice, new) pickup truck approaching.

Ady: Can you take us… (gesturing with his hands to make it look like an intersection)?

Driver: (blank stare)

Ady: You go, main road?

Driver: We’re going to Berastagi, I’m not sure what you mean by that thing you did but we can take you to town if that’s where you’re going.

He has excellent English.

Driver’s two friends make room for us girls in the cab, Ady gets in the bed of the pickup. We take off.

Driver: So, where are you from?

Tanya and me: America…

Driver: How long have you been traveling?

Tanya: We’ve been in Sumatra a week.

Me: I’ve been here for two weeks…

Driver: Ah, so you’re traveling on your own?

Me: Yeah.. I’m just traveling with them today.

Driver: So… are you all Jewish? 

Umm… what?! 

Tanya: Uh… yeah… we all are.

Me: Umm… how did you know?

Driver: (laughing) Only I will know this. Because I’m the same as you. I’m a Jewish!

The driver looks like a typical Sumatran. This is crazy. Tanya and I raise our eyebrows and exchange glances, while he laughs and chats with his friends in Indonesian.

Me: Really? Wow… what’s your name?

Driver: Gidon! In English, that’s Gideon.

Me: That’s a Hebrew name. Where did you get a Hebrew name??

Gidon: I told you, I’m a Hebrew! So what kind of Jewish are you, crypto? Or Ashkenaz?

Ok, what? Could he be for real?

Us: Yeah, Ashkenazi…

Gidon: So you study the Talmud? The Torah? I know other Jewish here. They are all crypto – secret Jews. I also know some from Switzerland, they live in Berastagi. You could meet them – they can give you wine from Israel, Carmel wine.  You know Rothschild?


Over the course of the conversation, we determine that Gidon (if his story holds true) had at least one Dutch Jewish ancestor, is pretty well off after working as a “trader” all over the world (like all Jews, he said), and that his 21-year-old daughter recently traveled to Japan. Gidon says Jews are everywhere; he knows all about the Israeli backpackers in Thailand, India and Australia, and says he has encountered “plenty” here in Sumatra who are traveling on secondary passports. (Side note: I’m convinced that if diplomatic ties were ever fixed between Israel and Indonesia, the country would be teeming with Israelis in a matter of months.) He tells us we shouldn’t always say we’re Jewish here, other people may not understand. He also says he knew we were Jewish because he smelled [sensed?] it.

We soon get to town, bid Gidon and his friends goodbye and jump out of the truck to process the crazy encounter (and tell Ady about it). We stop in a convenience store to find candles and the ones they have are small and colorful, perfect for Chanukkah. Back at the guesthouse, we stick them to a ledge on the roof with melted wax and light them over the city of Berastagi, North Sumatra.

We end the night eating cucumber sandwiches with mayonnaise (Russian zakuski), drinking vodka cocktails with mangosteen and playing durak and Yaniv with a new set of cards.

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