I am currently a guest of both the United States government and the Foreign Ministry of Indonesia, participating in an unprecedented encounter, facilitated by New York-based Religions for Peace, between a group of faith leaders from the world’s most powerful nation (that’s us) and the world’s largest Muslim population (that’s them). I am also writing this at 4:30 Tomorrow morning for most of you – isn’t global travel a hoot! Not to mention jet lag, which doesn’t usually get to me, but there is only so far I can go w/o falling prey to it.
I am also writing this as the pre-dawn call to prayer echoes from so many mosques and so many directions that it’s actually overwhelming. It’s powerful, beautiful and makes clear that no matter how secular large swaths of the population are, there is no questioning that this is a Muslim country. It reminds me of Israel.
In fact, the similarities to Israel are striking in that regard – often secular but fiercely Muslim or Jewish, respectively. Ironically, the two countries do not have diplomatic relations with each other, and following the Tsunami some years back, the Indonesians even rejected a great deal of Israeli relief aid. But it need not always be that way, and my attempt to find kosher food in Indonesia points to how we can at least begin to make some positive changes.
So how does one who keeps strictly kosher find food in Indonesia?
The short answer is, they don’t. Having been told by the embassy staff that we should also not eat any fresh fruits of vegetables unless they have a thick skin which we have peeled ourselves, I am especially glad that I brought a bunch of Zone bars along for this two and a half day trip!
What’s amazing is that NOT having kosher food has lead to some fascinating and promising conversations. Upon arrival, we were taken to a formal luncheon where it became clear to the Indonesian Foreign Ministry staffers that I was not eating the vegetarian noodles and other things which they ordered for me (a function of the non-kosher utensils used in their preparation). I was suddenly surrounded!
“Was something wrong”, they asked. They explained that they really had no idea what “kosher” was and went with a meal that would work for a Buddhist. I explained that for my practice, it would not, but that it did not matter. “Why”, they asked.
I asked them if they had ever met a Jew, let alone tried to cater for one. The answer was no, which is not surprising in a country which does not even recognize Judaism as a religion.
I explained to them that I could not care less about the food – that our conversation about kosher, Jewish, being an American Jew, and their experience of being Indonesian Muslims, was far more important. Their efforts to host a person from a tradition about which they knew virtually nothing, and which their government does not even recognize, were quite amazing.
Their efforts had taken them beyond anything they could have ever imagined and I could have even expected. And whether the food was kosher or not, it is that willingness to go beyond ourselves which bridges the divides between us and creates a better world for all of us.
There will be more stories from this trip, but even if there were not, I can honestly say that this would be enough, and I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to be here. Even if I barely know what time it is or which day it is!