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I have just finished a five-week journey to Thailand, Australia and Myanmar with my three children traveling without my husband. I admit that it’s not common for an Orthodox Jewish woman to travel to exotic locations with three kids one of which has special needs. If you think you are surprised you should see what the locals think to see a white woman on her own with three kids. We travel to see the locals and in the end we are as much the entertainment for the locals.
When I mention to friends or family that I am going to places like Myanmar or Ethiopia I get reactions ranging like:
“Isn’t it dangerous?”
“Ugh why are you going to a dirty place?”
“Are you crazy traveling alone”
I love traveling! I enjoy learning about cultures and the sociologist in me truly appreciates getting to know societies and cultures in depth. In our busy daily lives you would simply never stop to gain an in-depth understanding of a country or people. In Ethiopia we went to the Red Museum that detailed the mass killing and systematic torture of 500,000 dissidents, intellectuals and pro-democracy activists. The tour was given with intense raw emotion by a man who was jailed and tortured for eight years. When leaving Temira my 14 year old told me that the whole trip would have been worth it just to see the Museum alone.
When I was promoting a heritage trip to Poland, many people attacked me about taking a group there and supporting the Polish economy. Traveling to Poland taught me that there is so much to the Polish story that sound bites and Facebook posts fail to capture. I was profoundly moved by going to the many mass graves that gave me an opportunity to give Kavod - honor and to say Kaddish for so many souls. Likewise when you truly understand the complexities of Poland’s pre-war politics, the war time suffering they endured, the genocide of the Polish intellectual class and spiritual leadership along with the thousands of righteous gentiles who at extreme risk helped Jews, one gets a different picture than when you read news from a distance. The picture is not black and white but rather colored in innumerable shades of grey. It is much more complicated that trying to apply the simplicity of good or evil.
The Rohinga genocide in Myanmar is very much in the news. Many people questioned how I could travel to a country with a government that supports or at least does nothing to stop the genocide of the Rohinga Muslim minority. I made it my mission to learn about the situation from every taxi driver, tour guide, hotel operator and business owner that I came into contact with. The discussions made me realize how nuanced the situation is. I get so angry with BBC and CNN with their one-sided reporting of Israel. Most people watching CNN would think that the evil Zionist regime targets babies and kills innocent civilians. The absence of the full picture and all the details creates extreme bias. I realized that so too there is so much more to the Myanmar story. Again, not plain back and white, good or evil – shades of grey.
I hope that my kids lean that life is about perspective and nuances and that it’s both a pleasure to travel, experience and learn but most importantly a responsibility to be an educated citizen of the world. To be able to question, learn and understand the nuances.
My privileged kids get to see the world through different lenses. Traveling to countries with different religions gives us all insight into how how religious devotion is absolute. Each religion believes they are the correct worshippers, they may be tolerant of others but their religion is absolute for them. It’s interesting when guides share allegorical stories of Buddha or a Hindu god - I see my kids cynically thinking “You don’t expect me to believe that this is true, do you?”. Then they realize if someone listened to some of our more obscure Midrashic stories they may just have the same reaction.
We live in a world where my children HAVE to have their Shabbat shoes, sports shoes, casual shoes, sandals and hiking shoes. After just one day in a developing country it becomes clear that a simple slip on thong sandal suffices for guiders, trekking sherpas, taxi drivers, builders, boat makers, farmers, fishermen and school kids.
In Columbia in a small village I used google translate and lots of hand gestures to explain to the hotel proprietor that I wanted an extra towel to use as a bathmat. He looked at me like I was crazy. The next day I saw his wife and young kids hand washing and wringing out each towel. My request was simply extravagant in his world.
We have wonderful discussions about media bias, educational standards, family values, how religious beliefs affect culture and politics. Exploring the Cuban Revolution museum in Havana made us realize that we only ever heard one side of the Cuban / USA story and never considered the other view. In Amsterdam we had a thoughtful discussion about Holland’s drug laws and legalized sex-worker industry.
Watching a waitress in Africa separately bringing out each person’s a plate and cutlery and then slowly going back to the kitchen for the next person’s opened an intriguing dialogue about the merits of how education can teach one to be thoughtful and work efficiently (like bringing out a stack of plates and cutlery at one time). We also spoke about how different cultures think of time and urgency and about employment saturation in developing world economies where ten people do the job of one person in our efficient developed world.
I love that travel makes my children think and understand the shades of grey. For Caila who is a visual learner traveling opens up her world in a way that sitting in classroom simply cannot.
We have fun imagining who of our friends and family would survive our hotels and kosher food options. The list of survivors is very short! Although we take a lot of food with us it’s a big shlep, takes a lot of planning and often involves monotonous food options instead of the delicious and interesting local food. Our tuna and crackers often cost more than an interesting local meal in a restuarant. However it constantly reminds us we are Torah-observant Jews. It creates endless opportunities to discuss our religion as people always ask why we can’t eat the food. Gavin and I try beers from around the world instead of the local wine. We have figured out that companies offering local cuisine cooking classes will allow us to buy our own pots and utensils and have them teach us vegetarian recipes. We then donate the pots to poor local villagers.
We are adventurous and have fun. We can be out until midnight watching the World Cup Finals in a backpacker lounge in rural Myanmar and wake at 4am to catch a sunrise boat trip. We try new experiences and seek adventure off the beaten track. We enjoy once-in-a-lifetime experiences, enjoy quality family time and make unforgettable memories. Both older kids told me that they when they had to decide if they should go to their usual sleep-away camp with their friends or travel with me, that it was not a question - they did not want to miss the family adventure.
One thing I know for sure is that my kids know I am a cool Imma and to achieve that status with teenagers is quite a feat.
See link to a previous blog I wrote about traveling.