In what has become an annual tradition, hundreds of Israeli travelers gather in Nepal to celebrate Passover -- with plenty of kosher wine.
KATHMANDU, Nepal -- It was three hours to sundown before the first night of Passover and the kitchen in this Kathmandu hotel was a steamy mess. Bath tub-sized pots bubbled with matzo ball soup, 900 chicken hunks in lava-like tomato sauce, and the googly eyes of a thousand boiled eggs.
Nepali helpers wearing flip-flops and shalwar kameez grated long fingers of horseradish and cut cauliflower into snowy mounds. Plastic barrels overflowed with cabbages resembling pale green bowling balls. Young Israeli volunteers in cargo pants and Teva sandals sliced squash into orange arcs.
The night before, a team of them had chopped onions and peeled vegetables until one in the morning to help prepare the world's largest Passover Seder, which takes place in Nepal's capital. More than a thousand guests, mostly Israeli backpackers who flock to Nepal after their military service, were expected for the holiday dinner that commemorates the Jewish exodus from ancient Egypt.
Alon David, 24 with dark hair pulled into a ponytail, was volunteering for his second Passover Seder in Nepal. "If you're not in Israel, you should still make the atmosphere," he said, squinting through oniony tears.
I minced cautiously over the kitchen floor, which was dangerously slick with water, grease and food scraps. Cauldrons of oil boiled menacingly at knee level on extra gas burners set on the floor. Big plastic basins, the kind used to wash clothes or babies, were piled high with diced purple onions and tomatoes.
The chef, a 23-year-old Israeli with bright blue eyes, needed another kosher pot. A young rabbinical student from France wearing a kippa skullcap fired up a blowtorch attached to a large gas tank. Israel Negar, also 23, zapped a cauldron to incinerate any traces of leavened ingredients, forbidden to eat during the eight days of Passover, which ends this Saturday.
Aviv Hayun, the chef, had another problem. The oven hadn't been made kosher. How, then, to keep the food warm? "Where to put a thousand people's food?" he lamented. Moments later, the kitchen plunged into darkness. Kathmandu, plagued by 12-hour power cuts, had shut out the electricity unexpectedly.
When the hotel's generator kicked in, the cooks resumed their race against sundown. Hayun works in catering in Israel, so the dinner wasn't his largest event. "But it is the biggest mess I've seen," he sighed, pushing back his hair.
The 1,100 people who attended the Seder in the hotel's cavernous, chandelier-lit ballroom enjoyed endless plates of food - seven kinds of salad, curried potatoes, stewed vegetables, fish, soup, chicken -- that emerged from the kitchen. It was a massive guest list for a dinner that is usually celebrated intimately at home. (In addition to young backpackers, some older Israelis and families attended too).
Celebrants faced the extra challenge of making a kitchen kosher in third world conditions, not to mention getting Passover supplies and kosher ingredients to Nepal from Israel and the U.S. This year, 1,000 bottles of kosher wine, 1,100 pounds of matzo, 150 pounds of salami, 180 pounds of oil, hundreds of cans and jars of gefilte fish, tuna, olives, pickles, and other kosher fare arrived from Israel and New York days before Passover.
Each year, a container of kosher supplies departs Israel a few months before Passover. It travels by ship through the Suez Canal, chugs around Sri Lanka, and arrives in the ports of Kolkata. From India, the goods are trucked to Nepal.
In the days of Nepal's 10-year civil war from 1996 to 2006, trucks of matzo en route to Kathmandu were routinely stopped by rebel and government roadblocks. One time, rickety Nepali trucks broke down and kosher supplies had to be helicoptered to Kathmandu in time for the holiday.
The tradition of the Kathmandu Seder begins with the steady influx of young Israeli backpackers. They usually travel after their required stint in the army, from age 18 to 21, and before university. About 10,000 Israelis visit Nepal each year, said Hanan Goder, Israeli ambassador to Nepal, in a phone interview. They tend to travel in groups, often for months at a time, and are a close-knit community. Israeli influence is apparent in Nepal, from restaurants that serve hummus and falafel alongside rice and dal, to the aspirated sounds of Hebrew commonly heard in tourist areas.
There are two other seders in Nepal for Israeli and Jewish travelers. One is in Pokhara, a city popular with tourists and trekkers at the base of the Annapurna Circuit. The other Seder is in Manang, up in the Annapurna Circuit, 3,540 meters high in the Himalayas. Boxes of matzo, wine, and other provisions were helicoptered to trekkers in Manang from Kathmandu.