In the last few months, London-based American comic Lynn Ruth Miller (who recently turned 85) has been gigging in Prague, Dublin, Berlin, Paris, Edinburgh, San Francisco and Manila. Coming up are gigs in Shanghai, Beijing, Singapore, Hong Kong, Hanoi, Bangkok and, she says, “possibly somewhere in Cambodia”.
But last weekend, betwixt Manila and Shanghai, she writes…
I was in Jakarta, Indonesia. It was hot and wet. A characteristic I gave up when I hit sixty. I arrived at 11.00am their time and the first thing that struck me was how really lovely the airport was. It was amazing how easy it was to navigate compared to Manila, which was a nightmare.
Indonesians like old ladies and I was swept through Immigration so easily I thought I missed a window and someone would make me turn around and start all over again.
David, the pastor for youth I met while waiting for the plane, was there at baggage collection to help me with my bag and used his phone to contact Eamonn Sadler, who books comedy at The American Club in Jakarta.
I had had approximately two hours sleep on the plane and was not at my best as I staggered out of Immigration and tried to find Eamonn. But there he was towering above everyone else in that airport looking down at the top of my head.
I just about reached his kneecap and I knew he was thinking: ”I hired a comedian, not a pygmy.”
But he is British so he just nodded politely (at least I think he did. I couldn’t see that far up), asked me if I was all right (at least I think he did; my hearing aids were in my bag), took my case and I toddled after him taking fourteen steps to his one.
As soon as we walked outside I was smacked in the face with hot, wet air.
Even Manila is cool compared to Jakarta. But, indoors, the air conditioning is very efficient and for some reason you don’t feel that blast of cold air when you are inside.
The ride from Jakarta Airport took about two and a half hours. Obviously no-one in the place uses his or her feet and everyone has large, cumbersome, air-conditioned automobiles with which they enjoy trying to get as close to one another without actually denting a fender. Bicycles and motorbikes weave in and out between the cars making everyone hate them.
The traffic department decided to build brick barriers in the middle of the street so no-one can make a right turn. So you have to do a U-turn at intersections if you can. But the roads are like parking lots and nothing moves.
When we pulled up to the entrance of the Liberta hotel, Eamonn stopped the car and I got out thinking we had arrived at our destination. But this was only for a routine inspection. There was a wave of terrorist attacks in Surabaya (Indonesia’s second largest city) last May and there is heightened security in Jakarta because of that and because they hosted the Asian Games.
Foreigners are often targets, which is why most expats have a night watchman to guard their property and all public buildings conduct routine inspections on every car that enters their premises.
By the time I got to my hotel room, I was in a coma of fatigue. I crawled into bed and slept until 7.00pm, when we drove to The American Club.
Since The American Club is part of the American Embassy complex in Jakarta, the security is even more intense there.
The thing I liked about the show, which had about seven acts, was that Eamonn established immediately that comedy is meant to be fun, not politically correct and everyone on the bill deserved to be listened to without interruption.
Even so, I was terrified that I would say something that offended someone or would go on for hours without that laugh all of us in this profession lap up like manna from heaven. Or that the local audience would not get the jokes. But they did. They laughed and they clapped and they all joined in the song that ended my set.
At the end of my performance, Eamonn came on stage with… yes… ANOTHER BIRTHDAY CAKE and flowers. This birthday celebration of mine seems to go on and on and on. If I keep getting all those cakes, I will probably explode before I am 86 or won’t fit into the coffin.
After the show, Naomi and Eric welcomed me on behalf of Jakarta’s Jewish community.
It turns out that there are about 20 Jewish families in Jakarta in this predominately Muslim country. It is estimated that there are about another 20,000 descendants of Jews who have assimilated and are part of greater Indonesia.
Indonesians must carry an identity card that states their religion and, since Judaism is not one of the seven they recognize, most Jews say they are Christian.
Those who practice Judaism keep a very low profile. It is not easy to be Jewish in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country and it is even harder this year, as anti-Semitic sentiment has grown since Donald Trump moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a holy place to both Jews and Muslims as well as Christians. Every time there is a Palestinian/Israeli conflict, anti-Semitism flares up in Indonesia.
When I realized how dangerous it is to be Jewish in so many countries, I began to understand why the synagogues in Stamford Hill, London, where I now live, are so hidden that I have lived there for two years and only now have begun to discover where they are located. All of them are set far back from the street, heavily gated and even more heavily guarded.
I personally have never encountered overt anti-Semitism and so I have never taken it very seriously but, when I met these lovely people in Jakarta who dare not openly practice their faith, I realized how deeply imbedded hatred of the Jews actually is, not just in Indonesia but worldwide.
The next afternoon, Joe and Rheysa took me to Jakarta’s version of an Italian restaurant: Mama Rosy’s.
It turned out that Rheysa once worked for L’Oreal and now she puts on a great deal of make up to look like she has no make up on at all. She explained the procedure for the ‘Natural Look’ that begins with ironing her hair and continues with darkeners and lighteners, blushers and intensifiers to make her look like the natural beauty she is in the first place.
It occurred to me that I should follow her advice but iron my face instead of my hair. However, I gave up that idea before we got to our coffee. I have not so much as ironed a napkin in sixty years.
After lunch, we drove through the city and I was struck by how crowded the streets are, how dense the concentration of people and how little actual green space. The houses seem to be packed tightly next to one another and the streets are narrow, lined with tiny shops and street food vendors. It was a very different feel from Manila with its very tall streamlined buildings and wide highways. It reminded me a lot of Bangkok.
That night I had arranged to go to Naomi and Eric’s home for dinner to meet their three children and have dinner. When I got into Eric’s car, I entered a totally different world. He and Naomi have lived in Jakarta for 17 years.
His home is modern and spacious and they have seven servants, as do most of the well-to-do in Jakarta. They have drivers for the children, plus cooks, cleaners and gardeners. They are a part of an ex-pat community that does so well in this part of the world. Both are originally from the United States and after they married lived in Singapore for a while and loved it.
In fact, Naomi still works in Singapore several days a week and both of them do a great deal of travel. That is why they need so much domestic help.
Yet they are trying to keep up the Jewish traditions we all learned growing up. I too observed those holidays and, of course, loved the special foods: the challah, the gefilte fish, the bagels and the chicken soup. Those things are as much part of being Jewish as observing the Sabbath.
China is next!!!! Not the dinnerware; the country.
But I got a message this morning from Andy Curtain who runs the Kung Fu Comedy Cub in Shanghai that the government had closed down the club.
In China, there are all kinds of intricacies with licensing and permits that are only occasionally enforced. So it seems I am going to Shanghai with nothing much to do but explore the city…
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