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Feasting with the Living and the Dead
How yahrzeit is observed in Vietnam
Dr. Nir Avieli - 
Feasting with the Living and the Dead - How yahrzeit is observed in Vietnam

Montreal - Thursday, October 22, 2015

In the Jewish tradition it is customary to say kaddish, light a yahrzeit candle and give tzedakah when marking the anniversary of the death of a family member. In Vietnam, a country without any one predominant religion, where Buddhism, Taoism and/or Confucianism are practised by a relatively small percentage of the population, the universal custom to mark this anniversary is the preparation and consumption of a special meal – the Ancestor Worship Meal. This ritual may be seen as the true religion of Vietnam.

Dr. Nir Avieli of Ben-Gurion University’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology shared the complexities of this religious observance at a lecture in Montreal on Oct. 22. He noted that though food is the one cultural artifact that becomes a part of every human being, language fails to adequately describe tastes and the experience of eating. Years of fieldwork in the town of Hoi An in Vietnam have contributed to his understanding and appreciation of the food of that country, and how the food consumed in the Ancestor Worship Meal symbolizes the main tenets of Vietnamese culture.

In a society where the typical daily meals involve mostly rice, a small amount of fish-derived protein, greens and some kind of vegetable-based broth, the Ancestor Worship meal is lavish, colourful and rich in meat. This meal, which is held on the anniversary of the date of death of the departed, is intended for the extended family and is meant to promote happiness, prosperity and longevity. An altar is decorated and laden with a variety of foods as well as slips of paper printed with images of the necessities of life - clothing, money (US dollars), etc. - since it is believed that the ancestor, whose world is frozen, depends on the living for sustenance needed to exist in the parallel world. These papers are burnt; as the smoke rises it carries these goods to the departed. Everyone waits until the ancestor has finished eating before beginning the feast. Clearly social life continues after death.

The table closest to the altar is designated for the senior men of the family, who are served first, the next table for the senior women, and so on, with genders mixing at the farther tables and children at the perimeter. The senior men tend to neither eat nor speak, since silence is considered a virtue and eating a sign of weakness. This is not the case at the tables farther away from the altar, as food and beer are consumed with gusto. Women do the food preparation, squatting to chop and cook at fires in kitchens that lack ventilation. Women and children serve the meal. The meal, including the food preparation, takes eight hours; however the actual religious rite lasts only about fifteen minutes – Nir pointed out that this is also the pattern of a typical Jewish wedding.

Nir explained how certain animals are greatly respected in Vietnam because they represent cultural values. For example, the pig is admired because it thrives on garbage, grows quickly and ultimately provides rich and flavourful meat; the value of thriftiness is of great importance in Vietnam. A parallel was drawn with carp, also able to survive on waste and prized for its fat flesh, and a staple of certain varieties of Jewish cuisine. Chickens and ducks, also respected because they do not waste a grain of rice, are served whole surrounded by their eggs. Long noodles represent long life. The French influence is seen in the baguettes, the use of beef and the preparation of charcuterie. Fish sauce, based on fermented anchovies, is omnipresent.

The lecture, enhanced by fascinating photos, was followed by a lively question period and the consumption of a selection of Vietnamese and Jewish foods.

CABGU is grateful to Congregation Dorshei Emet for helping to make this event possible.

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