In the heart of Cambodia’s bustling capitol Phnom Penh, a ceremony was about to begin at the prestigious Le Royal hotel. The name of the hotel was fitting for this particular affair; the guests of honor were primarily of Cambodian royal descent. As they stood in the plush gardens, their eyes were turned to the center of the resort’s swimming pool where a newly-built bridge glistened under a darkening Cambodian sky. On the bridge stood the Karoghli family, faces stark and serious beneath the string
of outdoor lighting as they looked back at the rippling waters that separated them from the crowd.
This ceremony was not one of the usual Buddhist festivities popular in the Cambodian capital. For this event, the artifact of choice was a human-sized menorah with eight silver branches reaching toward the heavens. The Karoghli family was clustered behind it, and then, as the crowd around the pool leaned forward with curious eyes, they recited the brachah and lifted their arms to kindle the flames.
This moment on the bridge was the start of an evening honoring Elior Karoghli, the great-granddaughter of King Monivong, who ruled Cambodia until his death in 1941.
The reason for the celebration?
Elior’s bas mitzvah, celebrated together with her mother’s extended royal family in Cambodia.
What brought a Cambodian princess to embrace a life of Torah, and what motivated her to return with her frum family to celebrate her daughter’s bas mitzvah?
These are the questions I am thinking about when I call Sathsowi Thay/Susie/Sarah Bracha Karoghli—Elior’s mother—a woman whose many names chart the intriguing journey she has traveled in her lifetime.
Elior’s bas mitzvah in the land of Susie’s royal heritage is like the climax of that journey. It is the culmination of her travels to foreign locations on the map and within her soul, spreading her newfound light in the very place where her journey began.
“After the menorah lighting, we went into the ballroom for the rest of the event,” Susie tells me. “There was food we had catered in the kitchen of Chabad of Cambodia by a chef flown in from Israel, photos, and a sweet ceremony where Elior said something about each family member, and then they came up to the stage to light a candle. Then Elior played several songs on the piano, and as she played, a slideshow reflected photos of her life—images of the kings and queens whom we descend from, pictures of my husband’s Persian family, and then finally pictures of who we are today, leading a frum life in Las Vegas.”
Having never seen anything like this before, the royal family was deeply moved by the event.
“One of the people in attendance was a Cambodian philanthropist, and she came to my hotel room afterward to thank me for inviting her. ‘I have never seen anything like this my life,’ she told me. For the next ten days, she kept asking to join us at our family dinners, just to spend more time with us.”
It wasn’t just the bas mitzvah. For the ten days that the Karoghlis spent in Cambodia, touring the historical palaces and sites that had been in Susie’s family for centuries, they continued to spread their light in a country devoid of holiness.
“We had an audience with his majesty King Norodom Sihamoni and the queen mother, Queen Norodom Monineath, in the beautiful palace where they live. The king is my mother’s great-nephew—his father’s mother and my mother were sisters—and the queen mother had been a close friend of my mother’s when they were young children. The king and queen don’t have much involvement in the government; their main focus is on the people of Cambodia, and they are highly respected. Throughout the years, whenever a family member would travel to Cambodia, the queen would send regards to my mother and ask about her. Today, my mother suffers from dementia, which is probably why we were able to take her along on the trip without her being afraid of going back—a fear she has had since the Khmer Rouge killed so many of her family members during and after the Cambodian civil war.