BillionPlusOne: Shanghai Jews
I had been looking forward to Rosh Hashanah in China since before I left. What would it be like? Where would I attend services? Are there even Jews there? So when Yael and I agreed to meet in Shanghai in September I did some research online. I learned that Shanghai Jewry has a rich history: hundreds of Baghdadi Jewish merchants first arrived in the 1840s (including the Sassoons [as in Vidal Sassoon] and Hardoons who built much of the city), one thousand Russian Jews migrated there in the 1920s and 30s, and 20,000 Jews managed to escape Nazi Europe to Shanghai in the 1930s and 40s. The community largely disappeared after the war with the founding of the People’s Republic of China. I found http://www.chinajewish.org/, the Chabad house in Shanghai, and learned that there was a small community of roughly 250 expat businesspeople, teachers and tourists from all over the world.
So we set out that evening for Chabad services and dinner at the Crown Plaza Hotel. The taxi driver got lost on the way, which we half expected. In fact, about 80% of our taxi drivers didn’t know where they were going that week. It wasn’t a matter of language, because we would show them our destination written in Chinese. No, these taxi drivers are incompetent. We even were involved in a minor accident when our driver insisted on speeding on the highway when traffic was thick and the rain was pouring down. So when we arrived at the Crown Plaza Hotel, about 15 minutes late thanks to the driver, we were nervous that we perhaps had been driven to the wrong hotel (hey, it happened to me when I got to Shanghai, remember?)
But our worries dissipated as we were helped out of our cab by the valet. We saw a bald white man in his 40s enter the hotel with his Chinese wife and two mixed children. As he entered he put a kippah on his head. We were definitely at the right place. Inside the lobby there was a young Chinese woman checking off our names on a list. Before we entered the elevator we met a gregarious South African-Israeli guy named Lior. He wasn’t on the list but managed to talk his way into the elevator. It turned out that the list was a first line of security. As we exited the elevator we saw a metal detector where there were security guards with another list. As we passed through the detector I was sadly reminded about what it means to be Jewish in the 21st century. We entered a beautiful ballroom where the women and men were divided by a flower-covered mesh mehitzah. Yael and I split up to sit in our respective sections. It was a quick service led in Hebrew with some English readings. There appeared to be about 250 people there, a good mix of Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews with about a dozen Chinese wives and mixed children. After services we were invited by Rabbi Greenberg, a red-headed, round-faced black hat, to move into the dining room behind us for the Rosh Hashanah meal. Yael and I started what we called the “kiddie table,” the table for unmarried 20-and30-somethings. At our table were several English teachers, a few import/export businessmen (very popular for young foreigners in China as I would learn – “What do you export?” “A little bit of this, a little bit of that”), and a handful of Israeli tourists. So Yael had her Hebrew crowd and I had my English crowd. It turned out that the guy next to me was from Montgomery County, PA and was also teaching English. Around us were dozens of families, most English speaking with some Hebrew, French and Spanish mixed in.
Before dinner was served there were about 10 speeches, including the leaders of the community introducing themselves, explaining the significance of the fish heads on the tables, mentioning Moshiach many times, and inviting children up to sing songs and read prayers. They also asked three special guests, the Consul Generals of the US, Israel, and Argentina, to give small speeches. So that explained the security. They mostly spoke about how glad they were to see the community thriving and they hope to see more Shanghai Jewish activity in the future. We chanted the blessing over the wine, washed, and said hamotzi and finally it was time to eat. Dozens of Chinese waiters brought out plates with apples soaked in honey and sliced into the shape of a duck. The first course was a sesame seed encrusted piece of cold salmon with salad and cold vegetables. The second course was a tomato-rice soup. And the main course was beef brisket with white rice and vegetables. A couple of proficient Chinese speakers in our group persuaded the waiters to keep the Israeli cabernet flowing. By the end of the evening we were good and vershnickered. We talked about how crazy the traffic rules in China are (Darwinian theory of survival of the fittest, we agreed), compared schools and regions, shared stories about travel destinations, and talked about the differences between Israelis and Americans.
The night was great. To be around lots of Jews was a welcome and exciting situation considering where we were. But at the same time, I felt a little claustrophobic – the way I would feel at JTS or at a synagogue kiddush when Jews gossip with an air of disdain. Also, the setting felt a little too ritzy, like the community was playing dress up. I wanted to know what the community was really like.
I got a sense of this on day two. The next morning Yael and I took a taxi (this time we didn’t get lost, baruch Hashem) to the Shanghai Jewish Center (Chabad House) on the west side of the city. Services were held in the basement. An opaque white mehitzah divided the men from the women. A large sheet hung low above us, shrouding the community in white, the traditional color of purity to be used on holy occasions. When I arrived at 10:30AM, casually late, they were out of extra machzors and talitot, so for half of the morning I sat without the necessities of prayer and sang what I could by heart. Rabbi Greenberg blew a tiny shofar without any dramatic flair. Still, when I closed my eyes, I thought back to what it was like to hear the shofar in Israel in 1997 and thought about how fortunate I was to hear the shofar blowing in China 2005.
After the service everyone shifted upstairs into a rather small room for a buffet lunch. Our numbers had dwindled down to about 120 people but the crowd seemed more committed and livelier than the previous nights’ crowd. Over salmon, cucumber salad, and cookies I chatted with a man from California who was one of the German Jews who escaped to Shanghai during WWII. He was back in China for the first time in 55 years to lecture at universities about his experiences. He went on and on about how wonderful and inviting the Chinese people are, how angry he was with the Bush administration, and how the future of Diaspora Judaism is in China, not America. The man was opinionated. He was traveling with a writer from the LA Times who will publish an article about his travels in the winter.
The buffet turned out to be the appetizers. We sat down at long tables to eat the meal: mashed potatoes, green beans, and schnitzel. I met some more young Jews, a few of whom I hope to visit in Nanjing where they attend post-graduate classes taught in Chinese. Yael and I left for a couple of hours to take a nap and returned to Chabad for dinner. Finally, Jewish chicken noodle soup. No matzo balls, but what can you. Dinner eventually became a party, after many families had left, when Rabbi Greenberg went into the kitchen and brought out a bottle of Johnny Walker Gold, soon to be followed by his brother Black and cousin Chivas Regal. We sat around the table, pounding shots and Jewish songs, waxing philosophical about the difference between man and animals, and listening to the Rabbi work Moshiach into every point he made. It was a great time, the kind of Jewish experience I’ve missed since leaving Israel. Afterwards a group of eight of us went out to Windows Too (again) to party some more.
The next day I said goodbye to Yael and left Shanghai refreshed and satisfied. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get to Chabad back for Yom Kippur. Instead I rearranged my schedule to free myself of classes and observed in my own apartment. I hope to get back to Shanghai again soon for more good times, but I have a lot of China to see.
Over and out… D
posted by Derek @ 6:54 AM