Monday, October 22, 2012

Oriental Wanderings

E's parents were born in Harbin, on the Manchurian border between Russia and China. Her grandparents were Ukrainian Jews escaping the pogroms in Odessa. Instead of going West, like most people, they hopped on the Trans-Siberian Railroad and reached the Eastern end of the world.

Sometimes I wonder how people made those decisions, in moments when there was a choice, about where to go. Even the decision to leave in and of itself – what made certain people decide to leave, while most stayed? I understand, working for an expat community and having had parents who made choices like these, what makes people move today. But I am so curious about these choices in the past, in a time the world was much larger and you couldn't just get on a return flight and go back. Why did my great grandfather, for example, decide to get on a boat to Latin American, when Israel was literally right next door from Syria? Is this merely a difference in character, between idealists and entrepreneurs, or in E's family's case, between adventurers and realists? Or were these decisions simply made in the spur of the moment: here is the boat or the train, let's go before we can't anymore, before we change our minds?

All stories that involve some sort of displacement are rife with series of decisions like these, intricate combinations of circumstance and choice that end up changing lives. I met a British couple this week who told me that her grandparents had been two of about a thousand Jews who spent the war in the Philippines. We know that the Chinese parts of Shanghai, where the Jews lived, were quite poor back then; I can’t even imagine what the Philippines must have been like. They were put in a ghetto by the Japanese, much like the Jews in Shanghai, but as opposed to Shanghai, there was no local Jewish community or a thriving international city surrounding them. Instead, they were on an island in the middle of the pacific, invaded by the Japanese, and starving.  After the war, this couple went back to Germany (imagine how bad it must have been in the Philippines!), only to leave shortly afterwards to rejoin their daughter, who went on the Kinder Transport to London in the beginning of the war. By the time her parents arrived, they'd been apart for ten years.

Almost two decades after E's grandparents arrived in Harbin, her parents moved to Shanghai escaping the Japanese invasion. To this day, her grandparents are buried in the Harbin Jewish Cemetery. Sometime in the 50s, her father and aunt were contacted by "the Jewish organization" (JDC?) because the Chinese government was moving the Jewish cemetery from the center of town to the outskirts. The government was charging money from the relatives to move the graves.  E remembers her father and aunt arguing about this, one side saying they had to pay because it was their parents' graves for G-d's sake, the other saying that the Chinese were probably going to keep the money and abandon the graves. Only recently, through a project to catalogue the graves and put them on a website (done by German students and the German government), did she find out that her grandparents' graves where moved and are still in the new location.

 In Shanghai, her parents were part of the rather large Russian Jewish community, which numbered several thousand at one point. This is the community that built one of two surviving synagogues in Shanghai, Ohel Moshe. At the end of the war, her parents moved to Israel, the only viable option for stateless refugees, who were counted in the Chinese quota for immigration to countries like Australia and the United States (because they were born in China).

E was born in Israel, but before she turned two, the family moved to Japan. They had gone to Israel via Japan, and in any case had family there (some of her father's siblings ended up there instead of Shanghai). They had already started a business, and they invited E's father to come join them. By then her parents, who had spent their entire lives in this giant, international – albeit recently war-torn – city of the far east, could not get used to the messy (and probably a bit swampy and buggy) beginning that was the founding of Israel.

And so, E grew up in the tiny Russian Jewish community of the outskirts of Tokyo, where they lived until she was about 15 years old. When we met, we were having dinner at a Shanghainese restaurant, familiar food to her having grown up with a lot of Shanghainese around, which makes sense given where her parents moved from and around which culture and people they probably felt at home. She describes the Tokyo-Russian community as little but uniform, a bit closed off to other foreigners perhaps, but providing a much needed sense of home for its own people. The language and food were Russian, and it was a relatively liberal (the restaurant wasn't kosher, for example, and beef stroganoff was a popular dish), rabbi-less community.

They moved to Sam Francisco in the sixties, when E was a teenager. I imagine that after Shanghai and Tokyo, it felt the most like home. E got married and moved to the Mid-West when her (British) husband was relocated there for work.

By this point I realized that the results of her and my life experience are very similar: we have both arrived to a point where we feel – and are – foreign everywhere. The not-insignificant difference is that she already made her adult choices (her daughter is five years older than me), whereas I will very soon be on the brink of making those choices myself.

And so I asked her what made her stay in the Mid-West for thirty years and raise her child there (in one place and in that place), especially as she and her husband had the opportunity to relocate, to work and live internationally in a viable and sustainable way. She turned to me over the plate of sweet-fried fish (my personal favorite Shanghainese dish) and said, "Roots". Growing up as a Westerner in East Asia, she added, you are always an observer, never a participant. One reason why some Jews stayed for so long, she said, is that a Jewish community does provide a healthy outlet for belonging, one bubble in which you are a participant, and this makes the overall experience healthier. This insight added a new level of meaning to my work with the community, and gave it a legitimacy I had not previously considered.

 When social options are so limited, and your identity simply cannot be tied to where your home is, the result is a feeling of permanent detachment and you end up with a neither-this-nor-that identity (ie, you are neither fully from your parents culture, nor fully from your local culture). I can see how roots, community, but above all, being able to be like everyone else (and thus being accepted by the surrounding society) could become your central need, and the base for your decision-making.

Nevertheless, I'm not sure the trade-off is worth it. E still feels like an outsider, not in San Francisco, but definitely in her Mid-Western enclave where she has lived for half her life. Perhaps the point is that though she didn’t have a choice anymore, she wanted to give her child the option to be from somewhere.

In the Hebrew School where I teach, I am observing my kids' identity and helping them develop it through our Shorashim project (see below). These are the smartest, most diverse and thoughtful kids I've met. Their standards for themselves and other people have to do with intelligence, diversity and adaptability – for example, the ability to learn and speak languages, and relate to people different from themselves. Though I can tell that some of them will face minor identity crises (for example, when they realize to what degree they are outside of the mainstream of their parent's society, and thus how utterly not from there they are), I believe identity crises are incredibly character-building (having gone through several myself), and that the end result is that you become your own unique person. Once you learn to accept that – that you just can't be Israeli or French, or whatever – you are left with a deep understanding of what identity is and what it can mean to different people, as well as with the ability to deeply empathize and relate to people who are completely different from you. There is no more "comfort zone". Your comfort zone is yourself, out in the world.

Then again, I am smart enough not to discard E's advice and experience so quickly. It is rare for me to meet someone who is genuinely like my kids, but two generations older. This is one of the nicer side-effects of Jewish displacement and "wandering": the diversity it generated really is unimaginable, endless upon endless of combinations and individual experiences, resulting in a plethora of interesting, unique people.

We'll see; it all goes back to that initial question: how and why do people make the choice to leave, and how do they decide where to go?

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Spirit of Succoth: Ushpizin and Farming

JDC's Succoth Events

In an attempt to complement, and not compete with or divide the community, we decided to hold two Succoth events as the first two JDC events of this year. These events were designed to bridge gaps and provide opportunities that otherwise would not exist in the Jewish community. This year, Succoth and the Chinese October holiday fell at the same time, giving us the opportunity to do something doubly meaningful. Succoth and the Mid-Autumn Festival have a few things in common, and it allowed us to organize content-filled and meaningful activities.

The first of these events was a Succah-Crawl, following the long and beautiful tradition of ushpizin during Succoth. In what turned out to be a revolutionary, first-ever occasion, I set up an afternoon of visiting five different succot across the city and across the wide spectrum of the community. We were a group of about ten Jews, ranging in age from mid-twenties to mid-fifties (though a few young children joined for parts of the event). The first two of these were private succot, in the homes of liberal, mixed-marriage families in the French Concession. We spent about 45 minutes in each one, eating snacks (including halva cookies I made for the event) and chatting. We walked from one to the other, which gave a neighborhood feeling to the occasion, a rare experience in huge, bustling Shanghai. We had to cancel the Downtown Chabad center, as they just had a baby.

We then took taxis to the Hogqiao area, where we visited the Sepharadic Center and then went to their succah. Many members of the group had never been in to this center, and it was a pleasant experience. We sat with the rabbi and his wife and daughter, had home-made pastries and learned about the four species and the meaning of Succoth. We then walked to the Shanghai Jewish Center (Chabad) for the big finale: a sushi dinner. The rabbi and I had coordinated the event so that it would coincide with his sushi night. It was a nice ending, having sushi dinner all together in the big community succah.
The trip to the Farm is something that came together thanks to Rebecca Kanthor. In the days leading up to it, it became extremely popular among families, and in the end we had 45 people, including 18 children (15 of whom were under the age of 6), and about 7 single young professionals. This organic farm was on Chongming Island, about an hour and a half from Shanghai, though with the holiday traffic that time was doubled. Their primary products are wheat and bean, and so they sell all kinds of flour, soy sauce, bean paste and black sesame, among other things.
Upon arrival, we made vegetarian dumplings and pita, and had a delicious organic and local vegetarian lunch, complemented by hummus and pesto. Then we took a walk of the farm and around the village, and picked some beans. The kids got to run around in nature and chalk the sidewalk with fat neon-colored chalk I had brought along. The adults got to chat and eat some healthy, delicious food. Then we walked around country roads rimmed with wild cotton plants, wearing big straw hats.

But these truly are stories best told in pictures.

Succah-Crawl in Shanghai
Our First Stop: Ben and RC's Succah


Our Second Stop: Rebecca Kanthor and Liu Jian's succah
Our group in Rebecca's succah
The Trip to the Farm
Making Dumplings
The Final Product
Having Lunch
A Walk around the Farm
In the Forest
Picking Beans

Monday, October 8, 2012

More Musings on Spirituality

To Graham. 

Warning: This post generalizes like nobody's business. 

In light of the High Holidays, and my last post, I've been thinking a lot about spirituality in China. Spirituality here is defined as the lack of spiritual outlets, "magic" of any sort, or even signs of socially agreed-upon sacred things. I have found that it is hard to transmit to people who haven’t had to navigate daily life in a specific place (such as China) for a long-ish period of time, as it's such a subtle aspect of any culture.

There are very few spiritual outlets in Shanghai especially, and it's easy to become totally mundane (= of this world). The few things that remain within the realm of spirituality have been stripped of their sacredness, and their significance within the culture has greatly diminished. Hence temples are transformed into shopping centers; when people get time off for a holiday (always traditional, not religious or spiritual in nature) they have to work the following weekend to make up for lost time. Even the incense is without smell and meant only to add the effect of smoke. Though admittedly this may be for altogether different cultural reasons, it is interesting that even sensually anything religious here seems muted.

To put it in a more personal context, ten months into living in China I went to New York and felt that New York was a spiritual place – there were so many churches and synagogues and people with visible signs of religiosity (and I did not go during a holiday). I felt how much spirituality was a part of life, a very individualized part (per American and Western culture), but a part nonetheless.  I think back to how I felt in New York after a year in India, and I appreciate how wonderful the relativity of the world, and of one's perspective, can be. After Mumbai, New York felt calm, subdued, even a little boring and empty, spiritually and in all other ways. But that's what I love about NYC: it is whatever you need it to be at any given moment.

Recently, walking on a concrete bridge crossing an elevated highway in the heart of Shanghai, a friend and I were discovering that the spiritual void that exists in this country is affecting us both in similar ways. He was saying that "westerners are materialists living in a spiritual world. Chinese are materialists living in a material world." And by extension, Indians are spiritualists living in a spiritual world.

I can't even explain how revolutionary this concept is, and to what degree it colors almost every aspect of living in China. Spirituality is so conspicuous in its absence here; just as in India its presence was so wonderfully overwhelming.  I've been thinking about the political history of spirituality in China as a way of explaining what happened and is happening here. If political events can be seen as the present consequence of a nation or group's history (defined here as momentum or flow, and cultural make-up) then the stripping away of religion and the important moral and social values that went with it is a consequence of China's collective history and culture, including the religion and tradition that were present here in the past. In other words, everything that happens in a place is a consequence of everything that came before, and it is either a reaction to something or it is a sign of the culture progressing (or acting).

Chinese culture has a certain pragmatic nature that has a lot of depth but is related to this idea of living in a material world. Even the Chinese approach to the body, to food and healthcare is practical, rooted in reality (prevention, to me, is such an advanced, logical, and supremely physical concept, for example). Confucius is so revered because he gave advice for living healthily and successfully.  Let us not confuse, from our Western perspective, that which is alternative and that which is spiritual. Chinese medicine - in its current reincarnation – is the former, and has very little left of the latter.

I can understand, based on this, what superficial similarities exist between Jewish and Chinese culture (I haven’t let that go because it is so hard for me to understand why people say this, so I am constantly trying to rationalize it). Judaism is a religion of life. Both groups care about family, success (both personal and professional), and things like food, rituals and traditions are an important part of both cultures.

But now it's the eve of Succoth and I'm in China, older and wiser than before, trying to understand what this opportunity for spiritual growth and assessment is all about. And I think this is where the big, fat line between Chinese culture and Judaism is: Judaism is a religion. It has an element of faith, of connecting to the divine, of seeing yourself as part of the divine, of something beyond the body, beyond the material, including it but not only it. Judaism inculcates a different set of priorities, of values that do not start with money and end with family, but rather concepts that emphasize an individual's relationship with the divine, with other people, with oneself. We value community and life cycles because life IS important and related to the wholeness of the human experience, but we understand – even if we have a personal issue with it– that faith, G-d, and the sacred are a part of our tradition, inseparable from the other parts.

I have tried talking with Chinese people about faith a few times. Sometimes it feels like there is an insurmountable wall, other times, complete emptiness. In India, people's basic assumption is that everyone believes in G-d(s). (Sometimes the world seems so contradictory to me that it's hard to come to terms with the fact that all these things exist in one common, shared reality). And in the (liberal) Western world, of course, we have this concept of a private, individual relationship with the divine. Whatever that relationship may be, our culture places the individual in the center and there is an expectation that at some point in your life, you will think these issues through and decide for yourself.

I am trying to draw a distinction between these different planes of reality in a very tangible, quotidian way. The more I think about it, the more it seems that all aspects of society are colored by this distinction between 1. The type of people, or mindset (material or spiritual), and 2. The type of world and society they created, the type of public sphere in the society (material or spiritual).

 It is immensely sad that Chinese people have been stripped of the privilege to occupy themselves with issues outside of the material plane. I work with Chinese people who spend a lot of time thinking about Judaism and comparing it with who they are themselves; not once has it occurred to them that the reason why they keep missing the point over and over (because at least they are somewhat aware that they are missing the point) is because they are trying to fit something round in a square box. Without understanding Judaism first and foremost as a religion (quickly followed by being a culture, an ethnic group, a long tradition, etc), the essence of it, of our history, our survival, our good and bad moments, is completely missed. 

Monday, September 24, 2012

Being Internationally Spiritual

There is nothing quite like having to explain the concept of atonement to a bunch of older kids (or young teenagers, depending how you look at it) to make you really think about it. In Hebrew School class yesterday, talking about Yom Kippur, we defined atonement as repentance, leading to asking for forgiveness.  (Atonement as the main translation for the word kapara).

We talked about why it comes right after the New Year, and what a wonderful spiritual opportunity it is to do some soul-searching and accounting before a new year begins. We explained that in our tradition we talk about our relationship with G-d, with other people, and with ourselves, and how we understand that it is important to work on all of these relationships. I, liberal person that I am, emphasized the individual nature of this, and the fact that they all (but especially one's relationship with G-d) can mean something different for all of us.

My co-teacher is religious, and it's interesting to observe how differently we approach talking about things, especially anything related to faith. She sort of goes right ahead and says "the party line", whereas I'm a lot more hesitant, pluralistic and, well, secular. It may be because I understand who these children are and where they come from a little bit better, and I know that talking too much about religion will not go over well with certain parents. But really I think that she is much more comfortable talking about faith and G-d and stuff and for me it's hard. We don't really do that in the secular bubbles I consider myself a part of.

 We then had the kids write down (as practice for the Shorashim project they're all going to do this year) their resolutions or atonements, giving them an opportunity (which I later realized probably no one has given them before) to actually engage in this practice of thinking about how they want to start their new year. About half the group has had their bar/bat mitzvah, so in many ways I'm supposed to prepare them for Jewish adulthood, too.

I have to honestly admit that the depth of this exercise eluded me when I first thought of it. My original goal had been to get them writing something personal, something to get their juices flowing in thinking about themselves. I realized the impact of it when they all sat, in rapture, listening to me explain something I, in all honesty, understand very little about.

But if there's one thing I've learned teaching Hebrew School across the world (aside from the fact that it's so wonderful to be in a position to get kids to want to come when they initially really don't): you gotta plough through sometimes, and in an elegant way explain that neither you nor anyone else has all the answers. You gotta explain these massive questions of the human existence (thank G-d I've had Hannah Arendt to prepare me for this) in a way that is relatable, real, and accessible. Humility, at this point, is the best tool at your disposal. Humility, and the ability to make things fun.

I left class thinking I should probably do some soul-searching myself this season.

Recently I've been dealing with how professional my Jewish practice has become. I have to go to services, to the various communities, because people will ask me where I've been (and why I wasn’t with them). I usually take a few people with me to different services, as there's always someone new and it's nice to be able to help out – one of the benefits of staying somewhere longer than a year.

There's also an element of fragmentation to my High Holidays experience. This is my second year in Shanghai. Before here I was in India for two years (one year with the very traditional, very unique community, one year  traveling up and down Western India for the holidays with Ronan, going to Chabad Houses but also doing some local stuff), before that I was in New York (modern orthodox, gay-friendly, synagogue in the UWS, Ashkenazi, obviously), before that in Paris (Moroccan-Orthodox), and before that, in Middlebury (Reconstructionist, Ashkenazi, ultra-Liberal). I don't remember what my family does or what "I'm used to", and in any case it's probably changed at least three times since I last spent the HH with them, which was in Madrid in 2004 (Orthodox Ashkenazi in the basement of the synagogue, with some strong Sepharadic undertones). Throw in the fact that I've been working in the Jewish world for three years and it's no wonder (though admittedly quite ironic) that I feel a little disconnected.

Tradition and continuity, and doing the same thing year in and year out, are important. I understand that, now perhaps more than ever. And part of what I'm trying to figure out is what kind of religious practice – and what kind of community – fits this very international lifestyle. The great thing about Shanghai - and other communities in the region – is that there are many people like me, so the culture of the community is very international and diverse. People connect quickly, they're nice and welcoming to newcomers and the institutions and their leaders (mainly Chabad and the wonderful rabbis and rebetzins that are here) are set-up to accommodate transience and international diversity.

Perhaps my problem, then, is that I have not yet found a way to have a coherent, consistent and personal spiritual experience that transcends on one hand place, tradition and custom, and on the other, the issue of working in the field with a community made up of people who are exactly like me. This boundary between the personal and the professional (which I think is always an issue when you're working in the field and have human needs like making friends and other meaningful connections) when put in the spiritual context takes on a more complicated dimension. It requires, for example, not necessarily socializing when going to the synagogue, or not going "for prayers" – as the Indians say – at all (I think I am realizing that this is a personal preference for YK day, for example). While I probably can't do that this year – I almost had a meeting scheduled for that day, and definitely have to go to at least one, if not two, services – being honest about my spiritual crisis is helping me do something about it.  


After a long break, I'm picking up the Shanghai-Jewish story again! Would love to read your comments :)

The Shanghai Jewish Center's Hebrew School has been through some serious structural changes this year. It is a sign of larger inclusion and tolerance, and an example of how communities should grow and change and flow as their members change as well. The two biggest changes are to offer a track for Israeli children who speak Hebrew, and also to accommodate for the growing number of pre-teens in the community.

I teach that group – the 11 to 14-year-olds, and I absolutely love it. I am doing a Shorashim (Roots) project with them, meant to explore their identities, their family background and their community and people. It is a project that all 12-13-year-olds do in schools in Israel and in many Diaspora communities. My co-teacher is French girl who is wonderful. Often we split up the group, so I teach the Hebrew and she teaches the English.

In developing the curriculum for the project, I began thinking about how these kids are going to talk about their lives, their families and their communities. Though I've taught Hebrew school often and in various countries, I've never taught a group of third or fourth-culture children, who are multilingual, very bright, international, well-traveled and still, at the end of the day, Jewish children (who don't naturally love going to Hebrew School). The group is incredibly diverse, with Israelis, Americans, French kids, half south-African, and of course, half-Chinese.

I feel like I am getting the opportunity to teach as I myself would have liked to have been taught. Though I (thankfully) had wonderful education throughout my life, there was always an element of me having to adapt to the local culture, as I wasn't really in it. There is a lot of value in this; it forces you, for example, to learn the language fluently and it makes you understand the local culture insanely well. Total immersion and you wind up with an insider's perspective.

But the downside is that the international part of your identity gets a bit downplayed. In something like a Shorashim project, which is inherently personal and individual – as it's about people's lives and identities – it's great to be able to understand, from first-hand experience, what these kids are going through.  Their questions about telling their life-story ("What if I moved six times?", "What if we just moved house in the same country?") are so unique to their experience, and I get it. I get them. I love it, because there aren't a lot of people like me my age, but there will be a lot of people like them by the time they're my age.

In a time when the world is becoming more globalized, more interconnected and diverse, when the meaning of Place is changing, and nationality often doesn't even begin to tell the story, it is time to think about how to adapt education and make it relevant to children who are growing up with a completely different kind of identity, one that is above all molded by exposure to international diversity, with all the languages, cultures and constant changes that that it involves.  

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Transparency of Food

Inspired by Chinese pumpkin soup

I just learned something that brings together a lot of things I’ve been theorizing on, and I immediately thought, now, see, this is why one has a blog – to be able to share such truth-inspiring moments. I was having lunch with the Museum staff in honor of an Israeli architect who is working on a project with the Museum (news on that to come soon). We were at a very nice restaurant, having really food (steak and sesame chicken and pan-fried fish, and shanghai-style noodles, sans the pork), when a bowl of orange soup appeared on the lazy suzie.

It turned out to be this incredible pumpkin soup. It was probably one of the yummiest things I’ve had in China so far. This is why at the end of the day I do love Chinese food – if only because it truly never ceases to surprise you. Which is totally case in point to what happened next.

I’m tasting the soup, trying to discern what is in it. I got chicken broth base, pine nuts, green and red pepper chunks, pumpkin, both blended into the soup and in big sautéed chunks, and perhaps some spice that could have been turmeric , when K, one of my colleagues, says:

“You know what they say, about Chinese food and Western food, right? That in Chinese food you cannot see all the ingredients when you look in the dish, but in Western food you can.”

“Oh really?”

“Yes. It comes from Kongzi…you know Kongzi?” This word, for those who don’t read Pinyin, is pronounced Cone-dz.


“Yes! Exactly. He said that it is not good to show everything. Imagine a rich man, who shows that he is rich…it is not good for him in the end, you see?”

“Ahh yes. Yes, I understand.”

Here is the thing. Just last night I was once again talking with someone about the opacity of Chinese food, because I recently found out that a noodle dish that I really love has shredded pork in it, and consequently every time I’ve had that dish, it might have had shredded pork in it (I found this out because I ordered Chinese food online for the first time and looked at a detailed menu. Even more shocking is that when you’re in a restaurant and you say “no pork” they don’t extend that to mean “no shredded pork”). I finished the conversation yesterday wondering, once again, who in their right mind would shred pork and for what purpose. What can it possibly add?

Well, doesn’t this just explain it all. The emphasis on texture in Chinese cuisine – because texture is hidden, subtle, you discover it only after you have committed to eating it, the complicated chunk-less sauces, which can and often do include things like shredded pork and shrimp, using spices to cover up scents and tastes (including MSG, because it augments certain tastes over others), and the fact that Chinese people are just not that picky about what meat they’re eating.

But more than that, it’s the learning of the lesson that is important. This girl knows that I’m a curious one, she and I went to a tea shop a few weeks ago, where she translated the tasting procedure of about five kinds of tea, including all the rituals, before we bought a nice bag of oolong for me to take as a gift. It was a nice bonding experience. With that as a precedent, it is so nice of her to instruct me in cornerstones of Chinese culture. You shouldn’t let everything show…I asked if this extended to people’s behavior, which I think is a question that requires a level of introspection that the Chinese rarely possess, as they simply haven’t had much exposure to other cultures, and thus don’t have much to compare their own culture with (most other cultures at least are subject to American cultural imperialism, which I think ultimately makes them wiser about themselves, among other things). She said that in the olden days people were more like that, but Shanghai people are modern nowadays.

I guess that’s true. Probably compared to how people used to be, modern shanghainese are veritable transparent people, open-minded and just letting it all show (realistically, I think they’re somewhere in the middle, between Indians – super reserved about personal stuff, and Americans – open about everything). Nonetheless, it says so much about so many aspects of Chinese culture – not wanting, ever, to lose face, or even the plenitude of rituals and traditions that accompany any meal, which are easy to understand, follow, and hide behind. Indeed, the rigidness of the culture could be construed as simply a way of not showing feelings and emotions.

What’s ironic is that part of the reason why I enjoyed that soup so much was precisely because I thought I could tell what was in it. It was simple, straightforward, a lot more like Indian or Mexican food than Chinese. It had no complicated tastes or tricks to the tongue. But I guess maybe it did, because that’s when K chose to share with me this little cultural anecdote.

Update: since then, I’ve found out that Confucius has a whole lot of laws about food, but also that he was from northern China, and thus his teachings apply to life there. Food in southern China is a whole other matter. Hopefully more on this soon. 

Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Belated Hanukah Update

From Shanghai to the UK
JDC’s first official event in Shanghai, Ohel Rachel Ceremony and Limmud

For me, Hanukah began on December 4th, at the Community Hanukah fair. It was put together by Chabad in the Portman Hotel plaza, a big indoor hall, on a Sunday afternoon. I arrived on time to help set up for the Kids Kraft table, and ended up running the window-decorating booth. Aside from a wide-variety of crafts, there was a children’s winter coat sale, booth of community businesses selling their products and services, and of course, plenty of incredibly food.

I had a great time running my booth, as it’s been a while since I’ve hung out with kids. It also allowed me to marvel at the diversity of the community in Shanghai, and how nice it is that families have a place here to come celebrate a Jewish holiday. I ended up making a hanukia out of some weird colorful plasticky-playdough material, and it was awesome.

Around that same time, I was deciding what (if anything at all) I should do for Hanuka. In my activities with and for the community, I am constantly trying to strike a balance between what the community needs and what I am actually able to execute by myself. For example, obviously there is no need for a family event, and in any case, something like that is virtually impossible to plan and carry out alone.  So I decided that, in the spirit of Shanghai expat culture, I would find a Happy Hour rate (Shanghai is all about Happy Hours, Ladies’ Nights, promotions, discounts, and ways to go out to nice places for less or even nothing at all) at a nice, appealing club, and invite everyone I know. Everything was thought out – the date (as late as possible but before people leave on vacation, and without conflicting with other community events), the food (sufganiot and levivot from Chabad, both Kosher and festive), and the party favors (chocolate coins and dreidels). The club was a bit tricky to work with, though in the end I managed to get the Happy Hour rate and permission to bring the food in.

The Israeli Consulate and it’s wonderful employees helped me advertise the event (the picture in the flier below is from when I celebrated Hanukah in India with a group of friends), and through that and my own invitees, word got around through all the circles – Americans, French, Europeans, and of course, Israelis. People told me that they received the email from different friends, and that there was talk about it in Chabad on Friday. Other people told me, during the event, that there where people there who had not come for a Jewish event in years.

About 80 people came before 10 pm. I calculated a total of 150 people throughout the whole night. I couldn’t believe it. I realized that the time is right to bring the Jews of Shanghai together. If there is a place and a reason (religious or otherwise), they will come. It was so simple; a good party with other Jews, and many people told me they wish this happened more often.  What surprised me was that there were people from all ages and backgrounds. Certainly plenty of young, single professionals, but also lots older couples. It was great. And it didn’t step on anyone’s toes, which only added to its success.

On the first night of Hanukah, the community was allowed to use the old synagogue downtown , Ohel Rachel. It was such a beautiful event. I am realizing now that all the Hanukah activities so far have all been so different yet all so fitting the holiday, and it has been so enjoyable. This event was for the entire family, and indeed, there were many children, but also plenty of younger peope. The one age group that continues to be conspicuous in its absence here is the teenagers. There are many, many under-5 year-olds, but no over-10 year-olds. There was a small candle-lighting ceremony, some song-singing, and a lot of incredible food. It was just a nice Jewish mingling event, but the context of the synagogue made it really special. It’s such an incredible building that I think reflects what the Jews of Shanghai must have been like in the early part of the 20th century, at their strongest.

Then, on the second night, the Liberal group threw a Hanukah thing at Haya’s, the Israeli restaurant downtown. It was a family-style sort of dinner, which many young people attended. It was a different group – plenty of mixed couples, but also people who want a different scene from the Jewish centers around the city.

The next day, I flew to the UK to attend Limmud, which this year fell on the remaining five nights of Hanukah. Limmud was an amazing, intellectually diverse experience, made only more interesting by the fact that, aside from both of my JDC bosses, I had never really been exposed to British Jewry (or really, British culture beyond the really famous stuff), and it was very enriching to be in that environment.

For an entire week, I attended sessions by incredible speakers, all having something to do with a crucial part of my identity – Judaism, Israel, or the diversity of the Jewish world. There was text study (which I actually really love. Nothing like a page of the Talmud to keep you intellectually humble), panels on journalism and politics, on Jewish identity and religiosity, theater and music workshops and performances, amazing lectures on topics in Judaism – sexuality, Hannah Arendt, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Arab Spring, and so much more.

Limmud is run by volunteers, and every presenter is also a participant. Some of the presenters are really high-level experts in their field, yet there is a sense of equality and openness about the whole experience.  Every evening concluded with the lighting of the candles – everyone together out in the courtyard, usually with musical accompaniment. It was a very intense, but also so fulfilling.

I also attended a lot of Limmud International sessions, with the hope of getting an idea of how other people around the world have made Limmud happen in their communities. I am very excited about helping make Limmud in China a very proximate reality. It will be so incredibly nourishing for both the communities and the individuals here. This is a great framework for people to give something to the whole, from which they can also take back a lot as individuals. And it’s something that is simple, uncomplicated, fully accepting, and intrinsically Jewish, because its fundamental cornerstone is something all Jews indisputably have in common – learning, in all its manifestations.