Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Cultural Immersion

I love Chinese culture.

Until this past weekend, I really wasn’t sure. I knew I didn’t dislike it – I seldom feel frustrated (though granted, it’s only been a couple of months) – but I also hadn’t felt the connection I felt with India. But recently there were a series of events that made me learn a lot at once. And I really enjoyed it.

I like the way meals work. Round table, many dishes, chopsticks and a little bowl. I like the food, and enjoy learning about different dishes. I’m discovering I’m very squeamish about animals. Part of it is the Indian influence, but also from a spiritual Jewish position.

I went on a retreat with all the museum tour guides and staff this weekend. Lunch included eel (apparently good for women’s skin), frog and wild chicken (which I mention only because I thought it was funny that it’s considered different from regular chicken). I ate vegetarian, and everything was really good. When people say “I don’t like Chinese food”, I’m not really sure what that means. There are so many options, flavors and textures, it’s really hard to dislike every single thing at any given meal. I always have at least four or five dishes that I absolutely love.

I also like the way Chinese people have fun. I was introduces to karaoke last week. I went with a group of mixed Shanghainese and Westerners, and loved it. There really is something to it: a closed room, just your friends, everyone hanging out singing together, with food and drinks. It’s just pure fun.

At the retreat, in the freezing hotel lobby (you could see your breath), there was a constant group at the karaoke station, but people also played cards and mahjong. Some people just hung out and talked. What was unique about it was that all ages were present and having fun together. Not only that, we had people from all sectors and levels of society – the cleaning ladies and guards were also invited and present at the retreat, and they were there with the other volunteers, most of whom are English-speaking university students. 

I am forcefully reminded of my “Intro to Political Science” course, in which we learned that in Communism, freedom is limited but equality is magnified (as opposed to Fascism, which limits both, and Democracy, which attempts to magnify both). Until I came to China, and had not yet lived in a non-democratic country, I had never truly understood how positive the amplification of equality can be. There is obviously inequality in Chinese society, like in every other country. But I’m referring to cultural perceptions of equality. People’s place in a society. The possibility to interact with higher or lower positions. And so on. Perhaps that’s what communism has become: a culture, a way of thinking about society, and not an actual organization of reality, politics, or people.

Drinking culture is also really interesting. First of all, there seems to be no taboo about it. It’s out in the open, though not everyone does it. At the retreat, the drinking started at dinner. The hosts of the event go around every table first, thanking people, toasting with each individual person, and so on. Then other groups go around, thanking the hosts and toasting again. Usually not everyone drinks, especially the girls. You can do the toast with tea, juice or even water. Whatever – the point is to toast each other. The older people had bajio, Chinese liquor. It smells terrible. The younger generation was drinking red wine, and the few people I saw drink bajio had a visible bad reaction to it. It’s funny how much one can understand without language. It’s almost more deep and pure, though naturally slower and limited. But I’m certainly sharpening my non-verbal cue awareness.

There also seem to be no taboo on talking about one’s personal life. We literally went around the circle of girls one by one (in a crowded dinner hall) and expressed our romantic situation in detail. It ranged from single to monogamous relationship to polygamous lifestyle. Money is also discussed quite openly, as is certain personal desires and habits. I know there are taboos, but haven’t actually discovered them yet. That’s one of the difficulties of no language – it’s much easier to find out what people are talking about, than the subtleties of what they don’t discuss openly.

This was the first time I interacted closely with a big group of Chinese people (as the only foreigner, too). I gave a lecture on the diversity of the Jewish people, and on how to give better tours to Westerners. I found their questions genuine, and profound. I am beginning to understand why it’s so difficult for them to really grasp the depth and breadth of the Jewish world. Concepts like community, religious life-cycle events, faith, and helping non-family fellow Jews really elude them. And it makes sense, given their lack of religion-based organization and lack of spirituality. They also live in a very tightly organized society, (Poli Sci 101 again, learning about high-degree of government involvement), so informal things are really an unknown phenomenon. Everything has a place, and not in a wishy-washy, karmic sense like in India. Every aspect of life is regimented, it’s merely a piece in the larger puzzle that is society. Even the retreat – it was organized by the government! But they are really interested in learning about other ways of existing (community is a tough one, though, especially because to a large extent, it’s voluntary).

Which leaves me wondering. There is a huge discrepancy between my own largely positive experiences with Chinese people, and what other expats have expressed to me. Many expats don’t like Chinese people, or Chinese culture. It’s quite astounding how many people live in Shanghai and really have no desire to get to know or immerse themselves in the culture. And even more astounding is the fact that those that have to interact, don’t like the culture. It almost feels like they feel constantly personally affronted by it.

It makes sense if you think about the groups most foreigners interact with: service people, on one hand, and businessmen (or employees) on the other. Nobody, in any culture, is at their human best when acting within these positions. It is precisely those people who are not in business, who are free to interact with Chinese people in a different context, that are really integrated and happy here (they also all speak Chinese, incidentally).

However, I also think that Chinese culture (not unlike Indian cultures) requires a higher suspension of one’s own ways of being and thinking than many other cultures. I don’t mean not being who you are; it just requires opening your mind more to other ways of being and thinking without judging them. That is the key, perhaps. Many foreigners judge the Chinese for being narrow-minded, uncreative and dirty (to list three examples). Those three things are certainly true if seen from a Western perspective. But analyzing behavior from a neutral standing point (in which there are fewer rights and wrongs, and almost no comparison beyond moral issues), or from the point of view of the culture itself (what do Chinese people think about a specific behavior that Chinese people have?), the results are different.

 Chinese people know that some habits of some Chinese people are dirty, and they don’t condone them. Another example is how much the Museum tour guides attempted to open their mind to understand what I was saying. Because I am fully aware that the success of my presentation depended on my abilities and research as well as on their openness not only to listen, but to understand my way of thinking, which is quite different from their own. The fact that they did this is indicative that they can do it, and led to the success of our interactions.

Much to think about.

Volunteerism 1

Recently I’ve been feeling as if I live many days per day, because I'm leading so many simultaneous lives. The Museum activities are going incredibly well; it's interesting and challenging and motivating. It gives me a lot to think about. A few days ago (I'm trying to remember how many exactly, I think three…but it seems much longer) was the Hongkou government district volunteer celebration ceremony. There were about forty volunteers, all ages, covered in blue ponchos. That's another thing that happened this week – it became winter overnight. The weather dropped ten degrees (Celsius) and turned from mildly sunny to freezing rain at some point between Tuesday and Wednesday. 

So there we all stood in our blue ponchos. Hongkou district parks, libraries, elderly homes and museum volunteers, waiting in rows to go onstage and recite the Volunteers' Oath, listening to speeches by Party leaders and distinguished guests. I was getting simultaneous translation, thinking for the umpteenth time that even though I probably can't even begin to understand how much I'm not understanding because  I don’t speak Chinese, you can learn a lot through translation too (my consolation price really). Suddenly, my translator, another volunteer, says "you know, you're the star at this event". I looked around at all the Chinese faces around me – regular people, just like me – and I was filled once again with an awesome sense of being grateful that I've been put in such a unique position – to work for the Chinese government, to represent a great organization and even, to an extent, the Jewish people. It's really incredible.

After he said that, I got a little nervous about what I might have to do. It's funny how things can have such a different meaning. I think what he meant was that it's an honor for them to allow me to be a volunteer at the Museum (the Museum being the only institution with a foreign volunteer). It turned out I only had to follow the ranks – get on the stage with my row, and recite the pledge along with everyone else (it had been provided for me in English ahead of time…in fact, I helped translate it).

The Museum was chosen to host the event in part because of the amazing courtyard that it has (the synagogue was used as the prep room), but also because it runs an excellent volunteer program. Most of its volunteers are students, but there are also older volunteers who sell tickets or hold down the fort during lunch.  I’m not entirely sure what the volunteer culture is like here. It’s something I’m very curious about.

The volunteers at the museum certainly have a lot to gain from volunteering here. They practice English and meet foreign people. I think for some it’s also leisure time: they get to interact with peers who are in different fields than theirs. But the commitment would make the glamour wear off after a while. They have to give one full work day a week. That’s a lot for a student.
I’m starting to suspect that volunteering has a lot to do with other ideas I’ve heard of helping improve Chinese society, as well as one’s district, city and country. I think Chinese people are very family-oriented, and they help their own first, but there is also a sense that you have a duty to improve the society you and your family are from. I still don’t know what the motivation behind this sense of duty is, or if volunteerism is a part of this at all.

The reason why this is important is because it feeds into the way Chinese people can and will understand the Jewish world, which has community at its core, especially the part of the Jewish world relevant to the history here. Community is a circle in which individuals benefit from the collectivity and vice versa. I remember the Rosh Hashanah speech the Rabbi gave; it was all strengthening the community through individual abilities. If Chinese people understand and live according to similar principles (with the desire to give, or volunteer, simply because one wants to), then perhaps the gap of understanding can be bridged more easily. 

Monday, November 28, 2011

An overview of the Shanghai Jewish Community

Whether you’re visiting, living in Shanghai, or just curious, here is the panorama of Jewish happenings around Shanghai. 

Shanghai has a long history of being home to international citizens. In the last fifteen years, there has been a renewed explosion of expatriates from all over the world, who come to Shanghai for work and often stay permanently. The expat community is incredibly diverse, and the Jewish community reflects this as well: there are American and French Jews, Israelis, European (British, Spanish, Dutch, Eastern European) Jews, and even a handful of Latin and Canadian Jews.

Though there are many students and young-professionals (ages 22 – 30), most of the long-term residents are young families. There is a noticeable lack of two age groups among Jewish expats: people over the age of 60, and teenagers. It is quite possible that, because Shanghai’s permanent expat community is relatively new, there will be many teenagers within the next five years, and even more ten or fifteen years down the line. There is currently no lack of pregnant women, or children under the age of six.

What will it take for people to stay here when their kids are in their late teens, or even when they leave for college? Until now, most families leave when their kids reach high-school age. The problem, of course, is that families require more complex community institutions that individuals. With a rise in population, there might be a rise in educational opportunities for Jews. Shanghai already has a wide variety of excellent international schools; perhaps soon the Jewish institutions in this city will match them, and people will have the option to raise their kids here as Jewishly they would like.

In terms of institutions, there are a wide variety of them. The community has three Chabad Centers and a Sepharadic Center. The Jewish Center in Hongqiao is the biggest and oldest ( The Rabbi and his wife have been in Shanghai for about 13 years. They have opened their door and their hearts to the rising number of Jewish families, travelers and temporary residents who arrive every year, and they have truly built a community here. They hold Shabbatot, have holiday services, run a growing pre-school (now up to 1st grade), sell kosher food, run a kosher café, hold occasional fun community events, and are raising five children.

They also opened the other two Chabad Centers, one in Pudong (, meant mostly for families who live there, and the other in downtown Shanghai (, run by a French-Sepharadic family.

 The Sepharadi Shanghai Center ( is a nice alternative. It is also orthodox, like the Chabad Centers, but has a somewhat different atmosphere. It is run by an Israeli guy on behalf of the Shehebar Sepharadi Centers, and the Rabbi is a young Argentinean man, educated in a New York Yeshiva.

Though all the centers are open to any Jew, it seems that they go through different trends in the crowd that they attract at any given time. I think this depends on who is running the centers, but also seems to be somewhat random. Broadly speaking, the center in Hongqiao attracts (aside from most of the families in the community) American students and professionals, Ashkenazi businessmen, and the occasional Israeli.

The downtown center attracts mostly young professionals and couples from France and Europe in general, as well as Israelis (who seem to synagogue-hop just like I do). And the Sepharadic Center, which usually has more intimate gatherings, seems to cater to Sephardic businessmen, though this is where most of the Israelis usually go, and there always seem to be French Jews as well.

There is also a budding liberal community in Shanghai ( It is interesting to note that the development of the Shanghai Community has not thus far included a more liberal form of Judaism, as it has in other Asian expat communities (Beijing, Hong Kong, etc). A possible reason for this is that the first rabbinical couple who came to Shanghai (from Chabad Hongqiao) had the right approach to building the community, and they have really made their best to make people feel welcome. This shows just how much community is about individuals, and how good leaders can really unite people under the umbrella of caring for each other.

Now, however, it seems that there are enough people who need what only liberal Judaism can provide, beyond belonging to a community, or simply being with other Jews. People are looking for pluralism; they’re looking for a place that welcomes their non-Jewish spouse (and children) without conversion. Others just like the prayers, services, and general way of being Jewish that is part of liberal Judaism. But unlike in other places I’ve encountered, it generally does not stem from “not feeling welcomed” in the orthodox community. It is simply a matter of preference, which in my opinion as an observer, gives it a very different focus.   

My role in all of this – as the JDC Jewish Service Corps Fellow in Shanghai – is to supplement all the communities, to help provide aspects of the Jewish world that are not already being provided. That is why I am working on creating a formal network of young-professional Jews, through informal events and casual gatherings. I want to provide an alternative to religious Jewish events, of which there are plenty in Shanghai, so that people who just like having Jewish friends can hang out together. Through my work with the Museum (, I hope to also provide cultural events with a Jewish theme.

If you would like more information on any of the above information, please leave a comment!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Wednesday in Shanghai

Here is what has happened today so far. (It’s only 2 pm.)

I got a list of questions from the Museum on things they’d like me to talk about at an upcoming conference with all the volunteer tour guides. These include discussing Jewish celebrities, the difference between Christianity and Judaism, why Jews are sometimes connected with Communism (I wonder if they know about Marx’s complicated relationship with Judaism, and if not, if I should be the one to break the news), and my personal favorite, how come Jews decided to help their fellow Jews (referring to the work JDC did here in the 40s with Holocaust refugees), “despite the fact that they were also under the great pressure of being Jewish themselves?” And I’m pretty sure these have been edited down quite a bit already.

Then I had jelly fish at a fancy press conference lunch. I must say, it’s probably down there with raw tomatoes on my list of least-favorite foods. I had a revelation about Chinese food, though: so much of it is about the diversity of texture, and not of actual flavor. Jelly fish was somewhere on the crunchy-slimy spectrum.

Then I met a North Korean. What’s ironic is that I was walking into a very fancy department store, looking quite fancy myself from the press conference, to go buy chickpeas at the very fancy (and expensive) imported-goods supermarket, to make hummus for the four dinners I have this week (two of which are Thanksgiving). This guy cut me off entering the revolving door, so I stopped to let him through.  He glanced back, made the “Gasp! A foreigner!” face, and gestured for me to go in with him. I refused and then went into the next slot (what are those compartments called?).

He turned back and said “Hi! I’m from North Korea. Where are you from?”

“Mexico,” I replied, thinking it’s probably the most exotic-while-accessible place I’m from, and realized we were already shaking hands.

Then I think he said his name, but I completely forgot because of what happened next.

“You look like Snow White – “ he said.

“I really don’t.” I said, smiling and wondering what I looked like to him. The only Disney princess I (very) vaguely resemble is Jasmine.

“ – and I am Mickey Mouse!” He raised his arms to the ceiling.

Wait, what?

But before I even started thinking about a response, he said “I’m from North Korea! It’s very nice to meet you!” and opened his arms, wide. Too wide for any normal interaction with someone you just met. I literally gaped at him, this short, scrawny, not at all Chinese-looking, guy.

He took a step towards me and muttered something. I swear it was “Now we hug!”

“No…no.” I said, nudging him away slightly (he was very close at that point).

“Ok, goodbye!” He said abruptly, turning away from me. I was left with the distinct impression that they taught him that if the foreigner doesn’t hug you at the end of an interaction, you failed.

I walked away giggling, and stood in front of the escalator for a few seconds. I had never encountered someone performing such a strict script, without even realizing that that’s what they are doing. There are rituals, traditions, ways of greeting people, but they usually evolve naturally and are based on innocent assumptions – guests should be treated with respect, this is how you pray, or eat, or celebrate. Not on fabricated analyses of the Western psyche. And certainly not without reading cues and letting things happen naturally. It’s a terrifying degree of brainwashing that I’d never encountered in such a spontaneous way before.

I feel sad now.  

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Global Day of Jewish Learning in Shanghai

An insight into the Shanghai Jewish Community

The Jews in Shanghai are redefining the meaning of community. This city, like many other Asian cities with a substantial expat population, attracts a wide range of ages, nationalities, occupations, and personalities. Most people are here on a long-term temporary basis, but everyone seeks to make this place home. People are committed to socializing and building healthy support systems. Even though community-building has happened in a rather top-down fashion so far (there are four rabbis for about 2000 people), Jews are taking their individual responsibility to contribute to their community quite seriously. The question is, what will this community look like?

Through planning, and executing the first-ever Global Day of Jewish Learning in Shanghai, I learned a lot about what “the community” – used here as the population of people s who self-identify as Jewish  - wants and needs.  It started out as a small thing, in my mind. I have been here for less than two months, networking solidly within the expat world and building a relationship with the all-Chinese staff at the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum. As the first JDC person in the region in a very long time, and the first long-term foreign volunteer the Museum has ever had, the time was still unripe for me to swoop down on the Museum with an event that centers around discussing Jewish prayer (another layer of complication is the fact that Judaism is not recognized as a religion in China).

Or so I thought. I had called and texted about fifteen people whom I thought would be interested in the event. Word got around, and on Sunday morning, my Chinese colleague (who very kindly ignored all the less-precise details about what was happening) and I watched as 25 people poured into what used to be the Women’s Gallery of the Ohel Moshe Synagogue, in the Hongkou District of Shanghai.

Brunch was a great success, a mixture between a family-style breakfast and a buffet. As we started the session and I read the Shema prayer out loud, a chill went through me. I had been so busy with the preparations for the event, with worrying who would come and how it would go, that I had barely stopped to think about what it was that I was organizing. I had planned the session and had read the texts and the facilitator’s guide, but it was only in that moment when I said the prayer that I realized  how many people in the last century, under a wide-variety of conditions, had said that prayer in that same building.

The interconnected nature of the Jewish world is truly remarkable. Here I was, sitting in an old synagogue that once was the heart of a ghetto of Holocaust refugees, in China, reading Rashi and Maimonides, with 25 other Jews, ages 20 to 75, from Australia, Israel, France, the US, Mexico, Brazil, the UK, Turkey, Canada, and South Africa. We had some Chinese guests who participated in the session and kept us entirely aware of where we were.

It was such an unexpected success that I had to wonder: all other things aside, what is the Global Day offering that people are craving so much? Expat communities tend to focus on the basics. Holidays, Shabbats and births are the predominant things that unite people here. The community is based on religious aspects of Judaism. But Shanghai Jews want to interact on a much more social level. This is what is missing in the community, an outlet for cultural Judaism, an exploration and questioning of Judaism with other Jews. And that is exactly what the Global Day of Jewish Learning helped to provide.

After the session, my colleague gave the group a tour of the Museum. Many of the participants had never been to it before. It was wonderful to learn the history of the place where we had the session, and it gave the event additional depth.

On my part, I learned a lot: about the community, about my strengths and weaknesses as a community organizer, about what is difficult and what is easy in the situation I am in. Above all, I realized that I am in a position to collide worlds. Yesterday I felt the potential of that, the magnitude of being in such a position.
There are things to be done. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


Like many other young Jews, one of my favorite things about Judaism is the continued practice of asking questions. One of the recurring motifs in the last three significant experiences I’ve had is precisely that: the art of questioning. It also happens that the context for these lessons has been Judaism.

In Bombay, I learned how to ask the right questions. I learned to analyze different combinations of factors (who is answering, where we are, what their perception of me is) in order to learn what I wanted to learn. I think this is what allowed me to delve so deeply into Indian culture. I learned how to question correctly, and that also made me a better listener.

In Mexico, I learned when to ask questions, and when to shut the hell up. This was a continued lesson from India – I couldn’t have achieved it without step one: what to ask. I think that this lesson translates to knowing when to pick your battles, and which battles to pick. Sometimes the status quo is overwhelming in its absurdity and you can see how it could be so much better, if only… but if you start yelling your head off (metaphorically or literally), it’ll lead to nowhere. So I learned that there is nothing wrong in accepting things bigger than yourself, because it allows you to constantly question the small ramifications these might have, which might actually lead to real change.

In Shanghai, I am learning how to answer questions. I’ve always been fairly good at placing things in context, but now I’m using that ability and understanding of who people are (learned in steps one and two) to answer really complex and interesting questions.

Let me explain. As I’ve mentioned, a big part of my job is working with the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum. One of the things I am doing with them is helping train their (all-Chinese) student-tour guide volunteers. The staff are also all-Chinese government officials in their twenties or early thirties (except for the boss, naturally). On the way to the government canteen for lunch (which is AWESOME, go the PRC), or even taking breaks in the office, we ask each other questions. They’ll start, subtly: we’ll be talking about something, and then bam! A great question.

Now, I don’t feel particularly curious about Chinese culture, at least not in a proactive way. I’m being surprisingly passive about it, and just sort of letting understanding come as it will. Part of it, I think, is that I’m pretty exhausted from the past four months (two traveling and the other two settling in here), and I just want to rest my mind and have a routine (which I don’t yet). That being said, I’m not going to pass up a priceless opportunity to ask some real questions. If they’re going there (if they started it), then that means I can too. People don’t dish out questions they can’t take in return. (Another lesson from India).

There are two kinds of questions: asking a question to hear the answer and asking a question to eventually tell the other person what you think. The two often overlap, and this is why people ask what they are willing to answer. If people don’t ask about sex, it’s because they are unwilling to discuss their own sex lives (as in most traditional cultures).

Here are some of the things I’ve been asked:
At my welcome dinner: “What do you think about the Japanese?” I mumbled something about individuals versus groups, but fortunately, this was the second kind of question, where the asker wanted to share his opinion on the matter.
On my second day: “What is the difference between the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Torah?” A valid question. Also proof that googling is not as common here.
On the way to lunch: “Can I ask you a personal question?” “Of course,” I said. Intuition told me it probably wasn’t going to be a very personal question. “Are you Sephardic or Ashkenazi?” I smiled and said, Sephardic. Then she said “oh so your family is Baghdadi from Mumbai and Hong Kong…and you have more money than Ashkenazi Jews!”. I love it when people speak Stereotype. It happens here a lot.
At a different lunch: “Do you think Chinese guys are good looking?” After I explained that I like my men dark and Jewish, but do think that some Chinese guys are good looking (what would you have said?), the conversation veered toward Jews “only” marrying other Jews. “You have to, right?” One of the girls asked. 

Here is the deal with this one (it’s not the first time it comes up): how do you explain getting married for identity reasons to a people who care, primarily, about the financial stability of a spouse, and who live in a country where everyone pretty much has the same ethnic identity? Pickle.  

Other questions center on the diversity of the Jewish world: sepharadic-ashkenazi, nationality, reform-orthodox, being part-Jewish, and of course, different degrees of religiosity within all of this. It really makes me marvel at how different we all are. And it all has to do with that same question: how do you explain Diaspora and being a minority, and all the other sociological aspects of our history, to people who have no frame of reference for that?

On this same topic, one of the questions I asked is why they think the Nazis wanted to kill the Jews. They work in a museum that tells a small offshoot story of the whole big thing that is the Holocaust. The first thing you see when you walk into the main exhibition hall is a map of the world depicting all the countries who did not take in the Jewish refugees (literally all of them except for Japan and China). I think it’s a valid question: why were the Jews so hated? The answer was that in Japan and China there is no tradition of hating the Jews. (I think that’s a line straight from the tour). Where does this tradition comes from in Europe?, I asked. But without an understanding of what it’s like to be a minority (and without historical minorities who are a substantial part of the society), how do you begin to grasp this? And in did, they couldn’t tell me.

Other questions have to do with my Indian boyfriend, or with my family (especially the number of siblings I have), or with having lived in many places. They really want me to love China more than I love India. I think that’s funny.  

And that is why I love this work – I interact with people who are so utterly different from me, yet who are totally and sincerely fascinated by a central aspect of my identity. My work is very pleasantly cut out for me.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Jews in Asia – a What-if?

I wonder sometimes what Asians would feel towards Jews if Jews had lived in these countries in significant numbers and for significant periods of time. We say that China is one of the only countries in which anti-Semitism doesn’t exist, but that’s not strictly fair or true. China didn’t have the opportunity to develop anti-Semitism, because there were simply never enough strict Jews here.

 India, however, is a good example of a country with long-time Jews and no anti-Semitism (the recent attacks are neither India-based nor aimed against Indian Jews). What would it be like in China? Would Jews – as a consequence of being a minority – be scapegoated, hated, ostracized in the same way? Or would it be as it is in India – different, because of an altogether different combination of factors that led to altogether different results? As opposed to Western or Middle Eastern countries where Jews lived, flourished and were persecuted, in India there is no single predominant religion. Hinduism (simplified) is best defined as a collection of similar-but-different beliefs, traditions, languages and culture. Each mix is unique, but the spiritual-traditional aspect is central to Indian identity. Everyone believes in something or other, and that something is always a little bit different from everyone else’s. So no one cared or noticed if one group of people was praying to an unseen god, or not working on the seventh day of the week, or had strange dietary habits. Every group had its own quirks.

So I wonder if in the East Asian countries it would have been the same (same), but different. What would Judaism have looked like here in big numbers? The picture is not the same as in the West, but it’s also not like in India.

Perhaps people are right when they say that Chinese and Jewish cultures are similar. I think they refer to the work ethic, the importance of family, and the value placed on learning. To me it seems that although it’s true that these are common traits, the cultural consequences of them are so different that it outweighs the fact that the original values are the same. The “way of being” is too different. This might be in part because of the other, multi-facetted influences Judaism has had, as well as the development of Chinese history and the effects it has had on culture and people (most recently communism, which Chinese people do not fail to notice was originally conceived by a Jew…too ironic to my point? I wonder).

Perhaps if the two cultures had mixed – truly mixed, in that way that only history can achieve – they would have benefitted from and nourished each other. It certainly seems like that’s what happened during the time when the Jewish refugees were here and coexisted with Chinese people.
There is now so much renewed interest for the continued collaboration between the two cultures, with all its complexities and challenges. I’m realizing now, as I finish this post, how utterly privileged I am to be thrown right into the heart of it all.  I AM this experiment, right alongside my Chinese co-workers. It’s kind of fun. 

Some historical roots of “an interconnected world”

I was staring up at the synagogue today, this hundred-year old building in the middle of Shanghai, and it suddenly hit me how small, transient and wide-spread the Jewish experience has been, and for so long. I tend to think of the time before commercial airplanes as slow, and somewhat lazy or relaxed, when it took forever for anything to get very far, especially information and people. Things like the morse code or telegrams had to exist because otherwise nothing would get done. And travelling from Europe to the edge of the Pacific, on either side, seems to have been a trip too long to bother with. Which is probably why only soldiers and rich people did it.

Within this frame I suddenly thought of what it must have been like to be a Jewish refugee here in Shanghai during World War II. Because those are the only other people who would make that trip – people with no other choice.

Let’s picture it. You’re in your teens, arriving with your parents, or maybe in your twenties, arriving by yourself. You have to go through Japan, via Panama, or via the trans-Siberian railroad. Imagine the weeks (the months!) on trains or boats or both! Imagine the discomfort, the motion-sickness, the hard beds. Kids playing games to pass the time. Reading and re-reading the few available books, maybe sharing them with each other. Knowing with certainty that undertaking such a trip – with all its difficulties – is better than the horrors you left behind. Maybe that’s what kept people sane.  

In Japan you stay for a few days, a week, with another thousand refugees, because it’s just one more country that can’t – wont’ – take you in. It’s just part of the trip out of death-ridden Europe. Salvation, of course, but too temporary to be a sustainable solution. Maybe there’s a camp there. Bunk-beds, open showers, too little food and too many people, dirt, lice.

Then, finally, Shanghai. The only city in the world where you don’t need a visa, where you are welcome. Another crowded boat, children and parents on the deck, and you standing there alone with your meager belongings wrapped up in a bundle, lying at your feet. You gaze out and see the spectacular outline of this strange city, this city that you hope will be a free and safe, if temporary, home. High European buildings line the riverfront, hiding the truly local Chinese lifestyle that sprawls behind.

You disembark, cross a bridge over a big creek, and arrive at your new neighborhood.
The people are nice there, warm, friendly. They help with the children, with the food. They are your neighbors. Not refugees, but owning perhaps exactly the same amount of stuff. You learn to communicate with each other. You learn from them. Maybe even make friends. When else in history – how else – would once-affluent European Jews get to share their daily lives with lower-class Chinese? Even today, with all the traveling and mixing, this is a hard thing to achieve.

Then one day, the neighborhood closes in on itself, enveloping everyone in it. The Japanese, to appease the Gestapo, create the first and only Jewish ghetto in Shanghai. The uniqueness of this ghetto is evident. Jews and Chinese coexisted as semi-prisoners, both suffering under the hardness of the Japanese rule.
Life becomes less comfortable. Working is hard, as is going to school, because you need special permit to leave the ghetto. Nonetheless, Jewish books, magazines and newspapers are published. People celebrate the holidays. Shops, bakeries, pharmacies, cafes open and flourish. Children are born. People get married. Maybe you are one of them.

And then, just like that, a decade passes. Suddenly it’s 1950, and almost no one is left. The Japanese are gone. Communism is coming, and business becomes impossible. People found their surviving family members, moved to America, Australia, Israel.  So you pack you bags, now perhaps significantly bigger, get on a boat, and go to reunite with the few distant cousins left to you.  
Subsequently, the refugees thought very fondly of their time in Shanghai. It seems that the significance of it lies not merely on the fact that they were saved from a horrendous death, but also in that they were truly welcomed by the local population, and were allowed to flourish. Even the Japanese had nothing against the Jews, and were much more severe on their Chinese neighbors.
 A beam of light in an otherwise horrendous decade. 

The Museum (September 27, 2011, part 2)

As I walked into the dark-red brick compound, S pointed to the security guards – older Chinese men in light-blue uniforms. She introduced me and I asked her to tell them that even though I don’t speak Chinese now, I am going to learn and work hard so I can talk to them. One of them, the head guard who’d been there for a long time, greeted me in Hebrew. “Naim meod lehacir otakh”, he said, in the strongest shanghainese accent you can imagine. It took me a second to realize it was Hebrew, but then I laughed and answered, “naim meod”. He then wished me a shana tova (because it’s Rosh Hashana, he clarified). I appreciate moments like that. It reminds me that I’m not jaded enough to stop enjoying how inter-connected the world is. And it’s one of those strange connections that seem to skip a few beats. This man doesn’t speak English, but is comfortable sustaining a basic conversation in Hebrew.

The synagogue were the Museum is housed is modest and beautiful. My first, personal reaction was that here is a little tiny part of the huge puzzle that was the Holocaust that I knew nothing about. It adds a deeper layer to the phrase “world war”. There’s always something new to learn, and it’s always great when the new thing is as life-changing as this detail in history was. About thirty-thousand people were saved because Shanghai opened its doors to them. And here I am, coming back to this city to represent an organization that was here 70 years ago, helping the refugees. It’s like holding a little piece of history in my hand. It’s an honor of the sort that until now I have not been privy to. I'm beginning to understand that a big part of my experience in Shanghai will have something to do with this connection that both JDC and the Jewish people in general have with this amazing city. 

The building was taken over by trader Jews in 1927, when they began using it as a synagogue. I wonder what brought them here to this neighborhood. Even now, after much of Shanghai has modernized, it remains stuck in its former humble glory. The lane houses are old and packed, street vendors line the corners, and the side streets are full of little fabric and household items shops, repairmen, laundry services and babies. It’s wonderful.

Behind the synagogue is a beautiful courtyard, surrounded by these little lane houses. Two small buildings erected in the courtyard portray the history of the Jewish refugees through pictures and videos. The synagogue has four floors: the first, main synagogue floor, the second balcony floor (where the women used to pray), which now has a conference table and computers for research, the third floor which is now an art gallery, and a little tiny attic, where the office is. I love it up there. We have a good view of the street from the balcony, the ceiling is low, and everything is wood and cozy. It’s a nice place to come to.

(I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize for the lack of order in the posts; I really wanted to share these three posts that I wrote almost two months ago when I arrived in Shanghai. From now on they will correspond to the dates!              - 10/11/2011)

A Glimpse of street-Shanghai (September 27, 2011)

Today I had another great day full of “firsts”. I love these days – there’s a whole thread of them throughout my life. Highlights of these very formative days include the first time I went to the Mercaz Yeladim in the Kibbutz in Israel when I was eight and spoke at most ten words of Hebrew (including the word for the color green, I remember, which was – surprisingly – not that helpful that first day); the first day of school in El Mirabal in Madrid (it permanently cured me of culture shock), the first time I went to a liberal egalitarian Rosh Hashana service in Middlebury, the first time I went to the JCC in Bombay, the first time I went to the office in Mexico and now, the first time I went to the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum.

Of course these days had a whole stream of “firsts” surrounding them, which only made that one moment even more special. In Shanghai, these firsts are really fun because everything is so easy. Though I had taken the subway already during the weekend (when I was so nicely invited to Cirque du Soleil by my incredible host family here), today was the first time I took the subway alone. Granted, I had very specific directions for the first ride, and I after that I learned enough to figure it out on my own (that’s how easy it is). I also met two of the Chabad couples and went to the Shanghai Jewish Center for the first time. It is a very nice community center, and truly has the spirit of one, with people coming and going all day long; kids and parents (it’s attached to the pre-school) and smells of food wafting from the kitchen.

Then I went to the French Concession to walk around my potentially future neighborhood. I got some good first impressions of the streets and how incredibly calm and safe the center of Shanghai seems (to be fair, it wasn’t rush hour). Finally, I got into the subway and went to the Museum stop, to meet one of the girls from there (“S”). I got there very early, so I walked out of the stop and into the alley, which was full of old couches, on which a couple of motorcycle-taxi drivers where lounging. There were a few food-vendors and their carts. It was perhaps my first encounter with street-Shanghai. I love street-anything (as is very clearly exemplified by the long posts below on my first impressions of street-Bombay. Hopefully my China blog will lead a longer, better life than my India one).

I waited. And waited. And then, around the time when I figured out that something was wrong, S called and said she couldn’t find me. By then, the motorcycle guys had noticed that I was there, and the food ladies had smiled at me in their shy way. So a basic, elementary form of connection had been established. The bike guys had tried talking to me, and I made it clear that I have no idea what they’re saying. Another first – never have I been this foreign before, both in terms of language and looks. It’s interesting. I think this is why I haven’t learned more than two words of Chinese (since I knew I was coming here, that is): to have this moment. Now that it’s over, as fun as it was, I need to learn the language, because I want to talk to these people who I will see twice a day, on my commute. One of the women was selling some yummy-smelling egg thing that I will only buy when I can ask for it in Chinese. (After that I might get it every day).

What happened then was that I gave the phone to the woman roasting chestnuts. She looked surprised, but then answered the phone with a hearty “wei?”. And I guess S explained to her because she showed up two minutes later. We hugged – a long wait and a struggle to reach each other merits a hug – and started walking towards the Museum.

September 26, 2011

Shanghai feels incredibly familiar, yet is like no other city I’ve ever been in.  I haven’t really seen much of yet, but so far it’s a pretty awesome city. After a weekend here, I’m moving around by myself on the subway and taxis. Granted, being really foreign in a city full of foreign people who have gone through the same thing, really helps. People have printed cards with their address written in Chinese, which you hand to the driver and then lean back comfortably in the cab. Subways are very well-marked, and are in both English and Chinese, and by far easier to navigate than the New York City subway. It feels like Shanghai must have been a very difficult place to arrive to (the way most of China probably still is), so much so that people who did it now make it super easy. I remember trying to do that for guests in Bombay, which is still, I’m realizing, a difficult place to arrive to, and in Bombay people speak English. I know exactly two words in Mandarin (or any other Chinese dialect, for that matter): Ni hao (hello), and xie xie (thank you). My ability to do things is honestly very, extremely limited; but I can see that it is absolutely possible to exist comfortably in this city with perhaps only a slightly larger vocabulary. I want to be conversational at least, and can’t wait to start learning.

At first smell, Shanghai smells like pollution and Chinese herbs. The pollution part is simply that – pollution. At first I tried to place it, but it’s not car-exhaust like in Mexico City, and it’s not sewage-body-odor like in Bombay. It’s not even that gross smelling. It just smells dirty. The Chinese herbs part I can’t quite place, but it’s what the water tasted like also (the taste is starting to fade now, I think I’m getting used to it), and people sometimes smell like that. I’m making it a minor goal to identify that smell within the year (fish-oil, perhaps?).
I’ve been intuitively comparing Shanghai a lot to other places (like I just did above with the smell), and I finally stopped to think about it yesterday. I think that with comparing comes the process of recognition and integration of a detail, a situation, or a behavior. If it’s done in a healthy way, comparing can lead to isolating the ways in which the current experience is unique, through recognizing the collection of factors that make it so. And then it becomes easier to make a place your own.
My frame of reference is so broad at this point that I sometimes get surprised at the analogies I make. They seem so random even to me – and I know the whole story of me. It’s funny what I’ve integrated from each place I’ve lived in, and how the experience I was having mattered so much. I think the place I least compare, in general, is Vermont, in part because it’s so unique, but also because the experience I had there – college – was very singular in my life. (Certain aspects of Israel, however, do remind me of Vermont a lot. Case in point of a weird analogy that makes total sense to me.)The point is that there’s always something; the world, after all, is mostly the same, and so are people as they exist in it. What I love, and would love dedicating my life to, is noticing the little-big things that make each place unique, because each place truly is its own. That is why place, and therefore distance, culture, history, identity, community, nationality, etc., still matter.  It’s also why, in spite of the realm of the Internet, reality, in all its shades of light and dark, is still so overwhelmingly important.

I remember talking about how I should try not to compare Shanghai with Bombay. It seems funny now, given that my first inclination would not be to compare it to Bombay at all. I’m realizing that, out of all the places I’ve lived in (including VT), India really is the most different, the only one in its category. Perhaps after I go to Africa it won’t be so lonely anymore. Shanghai, however, might also be unique in its category, because it is such a wonderfully modern, hip city, with a lot of spunk, terrible driving (still not as bad as Bombay, and worse than Mexico City, but also less heavy in terms of traffic) and an incredible amount of cultural (and culinary!) diversity, both Chinese and international.

However, perhaps the thing that makes it really unique is that it is a city in Mainland China that is home to thousands of permanent westerners. This is a very new thought I’ve started developing, and there’s much to explore in this direction (especially as I haven’t yet been to Hong Kong, another international city, though not in Mainland China). But I’m excited about exploring what this new kind of identity is all about, how it affects its surroundings, and what relevance it might have to my work.

Friday, July 22, 2011

What to do

When adventure becomes a way of life
When leaving is a recurring theme
When the constants are the sunset and the moon
When the act of traveling feels like coming home.

What to do.

When the addiction is to beginnings and endings
When life is not shared with the most loved
but with constantly new, alone, interesting others.
When language, borders, and visas are necessary trivialities,
inviting and welcoming in all their unknown glory.
When stability and home are unknown commodities
And self-imposed restrictions are few.

When the greatest sorrow is leaving a love who is far away today,
sorrow for the future, the present, the what-if and the could-be.
When life-altering choices are made on a whim, on an instinct,
on a need for a quest that is really internal.

When you feel like a pirate. A modern pirate, a pioneer, an explorer,
in constant movement
With a purpose, a goal, a mission
But really simply a sense of adventure, an itch, a yearning to explore
Too big to satisfy in one single place.

The world is so small, with so much in it
But it's still big enough for distance to matter
Big enough to go away and not come back for a long time
Big enough to disappear for a while
And see new, wondrous places
Meet people who are utterly different from yourself
With whom you share more than you can possible imagine.

What to do when it becomes a way of life
A unique opportunity that keeps getting duplicated
A way to live, work, be outside the mainstream.
A way to be happy.