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)