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.

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