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.