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?


  1. Gila suggested I read this blog! She was right. I have enjoyed reading your postings, and found they help explain some of the things I saw while we were in China. Regards and best wishes!

    1. Thank you Seth! I'd love to read more thoughts you have in the future! Hope you're doing well.

  2. REALLY interesting...I remember we had a conversation about this. Personally, I am glad that I have such a diverse background , it has definitely widened my horizons! x

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