Arts & Culture

The Hunt for Red Tishrei: Judaism in China

In English, word order is often a crucial indicator of sentence meaning. As an English as a Foreign Language teacher I truly wish I could expand on that. All I can do is throw it out there and say, don’t … Read More

By / September 23, 2009

In English, word order is often a crucial indicator of sentence meaning. As an English as a Foreign Language teacher I truly wish I could expand on that. All I can do is throw it out there and say, don’t look at me, I’m just your friendly neighborhood Native Speaker, brought here from the hills of Upstate New York to teach slang, swear words, idioms, emphasis and listen-to-me-talk-really-really-fast comprehension.

But of course that doesn’t stop me from asking myself what am I doing here? anymore than it stops me from trying to tell you what I am doing here.

I arrived in Guangzhou, China about a month ago as one of a cozy group of volunteers scattered throughout Asia known collectively (and most appropriately) as Volunteers in Asia. However, I am alone here in this city, with my survival Chinese and teaching experience that – no exaggeration – is increasing exponentially.

Assuming I manage to stay out of trouble, I hope to live here for a while. Still, I hadn’t planned on seeking out the Jewish community. I knew I wasn’t done with it yet (if I ever will be), but I thought I could set my intellectual and spiritual curiosity aside for the time being. I figured it would always be there for me when I got back.

There were good reasons for putting my faith or lack thereof on the back burner. For one, this is China; it is a great land known for many great things, but despite a history of Jews in China, a thriving Jewish community is not one of them. And two, I am not even Jewish. Not at all, not by any definition.

Forgetting it should have been easy. I have my hands full of new and exciting experiences as it is, do I really need one more thing on my plate?

Having grown up Catholic, I love the holiday season that stretches from Thanksgiving to New Year’s. It’s a time full of old traditions that have a way of feeling new year after year. In my mind I’ve come to call the Jewish high holidays "the other holiday season." Even without a personal history of tradition and with only very few memories of what the high holidays are like, my first thought upon waking last Friday was, "it’s Rosh Hashanah!"

I should not feel this way. But even more, I should not feel this way and do nothing about it. Hence, I have decided to look for the Jewish community here, after all.

Guangzhou is a booming metropolis about the size of New York City though it has a much more laid-back, southern vibe. My understanding is that there is a sizeable expat community, though I know next to nothing about it. The district (think: borough) I live in is beautiful, old and removed from the city center. Depending on the time of day, it can take over an hour to get to the Chabad House – the lone expression of Jewish life in the city that I know of (so far).

At first I felt that old Catholic determination, the, "I really don’t want to do this, but I know it’s right. God help me" feeling that is so central to my being. That is what pulled me out of my fear and preconceived notions of what Chabad is and got me on the bus (twice, since the first time I failed to find it). It was that determination (some might call it "blind faith" or something even less flattering) that pressed the buzzer under the prominent mezuzah and, greeted by a Chinese man in an empty foyer, tried to explain my situation. "You’d better talk to the rabbi," he said, as if I thought he would have the answers to my spiritual questions.

I sat quietly in the rabbi’s office as he spoke on the phone, in Hebrew. Hebrew, in China. I thought, this is pretty cool. This is good. Then it was my turn.

"Hi, I’m sorry to drop in like this. I had no idea what to expect." I started.

"No problem."

"Okay. Well, I moved here about a month ago."

"Are you teaching?"

"Yes," (How did he know?) "I’ll be here for a year or two."

"That’s a long time. I’m glad you found us."

"Yes, me too."

"Will you be joining us tomorrow evening?"

"Well, the thing is, I’m not Jewish."

I did my best to explain, but it’s never easy. I have a hard time explaining irrational things, in general. Sometimes I hope "I grew up in New York" will explain it, though it shouldn’t. And when that fails I hope "my parents put me in JCC camp as a child" will do it, but that’s not it either.

"You’d better talk to my wife," he told me.

And that was it. I traveled an hour and a half for a three-minute conversation. The kind of conversation that makes you want to calmly and coolly ride the elevator to the top of the highest nearby building and jump off without even bothering to take in the view, no less.

It isn’t a bad feeling, necessarily, but it is intense and jarring.