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A Jewish cultural tourist in Beijing

A typical Chinese courtyard in the hills, which opens onto another typical Chinese courtyard and so on. The weather a bit muggy and misty. This is the Huangya Wall Villa Resort, about 90 minutes outside Beijing, the venue for the first Limmud China. As the mist clears on Shabbat, we venture out. Further courtyards reveal steep stone steps, a gateway and—we’re on the Wall. No, not that wall. The Wall. The Great Wall. I know Jews do walls—for good and for ill—but this one has to be seen to be believed. It winds up hill and down dale, climbing virtually vertically up, dropping vertiginously down, designed to keep out —unsuccessfully —the Mongol hordes. Hadrian’s was more effective. And we all know how Hadrian treated the Jews… So image after image tumble in with no shape and no fixed points. I’m in a land where none of my languages help, where no sign makes any sense, where taxi drivers cannot even recognise a head-nod or shake as a yes or no and where I have no idea what anyone’s thinking as they look at me. All my Jewish learning, all my university education, leaves me an ignorant man here.

And here, in the land of the strange, Jews gather too. About 100 people came together for a first Limmud China, mostly from Beijing and Shanghai but a few from further afield. These are—besides the very different community of Hong Kong—the centres of new Jewish life in China. Mostly made up of ex-pat business folk and students, these communities already boast active Chabad Houses, growing Reform communities, a Moishe House (a sort of Hillel House for young adults) and a cauldron of community politics.

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The Chinese authorities are uneasy about religious activity and, although a certain amount is permitted (for personal consumption, as it were). Luckily Jews don’t do evangelism so nothing for the government to fear there. But better than that is the growing conviction among the intellectual classes in China that the Jews are a good thing, worth cultivating and worth knowing (about). According to one of the presenters at Limmud, Professor Xu Xing, the indefatigable director of the Department of Jewish Studies at Nanjing University, the Chinese are growing in their conviction that if you don’t understand the Jews, their history and culture you can’t really understand the world. By which, of course, they mean the world outside China. Nanjing is just one of nine university departments of Jewish studies — there are more such departments in Chinese universities than at British ones—and my impression was that, although most Chinese don’t know anything about Jews—all Westerners look the same to them, after all—those that do, are fans. But here’s the rub. This adulation comes from some of history’s most vile antisemitic canards; they’re dazzled by Jewish financial acumen and amazed by the power of such a tiny group to control so much of the world. Israel and its story only reinforces their impression that the Jews are, second only to the Chinese, extraordinary people—number two nation, in fact. Faced with this kind of unalloyed enthusiasm, it’s difficult to know how to react. I’m reminded of the joke of the two Jews in Nazi Germany, one of whom reads Der Stürmer because it’s so much more encouraging to read of all the things the Jews control than the bad news in the Jewish papers.

The original Chinese Jews of Kaifeng have all but died out with only vestiges of the community remaining, though the original name for Jews in Chinese—those who-cut-out-the-sinew-from- their-meat—tells us that these Jews were kashrut observant. In later years, two new communities grew up, in Harbin and in Shanghai, poor refugee Ashkenazim and wealthy expansionist Sephardi merchants, but both communities are now long gone. (In Shanghai there is some redevelopment of the old Jewish buildings that remain, not least a new Jewish museum.)

Now it’s Jews like you and me—lots of Americans, quite a few Israelis, a smattering of Europeans—each making their way in a strange land, clustering together for a bit of Jewish life in the two megalopolises of Beijing and Shanghai. Some have married local people (some of whom have converted) bringing a slight racial mix to Jewish gatherings, and some have children who speak Chinese comfortably. How far these communities will sink roots is not clear and life in China is still very unpredictable. But enthusiasm for the Chinese translation of Start-up Nation (Senor and Singer’s recent book about Israel) shows that, in China at least, Israel is not viewed as an ‘upstart nation’. The Chinese identify with the Jews, done down in the past by a rapacious and intolerant western world. We may know that the story is a bit more subtle than that, and squirm at enthusiasm for stereotypes which hitherto have done the Jews no good. Nevertheless, there’s still all to play for in the uneven encounter between one of the world’s most populous and aloof people and one of the world’s smallest and most scattered. We can help the Chinese learn how to live in diaspora and cope with the West. They might be able to teach us again how to feel an un-self-conscious self-confidence.

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4 Comments
  1. Jane West Walsh says

    Your observations are very engaging – tell us more about Jewish life in China in general and the future of Limmud there, in particular.

  2. Rhoda Weisman says

    So fascinating. Please write more.

  3. ybc says

    “we can learn how to help the chinese cope with diaspora”? the chinese diaspora has flourished for quite a while …

  4. ASimpleCatholic says

    A very well written piece.

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