What’s that Israeli doing emceeing a Chinese gala?
When American Israeli Leeshai Lemish takes the stage at the Nokia Theatre L.A. Live in downtown Los Angeles on Jan. 18, he will introduce — in fluent Chinese — elite dancers, musicians, martial artists and actors of the New Tang Dynasty Television’s “Chinese New Year Spectacular.”
The complex, winding road that led Lemish, 29, to host this visually stunning celebration of China’s rich, ancient traditions and fabled Golden Age, includes such disparate elements as baseball, the Israel Defense Forces, Falun Gong, Pomona College and one terrifying night in a Chinese jail cell.
Lemish, a bright, passionate man, spent the first few years of his life in Ohio, where his Israeli mother and American father were completing their doctorates. When he was 5, the family moved to Israel, where he grew up with two younger siblings.
Lemish developed a passion for baseball early on, and his promising pitching skills allowed him to pursue an amateur career in sports. From the age of 14 until he graduated high school, he played on the Israeli national baseball team in European Little League competitions. At 18, he was being scouted by a professional American team.
But his dreams of becoming a professional baseball player were dashed by an obligation to his country. Like every other 18-year-old Israeli citizen, Lemish was required to serve three years in the Israeli army, forcing him to cut short his baseball training with a California college team.
And then, the grueling physical demands of army service damaged Lemish’s back, to the point where baseball was no longer an option. This turn of events forced Lemish, who used to wear a shirt that said, “Baseball is life, everything else is details,” to seek out another direction in life.
For the son of two distinguished professors, college was a natural choice. So Lemish, along with his future wife, Sarah, moved to California to pursue bachelor’s degrees at Pomona College.
Although steeped in academia, Lemish still drew on the lessons he had learned in baseball. While an active player, he had focused on the mental aspects of the game. He used guided imagery, visualization and meditation to improve his pitching.
“Our mind can affect us so much,” said Lemish in a phone interview from Brooklyn, where he and his wife now live. If those mind-body techniques can work in baseball, Lemish reasoned, they can work in other aspects of life.
After Lemish hurt his back in the army, he began exploring tai chi, yoga and other Eastern practices as forms of relief. It was this interest in self-refinement that eventually led Lemish in 2001 to Falun Gong, a form of Chinese meditation that incorporates moral requirements, spiritual elements and physical movements. This was the beginning of Lemish’s fascination with Chinese culture.
That fall at Pomona College, a few courses on the Chinese language turned into a major in Asian studies, with a focus on Chinese history and a minor in Chinese. He spent a semester abroad in Taiwan and a summer in Cambodia researching Chinese migrants.
Lemish’s connection to Chinese culture was not merely academic. The years he spent in college coincided with the Chinese Communist Party’s brutal crackdown on practitioners of Falun Gong. Enraged by reports of torture, murder, concentration camps and organ harvesting, Lemish joined a group of 35 activists from 12 countries on a protest trip to China in November 2001.
The group gathered in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square for a sit-in meditation under a banner that proclaimed the principles of Falun Gong, “Truth, Compassion, Tolerance.”
Security was very high in the square, recalled Lemish. “Every other person was a plain-clothed policeman,” he said, explaining that they were easy to spot, because they were all similarly dressed males with no apparent reason to be hanging around the square. “But I didn’t feel scared for some reason.”
Then they were arrested.
Lemish was taken to jail and pushed, kicked, slapped and thrown around. His jaw was knocked out of place: “They tried to get me to sign some sort of apology or denunciation of Falun Gong that they could then flout in public — it was very ‘1984’-ish — but I wouldn’t sign anything.”
After a night in captivity, he was deported.
“I’m blacklisted in China,” said Lemish, whose story was the subject of a big feature in Israel’s Ma’ariv newspaper. “I’m banned from a country I care very deeply about and have spent lots of time learning about.”
But he doesn’t regret the experience.
“I grew up learning about the Holocaust,” he said. “No one stood up for my ancestors, but we’ve learned something from that experience. Falun Gong and the Holocaust are not the same, but they’re similar atrocities. I felt a historical burden to stand up and do something.”
Lemish’s parents were actively involved in human rights work in Israel, and they often brought him along to pro-peace rallies and demonstrations. They were at just such a rally in Tel Aviv on Nov. 4, 1995, when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.
Since that episode in China, Lemish has written numerous articles and academic papers in English and Chinese on the persecution of Falun Gong, including a 40-page essay explicating the politically motivated campaign of terror. He has also been a guest speaker at numerous conferences on the subject.
“Simply put, Falun Gong is independent of the communist system and ideology, and the regime insists on absolute loyalty — at least on the surface — and conformity. Falun Gong is its own entity, though not political in any way, but that is enough to incite the communist regime to want to stamp it out, because they have no control over it.”
The harassment of Falun Gong followers extends beyond mainland China. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution in 2002 calling on China to “cease its persecution and harassment of Falun Gong practitioners in the United States.”
“I know my phone has been tapped and my e-mails read,” Lemish said.
Asked how can he tell, Lemish replied, “Let’s just say it has to do with what I did in the Israeli army.”
Lemish’s friends have been followed, their conversations taped and played back to them on their own answering machines, and his mother received a warning phone call from the Chinese Embassy.
“And yet, there are zero U.N. resolutions against China. And many against Israel. How does that make any sense?” he asked.
Lemish’s activism in the Chinese community has earned him — along with foes — friends and business connections. Through an acquaintance, he was brought to the attention of producers at New Tang Dynasty Television (NTDTV), an independent, nonprofit Chinese-language television station established in New York by Chinese transplants. Broadcasting uncensored information via satellite in North America, Asia, Europe, Australia and, most remarkably, China, the station has gained an international reputation for objective reporting on political, economic and cultural stories of interest to the Chinese-speaking world.
In addition to its news gathering capacities, NTDTV also produces educational and entertainment programming, such as Chinese cultural performances and parades.
In 2005, the network was looking for someone fluent in Chinese, with experience as a public speaker, to co-host the Dragonboat Festival show in Los Angeles. “I really didn’t want to do it at first,” said Lemish, explaining that he was too busy at the time with other things, such as his thesis. “I was in the middle of writing a morose piece on torture, and I wasn’t in the mood to do some happy dancing thing.”
Lemish ended up doing not one, but two happy dancing shows, and the Chinese audience was tickled by his ability to speak flawless Chinese and even make jokes in the language.
Thus began Lemish’s flourishing career as a non-Chinese host of Chinese variety shows.
In the past three years, Lemish has hosted NTDTV’s major “Chinese New Year Global Gala” at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, the “Holiday Wonders” show in New York and the “Divine Performing Arts 2007” global tour. Starting in January, Lemish will be traveling to 50 cities, hosting 120 performances of the 2008 “Chinese New Year Spectacular.”
In addition to the talented performers, ornate costumes and intricate, hand-painted sets, the performing arts extravaganza has a powerful political message that animates it.
“The Chinese Communist regime wants to have a monopoly on Chinese culture,” Lemish said. “This show is saying, ‘You’ve killed much of our heritage and culture, but we’re going to bring back these traditions and Chinese values.'” Stage manager April (Ying) Chen, who grew up in Communist China, believes very strongly in the show’s purpose.
“The Chinese Embassy has been trying to interfere in our production. Our performers, who are banned from China, have been threatened. But that only makes us more determined in our effort to bring back our heritage.”
The two-and-a-half-hour show features songs with classic Chinese themes — finding a purpose in life, discovering opportunities. The array of intricate dances include folk, Mongolian, sword, drum and ribbon. Actors present epic stories, such as the now well-known “Legend of Mulan,” as well as loyalty tales about great generals and emperors. The show also includes more religiously oriented pieces involving Buddhism.
Lemish, who is accompanied by a female host on stage, is responsible for introducing each piece of the performance in an informative and entertaining manner.
“Leeshai would often compare us to the thread linking up the pearls — the numbers — and together we make a beautiful pearl necklace,” said Mei Zhou, Lemish’s co-host last year and this year.
A long-time friend, Zhou said Lemish is a precious asset to the show. “He’s very disciplined and organized and hard working,” she said. “Maybe that’s because of his time in the army. But he’s also very funny. And he’s more dramatic than Chinese hosts I’ve worked with.”
Lemish, she said, uses a lot of physical comedy and props to enhance his lines.
For one show, he came up with a silly pony dance to mimic the group of Mongolian riders that had just exited the stage. “Leeshai’s pony dance” as they all came to call it, went over very well with the audience.
So did his Chanukah antics during the 2006 “Holiday Wonders” show. With a largely mixed audience, Lemish took the opportunity to throw in a bit of Jewish content, singing a Chanukah song in Hebrew and spinning like a dreidel.
Though the majority of the cast and crew are Chinese and speak mostly their own language, Lemish is never looked upon as an outsider.
“He mixes so well with everyone,” said stage manager Chen. “His language is highly developed, and he has such a strong grasp of the subtleties of our culture, that he’s a natural fit for the show.”
“I get so much love and support for being non-Chinese and speaking Chinese,” said Lemish. “Chinese people I meet are so impressed at the effort I’ve made to learn about their culture and language.”
Lemish is also well-regarded for being Jewish.
“The Chinese have a deep respect for Jewish people,” he said. “They see many similarities between the cultures: Both strongly emphasize education and family; both have thousands of years of uninterrupted history with deeply rooted traditions.”
Lemish sees the parallels. “What this show has done for me is given me renewed appreciation for my own heritage and thousand-year-old culture.”
Though he is not sure he will make a lifelong career of hosting Chinese performances — he hopes to pursue academia — Lemish is clearly thrilled to be taking part in an extraordinary show.
“This show is about the revival of a culture,” he stressed. “It’s part of a movement of optimism that believes that change is coming for the Chinese people. I play only a supplemental role, but I would like to think that someday, I will look back on all this as historical.”
The “Chinese New Year Spectacular” Fri., Jan. 18 at 8 p.m., Sat., Jan. 19 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sun., Jan. 20 at 2 p.m. $38-$188. Nokia Theatre LA Live, 777 Chick Hearn Court, Downtown Los Angeles. For more information, call (213) 480-3232 or visit