November 12, 2018

Shanghai Seder

Gus Axelrod and Stuart Magloff sit with their families together on a recent Sunday and eat lox and bagels. It’s hardly a remarkable event, except for its location: Shanghai.

China’s bustling financial center, home to about 13 million, is also a temporary home to about 200 Jews. Most, like Axelrod and Magloff, are business people who came here for career opportunities.”In China a person can take on a bigger role with more responsibility at an earlier point in his career than he could in the United States,” according to Michael Goldman, a financial comptroller from Philadelphia who has lived in China for nine years.

Magloff, who is director of operations for Johnson & Johnson, wondered whether it would be possible to continue to raise his children Jewish in an environment that is as decidedly non-Jewish as China’s.But Magloff’s family, like other Jews here, is more observant in Shanghai than in the United States because being in a foreign environment gives them more reason to connect to something familiar, like the Jewish community.

Others find the lack of anti-Semitism quite refreshing.”I find it easier to be Jewish here than in any other place we’ve ever lived,” said Magloff’s wife, Carol, who grew up in south Texas. “I killed Jesus. Me, personally, that’s how I grew up,” adding that she doesn’t feel the same anti-Semitism in Shanghai.

The result of this newfound connection is a flurry of Jewish activities. There’s a toddlers’ group, a youth group, adult and Bar Mitzvah classes and informal get-togethers. A preschool is set to open next year.The community got a big boost in 1998 with the arrival of Rabbi Shalom Greenberg. The 28-year-old Chabad rabbi was born in Israel and educated in New York.

The city’s current Jewish community has no connection to Shanghai’s Jewish past – except for one link.Albert Sassoon, a New York-based clothing manufacturer, is distantly related to the Iraqi Sassoon family prominent in Shanghai in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Sassoon, an Orthodox Jew, has generously contributed to the community and has even donated office space for the rabbi. Amid the rumble of sewing machines a few doors down, Greenberg can be heard correcting a Bar Mitzvah student on Hebrew pronunciation – or telling one of his many Jewish-Chinese jokes that he receives via e-mail.

“Once a teacher was teaching his students in the school about the two oldest nations: the Jewish nation and the Chinese nation. He explains that the Jewish nation is something like 5,000 years old and the Chinese nation is about 4,000 years old. At the end of the lesson the teacher asks: What does this mean to you?”One student gets up and says: So all those years the Jewish nation existed without the Chinese nation. What were they doing? How did the Jews exist without Chinese food?”

Members of Shanghai’s Jewish community recognize some similarities between the two cultures.”The desire for education, for learning, a degree of success, the family – all of these characteristics are common,” said Axelrod.

But there are some things that are decidedly different.”There’s a restaurant herecalled Shu You. We call it the Shu You Zoo,” said Carol Magloff. “You walk in there and there are animals in cages,” she said, adding that snakes, rabbits and dogs are among them. Diners choose what they want and it arrives – cooked – on their plates.

But if just plain eating can be tough for Westerners, eating kosher is a real challenge.”It’s not difficult. It’s just expensive,” said Greenberg, noting he pays $6 a pound for kosher chicken, including high import fees.

“Actually, things are easier now,” he said. When he first came to Shanghai two years ago, the rabbi had to travel to Hong Kong or the States for kosher products.”People in the customs, they thought I’m nuts. When they asked me what is in the box and I said chicken, they couldn’t believe me. Why would you bring a chicken to Shanghai? You know Shanghai is full of chickens.”

But not kosher chickens – at least until recently.Bruce Feuer, a Reform Jew from Atlanta, manages the development where the five-star Portman Ritz Carlton hotel is located. Feuer, who is president of the Jewish Community of Shanghai, introduced the rabbi to the hotel’s executive chef, Christopher Christie, a Protestant from Canada who is not as unlikely a kosher specialist as it may first appear.

“Growing up in Winnipeg, there was a very large Jewish community, and we opened up a kosher kitchen because the demand was there. And I spent a lot of time with the mashgiach [kosher supervisor], who was looking over the kitchen, and I asked a lot of questions, and I just found it fascinating.”Christie has donated a section in one of his enormous commercial freezers for the rabbi’s kosher meat, which he supplies with orders that take 10 days to arrive.

“You can’t just decide, ‘Oops. I’m missing a chicken. I’ll go down to the butcher to buy one,'” the rabbi said.Christie recently worked on the community’s seder, attended by 130 guests, and also organized what community members believe to be China’s first postwar Bat Mitzvah.There are other challenges as well – a key one involves the Chinese authorities. Shanghai had several places of worship during the 1930s and 1940s, when European refugees lived there.But today, Jews pray mostly in an activity room in the Shanghai Centre, operated by Seacliff Ltd., of which Feuer is the general manager.

There is a synagogue in Shanghai – Ohel Rachel – but it looks more like a museum than a place of worship.The synagogue was cleaned up before President Clinton’s visit two years ago, but the Jewish community has access to it only on rare occasions.

Last year marked the first time the current Jewish community in Shanghai was able to use it. But the Chinese government opened it for only one day, so members could worship there on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, but not the second and not on Yom Kippur.

Ohel Rachel was opened again for a Chanukah party last year, but when Steve Fieldman, a lawyer and professor teaching in Shanghai, wanted his Bat Mitzvah-aged daughter and family to celebrate in the synagogue, he was turned down. Instead, the Bat Mitzvah was held at the Ritz.”Dealing with the Chinese authorities on this issue is not a legal issue, it’s a political issue,” said Fieldman, a member of Temple Israel in Orlando, Fla.

He believes that the Chinese government does not want to be seen as favoring Jews. Judaism is not one of the five officially recognized religions, although the community has applied for official status.Additionally, Beijing requires that only non-Chinese residents take part in the Jewish community’s activities.

“As long as we are here for the Jewish people, that’s fine,” the rabbi said. “But as soon as we open our doors to the Chinese people, they will close our doors.”Still, the rabbi is optimistic. “We are working on getting the Ohel Rachel synagogue back. Now we are hoping that they will allow us to use it at least 20 times in the next year.”The Jewish community was given use of Ohel Rachel for the first night of Passover this year. A group of Auschwitz survivors attended the services, reminding congregants that although Shanghai showed compassion for Jews during the war, many were not as lucky.Henry Levine, the Jewish U.S. consul general in Shanghai, has been very helpful to the community, members say.

And most Jews in Shanghai understand that things take time in their temporary home.”It is China. It’s their country,” said Axelrod. “They can set the rules, and we have to accommodate them. And I think we’re doing a reasonably good job.”