A traditional market in Beijing shows some new American influence. Photo by Tom Tugend
Shanghai Jewish community leader Seth Kaplan. Photo by Tom Tugend
Wang Fa Liang shows landmarks of the city’s era under Japanese occupation to visitors. Photo by Tom Tugend
Assimilating Jewish Life in China
By Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor
As workmen hastily restored the former Ohel Rachel synagogue in Shanghai for the anticipated visit of First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, the spotlight turned on the small but reviving Jewish communities in China.
In China’s capital, for instance, a communal Passover seder was attended by 280 celebrants, and to get the culinary part right, they naturally turned to the Bubbe of Beijing.
The bubbe is Elaine Silverberg, who moved to Beijing 10 years ago from Long Island, N.Y., to join her resident daughter, Elyse Beth Silverberg, a successful businesswoman.
Since then, the bubbe has devoted much of her time to coddling her Beijing-born grandson, Ari, and in training some of the city’s top chefs in the art of Jewish-style cooking. For the seder, her lesson plan included instructions on the making of tasty matzo ball soup and charoset.
The seder was a huge success, setting an all-time record for a Jewish holiday observance in Beijing. Joining the festive occasion were Israeli embassy personnel and some foreign tourists.
With the accelerated opening of China to the Western world, a steady trickle of Jewish businessmen and entrepreneurs from the United States, Canada, Australia, Europe and Israel have established a Jewish presence in Beijing and are reviving the long dormant Jewish community in Shanghai.
Their numbers are augmented by resident diplomats from Israel and other countries, and by young men and women looking for a different clime and often finding a first foothold as teachers of English.
Hong Kong, the outpost of the British empire until its incorporation into China last year, remains by far the largest Jewish center in the country, with some 3,500 residents. But the formation of Kehillat Beijing by the city’s 250 Jews, and of the newly established B’nai Ysrael congregation by Shanghai’s 150 Jews, prove once again that it takes only a small critical mass of Jews to trigger a chain reaction of communal activities — and rivalries.
Elyse Beth Silverberg came to Beijing as an exchange student in 1979, married a Chinese businessman, and after founding a medical instrumentation company has just opened her Beijing United Family Hospital. She has been the sparkplug and steady anchor in a community whose Western business and diplomatic members rarely stay in place for more than three years.
Although Kehillat Beijing has no synagogue, the small congregation has standing ritual and continuing education committees, and holds occasional retreats led by a rabbi from Hong Kong. There is also a constantly refilled pushke (collection box) to pay for Purim parties and book purchases.
“We have no formal membership, our policy is ‘pay as you fress (eat),'” Silverberg said.
She explained what keeps the community together and growing: “We live in an alien place and during the week we are very busy trying to integrate into the local environment. So on Shabbat and holidays, we feel a particularly strong need to bond as Jews.”
A recent American newcomer to Beijing is Joseph (Joey) Rubens, who has taken it upon himself to spread the reputation of Kehillat Beijing via the Internet, and alert Jewish tourists to its services.
He teaches English in a business college and brought along some of his Chinese students to a dinner he hosted for my wife and myself. We asked the students whether they had ever met any Jews, besides Rubens, (they hadn’t), and if not, what they had heard about them. All answered in a phrase we were to hear in other Chinese cities and in a similar tone of admiration: “Jews are very smart and very rich.” In addition, the Chinese feel a kinship to Jews as fellow bearers of an ancient and surviving civilization.
Shanghai has a much longer history of Jewish life than Beijing, but its present community is of even more recent origin.
When the port city was opened to international trade in the 1840s, Jews from Iraq and India — the Sassoons, Kadoories and Hardoons — established themselves as the city’s foremost merchant princes and constructed many of its still existing landmark buildings. A new wave of some 4,500 Jews arrived in the first two decades of this century as refugees from Czarist pogroms and later the Bolsheviks. During the Nazi era, when Shanghai was just about the only place in the world to admit refugees without a visa, some 20,000 central European Jews settled in the city’s Hongkou district.
All the wartime refugees left for Israel, the United States or Australia after the war. Organized Jewish life disappeared until the founding of the B’nai Ysrael congregation some 18 months ago.
The revival owes much to Seth Kaplan, a 31-year-old entrepreneur from New York, who served as first president of the congregation, and who sees a parallel between the current influx and the arrival of Jewish merchants 150 years ago.
“Jews make up less than 2 percent of Shanghai’s non-Asian population, but they represent 30 percent of the non-Asian entrepreneurs,” Kaplan said.
Last April, the city’s 150 Jews, representing 11 different nationalities, celebrated Passover, but were unable to agree on one joint communal seder. Instead, there were three seders, one organized by Chabad, one by the Israeli consulate and one by a private family.
Accordingly, Kaplan said, the toughest part of his volunteer job is to keep the Jewish community going and to prevent it from splintering into even smaller parts.
On a personal level, Kaplan noted the difficulty of finding a Jewish mate in Shanghai and agreed, only half-jokingly, that he may have to import an American mail-order bride.
Two buildings that formerly served as synagogues, the Sephardic Ohel Rachel and the Ashkenazi Ohel Moishe, still stand and the municipality has promised for years to renovate them and return them to the Jewish community.
Despite repeated requests by the Israeli government and American Jewish organizations, there have been “no practical progress in the matter,” said Yaacov Keidar, the Israeli consul general in Shanghai.
The former Ohel Moishe houses a permanent photo exhibit commemorating the Jewish enclave and its inhabitants during World War II. The genial Chinese caretaker, Wang Fa Liang, who shared life in the ghetto with the refugees during the Japanese occupation, doubles as historian of the era and guide to points of Jewish interest. When we visited Ohel Moishe during the last week in May, it was getting a long-overdue coat of paint to welcome Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his entourage two days later.
Although enclaves of ethnic Chinese practicing Judaism existed in past centuries, particularly in Kaifeng, they have melded into the general population and none are found among the members of the present congregations in Beijing and Shanghai. There is, however, a growing interest in Judaism and Israel among Chinese academicians. They have established a Center of Jewish Studies and the China Judaic Studies Association in Shanghai, and a four-year curriculum in Hebrew language and literature at Beijing University.
Formal diplomatic relations between Israel and China were established in 1992, and reports on Israel in the controlled Chinese press have become more balanced in recent years, said Orna Sagiv, the information officer of the Israeli embassy in Beijing.
Both the embassy and the consulate in Shanghai spend considerable effort in expanding trade relations between the two countries. Currently, the two-way trade amounts to about $300 million per year, with China holding a two-to-one edge in the balance of trade.