The best way to tell if a city has a sizable Jewish population, as my father used to say, is by the number of good Chinese restaurants.
The same cannot be said of China itself, of course, which has a billion Chinese but hardly enough Jews to make a minyan. Still, the undeniable affinity between the Chinese people and the Jewish people is very much in evidence in “Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating With China’s Other Billion” (Holt: $15) by Michael Levy, a funny, endearing and fascinating account of his sojourn in China, where he quickly earned the nickname “the Friendship Jew.”
The Peace Corps sent Levy to China in 2005 to teach English in the city of Guiyang. From the outset, as we learn in Levy’s utterly winning book, he suffered a kind of continuous culture shock. When he was offered a bowl of deep-fried millipedes, it was less a matter of kashrut than visceral revulsion that put him off — “I strongly believe there is no species of millipede I will ever find palatable” — but he played the kosher card: “I’m a little different than most Americans,” he demurred. “I’m a Jew.” He quickly discovered that his Jewish identity had some interesting resonances in a communist country.
“Comrade Marx was a Jew,” said one of his hosts. “So was Einstein,” said another. And a third man observed: “Why would the CIA send us a Jew?”
When Levy dreamed of China, he confesses, he dreamed of “rice paddies and kung fu, egg rolls and Chairman Mao.” When he landed in Chengdu, what he found was a “an unregulated,
crony-capitalist dream, generating a thick, pore-clogging smog,” a totalitarian country where some 40,000 full-time Internet censors are at work to maintain “the Great Firewall of China,” and a place where one quickly needed to master the niceties of the “squat toilet.” He is soon eating pork dumplings, which represents a compromise of his vegetarianism rather than his Judaism, and when he eyes the tantalizing hemline of one of his fellow teachers, he writes, “I had unkosher thoughts.”
Levy allows us to understand the twists and turns that both separate and unite America and China. A communist official tells him, “Chinese women want to ‘become white like Michael Jackson.’ ” The town where he is assigned to teach, he discovers, has not one, but two Walmarts. On his first day of class, his students debate among themselves whether he is a “foreigner” or a “foreign devil.” When asked to choose English names to use in class, one student calls herself by the colloquial English word for a young cat, which occasions a frank discussion of American euphemisms and their Chinese equivalents; the young woman eventually chooses a synonym: “Kitten.”
He is quickly recruited to serve as leader of the Guizhou University Jewish Friday Night English and Cooking Corner Club, which serves as an occasion for some lively cultural exchanges, some highly inventive culinary adventures and much practice at what he calls “Crazy English.” He joins a basketball team and learns how the hot-button issue of Taiwan can affect the world of sports. He is much sought after for advice on everything from relationships to real estate, and for information on all aspects of being American and being Jewish. Indeed, the fact that he is Jewish is a matter of intense interest among his Chinese acquaintances, which helps to explain why one best-selling book in China is titled “Jewish People’s Secrets for Success.”
Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether Levy is playing for laughs or if his experiences in China were as comical as he makes them out to be, but there are plenty of moments of laugh-out-loud humor in “Kosher Chinese.” Levy is still working as a schoolteacher, but he would make a gifted sitcom writer. When asked to describe how Christmas is celebrated in America, for example, he tells his students how American Jews engage in “the yearly ritual of spending Christmas Eve in a Chinese restaurant.”
“Is that because Comrade Marx was Jewish, and China upholds his belief?” asks one Chinese student.
“No,” answers Levy. “It’s because everything else is closed.”
Thus does Levy earn his nickname, “Friendship Jew.” Indeed, he succeeds in charming the reader just as he charmed his friends, colleagues and students in China. “We Chinese cannot trust a person until we have been drunk with them,” one young man tells Levy. “It’s only after much drinking that we can see each other’s true minds.” That’s exactly how I felt about Michael Levy after the pleasurable and sometimes uproarious experience of seeing China through his eyes.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs on books at
Jesus will appear on the Christian holy day of Ash Wednesday — thanks to Mel Gibson.
The Hollywood star directed and financed the $25 million epic "The Passion of the Christ," which is emerging from a nearly yearlong media storm and is due to hit 2,000 screens nationwide Feb. 25.
That Gibson’s "The Passion" will premiere is certain. The big question is how a reportedly gory film about the last 12 hours in Jesus’ life, in Aramaic and Latin with subtitles, will play at the local multiplex.
Many Jewish organizational leaders also are waiting to see if a movie they say scapegoats the Jews for the crucifixion will produce legions of Jew-hating moviegoers and poison Christian-Jewish relations for years to come.
"It makes the Romans look like lambs who are being forced [to punish Jesus], and it shows the Jews as bloodthirsty and vengeful and unending in their desire to see him crucified," Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said after emerging from a preview last week.
The movie debuts at a sensitive period in Catholic-Jewish relations. It also reflects a larger struggle within the Catholic Church over whether to continue promoting 40-year-old reforms that include renouncing the notion of collective Jewish guilt for Jesus’ crucifixion, an issue Gibson apparently brings to the silver screen.
"Tied loosely to the film, there is enormous concern on both sides" of the Catholic-Jewish divide "about which direction the church will be going in the post-John Paul II era," said Rabbi Eugene Korn, a Seton Hall adjunct professor and longtime interfaith advocate. "There is contradictory data out there."
Last week, some signs of hope about those ties surfaced in New York, where the World Jewish Congress (WJC) hosted a two-day gathering that brought together 12 cardinals and six chief rabbis from nations as diverse as Angola and Ukraine with a group of Catholic and Jewish scholars.
But even as the interfaith talks took place, the Gibson movie continued to inflame new tensions.
David Elcott, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, also saw the Jesus movie last week at one of the nation’s largest evangelical churches, in a Chicago suburb.
The movie shows the Jews as a "mob spitting, scratching, yelling, pummeling [at Jesus], their faces contorted," Elcott said. "This movie is an assault on our commitment to interreligious dialogue and respect."
Such bitter reviews echoed earlier warnings by a few rabbis who had seen earlier film drafts. They saw them at previews Gibson’s associates staged, which largely preached to the converted — that is, evangelicals and political conservatives.
Running the carefully orchestrated public-relations campaign surrounding the film is a Christian group called Outreach, which runs a Web site promoting the movie and points to rave reviews from Christian clerics and Michael Medved, who is identified as a "Jewish film critic."
Meanwhile, even as the bishops met with rabbis in New York, and the pope met with two top Israeli rabbis last week, another dispute erupted over whether the pope himself endorsed the movie.
A Wall Street Journal columnist was the first to report that an Icon producer succeeded in getting a copy of the movie to the pontiff, who viewed it and, according to an unnamed Vatican source, said, "It is as it was."
Other reports echoed that account, but a senior Vatican aide to the pontiff later dismissed the report, saying the pope "does not give judgments on art."
Ironically, Gibson is a member of a Catholic fundamentalist sect that rejects Vatican authority and opposes its reforms, though Gibson has insisted he is not anti-Semitic.
Gibson "is as mensch as they get," said Icon spokesman Alan Nierob. "He’s a wonderful person who’s just trying to make a good film."
Nierob also dismissed any apparent contradiction between Gibson’s opposition to the Vatican and Icon’s apparent quest for the church’s imprimatur.
"It’s just a matter of building support," he said.
In fact, the past year’s worth of media scrutiny has only helped "in terms of interest awareness" for the movie, Nierob said, and the Outreach Web site is even taking advance ticket orders.
Some think the Jewish attention to the film has only aggravated the situation.
Some Jewish groups "blundered" by helping generate such buzz for a movie that would likely have found few fans, said Elan Steinberg, executive vice president of the WJC.
"I don’t remember the last blockbuster in Aramaic," Steinberg said.
Some signs of goodwill have cropped up in the past year related to the movie.
A group of Catholic and Jewish scholars who specialize in the study of the historical Jesus, and whose views Gibson rejects, criticized the movie as retrograde.
While the furor over the movie is likely to continue, interfaith activists remain confident that it won’t adversely affect progress in Catholic-Jewish relations.
Catholic-Jewish ties "will continue," Korn said. "There are partners on both sides who want it to."
“Everything Is Illuminated” by Jonathan Safran Foer (Houghton Mifflin, $24).
Jonathan Safran Foer’s new book, “Everything Is Illuminated” has garnered rave reviews everywhere, from The New York Times to Esquire, with front jacket quotes by Russell Banks, Nathan Englander and mentor Joyce Carol Oates; it has even been optioned for a movie by actor Liev Schrieber’s prodction company.
Foer, a 25-year-old Princeton graduate, turned his short, unsuccessful trip to the Ukraine, where he searched for the woman who saved his grandfather from the Holocaust, into a bizarre fictional account of the search for a woman who saved his grandfather from the Holocaust. The novel, whose narrator is uncoincidentally named Jonathan Safran Foer, is interwoven with the hysterical correspondence from his language-mangling translator, Alexander Perchov, and tales of their trip around Ukraine with his narcoleptic grandfather, and a dog named Sammy Davis Junior, Junior.
With his silver-rimmed glasses and a slightly sardonic smile, Foer seems less like the literary wunderkind of the moment, and more like the really, really, really smart Jewish guy from your high school class who might not have gone to the prom because he was working on his science project. Actually, Foer had thought of “Illuminated” as a “project” the whole time he was working on it.
“I never used the words book or novel. I’m still not comfortable with calling myself a writer,” he told The Journal last week after he appeared at The Los Angeles Times Book Fair.
Growing up the middle of three brothers, Foer was a member of the Conservative Addis Israel Synagogue in Washington, D.C. He did the weekly Hebrew school thing avec bar mitzvah, albeit reluctantly. “I didn’t really think about [my Judaism].”
“It was the kind of experience that didn’t reveal itself until much later,” he said.
In the process of researching and writing the book, Foer — the author, not the narrator — discovered his strong ties to his roots. “I feel more connected to the past,” he said. “In part because I did it on my own terms — it was very liberating, not constraining.” The book helped him “make something personal … to depart from tradition.”
Indeed , the “historical” parts of the book, in the late 18th century Ukranian shtetl Trachimbrod, are more irreverent than traditional.
Has this offended anyone?
“It’s amazing how flexible Jews are. It’s understood that it’s a joke. I knew I was being true, the way I felt things, and there must be some good in that. I never made of or deflated anything,” he said. “The Bible is about people who depart. That’s what Judaism is about.”
The acclaim of his book hasn’t fazed him. Of course, it might just be that he’s used to it. Foer’s first book was as the editor of anthology of fiction, “A Convergence of Birds: Original Fiction and Poetry Inspired by the Work of Joseph Cornell” and he’s already at work on is second novel, the story of a New York man who kept diaries during the Holocaust but was overshadowed by Anne Frank.
With the apparent success of “Illuminated” — it reportedly pulled in almost half a million dollars in a book house bidding war — Foer said that he feels more isolated. “People didn’t want to talk about the book,” he says of his close friends and family. His life hasn’t changed much because the book has “nothing to do with real, fundamental substance.”
Oddly enough, of all the glowing reviews he’s received, he say the one that means the most to him is from The Forward, calling it “The Century’s First Great American Jewish Novel.”
“The Great American Jewish Novel has been, until now, a 20th-century convention, and with the exception of Henry Roth, its claimants have been primarily first-generation Americans whose fiction burst into a postwar literary landscape….” The review discusses Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, and says that “Illuminated” “at once recalls the literary tradition of these novels and invents something all its own.”
What that something is, isn’t entirely always clear, concise or pretty, but in the end, perhaps it reveals the most about Foer, both the author and the character.
He used this device of calling the narrator himself because, “It’s the way it had to be. I know the story I wanted to tell, and using myself was the key to get it.”
But he isn’t sorry.
“In retrospect, it made me vulnerable.”