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China for the Holidays: Not Every Country is Anti-Semitic Choosing Judaism

Photos: Plaque on house near Ohel Rachel synagogue in Shanghai; Rehearsing for Yom Kippur with Arhu (Chinese violin), bassoon, guitar and vocal; book on Jewish business practices.

One of the fascinating things for me about China is that every Jew I meet here says approximately the same thing: there is no Anti-Semitism in China. In fact, they tend to say that there is a kind of bias in favor of Jews, a pro- or Philo-Semitism that leads Chinese people to think Jews are smart, capable, and good at business, very high values in today’s China. There are more than 50 books in Chinese that advertise that they teach, “The Jewish Way to Do Business,” and there is a city in China that is credited with inventing Chinese banking which is colloquially called a “Jewish city” although it has no Jews; banking is considered a great fiscal accomplishment and we Jews are understood to have invented it originally.

The Chinese, I am told, also believe that we Jews are excellent at raising smart, capable, successful children. I discussed with a new friend here that a definite future best-seller in China would be “The Jewish Mother’s Guide to Raising Successful Children.” It wouldn’t have to be published in English at all, just Mandarin Chinese. There is definitely a market for it.

On rare occasions, it seems, stereotypes can be of benefit.

Which helps explain why during World War II there was no objection from the Chinese government to accepting Jewish refugees in fairly large numbers here, creating the so-called “Shanghai Ghetto.” China wasn’t wealthy then—it surely is on the way to being so now, if it isn’t already there—and in those days living standards weren’t what Jews from Vienna or Berlin or Warsaw were used to experiencing. But there was no persecution by the Chinese, and even when the Japanese conquered this part of China conditions were equally difficult for everyone. In fact, the Jews generally had it better than the Chinese did under Japanese military occupation.

And although we Jews have always been a small minority everywhere we have lived, with the exception of Israel and certain boroughs of New York City, the experience of minority-hood in China is more intensive by several orders of magnitude. There are between 3,000 and 5,000 Jews in Shanghai, out of a population of 24 million. That translates to .02% of the population, about two out of every 10,000 people are Jewish. That’s a really tiny minority in a huge, world-class city.

Which means that if you want to retain your Jewish identity, and teach it to your children, you have to choose to do so willingly and consistently. You aren’t going to be actively Jewish by accident, as you can be in many other places in the world, nor by simply doing what your neighbors are doing. You don’t have to find refuge from the Anti-Semites with other Jews, because that’s not the reality in China. You might be able to find bagels—there are two places quite near me, actually—but you can’t assume anything else about affirming your Judaism. You have to choose to involve yourself, to act, to own your Jewish life.

All of which makes experiencing Judaism in Shanghai, and observing the High Holy Days and Shabbat here, quite different from celebrating it anywhere else. Everyone is active because she or he has chosen to be so. I have participated in two Shabbat evening events, taught Taste of Judaism classes, led classes in the new religious school “Tov!” here in Shanghai, taught an energetic class of 7 b’nai mitzvah students and met with many community leaders, parents, congregants, grandparents, Moishe House participants and children. Everyone is here very much by choice.

Which powerfully reinforces the theme of the High Holy Day season: I set before you this day a choice. For the Ten Days of Repentance that choice is to follow the mitzvot, to choose good and not evil. Here in Shanghai, at Kehilat Shanghai, it is also a choice to be Jewish and to create Jewish community, to share in the fantastic tradition and culture and religion that enrich our lives in so many non-monetary ways. If you want to add meaning and purpose to your life, Judaism is here for you. And in Shanghai, if you want that, you have to choose it.

That’s a great lesson for every Jewish community in the world, isn’t it?

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