A Jew Abroad in China

December 19, 2013
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In 2005, as Beijing was busying itself for the Olympic Games, I had the opportunity to study abroad in China. There I found a living, conflicted culture I’d only read and dreamed about, a mesh of old and new. Do not be fooled: the Middle Kingdom is a world deep and vast, and can only be truly understood by steeping oneself in its oceans. Here are a few snippets of my journey as a Jew in China.


Stories they told me, of immigrants and a mythical Jewish temple in the South. We are known as Tsong Ming, the Brilliant.

Living in Beijing, everyone I was introduced with whom learned I was Jewish, burst with a grin sharing their delight. A people of Wisdom, and holy documents are revered with translations of the Talmud, available for higher educational study. Culture is indeed a doorway.

Legends are true. The Jews did make homes in China.

Over the Pesach holidays I found a reform community and went to the ceremonies. Some of my friends joined me. There were couples, Chinese and Ex-pat, locally born Jews from China and those by families from abroad, and students, travelers, coming to share the tradition. The texts held the essence, and an attempt to avoid eating bread in China is quite easy when you allow yourself rice.

Chinese children have Jewish mothers.

In Tibet, the people there are mystical at heart, which they share openly through little actions and kindness. There is also little money, poverty, and an unforgiving climate, creating people of every kind. The Tibetans know oppression, the Chinese have taught them. It is a rough life that has been a crucible for their devotion. Tibetans also break the rules, and place images of the Dalai Lama on their altars, even though they’re not allowed to. Though, when the Romans come, I’m unsure if they play Dreidel to hide what they’re doing.

There is an honor for the written word, an honor for wisdom of the elderly, deep respect for family, and tradition. New Years is when they eat the most, and come from afar to share together. The past and it’s heroes are revered and in China, they love stories. They also demand respect, and if you’re not born Chinese, you’re not Chinese. If you are Chinese, you better darn well act like it.

My mother, the real one, a Jewish girl from the Bronx, came to visit me and my host family where my Chinese mother and father were keeping me well stuffed with homemade dumplings and vegetables. They had a good time. I translated. One night, when I got home very late, they asked me where I’d been, and that I should call, and on another occasion, if I would be warm enough in that.

I bet the Chinese would love Sufganiyot , but with more oil, and less sugar.

Sometimes I think about China a lot, and wonder if I could meet a nice Jewish girl there, and settle down, and eat rice pancakes all the time, and travel up the holy mountains and train in the various arts, while somehow feeling connected to all I know and love. It’s possible, maybe I’ll try; and I wonder if FedEx does overnight international shipping of hot matzos ball soup from Leibman’s Deli on 236th?

As this month’s articles show, Jewish and Chinese cultures continue to cross and there is more to come than there currently seems. With so much in common and the existing mutual respect, possibilities are open that may not be so common as with other growing relationships. I wonder what they are, do you?

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Lee Frankel-Goldwater is a professional environmental educator, writer, and social good project developer as well as a recent graduate of NYU's Environmental Conservation Education masters program. Lee has also studied at the Center for Creative Ecology on Kibbutz Lotan, Israel and at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. Currently he has been leading development of the Global Action Classroom, an Earth Child Institute initiative focused on global youth environmental cooperation and helping to create the Global Sustainability Fellows, a program of The Sustainability Laboratory seeking to design a new and innovative, international sustainability masters program. Other projects include: developing mobile applications for encouraging social action, mixed media video design, leading peace and environmental education workshops, and doing his best to live a life in connection with the Earth while helping others to do the same. At heart Lee is a poet, traveler, musician, and philosopher with a deep curiosity for new experiences, unfamiliar cultures, learning languages, and often dancing to the beat of a different drummer. As student of yoga, meditation, and spiritual arts, Lee aims to connect the inner journey with the outer one, hoping, as he can, to share what is learned along the way, enjoying the journey.

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