Succot, Beijing-style

How easy is it to live as a Jew in the People’s Republic? We talk to expats in the Chinese capital

By Samuel Selmon, September 9, 2009
Young Jews celebrate Succot amid the Beijing rooftops with a Succah made Chinese style, from PVC pipes and metal grating.

Young Jews celebrate Succot amid the Beijing rooftops with a Succah made Chinese style, from PVC pipes and metal grating.

It is Friday night and more than 100 people are crammed around three long trestle-tables singing grace after meals. A Shabbat meal of soup, challah, hummus and roast chicken has just been eaten, and the atmosphere is jovial as the rabbi delivers the after-dinner speech. But this is no ordinary Friday night at your local community centre. This group of Jews is eclectic — young and old, Orthodox and Reform, and hailing from many different countries. These are the Jews of Beijing.

A thriving Jewish community has developed in the Chinese capital over recent years. Approximately 1,800 Jewish people, from all over the world, live and travel through the city each year and a vibrant social scene has developed among younger members of the population.

The Jewish population ranges from students studying Chinese to business executives who have relocated to the city with their families. The students and young people on internship programmes tend to stay for, at most, a few years, while some families have settled on a more permanent basis.

As well as British Jews, the community consists of a large American, Canadian, French and Israeli contingent. There have also been fleeting visits from Iranian families, and even the arrival of a group of Siberian Jews.

Most Jews tend to live in the east of the city in Chaoyang, a trendy business district filled with ultra-modern skyscrapers and rows of Western chain stores.

In the north of this district is Douban Hutong, the area that is home Beijing’s Moishe House, China’s branch of the international network of alternative community centres. It was co-founded by American freelance journalist Alison Klayman and her friend Tyler Seeger.

Together, the pair are responsible for organising many of the Jewish social events in the city, and the House’s roof terrace, on top of a high-rise apartment building, is frequently crammed with crowds of twentysomething expats.

“When we have parties we end up getting 40 to 50 people, especially because we have this rooftop.” says Klayman. Typical events at the house include Friday-night dinners, movie nights and discussions.

She cannot disguise her pride in the Moishe House, which is about to celebrate its first anniversary. She fondly recalls that “last year we built a Succah, which was awesome. It was a very Chinese one, made out of PVC pipes and metal grating” — materials that were sourced from a nearby scrapyard, the traditional greenery being almost impossible to find in Beijing’s concrete sprawl.

Klayman says that, contrary to expectations, it has been easy to maintain her Jewish identity in the Chinese capital.

Celebrating Purim in traditional fashion in the Chinese capital

Celebrating Purim in traditional fashion in the Chinese capital

“I tutor barmitzvah students here. I also help out at the Jewish school. I go to Friday services pretty much every week. You kind of get to know a lot of the families and they take you in and look out for you. It is possible to forget you are thousands of miles away from home,” she says.

There are, of course, drawbacks — in an expat community where there is a constant flow of arrivals and departures, relationships do not last for very long. “A lot of people who were my first friends aren’t here any more,” says Klayman.

Also in the Chaoyang district is Beijing’s Orthodox Chabad House, located within a gated community on Xiao Yun Road. Before entering at the front gate, visitors pretend to stroke a long beard, signalling to the gatemen that they are coming to see the rabbis.

Once the gate is closed a strange transformation occurs. The hustle and bustle of the city of almost 18 million is left behind as you are transported back to somewhere eerily resembling north London.

The British-born Rabbi Shimon Freundlich founded the Chabad House and is arguably the most prominent Jew in the city. The house provides a centre for much of the social activity in the community. When Freundlich arrived in Beijing in 2001 he recalls: “It was an impossibility for an Orthodox Jew to live here. There was no Jewish school, no Jewish food and no kosher meat.”

Nine years on, Freundlich and his Chabad colleagues have “built an infrastructure. Now we’ve got a school with 51 students enrolled for the coming year. We have Dini’s, the kosher restaurant, we have a mikveh and we have kosher chicken and beef.”

Yet beyond the practical solutions provided by the Chabad House, the centre has also managed to foster a feeling of unity among the diverse group of Jews in the city.

“People come from all over the world. The atmosphere here forces them to all sit under one roof, which creates a more appealing sense of community. It gives them the chance to relate to people from different parts of the world and different communities,” Freundlich explains.

“Here, if you are not going to connect with the Jewish community, then you will be lost. You need to have that sense of warmth and love that the family gives you. People get that at Chabad.”

Away from the House, keeping kosher in Beijing can be tricky. Pork is the staple food in China. “It is in so many dishes. So having to ask for non-pork dishes can be difficult if you do not speak the language,” says Daniel Nivern, a young entrepreneur from Manchester.

Klayman candidly acknowledges that you “definitely have to accept that you are likely to be eating pork. However many times you ask for it to be left out, inevitably you will be eating something cooked in pig fat.”

Yet with a kosher restaurant in the city and with menus increasingly in English, it is getting progressively easier to avoid treif.

Adam Sandzer, a graduate from Nottingham University, has been studying and working in Beijing for the past year. He is very positive about his Jewish life in China. “Every Friday night I go to prayers at Chabad followed by a Shabbat meal, then all the young students go out to bars and clubs together.” Many of the younger people head to the regenerated area of Sanlitun where the drinks are cheap and the atmosphere in the clubs pretty lively.

Sandzer also enthuses about a parshah class held on a Thursday by Canadian rabbi Nosson Rodin. “We’ve had up to 30 people there.

“Passover was amazing,” he adds. “We had it in the Renaissance Hotel. There were 250 or so people there celebrating Seder.”

According to Sandzer, sport can play almost as big a part as festival observance in nurturing Jewish life in Beijing. “For me it was easy to get involved. I met a guy at Chabad who was already playing for the Barbarians football team, and he asked me if I wanted to come and play,” he says. “Generally if you ask around, if you meet a guy in a bar, and ask him if he plays football or is involved in basketball, they will help. It is not particularly difficult to get involved. And you automatically gain a good group of friends you can hang out with whenever you want.”

Daniel Nivern has lived in Beijing for two years and has developed close relations with many Chinese people. “I really want to emphasise that saying you are a Jew to a Chinese person is a very positive thing,” he says. “When I tell them I am Jewish the normal reaction is: ‘Oh you must be very clever. We Chinese we want to be more like the Jews, we know you are very good at business.’ Then they often refer to Einstein or Karl Marx, two of the big role models in Chinese society. So when you say you are Jewish, the stereotypes are all positive.”

Nivern describes how a big part of his social routine revolves around his Chinese friends: “Chinese people like to do business over the dinner table. So we go out for these big banquets with lots of alcohol. Afterwards they take you to a karaoke bar.”

Karaoke is taken very seriously in China. Throughout the city there are bars featuring corridors of soundproof rooms equipped with sofas and karaoke equipment. Singing along to Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive seems to be an effective icebreaker whenever Jews and Chinese get together.

For now though, the Beijing Jewish community is doing better than surviving. Says Clayman: “There is such a diversity among the Jews here that you can totally be hooked up with the Jewish lifestyle you want.”

Last updated: 5:06pm, September 9 2009