Life & Culture

Passover, Chinese-style

Karen Yossman spent Pesach Beijing - and found the trip surprisingly uplifting and educational


At a glance, it could have been any other Passover Seder. We guzzled wine and grape juice, dipped lettuce in salt water, sang Dayenu with out-of-tune gusto, and made incessant inquiries about when the food was coming out (that last one was possibly just me). But, despite all the traditional elements, this Seder night was different from all other Seder nights. Because instead of celebrating Passover with family in North London or friends in Israel, we were in China, noshing matzah and gefilte fish at Chabad House, Beijing.

Jews and China may not seem an obvious combination (except in America, where it's a running joke that Jews always get Chinese takeaways at Christmas) but the two peoples share a lengthy history, from China's own Jewish tribe, the Kaifeng - who are said to have arrived via the Silk Road from Persia and India in the eighth century and quickly established a community (including a synagogue) before assimilating into the local population - to the current, warm diplomatic relations between China and Israel.

Most significantly, during the Holocaust, China took in more Jewish refugees than any other country in the world. They saved an estimated 16,000–22,000 lives thanks to Shanghai's open-door policy, coupled with the remarkable efforts of Chinese authorities in central and Eastern Europe to issue visas which, while not required to enter Shanghai, were instrumental in persuading the Nazis to let Jews leave Europe until Himmler finally banned Jewish emigration entirely in October 1941.

Some 75 years on, it is clear that even with China's increased suspicion of the West, the absence of antisemitism experienced by the country's Jewish refugees during the Second World War hasn't wavered. Approaching the Chabad House in the east of Beijing, which is also home to a small synagogue and a kosher restaurant where the Seder was being held, there was no sense of the unease now common at overtly Jewish gatherings in Europe, and even London. Nearby, groups of young Chinese men played football and tennis, too engrossed in their game to even look twice at the women in long skirts and men in wide-brimmed black hats streaming into the building next door.

"Is there any antisemitism here?" I asked a Chabad regular called Shay, an Israeli classical musician who'd come to visit Beijing over a decade ago and never left. He looked at me as if to say ma piton? (what are you talking about?) before confirming he had never heard of any. If anything, Jews are greatly admired in China, albeit thanks to the stereotypical belief that they are good at business, with some Chinese writers going so far as to author entire books about the secrets of Jewish success and how to emulate it.

So there was no hesitation among the almost 100-strong group when Chabad Beijing's Rabbi Shimon Freundlich, who originates from Stamford Hill in London, encouraged us to sing ever louder, our voices intermingling, in spite of the multiplicity of mother tongues, in a chorus of Ma Nishtana, which two of the rabbi's young children also recited in Mandarin and Yiddish. "We have Jews from all over the world," said Freundlich. "Sitting together at the same table, under one roof, celebrating the same holiday, eating the same food, singing the same songs, talking about the same things."

"Sometimes they can't speak the same language," he marvelled, "but yet they are able to create the same atmosphere sitting at the same table together and, to me, this is the most beautiful thing."

Rabbi Freundlich was right. Despite being over 5,000 miles away from home, the atmosphere was familiar, even if the faces and the surroundings were not. Geared, as the more joyful Jewish holidays often are, towards the children, with animal headbands denoting the plagues at each place setting, and wind-up toy frogs on the table, it was comfortingly chaotic, in the best possible way, with kids running around, shouting and singing, while the adults chatted, and Freundlich kept steering everyone back on track so we could finish the service and start dinner.

My closest dinner companions included a Georgian wine merchant in the city on business; a young Israeli woman studying Mandarin at Tel Aviv University who was on a year abroad (she told me she'd chosen her course because of the strong business relations between Israel and China); and a Chinese woman who spoke little English but who explained that she accompanied her French husband to Chabad for Passover every year.

Also on our table was an American post-grad teaching English in a small town north of Beijing, who had travelled for about three hours by train to join us, and a Russian couple with their baby daughters. The other tables scattered around the restaurant -named Dini's after Rabbi Freundlich's wife - appeared to be equally international.

The Freundlichs have been serving the city of Beijing since 2002 and oversaw the construction of Chabad House, which opened in 2011 and pays homage in its architecture to the many Chinese synagogues that came before it. The bar in Dini's restaurant includes a traditional Chinese layered roof with upturned edges, meant to emulate the Kaifeng synagogue while, upstairs, the bimah is modelled after the one in Shanghai's renowned Ohel Rahel Synagogue, which was the religious centre of life for Jews during the Second World War and today houses a museum documenting their refugee experience.

It was Dini, together with her team of local staff, who oversaw the preparation and serving of the entirely kosher dinner, which consisted of a first course of gefilte fish and salmon followed by chicken soup and finally chicken, beef wrapped in sliced vegetables, and potatoes. She also ensured we left with a goody bag of matzah to see us through the rest of the week.

After dinner, as my husband and I watched cars rocket past us on the enormous Fang Yuan road while we waited for a cab, there was an understanding that we had just experienced something deeply unique by finding something so familiar in such a foreign land.

At the end of the Seder it is customary to toast "Next year in Jerusalem". But if you're looking for a Passover you'll never forget, I'd highly recommend next year in Beijing.

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