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A Trip to (Jewish) Shanghai

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In need of a little armchair travel in lieu of the real thing, Karen Skinazi revisits a trip to Shanghai, where she is amazed by both the cosmopolitan city and the thriving Jewish community she finds there.

When we’re not playing Settlers of Catan, or watching movies on Disney+, or going on chilly walks and watching the sprinkling of snow vanish, I find myself looking at pictures of my former life, the one in which I travelled and ventured and saw the whole world.

This morning, I hit upon a photo of me in Shanghai, outside Jing’An Temple. Well, there’s a place that I thought would have everything –except Jews. I was right about the first part. I was wrong about the second.

Not only did Shanghai have Jews—it had the spirit of a real Jewish community.

Chenghuangmiao Old Street. Photo: topchinatravel.com

Let me back up. Here’s what happened: I flew alone to Shanghai in 2014, moving (in an admittedly less-than-optimal route around the world) from the US to the UK. Waking up that first morning, and the next, and the next, I remember feeling like I was in the most cosmopolitan city in the world. Where to get my morning coffee? Where does anyone? Who are you, and what’s your preference?—the city asked. The I-need-to-overpay-for-my-coffee American could roll out of bed each morning in her trendy international brand hotel in the French Concession, where the trees and boutiques have been imported from France, and pick up her Starbucks latte, while the Look-at-me-I’m-a-Regular-American-Joe-in-China staying in Jing’An could admire the disneyfied gold spires of the local Temple as he gets his McCoffee at McDos. The Brit could pick up his flat white at Costa. The coffee snobs, like me, could enjoy the good stuff: Jamaica Blue Mountain. Any of these English-speaking visitors might then stroll along the boardwalk in the Bund, where the Huangpu River divides the buildings of European styles of the early 20th century in Puxi from the super-futuristic Asian styles in Pudong. And when the travellers are ready for lunch, they might head to an underground floor one of the city’s sleek, massive malls anchored by flagship stores of Gucci, Prada, and Salvatore Ferragamo to the vast food courts that make up the basement for Japanese sushi, Korean bulgogi, Italian pizza, Spanish tapas, Mexican burritos, or, if so inclined, a food the city lays originary claim to: Shanghai dumplings.

Chenghuangmiao Old Street. Photo: topchinatravel.com

For a kosher eater, even a moderately kosher eater, however, Shanghai, with its millions of food options to meet its millions of residents, proved a challenge. Yes, the familiar chain stores are everywhere. But you couldn’t expect the workers to speak English. Why should they? ‘Americano’, I heard a man with an Americano accent repeat in increasingly frustrated tones to a worker at Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. ‘It’s espresso with hot water. Comprende?’ The barista stared at him haplessly. She handed the customer a laminated paper and waited for the foreigner to do what I had quickly learned to do – just point and shoot. That’s what the English/Mandarin picture menus are for. For an English speaker, this is—usually—no problem. But as lunchtime arrived each day, I found myself in a pickle. No, I was not going to order the gristles, guts, or feet. That was clear. But was the sweet and sour soup made in a meat broth? What kind of fish was used for the ‘baked fish with sweet onions’? Was there shrimp in the rice? Was there pork in those vegetable dumplings? I located the words ‘chicken’, ‘pork’, and ‘vegetarian’ in my Lonely Planet guide and gestured at them hopefully. Still, I worried my meaning was getting lost.

Waterfront. Photo: Wikipedia

The city provided another challenge for me, traveling alone: despite being surrounded by millions of people, I knew no one. As days on white rice and the occasional Buddhist temple tray of unfamiliar vegetarian victuals passed, I travelled the city from sunup to sundown, feeling keenly the distance from my family. Strangers talked to me—sure. Numerous Chinese people—usually round-eyed teenagers—asked if they could take a picture with me (‘You look just like Cinderella!’ one declared. Um . . . yeah). People toting matching Lonely Planets nodded and smiled. There were bits of tortured small talk here and there. But at the end of the day, I felt a bit lonely on this lonely planet. I would realize a whole day had gone by, and the only real conversation I had was the five minutes of Facetime where my husband’s face kept freezing in odd, pixelated formations, and I didn’t hear half of what he said.

And then it was Friday. Shabbat. And I was still alone, with a stomach that refused more rice. And then it occurred to me: even in Shanghai there’s a place where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came. And the meat was slaughtered by a shochet.

Chabad Shanghai (HongQiao). Photo: kosherwithoutborders.com

The place, of course, was Chabad House—the ultimate haven for travelling and local Jews around the world, from Abuja to Tbilisi.

When I walked into the closest Chabad House, I sat down quietly, watching the women’s section fills up. Soon strangers darted smiles my way, and as the service ended, a woman came over to introduce herself and led me to one of the many full tables where we were to dine. Most of my fellow diners were Parisian, but the conversation was fluidly bilingual, and my French is passable, and soon we found things in common: Maud’s sister, it turned out, lived in Montreal close to where my brother-in-law lived. Chanelle was not actually from Paris, but LA; she just spoke perfect French and was dating a Parisian. Nathalie was of a mixed Ashkenazi-Mizrachi family, like me—on one side, a descendent of a Holocaust survivor, on the other of a 1948 escapee of an Arab country.

Rabbi Aouizerat with President of the Shanghai Jewish Community and Rabbi Mordechai Avtzon, Head Shliach of China. Photo: Published at collive.com via lubavitch.com

Eventually, our conversations were halted by Rabbi Aouizerat’s request that everyone in the room present for the first time introduce him or herself. ‘I am Karen, and I am from Toronto,’ I said. The next woman, from Marseilles, introduced herself in French. The next two men, Israelis, introduced themselves in Hebrew. And so on.

At the end, Rabbi Aouizerat led us into song: Hinei matov u’manyium/shevet achim gam yachad. Behold how good and how pleasing/when siblings sit together in unity.

Shanghai turned out to be an incredible place to visit –for me, and later, for my husband and kids, who met me there. Strangers showered my children with affection and treated them like celebrities and handed them swords so they could practice Tai Chi. I drank matcha red bean paste lattes, and ate lychee-flavoured treats, and dined in a Montreal deli covered in ice hockey jerseys. We went to the old city and Sun Yat-Sen’s house and the Tianzifang Art Center. We boated on a canal in Qibao. We saw the second and seventh tallest buildings in the world (at the time). We did the traditional Jewish sites: the old synagogue, Ohel Rachel, and the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum. We made sweets at a candy lab. Shanghai really did turn out to be the height of cosmopolitanism, with a bit of everything, including three Chabads.

Chabad Shanghai (HongQiao). Photo: kosherwithoutborders.com

Yet for me, in some way, what went on within the in-town Chabad House was even more amazing than the city that contained it: it seemed to me to be the picture of rooted cosmopolitanism, a place where citizens of the world walk in and discover people with whom they share a culture, a religion, a history—where brothers and sisters sit together. Hinei matov u’manyium/shevet achim gam yachad. And how good and pleasing it was, thousands of miles from both the home I was coming from and the home I was going to, and yet home, eating Jewish comfort foods and sitting with brothers and sisters I never knew.

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Dr Karen E H Skinazi is a literary and cultural critic who works as a Senior Lecturer and Director of Liberal Arts at the University of Bristol. She is the author of Women of Valor: Orthodox Jewish Troll Fighters, Crime Writers, and Rock Stars in Contemporary Literature and Culture.
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