The Shanghai Daily
April 22, 2005
By Bill Marcus
My mother had the perfect antidote to unhappiness: Chinese food. Nary a funeral nor a bad day could come between her and Hunan Manor, Tung Sing, Szechuan Palace or any of the seemingly hundreds of Chinese eateries in my hometown, the New York City suburb of Westchester County, the most densely populated Jewish community on earth.
Years before I ever considered stepping foot on Chinese soil, I learned form the generations before me that spare ribs and egg drop soup were part of Jewish culture. Even the sages tell us that our 7,000 years of history, marked by profound suffering and persecution, were worsened by the fact that the first 2,000 years had to be endured without Chinese food.
A snapshot of the Jews and the Chinese reveal two cultures with similar histories. For many, they are two peas in a pod. Each is an assembly of survivors, and each has a basically favorable impression of the other. “Both nations are considered (to be among the) oldest in the world…and (there is) a lot of admiration between the two,” says London-born Eliaz Benjamin, the Israeli Deputy Consul General for Shanghai.
Jews have always found a home in China despite being hated and persecuted elsewhere. Jews who traded their way along the Silk Road received an Imperial invitation to settle in Kaifeng between the 8th and 19th centuries. In the early 20th century Shanghai first welcomed Jews fleeing Czarist pogroms, then later made room for Jews escaping Nazi Germany.
Today, 15,000 Jews tour or pass through Shanghai on business in the course of a year. Another 700 call it home, according to Rabbi Shalom Greenberg, 33, who, in 1998, emigrated to B’nei-Brak, Israel to Shanghai to spiritually lead the Jewish community.
Perhaps a major difference between the two people is that while food and survival combine in China, in ethnic Jewish households the nexus is between food and guilt. A Chinese mother might warn her child “you eat or you die,” while a Jewish mother will say “you eat, or I’ll die.”
(Bill Marcus teaches English and American culture at Fudan University)