A Shavuot Story: My Chinese Jewish Journey

This article was written for publication in the National Jewish Outreach Program’s Bereishith Newsletter.

By Hannah Lee

The Book of Ruth, which is read on Shavuot, narrates the beautiful story of Judaism’s most famous convert. For me, Shavuot seems a most opportune time to recall my own conversion.

It has taken almost 32 years for me to fully merge my Jewish and Chinese heritages, and the final key to doing so was tai qi (a Chinese martial art practiced for its defense training and its health benefits).  This year was the first Chinese Lunar New Year during which I did not fret over my identity, and this Rosh HaShana (5776) was the first time I used the skills learned from my tai qi teacher to pray with mindful meditation.  Using tai qi, I can daven (pray) with better kavanah (spiritual awareness) than ever before. My Rabbi was stunned by the connection.

Born in Hong Kong, I came to the United States with my family in March 1967, after President Johnson expanded the immigration law.  I entered school with a rudimentary knowledge of English. My mother, in the presence of a translator, asked for more challenging academic work when she spied my third-grade class playing checkers.  Her intervention resulted in my being transferred to a class where I had to write weekly reports on current events.  I graduated from P.S. 1 as one of two students admitted to Hunter High School, where my classmate was current Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan.  From Hunter, I proceeded to Brown University, where I met my future husband, and later studied Epidemiology at Columbia and N.Y.U.

My Jewish journey began in the Chinatown library, where my brother and I developed a fascination with Bible stories for children.  The Buddhist faith of our parents did not engage us, perhaps because there weren’t any religious texts for children. Our fascination led us on unexpected paths.  My brother has since become an evangelical Christian, I am an Orthodox Jew, while our sister remains agnostic.  Our parents were not perturbed by my brother’s choice, because Asians are tolerant of other faiths (not “my way or the highway”). The Torah’s fences, however, did cause more difficulty for them, but we work together to overcome those small hurdles.

Early on in my path toward Judaism, my Scottish-Irish college roommate asked how I could take such a monumental step as changing my religion.  I told her that it was like  mountain climbing: you don’t look down, you focus on the summit. With G-d’s help, I made it to that summit. And, while it has not always been easy over the years, on the whole, I am still tickled by how the frum (religious) community has accepted me.

What I did find challenging, however, was maintaining my Chinese heritage.  My daughters learned Hebrew in day school, but I was concerned how they could stay connected to the Chinese community?  Shopping frequently in Chinatown was my way to hear and speak Cantonese.  I cook Chinese food for Shabbat dinner, I fry falafel in my wok, and our sukkah sports Chinese lanterns.  But there was still a missing piece that I felt most intensely on the Chinese Lunar New Year.

The constant struggle to balance my Chinese heritage and the Jewish life I have taken upon myself suddenly became more achievable when I started studying tai qi last spring  It has taught me how to still my mind and focus on the qi gong movements. I now think of it as a moving meditation.

Learning tai qi has had a surprising and unexpected benefit. I finally was able to bring my two identities together. Last Rosh Hashana, when I found myself sitting more mindfully in shul, I realized then that I had finally merged my two selves.  I am a Chinese American Jew, energized by the wisdom of both of my heritages.

On Shavuot, I celebrate the fact that my Jewish Chinese neshama (soul) was on Sinai along with all Jewish souls, past, present and future.

Food Chat: How Jewish Food Became Jewish

By Hannah Lee

What makes food Jewish? “The iconic comfort foods of American Jews connect us with our heritage, but most of the items are not innately Jewish”, says Ariella Werden-Greenfield, a PhD. candidate in religion at Temple University. She spoke last week at the Gershman Y as part of the series on What Is Your Food Worth? coordinated by Temple’s Feinstein Center for American Jewish History. Some exceptions are bulkie rolls and matzo balls, which derive from challah and matzah, both prominent in Jewish rituals.

Jews have adapted recipes to the kosher ingredients available to them in whatever land they’ve landed. Pastrami, from the Turkish word, pastirma, we know as spiced, dried beef, but it originated in Romania where pork or mutton were instead used. The Romanian recipe arrived with the Jewish immigrants in the second half of the 19th century. In Israel, it’s made with chicken or turkey. Corned beef, a salt-cured beef, is actually Irish, but the Jewish butchers sold cuts of brisket to the Irish, so they also offered it to their brethren.

Fish was not sold together with meat products and it was not easily accessible to Jews in the Old Country. The advent of the canning industry expanded the dietary options for all Americans. Jews gravitated to herring, which was familiar and cheap; whitefish, a colonial novelty from the Great Lakes; and lox and nova, from the salmon which was previously unaffordable to Jews.

Most Jewish immigrants started life in America as peddlers. Historian Hasia Diner has written (in Hungering for America: Italian, Irish, and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration) about how these Jews kept kosher during their rounds. Known as “orange eaters” or “egg eaters,” they ate these items, which were kosher because they had peels, while staying at the homes of their mostly non-Jewish clients. Other Jews, as they became successful, could afford new foods and they nurtured an interest in other people’s culinary worlds.

The Settlement Cookbook, first published in 1901, introduced American recipes to new immigrants. The major food companies took notice of the spending prowess of the Jews. In 1919, Crisco introduced its vegetable shortening and single-handedly revolutionized Jewish cooking, freeing it from a reliance on chicken fat, schmaltz. Maxwell House introduced its Passover Haggadah in 1934 and Heinz offered a kosher version of its baked beans in 1923. An audience member noted that the Heinz factories are cleaned and kashered on the weekends, so the kosher line is processed on Mondays, transitioning to the rest of the company’s products later in the week. In 1965, when Hebrew National launched its slogan, “We answer to a higher authority,” in reference to Jewish dietary laws, it was both a marketing strategy and a testament that the Jews have become established members of American society.

The infamous Trefa Banquet of July 1883 that served clams, shrimp, and frog’s legs to the first graduating class of rabbis from the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati was a clarion call by the Reform movement that they were not beholden to traditional Jewish dietary laws. An audience member suggested that Reform Jews would not be so audacious these days.

The process of assimilation also led to the delicatessen, the “temple of Jewish culture,” according to Werden-Greenfield. In “The Deli Man,” a documentary project by Erik Greenberg Anjou, the filmmaker claims that whereas 1500 Jewish delis used to be in existence, there are now only about 150 of them. This is also the message of David Sax’s 2009 book, Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen. Werden-Greenfield disagrees with their dire predictions and their low estimates.

The assimilated generations of Jews have become “bagel-and-lox” Jews or gastronomic Jews who eat the foods of their ancestors as their sole connection to their heritage. The nostalgia for the Old Country have shifted to a nostalgia for the old neighborhoods of immigrants, said Werden-Greenfield, citing the ubiquitous display of photographs and memorabilia from the early 20th century in delicatessens and restaurants. As further illustration of their place in our Jewish consciousness, she recited this poem:

“By the rivers of Brooklyn, There we sat down, yea we ate hot pastrami, as we remembered Zion” by J. W. Savinar, in a play on Psalm 137:1.

Kosher became “kosher-style” where kashrut is negotiable. “How do we make sense of a young Jewish man opening restaurants [in Brooklyn] named Treife [non-kosher] and Shiksa [non-Jewish woman]?”, asked Werden-Greenfield.  “He’s still engaging with kosher laws. He’s being naughty while confirming his discomfort with his heritage.” Werden-Greenfield also asked: Which is more Jewish? Matzah that is not processed according to Jewish dietary laws, or kosher-for-Passover bread? “Jewish food,” she concluded, “is always changing, always evolving.”



Film Chat: Les Misérables

By Hannah Lee

I’ve never attended the first showing of a blockbuster movie, but I saw the premiere showing of Les Misérables at noon on the 25th, along with the other Jews in the area. By the time the credits were over (I always stay for the credits to show respect for the crew), the lobby was mobbed and the line outside was down the block.

The movie was very well done, maybe over-the-top for some tastes, and if the Oscars had a separate category for musicals, I would vote for it as best, but Lincoln, followed by Argo, are still my top choices. It’s been a strong year for films.

In early 19th century France of author Victor Hugo (who published the book in 1862), there is no support network for the poor and the film vividly portrays their wretchedness. The budget for dirt in the film must have been significant. The New York Times critic Manohla Dargis objected to the ardent religiosity of the film, compared to the screenplay, but I appreciated its role in explaining how the embittered Valjean, paroled from 19 years of hard labor for the theft of bread for his nephew, could turn his life around by his love for the orphaned Cossette.  Alas, he is perpetually hounded by Inspector Javert, with a singular passion for the law, because Valjean broke his parole. Both Les Mis and Lincoln deal with the issue of slavery and the desire for freedom; the former depicts how fear and obsession could also imprison a soul.

The director Tom Hooper made the unusual decision of filming the actors live, instead of dubbing in their singing voices later. Thus, the sound quality was not as ideal as possible in a recording studio, but the acting looked raw and vibrant. Anne Hathaway was stunning, in voice and acting, in her portrayal of the doomed Fantine, who loses her job unfairly and later her purity and dignity trying to provide for her young daughter, Cossette. Hathaway lost 25 pounds for this role, amidst concern by the director. It may not have been the best role for Hugh Jackman, but he keeps his clothes on (in contrast to his role as the Wolverine in the X-Men series) and as a Tony winner (for The Boy from Oz), his voice is fine for the role of Valjean. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter were marvelous as the despicable innkeepers, the Thénardiers, and their duet “Master of the House” was a comic farce of how guests may not leave their inn intact.

The Englishman Eddie Redmayne was excellent as the young revolutionary (with a wealthy family) Marius as well as Samantha Barks as the lovelorn Éponine (whose voice was deemed the best in the film according to my opera-loving friend). There is an indelible scene in which the doomed leaders of the failed rebellion of June 1832 are shot and the leader Enjolras falls out the window still holding their flag and his legs are tangled in the air. The young English boy Daniel Huttlestone playing the role of the brave Gavroche had the signature British accent for most Les Mis stage productions; Sacha Baron Cohen had the only discernible French accent for this French tragedy. Amanda Seyfried is beautiful as the teenaged Cossette in a role that does not demand much, but she has a lovely soprano voice and she thrills her notes.  Russell Crowe ably filled the role of the obsessed Javert, a character that defies my understanding.

New York Times critic Dargis objected to the heavy-handedness of the director, but I thought it was a fabulous production as was his previous film, The King’s Speech (my Oscar pick from last year). The opening scene was absolutely awesome, even knowing it was computer-generated, with the hundreds of prisoners hauling in the battleship with Javert astride the deck. The mooring lines gradually rise with their efforts and the men become discernible from the water. As Dargis noted, Valjean becomes the Christ figure with his hoisting of a broken mast and I do not object. Hooper was aptly kind to the Catholic church, which was the sole savior for many souls in that time period.


The Will to Persevere

By Hannah Lee

A recent feature article in The New York Times argued that the poor have a greater barrier to obtaining a college education than ever before.* The profile described three young women who were considered the most likely to succeed and leave their “dead-end lives” in Galveston, TX. The dismal news is that five years after graduation from high school, none of them has a college degree, only one is still studying full-time, and two have burdensome debts.  I felt sad for them and their prospects, which brought me to ponder anew about fate and fortune and perseverance.

Two books that I’ve read recently had similar themes about how individuals coped with adversity.  One was Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, a memoir of Louis Zamperini, a World War II lieutenant, who endured much brutality and deprivation as a prisoner-of-war under Japanese rule. Upon the conclusion of the war, his former promising career as an Olympic runner was derailed, as his stressed body could no longer handle the rigorous training. However, his story did not end in bitterness and defeat.

The other book was an academic treatise written by Steve Hochstadt titled, Exodus to Shanghai: Stories of Escape From the Third Reich. Hochstadt’s research focused on the odyssey of 16,000 Jews who escaped from Nazi-run Europe and found refuge in Shanghai when all other doors had slammed shut. They had to deal with heat, alienation in a foreign culture, and poverty. The book distilled the transcripts of 13 narrators chosen from a study base of over 100 oral histories conducted with the survivors. They all had to re-invent their lives after the war.

The New York Times profile listed the obstacles to the young women’s success as: poverty, inadequate academic preparation, and family and romantic ties.  (A friend, Marshall, also adds “the diminished economic prospects of working-class males and the rise of assortative mating.”)  One young woman chose the local community college because of her grandfather’s struggle with cancer and she felt it would be “selfish” to go away for schooling. This posed another barrier that was new to me, the peril of “under-matching,” choosing a close or familiar school instead of the best they can attend. The article quoted a Brookings researcher, who said, “The more selective the institution is, the more likely kids are to graduate. There are higher expectations, more resources and more stigma to dropping out.”

We cannot choose our lot in life, but our responses to our situation can either foster or hinder our ability in navigating our life’s path. I could be faulted for using war stories, which are extreme social constructs, as the basis of comparison, so I’ll invoke my own history.

My family arrived in the United States in 1967, after President Lyndon Johnson liberalized the immigration laws to allow for family reunification.  My paternal aunt had sponsored us, after she’d married a Chinese-American war veteran. My parents were poor and poorly educated, but they had a burning desire for their children to succeed in this new country. So, when I was tracked into the slow class because of my limited English fluency, my mother asked for a translator and demanded that I be moved to another class with greater expectations and more homework.  The next year, fourth grade, was hard for me, as I suddenly had to submit reports on current events. My strategy was to ask my father to read from the Chinese newspapers and I translated it into simple English. My efforts were rewarded when I landed in the highest class in sixth grade and earned a place in a selective public high school, Hunter, which in turn prepared me for an elite university, Brown, where I met my husband in neuroscience class. I wasn’t offered tutoring or academic support of any kind. My whole life was changed because of my mother’s high expectations.

The three young women profiled in the NYTimes did not have family support, so they felt pressure to contribute to the family income.  In contrast, my mother insisted that we, my two siblings and I, stay out of the factory, even while she and my father struggled to support us alone. The years my siblings and I attended college in the early 1980s were during a severe recession and the turning point when the garment industry moved overseas. I managed college with a campus job, loans, and scholarships.  I also did not have romantic entanglements that kept me in the ghetto.

The Shanghai refugees spoke of their dislocation as the litmus test that challenged their strength of character, their resilience.  They benefited from the tzedakah, charity, of Jews who’d arrived earlier and established themselves in China. (Being stateless refugees, they were spared when Japan sided with Germany while the established Jews and other Europeans were considered enemy aliens.)

Another fascinating lesson to me from Unbroken was how Louis Zamperini recovered from his setbacks. Zamberini had a wild youth until he discovered a solace in running. He raged against his Japanese captors for ruining his life even after the War, when his traumatized body could no longer support competitive running. Then, in a chance meeting with the evangelist preacher, Billy Graham, he experienced forgiveness and serenity. Through Graham’s teachings, Zamperini was able to let go of resentment, rage, and the need for revenge. Thus unburdened, he was able to forge a new life of hope and love, by establishing the non-profit Victory Boys Camp for wayward youth, where he and his staff teach juvenile delinquents the skills to succeed in life.  He and his wife Cynthia raised two boys of their own.

I’m still trying to learn how and why people overcome their personal challenges.  The history of Jewish and Asian immigrants— my two touchstones–  and our achievements in American society have validated the high value we place on education.  However, I’ve been searching for other bases for resilience.  What are other ways for people to persevere?  My lessons so far have included inner strength, family expectations, God, and the kindness of strangers.

*“Thirty years ago, there was a 31 percentage point difference between the share of prosperous and poor Americans who earned bachelor’s degrees, according to Martha J. Bailey and Susan M. Dynarski of the University of Michigan. Now the gap is 45 points.” [New York Times, December 23, 2012]