A few days after we finished Moment’s last issue, I got on a plane to China, a country I had never visited.
There is so much to say about China. To begin with, it is no longer the shattered country I studied in college in the years following Mao’s death and the end of the Cultural Revolution. It is not the China of 1989, when I, along with most Americans, sat glued to the TV as government tanks rolled in to crush the student demonstrations taking place below Mao’s portrait in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. It is not the China my adventurous parents visited on their own in the 1990s, hopping by propeller plane from city to city, staying in dour tourist hotels, greeted as honored guests.
In today’s China, change is happening at a phenomenal pace, akin to the growth in the United States in the decades following World War II. That was obvious from the moment we landed at one of Shanghai’s two gleaming international airports and were whisked off in a luxury car on landscaped superhighways. Everywhere we looked we saw cranes, constant reminders of the country’s debt-fueled construction boom. The roads teemed with cars of all makes and brands, including brazen knockoffs such as my favorite “LandWind Prada,” a Range Rover clone.
At tourist sites we were swept up in swarms of well-dressed and smiling Chinese families, snapping endless photos of their elders and children (the one-child policy has ended) with iPhones and expensive cameras. Yes, there is poverty, especially in the country’s vast western territory, but the economy of its crowded east is vibrant. During conversations with old and new friends, we found that people, particularly intellectuals, shared political opinions with apparent freedom and had a variety of ways to get around government-imposed internet censorship. Organizing, however, was clearly verboten. My husband, with the eye of an engineer, kept pointing out the omnipresent surveillance cameras.
One of our first stops was the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, where our guide was an English-speaking college student who took great pride in the fact that her city was one of the few in the world to have welcomed Jews fleeing the Nazis in Europe. Over the millennia China has had several small Jewish migrations, including adventurous Silk Road merchants, Sephardic traders and Russians fleeing the 1917 revolution, but it wasn’t until the late 1930s and the early 1940s that a significant number, some 20,000, arrived. Their story is hauntingly told in this excellent museum, housed in a modest compound around the former Ohel Moshe Synagogue. A combination of film, panel displays, recorded stories and artifacts bring to life their struggles—and the hospitality of the Chinese. There were many stories about this, but I found one exhibit especially moving. It included a collection of English, Hebrew and German books from among 2,000 that a German Jewish schoolmaster had managed to bring with him to Shanghai. When the war was over, he entrusted them to Mr. Lin, a Chinese man he had befriended, until he could return for them. Mr. Lin safeguarded the books for decades, even during the Cultural Revolution, when to do so put him and his family in great peril. When he died and no one had come for the books, Mr. Lin’s children continued to watch over them.
These exhibits stood in contrast to those detailing the refugees’ harrowing internment by the city’s Japanese occupiers, which occurred late in the war, when the Japanese finally bowed to Nazi pressure. Our guide explained that the Japanese, unlike the Nazis, did not murder Jews en masse. Like the Chinese, they admired Jews and wanted their know-how for after the war. Many Chinese, however, were less fortunate, as we would be reminded at the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall a few days later.
While most people in China have never met a Jew, many believe that Jews share Chinese values of hard work, business acumen, education and family. A bizarre outgrowth of this Chinese philo-Semitism is popular books such as The Wisdom of the Judaic Traders, The Jewish People’s Bible for Business and Managing the World and The Jewish Way of Raising Children. Moment has written about this as well as another example of this phenomenon: the proliferation of Jewish studies departments in China universities.
One particularly fascinating conversation with Chinese friends during my trip was about the evolution of the China-Israel relationship and how the leaders of the Jewish state, starting with Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, stubbornly pursued China, even during the decades when the Chinese government was outspokenly critical of Israel, giving it the cold shoulder. Israel’s strategic foresight eventually led to its controversial arms sales to the Asian giant in the early 1980s, which set the stage for the establishment of diplomatic ties in 1992 and the strong business and technology bonds the two countries enjoy today.
Toward the end of our trip, we attended Shabbat services at Kehillat Beijing, founded by Long Islanders Roberta Lipson and Elyse Silverberg. We joined Jews living and working in Beijing, tourists and visiting Jewish youth groups. There, I was once again reminded of the power of Jewish geography. While I was chatting with Roberta’s husband,Ted Plafker—a reporter for The Economist—we discovered we had grown up a mile apart on the Jersey Shore, and that our mothers had worked together at the JCC. It was five years to the day since my mom had passed away, and it was a gift to talk to someone who had known her.
Experiencing the vastness of China, both in geography and history, was refreshing. I also came away with a changed perspective on the relationship between American Jewry and Israel: I couldn’t help but wonder if a billion-plus Chinese might end up being more important to Israel than we are in the long run.
It was a pleasure to come home to work on this beautiful summer issue. It’s a rich celebration of Jewish culture and thought, spiced up, as usual, with religious and political opinions from across the spectrum that you’ll find nowhere else. How do Jews perceive time? What are the best scenes from Jewish movies? (You’ll hear from Carl Reiner, Mayim Bialik, Leonard Maltin and others). Would a President Mike Pence be better for the Jews? How important is Wonder Woman star Gal Gadot to Israel? We explore these questions and much more. I wish you happy reading wherever your summer takes you!