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April 19, 2014 / 19 Nisan, 5774
At a Glance

Posts Tagged ‘Hong Kong’

Walking Up 45 Flights On Shabbat: Being a Jew in Hong Kong

Friday, August 30th, 2013

Last summer I went to Hong Kong for three months – for me that’s home. Although I was born in Belgium and lived in Lexington, Massachusetts while in high school, Hong Kong is my home base.  Now Hong Kong may seem exotic to you, but when it comes to observing kashrut and keeping Shabbat after a climb to the 45th floor, it becomes more difficult than exotic. My parents live there for business, along with my married sister and British brother-in-law. (We accepted him into the family because he made us seem more international.)

I was raised in a very traditional and cultural Jewish home in Asia. My parents were proud Israelis who made sure that we always had a connection to the Land of Israel and to being Jews no matter where we lived. While others may have had their Bar/Bat Mitzvah at the Western Wall, we merged these two cultures with our Bar/Bat Mitzvah celebrations at the Great Wall of China.  My twin brother Orrel and me had our first exposure to Torah observant Judaism at Lexington High School, where the OU’s Jewish Student Union offered free pizza on Monday afternoons.  (Jewish Student Union is a program that enhances Jewish culture at public high schools.)

Initially, Orrel and I were attending for two slices of pizza a week; but eventually, we became interested and started attending NCSY Shabbatons in our senior year. As a result, we spent a year learning in Eretz Yisrael. We now attend Yeshiva University; Orrel is at Yeshiva College and I am at Stern College. As upcoming seniors, we cannot wait for another amazing year!

Since we became shomer Shabbat, we had not been home to Hong Kong for more than a few days at a time and during those occasions, I always had my brother with me for support. This all changed in the summer of 2012 when I had to be in Hong Kong for personal reasons, while my brother was in Israel learning in yeshiva and doing medical research.  I felt that I was being left to fend for myself in Hong Kong.

On one hand, I was really excited to be with my family, but on the other hand I was scared. I was scared because since I became religious I had been immersed in Jewish communities – at seminary in Israel then in Stern College.  In addition, I had a strong support comprised of New England NCSY rabbis and my seminary Aim Bayit to answer my questions and to further my growth as a Torah observant Jew. When acquaintances from high school were placing bets on how long I would stay “religious” after NCSY, my support group was instrumental in keeping me on the “derech.”

In Hong Kong, I was entering three months in which my only social chevra would be myself. My connection to my Judaism would be up to me, and I feared I would lose everything that I had worked so hard to build in the past two years. This was not a dramatic exaggeration but a heartfelt declaration.

Within the first weeks, I felt myself losing my desire to daven and to learn Torah.  Recorded shiurim that used to excite me seemed no longer applicable to the struggles I was facing. I remember calling a friend from Stern College and telling her, “There is no way I am coming out religious after this summer.” But through phone calls of guidance from my support groups in America and in Israel, I slowly learned that the key to surviving the summer would not be the growth I had planned for myself; I had to modify my plans.

Initially, I had strongly believed that just as my twin brother was growing every day in Israel, I had to be growing and firming my roots as an Orthodox Jew.  Instead, I had to learn to tread water in order not to drown. I couldn’t simply focus on listening to shiurim; instead my focus had to be just making it day-by-day. For example, I would try and have one meaningful davening – Shacharit or Minchah  - in Hong Kong. I couldn’t hold myself to the high religious standards that I had set for myself at Stern.

Israel Ranks 10th in Number of Millionaires per Capita

Sunday, June 2nd, 2013

Israel is the home to 84,000 millionaires, putting it in 10th place in the world’s ranking of the number of millionaires as a percentage of the number of households, according to The Boston Consulting Group, in its report “Maintaining Momentum in a Complex World: Global Wealth 2013.”

In percentage term, there is a millionaire in one of every 92 households

“Israel had about 84,000 millionaire households in 2012, and there are plenty of thriving businesses here to keep them afloat, from booming technology companies to exploiters of natural gas fields,” according to the report.

It noted that Israel is a large exporter of diamonds and agricultural products.

The Boston Consulting Group reported that global household wealth grew by 7.8% in 2012, to $135.5 trillion, double the 3.6% growth in 2011 in the aftermath of the financial crisis.

Qatar topped the rankings with 50,000 millionaire households, 14.3% of all households, out of a population of 2 million. It was followed by Switzerland, Kuwait, Hong Kong, and Singapore

The United States, with 5.87 million millionaire households, has the largest number of such households, amounting to 4.9% of all households.

On Rye Please, Hold The Stereotypes

Friday, June 15th, 2012

In an effort to procrastinate, I occasionally like to bounce some ideas around. As I work from home with only my two cats for company, this often means waiting until my children return home from school.

I have wanted to explore Jewish stereotypes for sometime now, so naturally I asked my ten-year old son for some advice. I began by asking him if he knew what stereotypes are. His response, “yes, they are those things you had to listen to before the iPod was invented.”

I think I am alone on this one.

Lets start with the fact that I live in Hong Kong, China. Immediately when a Chinese person learns that I am Jewish the response is almost automatic. I am told that I must be very smart and of course very rich or very good with money. They tell me Einstein was Jewish (I actually don’t mind this comparison), Marx was Jewish (less excited about this one) and often that Rockefeller was Jewish (he wasn’t).

And while I try to excuse this pervasive stereotyping by the Chinese and explain to fellow Westerners that unlike in European and other Western nations these stereotypes are certainly void of the taint of anti-Semitism, I wonder though how far is that void? How thin is that line?

And while it is quite easy to point fingers at other groups for stereotyping, it begs the question why do we do it to ourselves? The common theme that runs through most interviews I conduct with Asian Jews, whether they are Chinese, Indian, Korean or Japanese, is they all express some frustration over constantly hearing the refrain from other Jews, “funny, you don’t look Jewish.” Why are we as Jews so willing to take on the world’s stereotyping of us by assuming amongst ourselves that there really is a Jewish look? And yes, I have often been told that I most certainly have it.

Quite recently a series of vintage 1960s advertising posters from Levy’s (Henry S. Levy & Son’s) were circulated widely on social media sites. These iconic rye bread posters feature racially and ethnically diverse people all enjoying Levy’s Jewish Rye Bread and the caption is “You Don’t Have to Be Jewish to Enjoy Levy’s.” In the world I live in, in Hong Kong, this campaign simply doesn’t make sense (though I will concede that the man in the full Native American headdress is likely not Jewish or at least not a practicing Jew). The ad, featuring an adorable Chinese boy with his Jewish rye, takes on particular poignancy as one of our closest friends’ son happens to be named Levi, is Jewish and is Chinese as he has been adopted locally.

And to my children, most certainly not raised in 1960s America, this poster is truly entirely incomprehensible. I showed my nine-year old daughter the poster and asked her for her thoughts on what she saw. She was first fixated on the fact that she didn’t know what rye bread was. She is being raised in the East not on the East Side after all. After an explanation that moved to pumpernickel and bialys and other exotic breads from my East Coast past, we were finally able to return to my social experiment. Again, she was a bit distracted by the apple and commented on his healthy snack choice. I found I needed to throw aside ordinary journalistic principles and ask a very pointed question.

“Forget about the food, please! Look at the boy. What about the boy’s appearance?”

She carefully studied the original poster.

“Ah! He is dressed rather fancy. It could be because it is an ad and he needs to look presentable or else it is because he had to go to Synagogue that day.”

She failed to choose to identify the race of either boy. In her world, if you are a child and are wearing nice clothing you must be synagogue-bound.

In contrast however, quite recently, I was speaking to a fellow parent in the local Hong Kong Jewish community at a birthday party. He commented, while watching the kids play, “Levi, Lior & Lee. How is the school (Jewish Day School) ever going to be able to tell all these L-named Chinese kids apart?”

New Sefer Torah For Hong Kong

Monday, June 4th, 2012

Hong Kong’s Ohel Leah Synagogue recently celebrated the dedication of a new Sefer Torah. Britain’s Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and Lady Elaine Sacks joined Rabbi Asher Oser and Assistant Rabbi Ariel Zamir of Ohel Leah at the festivities. Also present were Rabbi Mordechai Avtzon of Chabad of Hong Kong, Rabbis Meir Azarzar and Avner Cohen from the Shuva Israel community, and the sofer, Rabbi Yehonatan Yitzhak-Halevy. Hundreds of members of the Hong Kong Jewish community participated as well.

While the unveiling of the new Torah was itself special, it was also deeply personal for many longstanding community members. It was dedicated in memory of five men (in Rabbi Sacks’s words, “one for each book”) – each of whom were deeply committed to the Ohel Leah community. All of these stalwarts – Ezekial Abraham, Edouard Esses, Cecil Ezra, David Sassoon and Karel Weiss – died without heirs; thus, this Torah represents their legacy. This was a most fitting way to pay homage to men who helped secure the community’s future.

These men’s stories are the community’s stories. Each came from diverse backgrounds and carried with them family histories and customs. For example, Cecil Ezra’s family was deeply tied to the Shanghai Jewish community, rising to great wealth and prominence before having to flee in the mid-1900s. Though forced to leave the family’s wealth behind in Shanghai, Ezra continued his family’s legacy by greatly contributing to the Jewish community.

Community members funded the writing of the Torah, and individual parshiyos were dedicated in memory of, as well as in honor of, their loved ones – linking past, present and future. Each contributing family was invited to help Yitzhak-Halevy, the sofer, complete the writing of the Torah. Children proudly held onto his arm while he completed writing the letters corresponding to the first letter of their names.

This Torah dedication was greatly significant to the sofer as well. Having previously served as the community’s mashgiach, carrying the Torah with him from Israel truly felt like he was bringing it home. In fact it was his close relationship with the aforementioned Esses that initially inspired the Torah dedication project.

In conjunction with the dedication ceremony, Hong Kong’s Jewish Historical Society displayed images from the photography collection of Karel Weiss, one of the posthumous honorees. His sepia images of old Hong Kong represented the Hong Kong that these men loved.

Michael Green, chairman of the Ohel Leah Synagogue Trust, said at the ceremony that ultimately all five of the honored men would have asked only that, “as a community we behave the way they would have liked us to behave.” He spoke of the inspiration these men provided in their own time and for the community’s future. For Green, having known these men personally, this dedication was particularly moving as he was able to offer his own insight into their lives.

Rabbi Sacks, the program keynoter and regarded by many in the Hong Kong Jewish community as their spiritual head, told the throng in the Garden Room of Hong Kong’s Jewish Community Centre, “No people have ever loved a book as we love this book.” He called the phrase “People of the Book” the ultimate understatement and reminded everyone that, “While we are the people who have carried the Torah with us … the Torah has actually carried us.”

The symbolism of placing this new Torah in the 110-year-old Ohel Leah Synagogue was a powerful statement of continuity. The ornate beauty of the case, in a Sephardi style reflective of the community’s roots, spoke to the reverence the community has for its heritage.

Following the ceremony and a celebratory meal, the group paraded the new scroll into its home in the synagogue’s aron kodesh. The crowd danced and sang outside the synagogue, undeterred by the Hong Kong heat and humidity.

“Our Sephardic Torahs are read upright, standing ready to honor those who come to give them honor. It’s as if the memory of these men, embodied in this Sefer Torah, are greeting us each time we enter the synagogue,” said Rabbi Oser of the Ohel Leah Synagogue.

Photos courtesy: Tai Ngai Lung

First Limmud Held by the Great Wall of China

Monday, June 4th, 2012

Jews living in Asia gathered near the Great Wall of China for the first-ever Limmud event in the world most populous nation.

Sunday’s program, run by Limmud International, drew nearly 100 Jews from Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Mumbai, the Philippines, Japan, Singapore, Israel, Britain and the United States.

The open Jewish learning program Limmud has held events in some 60 communities on five continents.

Sessions at the China event included Torah and Talmud text study; the role of women in Jewish community life; Chinese interest in Jews and Jewish communities; the history of the Bene Israel in India; the future of Jewish life in Asia, and a workshop on Asian-Jewish cooking.

There are an estimated 20,000 Jews living in East Asia. In China, as many as 6,000 Jews live on the mainland and 4,000 in Hong Kong. Asia is made up both of long-standing, organized Jewish communities like those in India, Hong Kong, and Tokyo, and newer, smaller communities comprised largely of business people and diplomats. Many Jewish organizations are active in Asia, and the China Limmud was supported by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

“This inaugural Limmud event in China is a powerful tribute to the determination of Jews throughout Asia to engage in Jewish learning and with Jewish community, overcoming vast distances and other hurdles,” said Limmud International Co-Chair, Helena Miller.

Purim In Hong Kong

Friday, March 23rd, 2012

A traditional Purim in Hong Kong requires an obligatory visit to Pottinger Street in the bustling Central District. Also known locally as Stone Step Street, Pottinger Street is more of a steep, irregularly paved pedestrian stone path (with steps too small for Western feet) than a street. My children run ahead up the stone slabs as I carefully balance my size nine feet on the thin, uneven stairs. My five year old stumbles but quickly recovers and catches up to the big kids.

There is a cacophony of bartering and city sounds surrounding us. And while the buzz of Cantonese is expected, sounds of Hebrew, French and English also fill the air. My children bounce from stall to stall, greeting their friends on similar Purim missions. I have counted 11 children from the Jewish community though we have been here for less than 30 seconds.

It is not mere coincidence nor fate that has brought us to totter together on these indiscriminately paved concrete slabs the day before Purim, it is rather the work of our own procrastination and Asian efficiency. In Hong Kong, similar to other cities in Asia, markets are often segregated by the types of wares they specialize in. For sneakers, there is Sneaker Street, for computers the Computer Centre, for games the Gaming Center and for aquariums and related goods, the Goldfish Market. There is a flower market, a street of only fabric shops, one of only costume jewelry and another of only beads. And at some point in time, long predating our arrival in Hong Kong nearly a decade ago, Pottinger Street became the costume cornucopia of Central. Synthetic wigs in every color and style hang from above, stalls are crammed with thousands of props, costumes are bunched together on racks and rubber masks line the walls.

Between haggling with stall owners and negotiating with my children, I tell them the stories of Purim from my childhood. They have heard them all and can likely retell them as well, but this retelling is all part of our tradition. A favorite, of course, is the story of my brother’s post-Megillah reading fall that necessitated five stitches in his knee. The highlight of the story not being his unfortunate hospital visit, but the image of my Synagogue’s chazzan, dressed as a surgeon, now speckled with real blood on his full operating theater gear, running by carrying the patient to my parents’ car.

To me, Purim-costume-past also conjures up a secret, unmet childhood longing. I coveted those leftover Halloween flimsy, tie-on, extremely flammable costumes that came neatly folded and incased in plastic that other kids were allowed to don. Those costumes, with their lingering scent of toxins and plastic, spoke of seventies and eighties pop-culture. But my parents were unimpressed and, although secular, when it came to Purim, they were costume traditionalists and Purim theme purists. I am pretty certain that I was about 12 different renditions of Queen Esther, one every year until I was finally old enough to protest. And, of course, my mother sewed my classic costumes from neatly planned patterns. While I am more of a pen than a pincushion type of person, I do now appreciate the process.

Photo Credit Linda Cheung

When it came to my own parents and their friends though, Purim was decidedly a children’s holiday. Aside from the chazzan and the rabbi, few adults dared to don costumes. I wonder if there is any irony to the fact that many of the adults in my community seemingly declined to fully engage in a holiday that speaks to a theme of assimilation. Likewise, while many of my friends grew to relish the costume tradition, they simply referred to Purim as the Jewish Halloween.

In Hong Kong, however, the return of the humidity also invariably signals the joy of Purim for many. As I stand in the courtyard of the Ohel Leah Synagogue, which itself is in costume this year, complete with a clown hat, I watch the parade of costumes swirl around me in the heavy spring air. Adults and children alike, decked in unmistakably Pottinger Street purchases, happily chatter outside as they await the notoriously late start to the Megillah reading. I sometimes struggle to recognize even my own friends. There are pop culture connected costumes, a strong showing for Disney characters generally speaking (with an overabundance of Disney princesses, a phase that fortunately dissipates by age 7), historical figures, career-themed costumes and creative interpretations of favorite foods. Not surprisingly, a couple of giant homemade iPods wander past. My fellow last minute shoppers and I nod in approval at our final decisions and purchases.

The Whole World Is Jewish

Friday, February 17th, 2012

I make my way through New York City’s busy diamond district with my children in tow. With only a few days in the city every two-years on a return visit from our home in Hong Kong, our days are packed with catching up with friends, taking in the sites and of course running errands.

My five-year-old tugs my arm as he pauses and breaks our brisk pace. “Mama, look that man is Jewish,” he yells out with genuine glee as he points to a bearded stranger in a black hat, long black coat and peyot. I glance back, a bit embarrassed and smile, trying to pick up our pace. Barely a second passes by and again he announces, “Mama, look that man is too!” again he points, stares and yells. “And there is another Jewish man. And another.”

Again I can only smile in sheer embarrassment.

I pull my small brood over to the side of the street in an attempt to avoid the sea of lunchtime foot-traffic rushing by. I bend down and whisper to my son, “Sweetie, look around and please don’t point. You don’t need to. Everyone here is Jewish.”

He surveys the passers-by skeptically but then looks up at me and concludes, “You are right. Just like in Hong Kong.”

I fight the urge to laugh and decide I will instead focus on the task at hand and clear up the misconception later. I am somewhat perplexed. He is an astute child and generally quite a keen observer of details for his age. Then I try to see his world from his viewpoint.

Erica and Her Family

Our synagogue in Hong Kong is a five-minute walk from our home. Our children attend an Orthodox Hebrew day school that is also minutes from our home. Our next-door neighbors and their four children go to our synagogue (though they always manage to make it there before us) and attend the same school.

On a typical Saturday, we pass by another synagogue on the way to ours and cross paths with various neighbors as they make their way to the synagogue of their choice. “Shabbat Shalom,” we greet one another in the streets.

Our Jewish world is small but from his five-year-old perspective it is large, perhaps all-encompassing. The fact that in a population of over 7 million people in Hong Kong (95% of whom are ethnically Chinese) we as Jews collectively account for only about 4,000 or 0.05% of the population can be seemingly irrelevant. Large numbers and statistics don’t play into his worldview.

Interestingly, neither does race. He sees divides between people in terms of linguistics and his ability to communicate with them, a very practical and real dividing line rather than the arbitrariness of racial classifications. When he labels somebody as Chinese, or in his words “a Chinese,” he explains it is because they don’t know English. Having lived his entire life in Hong Kong, he does not have a racial consciousness. Perhaps there’s something to be learned from this.

While (after the fact) I find his outbursts in the Diamond District of New York City endlessly entertaining, it is also an interesting insight to his view of the world. I recall a similar incident years ago when my now teenage cousin went to New York City’s Chinatown with her parents. Also Hebrew Day School educated, though in Upstate New York, she had but one Chinese child in her school, a girl that had been adopted as an infant. When my then five-year old cousin walked through the crowded and bustling Chinatown streets and surveyed the new and unfamiliar, seemingly exotic landscape, she exclaimed, “Look Mommy, everyone here is Jewish.” My aunt surveying the same scene was confused and saw only Chinese faces. She asked her daughter where she saw other Jews. Matter-of-factly, my cousin responded, “Everywhere. Everyone here is Jewish just like Leah in my class.”

While in Hong Kong expatriates often poke fun at one another for living in a bubble, this is not altogether a falsehood. Though we do thoroughly explore our adopted home and, almost on a daily basis, increase our understanding of local culture and mores, truth be told, just as my son did in New York City and my cousin in Chinatown, we do look out for and gravitate toward the familiar. We do this when forming our closest associations and we tend to always make sure we are closely tied to our own faith and traditions.

Viewing life in Asia, even always through our own Jewish lenses, does allow us adults the opportunity to expand our own perspectives. As for my son, there will be plenty of time for him to gain perspective on his place in the world. He will likely, inevitably, develop a racial consciousness that extends far beyond the practical boundary of language. He will one day grow to appreciate just how very small we as Jews are in terms of numbers in the world. He will understand what it means to be a minority. There is plenty of time for this. For now, I am warmed by the fact that we have managed to carve out a very safe space in a very big world for him to grow up in.

A Very Hong Kong Chanukah

Friday, December 23rd, 2011

To explain to my children what Chanukah was like for me as a young girl, I find I am just as inclined to recount what it wasn’t as I am to describe what it was. Growing up in northern New Jersey in the Cohen household, driving through the wealthier neighborhoods (those which my parents reminded me still blocked the sale of homes to Jews through the 1960s) to see the elaborate Christmas displays through our car windows was always part of the winter season. My brothers and I watched Charlie Brown’s Christmas and The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. In school we had “holiday” parties where we ate gingerbread cookies off of red and green plates, sucked on candy canes and sang Jingle Bells.

My family set aside a day to go into New York City to line up with the crowds to see the lavish store window displays. I would peer into the glass in the same way I watched neighborhood carolers through my bedroom window wondering what this had to do with religion, why I felt so alienated and where our big show was.

Even my Hindu neighbors, new immigrants from Bombay had a Christmas tree. When I asked them why, reminding them that they were in fact most definitely not Christian, they responded, “But we are real Americans now. Our school celebrates, our town celebrates, the President celebrates. Everyone in America celebrates Christmas.”

“Well, almost everyone,” I thought.

Chanukah, on the other hand, was for us a very private affair. Our electric menorah was carefully placed in our window, small and discreet like the others on the block – in contrast to the houses loudly decorated in Christmas tinsel, lights and splendor. Public menorah lightings in my town were fraught with a conflict between the separation of church and state. Our menorah while symbolically a “light unto the nations” emitted little more light than our burglar alarm.

Now, decades later and living in Hong Kong, I find myself with my own children in tow, on Chanukah, making our way past Chinese herb shops, dried fish hawkers, neon signs and skyscrapers. It is a relatively balmy evening and crowds of Chinese still team from their offices despite the late hour, spilling into the street and congregating outside noodle shops.

Hong Kong’s Stature Square is blocked off by police barricades to control the crowds and a large group has already assembled. A stage has been set, flood lighting is in place and high tech-sound and video equipment has been arranged. Local passers-by linger, hoping perhaps for the latest Canto-pop star to arrive.

As we approach, I see a friend, a fellow writer, and wave to her. I am surprised to see her here. In the 7 years that I have known her, she has never been to synagogue, never lit Shabbat candles, never kept Pesach, really never openly identified herself as Jewish, yet here she is and in seconds she is in the mix of the crowd swaying to the music.

My children run off to find their friends. I pause to take in the festive scene as a young Chabadnik, donning a furry bright blue dreidel costume, spins by me passing out chocolate gelt.

‘Why are you here?” I shout to my friend over the crowd.

“Are you kidding me?” she responds, “This is great. I never miss this. This is as good as it gets.”

I am puzzled and try to understand her sentiment. We are at the Chabad menorah lighting. What about this event has the power to connect the Jewish community, the secular, the Sephardi, the Modern Orthodox, the liberal? And especially for those that tend to keep their Judaism under wraps, there is nothing subtle about this affair.

The sounds of familiar Jewish tunes fill the night air. Some years, a parade of cars topped with giant lit menorahs and blaring speakers approach.

This annual celebration is very big. It is perhaps the largest annual gathering of Jews in Hong Kong, attracting up to 600 participants. Approximately 1000 sufganiyot or latkes are passed out during the festival.

The crowd is joyous. While the video presentation is notable, nothing can compete with the main event, the public lighting. Rabbi Avtzon, head of Chabad of Hong Kong, takes center stage and together everyone chants the blessings. A menorah is lit and the smell of fire and burning wick fills the air, together with an overwhelming sense of pride. I gaze up at the 15-foot tall menorah framed by the iconic Hong Kong skyline and marvel at the contrast between cultures.

A sufganiyah is thrust into my hand. I look up at the dark sky illuminated now not only by skyscrapers but by the flames of the oversized menorah. Even in this frenetic skyline, we have managed to add light. I take a bite as I attempt to reflect amidst the ensuing madness – I am no longer looking through a window wondering where our big celebration is.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/judaism/holidays/a-very-hong-kong-chanukah/2011/12/23/

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