Wander On, O Yidden: China and the Jewish Diaspora (I)

Part I: Searching for the New Al-Andalus

One of the remarkable features of the history of the Jewish people is that we have spent the past three millennia watching the the center of gravity of our faith migrate across the entire breadth of western civilization. While our hearts have always been in Israel, our bodies have often found themselves far from the land that God promised our forefathers.

Babylon gave us Abraham and, much later, the great sages and the Talmud Bavli. From Spain came the flourishing of Sephardi culture and hundreds of years of our greatest post-Talmud scholars, including Rashi. Egypt and the Caliphate, whence Sephard extended, gave us an upwelling of Jewish thought, embodied by the secret reservoir of the Cairo Geniza and capped by the magisterial works of the Rambam. Eastern Europe became the home of a vibrant Yiddishkeit from which emerged the wonders of the Baal Shem Tov, Jewish mysticism, Chasidism, and the great Gaonim of Ashkenazic culture. Germany brought the Halaskah that compelled our faith to address the challenge of modernity (a struggle that continues today.)

And the United States, today the single greatest concentration of Jews in the world outside of Israel, has provided Jews the newest place where we can live according to our traditions in a manner of our own choosing.

Yet civilizations move through cycles of their own, and if there is but one lesson that we must take from our history, it is that while a civilization on the rise makes a comfortable place for Jews to live, once the decline begins in earnest, we are well-advised to go and find ourselves another home.

A (Jewish) Star Rises in the East?

As I write these words, the United States appears to be in relative decline, but has not yet entered the absolute decline that would signal the end of a civilization. Yet history moves fast, and we are always wise to be on the lookout for where we would go if the tides of time once again turned against us: Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union offer us two very recent, very cautionary examples of why it is always important to have at least one place to which we can run.

For a long time, I believed that China would be that next place, the home of the new Jewish diaspora, a new refuge from which Yiddishkeit could grow. The signs seemed very good: the country served as a refuge for Jews from around the world in the tumultuous years between the two world wars; there is an abiding respect for Jews that runs deep in the Chinese culture; China has all the marks of a civilization on the rise; there are natural points of commonality between the cultures; and both observant and liberal Jews were working together to build communities and set down roots.

In these signs I saw I put my money where my mouth was: for eighteen years I lived in China, owned property, built a business, and contributed as I could to the creation of a Jewish community. In those years I saw many hopeful signs: the arrival of Chabad; the growing crowds at Shabbat services; the appointment of Beijing’s Chabad rabbi (and de-facto chief rabbi of Beijing) by the organizers of the Beijing Olympics as the rabbi to Jewish athletes and officials at the games; the kashering of the kitchens at the Great Hall of the People when Israeli officials came on a state visit.

Since those days, though, a change has taken place. While I believe that there will always be a Jewish community in China, I have come to despair of the notion that China is the next center of the Jewish diaspora.

In installments over the coming weeks, I will attempt to explain why this is the case.

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