Being Jewish in China: Scenes From a Shanghai Bat Mitzvah

By Adam Minter
SHANGHAI, China -- Just past sundown on the last Thursday in August, Sophie Rosen, a 12-year-old American expatriate, strode to the front of the Ohel Moshe Synagogue in Shanghai, and became the first bat mitzvah in the venerable building's 83-year history. She wore a purple qipao buttoned to the top of her neck, and a canny smile that she shared, first, with Shanghai's rabbi, an orthodox member of Chabad, then her mother and father, reform and conservative Jews, respectively, and then the assembled congregation, mostly non-Jewish, with a large Chinese contingent. "Me?" She said in a local Starbucks on the day before the event. "I'm just a normal Jewish girl, anywhere."

Sophie Rosen

“I’m just a normal Jewish girl, anywhere.” 12-year old Sophie Rosen at her bat mitzvah. (Sue Anne Tay)

Normal is new for Shanghai's fluid population of perhaps 2,000 expatriate Jews. For most of their staggered 200-year history, dating back to mid-19th century Sephardic Jewish traders, they were either exceptional aristocrats -- members of a small community of wealthy traders -- or they were refugees, first from the Czarist Russia, and later from Nazi Germany, Austria, and Poland. But in recent years, as a polyglot population of expatriates has migrated into China's commercial epicenter, a comfortable new Jewish equilibrium has taken hold. "Seventy years ago Jews came here to survive," Rabbi Shalom Greenberg, an affable native of Israel, announced from the pulpit. "Now they come here to prosper."

On the day before Sophie's bat mitzvah Rabbi Greenberg met me in the sanctuary at the Shanghai Jewish Center (one of three Shanghai synagogues), located in a villa inside of an expensive residential compound not far from one of Shanghai's many downtowns. As we chatted, workers were busy outside the doors setting up equipment for Greenberg's kosher food market; meanwhile, upstairs, students were shuffling in and out of the Center's Jewish Day School (total enrollment: 40 students). He's keenly aware that Shanghai Judaism -- for those who have heard of it -- is strongly associated with the Holocaust and the World War II-era ghetto in Hongkou District, where Japan confined 17,000 Jewish refugees for two miserable years. For better or worse, it's a must-see Jewish tourist destination now, despite the fact that much of it has been destroyed in the last year to make way for Shanghai's relentless redevelopment. Nonetheless, Greenberg much prefers to focus on a vibrant Jewish present rather than a distant tragic past -- whether in Shanghai or elsewhere. "If all of Judaism is to watch Schindler's List and walk out with a tear in the eye," Greenberg told me with a wry smile. "Then something is wrong."

Sophie Rosen's parents, Monte and Shari, are self-described "not particularly religious" Jews who moved to Shanghai almost a decade ago to, in Greenberg's words, "prosper." Today they own and operate China's first and still only school devoted to educating children with learning disabilities, and they're active members of Shanghai's Jewish community. But that was far from a given: the Shanghai Jewish Center's orthodox pedigree didn't interest them, and had precocious Sophie not asked her parents to expose her to Jewish culture, they may never have become involved (today, in addition to belonging, they also consult for the Jewish Day School). It's a common story in Shanghai's mobile Jewish community, where a sense of dislocation draws foreigners to national clubs and religions, and differing Jewish languages, traditions, and nationalities cause Israeli-born Greenberg his biggest headaches. "How do you make Judaism relevant to everyone?" He asked rhetorically.

The planning for Sophie's bat mitzvah began late by American standards, almost as an afterthought. When the Rosens approached Greenberg, he gave them several options. It could be held during Shabbat, in the Jewish Center, but it would have to be somewhat circumscribed because of the orthodox nature of the services there (where, for example, per Chabad tradition, men and women are separated during services). Or, perhaps, it could be held at Ohel Moshe, on a weekday night, and celebrated in the low-key manner that many orthodox congregations celebrate bat mitzvot. There would be no torah reading, but rather a few prayers, a candle lighting, a few speeches, and a nice buffet meal. Even better, Sophie would be the first bat mitzvah ever in Ohel Moshe (built before the bar mitzvah tradition had been widely extended to women). "It's a milestone for the Jewish community in Shanghai," Greenberg tells me with enthusiasm. "It shows we're a living Judaism."

By 1960, all but a small handful of the nearly 20,000 Jews who lived in Shanghai during World War II had left. For the next 20 years, religion in China all but disappeared underground. Judaism, which never had more than a very small number of Chinese adherents, wasn't subject to the mid-century persecutions inflicted upon Christians and other religions with mass followings among Chinese. Nonetheless, synagogues were seized and often demolished during the Cultural Revolution. Ohel Moshe was lucky: It spent the mid-century decades as a school, and then, in the early 1990s, as more and more Jewish tourists and Israeli politicians arrived in search of the old neighborhood, it was transformed into the Jewish Refugees Museum, and slowly opened to the Jewish community for special events.

Rabbi Greenberg has played a key role in that slow evolution. In 1998, he arrived in Shanghai intending to serve as the first rabbi on the Mainland since the 1950s -- without announcing as much to the police, the foreign ministry, or the Religious Affairs Bureau. It was an audacious if rather unwelcome entry: China officially recognizes only five religions, and Judaism isn't one of them. But Greenberg had a couple of advantages at work for him. First, China is decidedly philo-semitic, and Jews are celebrated for their embrace of education, family, and sound financial management (qualities that many Chinese admire in themselves). Second, and perhaps most important, Judaism is not a missionary religion. "I had to prove to them [the government] that I wasn't here to convert," Greenberg told me. "But to serve the foreign community."

That took trust and time, and Greenberg claims to have seen a shift in the government toward Judaism, and especially toward allowing the Jewish community to use the old synagogues. "More and more they seem to recognize that it's good for the city if the Jewish people use the buildings from the prior Jewish community." As achievements in religious freedom go, it's not comparable to the return of the churches to China's millions of Catholics, but it's important, nonetheless, to the small community of Jews who have chosen to settle and live mostly normal Jewish lives here.

By the time that Sophie Rosen's mother, Shari, took to the pulpit to read a letter that her father had written in 1945 about his experiences liberating German concentration camps, the air inside of Ohel Moshe was hot and thick with an incoming late summer thunderstorm. Upstairs, in the newly renovated balcony, guests drooped against the rails and fanned themselves. Downstairs, near her father, lanky Sophie wiped a long lock of hair from her face. Shanghai has warmer evenings, and much more miserable days, but this wasn't such a distant approximation of what it must have felt like during the synagogue's bar mitzvahs 60 years ago. And so, when Rabbi Greenberg followed Shari, he was ready to change the mood. "From now on, we will hear about the future and not the past," he announced, and invited Sophie and her mother to the pulpit, where -- together -- they lit the candles.

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