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My Shanghai Seder: Why This Night Was Different From All Others

By Lauren Kaufman

On April 18, 2000, we drove to 1277 Bejing Xi Lu, the address of the Jewish Community of Shanghai's office, where rebbetzin Dina Greenberg emailed me to pick up our Seder entrance tickets. The small room on the twentieth floor of a bleak office building was part makeshift workspace, part storage area filled with crooked wooden shelves overflowing with Hebrew books. The young Chinese girl manning the office who spoke broken English, collected $40 per person and gave me the invitations to the next evening's festivities before calling Rabbi Shalom Greenberg to tell him I arrived. When she handed me the phone, I heard an Israeli-accented man, "Welcome to Shanghai! I hope you found the office OK. We're looking forward to having you and your friends join tomorrow." He made sure I had directions and invited me to attend Passover Eve services at the synagogue down the road.

Since my last night of a two-week business trip overlapped with the first night of Passover, I wanted to find a place where I could celebrate and, hopefully, meet some Chinese Jews. In February, I was thrilled when a friend passed me Rabbi and Dina's email address. The next thing I knew, my colleagues and I were joining the Jewish Community of Shanghai at their annual family Seder. My excitement grew.

When we arrived at 6 PM, there were Chinese soldiers guarding the entrance of 80-year-old Ohel Rachel Synagogue, which was set back from Shan Xi Bei Road behind a gate. I later found out that the soldiers were there to make sure no Chinese, only foreign passport holders and their families, entered the large, stone-faced temple, since proselytizing in China is illegal, and Judaism is not a recognized religion. I anticipated meeting Chinese Jews and children of inter-cultural mixes but to my dismay, there were about 50 casually dressed Western expatriates in attendance.

The Republic of China's communist government, established in 1949, only recognizes five religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Christianity and Islam. Today, the 200 member strong Jewish community, comprised of international professionals, businessmen and entrepreneurs from 12 countries, is under watch by the government so as not to "disturb social stability." Rabbi Greenberg, who came to Shanghai in 1998 with Dina as emissaries of Chabad-Lubavitch World Headquarters in Brooklyn, admitted that without Chinese authorities' recognition of the community, "It is very difficult to operate here... (the community) could not rent office space, open a gift shop or a kosher food store."

This seems ironic since in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Sephardic Jews who emigrated from Baghdad were the movers, shakers and builders of Shanghai. Jews made up 40% of stock exchange membership and the Sassoon, Hardoon and Kadoorie families were three of the richest in the city. In the 1930's, Sir Victor Sassoon erected a great number of Shanghai's landmark buildings in the old Bund sector, most notably the Sassoon House (today Peace Hotel). At that time, the Jewish community topped 1,700 members and ran three synagogues, a school, a hospital, meat shops and more. Then, during World War II, Shanghai opened its arms to some 20,000 European Jewish refugees. The city was the only place in the world that did not require a visa to enter.

The ivy-covered Ohel Rachel Synagogue, built by Sir Jacob Elias Sasoon in 1920 in memory of his wife Rachel, was closed by the Chinese government in 1952 and kept empty under strict communist sanctions prohibiting religious observance. The erev Pesach service on April 19, 2000, was only the third time the synagogue's doors were reopened to Jews in 47 years (Rosh Hashanah and Hanukkah 1999 were the first two times) thanks to pounding efforts from consulates and advocates around the world, especially Rabbi Arthur Schneier from Park East Synagogue in New York. Ohel Rachel, an imposing building, holds up to 700 people in sanctuary. The walk-in ark (designed to hold 30 Torah scrolls) was bare and balconies overlooked the pew-less sanctuary. Now the empty space held rows folding chairs, separated down the middle with a make-shift mechitza, a divider separating men and women from praying together at the Orthodox service. As I read the Hebrew evening prayers from the photocopies booklet, I was moved by the realization that I was praying with the Jewish Community of Shanghai, in a special, historic service. And though over 7,360 miles from New York and relatives during this family-centered Passover celebration, I felt strangely comfortable.

After sundown, the congregants walked about a mile to the Portman Ritz-Carlton hotel for the first night Seder. In a small, stark conference room on the third floor, ten round tables for ten were filled with young expatriate families. I noticed no elderly and no Chinese joining the dinner; the only Asians in the room were waiters. In the center of each white linen table spun a saran-wrapped Lazy Susan with plates of matzo, Kedem Concord Grape wine bottles and traditional Seder plate elements: bitter herbs, parsley, charoset (a "mortar-like" mixture of chopped walnuts, apples, cinnamon and red wine), a roasted shank bone and a roasted egg. Rabbi Greenberg and Dina lead the Seder service, calling upon community members to reach Hagaddah (story of Passover) portions aloud to the 100 gathered. I was honored to be among those chosen for a reading. I felt at home as youngsters read the Four Questions and everyone sang "The Ballad of the Four Sons" to the tune of "Clementine," and "Take Us Out of Egypt" to the beat of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." The first of the Four Questions, "Why is this night different from all other nights?" particularly made me think. For one, I was partaking in this Seder in a communist land where there are no kosher stores or restaurants. All of the dinner's Glatt kosher ingredients, down to the chicken, were imported. As the Rabbi likes to say, "It is not difficult being observant in Shanghai; it is merely expensive!" Secondly, the community made special arrangements with the Ritz-Carlton to kosher the kitchen before cooking for Passover. They blowtorched the ovens to make sure no chometz, or leavened bread, was left, sterilized the kitchen appliances with steam guns and pressure hoses and boiled all kitchen trays and utensils. New silverware bought just for the holiday was used. Thirdly, Chinese hotel-staffed chefs were trained in kashrut (kosher) laws before cooking for the Seder, all of which was under close rabbinical supervision.

After two weeks of traveling throughout China, this was our first meal where chopsticks were nowhere to be found; my colleagues and I were excited to use a fork and knife again! The festive meal began with a delicious fish dish, followed by matzo ball soup. The entr´┐Że was customary roasted chicken (though it was quite salty) and roasted potatoes with a side of vegetables. Dessert, my favorite course, was an array of fresh, cut-up fruit.

After the plates were cleared, Rabbi Greenberg led the guests through the rest of the Seder as antsy children fidgeted and climbed under tables. The little ones were only distracted when it was time to open the door for prophet Elijah. Four cups of wine and many hours later, the Seder drew to an end. In lieu of the traditional closing proclamation, "Next year in Jerusalem!" I fondly shared, "Next year in Shanghai!" and wished I would be fortunate enough to have a special opportunity like this again soon.

If You Go:

The Jewish Community of Shanghai always welcomes visitors, not only for holiday festivities. Guests may join Friday and Saturday services and/or partake in weekly Shabbat meals at the Portman-Ritz Carlton. All meals are Glatt Kosher under the supervision of Rabbi Greenberg. Reservations are required one week in advance, and can be made via the community's Web site: www.chinajewish.org.

Two organized tours of the Jewish sectors of Shanghai may also be booked. A half-day tour, "The Hongkou Ghetto" is lead by Georgia Noy, an Israeli tour guide and member of the Jewish Community of Shanghai. She can be contacted at: amirnoy@online.sh.cn.

Professor Pan Guang at the Center of Jewish Studies arranges one-day "Jewish Sites Tours," including meetings with the professors and postgraduates of the center. The tour can be booked two weeks in advance by emailing: oys@www.ssi.stc.sh.cn or gpan@srcap.stc.sh.cn.


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