Friday, December 22, 2006

Sufganiyot in Saigon

Next of the "Tales of a Wandering Jew" series. This one will be in the Jpost, Jewish Herald Voice (Houston) and New Mexico Jewish Link.

While I was in Hanoi, I left my Hanukkah mark on my hotel. While the hotel staff were putting up Christmas decorations, I quickly drew a "Happy Hanukkah sign," complete with Jewish stars, to hang in the window next to Santa. I was on a train for the first night of Hanukkah, from Hue to Saigon, and I was unable to light candles. However, the next day I met two Israeli backpackers, Amir and Omri, in the lobby of my hotel. As it was the second night of Hanukkah, we decided to search for sufganiyot at the Beit Chabad. We arrived unannounced, but always welcome. Since it was the end of Shabbat, there were no sufganiyot, but we light candles with Rabbi Menachem Hartman, his wife Racheli and their son Levi. We were also invited to the Hanukkah party the next day.

The following day, I returned to Rabbi Hartman's house, which doubles as the synagogue for the Saigon Jewish community. The Hanukkah party was a festive affair, complete with candles, songs, latkes and sufganiyot. Of course, Hanukkah gelt and dreidels were present. The cast of characters at this Hanukkah party included Jews from all over the world: America, Argentina, Australia, Belgium, France, Israel and South Africa. Almost forty of us gathered together to celebrate the Maccabee triumph.

The permanent Jewish community of Saigon numbers around 200 people, from diverse backgrounds. Jews began coming to Vietnam about 15 years ago, as the Vietnamese government began opening its door to foreign development. Members of the permanent community include business people and doctors. Their numbers are buoyed by a steady stream of tourists, travelers and backpackers. Until recently, there was no Jewish infrastructure. Jewish families would get together for meals for the holidays, either in a hotel or home. But this all changed in the past year as Chabad made a permanent base in Saigon. Just a few weeks before Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Hartman and his family arrived in Saigon to serve, for all intents and purposes, as the "Chief Rabbi of Vietnam." For the first time, the Jewish community had a focal point for the High Holidays. Over 80 people came to the first Rosh Hashanah service held in Saigon in years. Many came as well for Yom Kippur services, and the community celebrated tashlich by casting their sins into the Saigon River. For Shabbat, there is usually a crowd of twenty five to thirty people.

Jewish communal life in Saigon is not easy. Rabbi Hartman shared an anecdote with me that when Rabbi Freundlich of Beijing is asked if he is crazy being the Chief Rabbi of Beijing, he replies "no, crazy are the ones in Vietnam." The closest Mikvah is in Hong Kong. Kosher meat is imported from Thailand and Hong Kong, while a container of dry goods is brought from Israel annually. Vietnam is rife with pork and shellfish, but there are some kosher products in the stores that come from Western companies.

At the Hanukkah party, I spoke with Dr. Dominique Meisch. She and her family have been in Saigon for five years, and she said she is grateful to now have Chabad there. Before Chabad arrived there was nothing. Now, her children go twice a week Chabad to learn Hebrew. Meanwhile, her son Julien is about to have his Bar Mitzvah, the first in Saigon since the French Colonial period. Her sentiment was shared with the other members of the community I spoke with.

I have since left Saigon, and I am currently in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I have been unable to light Hanukkah candles with anyone since I left Vietnam. I can appreciate a little of what the Saigon community must have felt for all those years. r. It really is a blessing to have an organization like Chabad to cater to the needs of the Jewish communities in far flung places.

Jews of the Anglo-Boer War

In Bloomfoentain, at the Rhodes cemetery, lays the remains of many of the Jewish soldiers who perished in the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902. These soldiers served, and died, on both sides of this bloody conflict. The Jews of South Africa fought for both the British and the Boers, and many received distinction for their service. There is the story of one Jewish participant that is of special note, during this dark chapter in human history.

Joseph “Jakkals” (Jackal) Segal was a “smouse,” one of the itinerant merchants that provide necessities to the South African hinterlands. He was living in the city of Phillopolis, in the Orange Free State when the Anglo-Boer War broke out. When the hostilities commenced, Segal became a scout for the Boer Army. He rose up the ranks, until he was a scout to General Christian DeWet, the commander of the Boer Army.

Jakkals Segal saved the lives of an entire Boer battalion, when he discovered an impending British ambush of the Boer forces. Upon his discovery, Segal swam across the flooded Caledon River to warn the Boer forces of the coming assault. He reached the Boer forces just in time to warn them of the planned assault, and save them from slaughter.

For his feat of courage, Segal was awarded by General DeWet with the highest medal that the Boer army could bestow on any of their soldiers. General DeWet wrote of Segal, that he “performed his duty as a burgher faithfully and bravely.”

When the Anglo-Boer War ended, Jakkals Segal returned to home to his merchant business, and lived on for many years to tell his heroic tale.

Tales of a Wandering Jew-South Africa

Traveling through the Eastern Cape and Free State provinces of South Africa, I am struck by the sad disappearance of the Jewish communities that once thrived here. There are still strong Jewish communities in the big cities like Johannesburg and Cape Town, but there was once vibrant Jewish life in South Africa's interior. As Jews the world-over have similarly done, the Jews of South Africa helped build this nation. Stopping from city to city, I have heard the similar refrain, "we once had such a wonderful Jewish community here, and they really helped build our town."

In the city of Graaf-Reinet, there was a plaque on the main street honoring the "smouse," the itinerant merchant who peddled wares from town to town. The smouse would travel with a cart filled with supplies that often served as a lifeline for these tiny outposts in the wilderness. Yet every city I stop in now, a whole litany of places like Grahmstown, Ladybrand, Kroonstad, Colesburg, Ficksburg and Bethlehem (yes, same name), there are communities that have dried up, and synagogues that are now closed. Some synagogues have been bought out by private business like the one in Colesburg that is now an ABSA bank office.

I spent a Shabbat evening with the Jewish community of Kroonstad. Like many South African cities, Kroonstad once possessed a large, thriving Jewish community, but now its community cannot even form a minyon. Yet the three remaining members of the Jewish community, with whom I had the opportunity to attend Shabbat evening services, dutifully and faithfully come together every week to welcome the Sabbath.

The story that struck me most during my travels was that of the Jewish cemetery in Ficksburg. Mickey Hellman, the Chairman of the Free State Council of South African Board of Deputies (the equivalent of the Jewish Federation in America), told me this story:

There was once a large Jewish population in Ficksburg, but over time it left. There was a proper Jewish cemetery, which was located near the township. As the township expanded, it encroached upon the cemetery. Eventually the growth of the township overtook the cemetery. This expansion led to desecration of the graves, with gravestones being used for building material, and cattle grazing in the cemetery. The South African Board of Deputies, which looks after all Jewish graves and cemeteries located south of the Sahara, made the decision that cemetery needed to be transferred to a new location.

After consulting with forensic experts, and Rabbis in Israel and South Africa, the Board of Deputies exhumed all the remains of those buried in the cemetery. They re-interred the graves in a new area that was donated by the Ficksburg municipality. The project took three years to complete.

When the project was finished, there was a special ceremony held to consecrate the new cemetery and to honor the Jews of Ficksburg. People from all over the world attended the ceremony, including those Jews who formerly lived in Ficksburg, and those whose relatives were reburied.

The sad disappearance of the Jewish communities in South Africa mirrors the story of the Jews of so many lands. Yet, our resilience and our desire to preserve the symbols of communities even after the communities are gone, ensures that the Jewish presence in South Africa will never fade.

Paul Rockower served as the Press Officer for the Consulate General of Israel to the Southwest in Houston from 2003 until 2006. He recently spent six weeks in South Africa on a Rotary Group Study Exchange. You can read more about his (mis) adventures at his blog:

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Tales of a Wandering Jew, Beijing

I was lost outside the subway, searching for a bus to the Summer Palace, the old stomping grounds for the Emperor. I stopped the only Westerner I saw to ask for directions, but he was lost as well. As we talked, we established that we were both "MOT" (Members of the Tribe) and both from Washington, DC. As it was Friday, I told the fellow traveler about Shabbat services at Chabad in Beijing, and how the website offered printout directions in Chinese for a cab to the synagogue. We went on our respective lost ways.

Later that night I arrived at the Rabbi's house-turned-synagogue, leaving the unfamiliar Chinese world behind, and entering a far more familiar surrounding. My fellow traveler was there, as well as forty or so members of the Beijing Jewish community. Surrounded by Jews from Israel, Australia, Russia, Canada and America, together we celebrated the Sabbath and shared a delicious kosher meal. Ironically, I even ran into cousins of mine at the synagogue, proving once again how small the Jewish world can be.

The Beijing Jewish community numbers roughly one thousand people, hailing from the world over. This number includes 30 Jewish families at the American Embassy and the families of the Israeli Embassy. The community is growing and thriving, and that is in no small part thanks to Chabad.

I spoke with Rabbi Shimon Freundlich, the veritable Chief Rabbi of Beijing, and he gave me the story of the Beijing community. Before Chabad came 5 years ago, there was little to no Jewish infrastructure. Today there is a Jewish day school, a community center, and a Chinese pagoda-style mikvah. Chabad of Beijing distributes kosher meat all over China, receiving it from either Israel or Australia. Meanwhile, once a year, a container of dry goods, kosher wine and long-lasting milk is brought from Israel. The Rabbi said that at the Western supermarkets, it is possible to get some kosher foods in the form of Western products that happen to be kosher.

In addition, kosher foods and kosher products are brought to Chabad Beijing by the many business people who pass through Beijing. More than two thousand business people come through Beijing, many bringing kosher products for Chabad. Many of them stay at hotels close to the synagogue or Jewish Community Center, and these hotels often have a relationship with Chabad as well. Rabbi Freundlich noted that they have ties with hotels ranging from backpacker hostels to 4 star hotels.
Those planning on visiting Beijing, who would like to bring food or stay close to the synagogue can find information on the Chabad Beijing website ( The Chabad Beijing website, along with the Chabad Thailand website, are the most visited Chabad websites in the world.

Judaism is not one of the five recognized religions in China, but Rabbi Freundlich stated that the Jewish community has a good relationship with the Chinese government. The Jewish community is pushing for status as a non-recognized Western minority community, which will accord the Jewish community status as a community in China. He stated that the Chinese government understands that the Beijing Jewish community respects the Chinese culture, and the wishes of the government and the Chinese people. Chabad is not able to perform conversions of local Chinese people, and local Chinese are not allowed to participate in rituals unless they are married to a Jew.

Rabbi Freundlich mentioned that Chabad gets a call at least once a week from someone in a far-flung province who wants to convert to Judaism. They counsel them that if they are serious, they can do a conversion in Hong Kong or Australia, but not in Mainland China.

The gregarious Rabbi said that rebuilding the first Jewish community in Beijing since World War II has been tremendous. On the horizon is the construction of an actual synagogue building, and the establishment of a kosher restaurant. Meanwhile, they will continue building the community and imbuing the Beijing Jewish community with a sense of purpose. As the Rabbi noted, the survival of the Jewish people comes from both the physical community and the spiritual learning. Chabad of Beijing helps create that for the community. The Beijing Jewish community is growing at a frenetic pace, and is as enigmatic as the land in which it is found.


Having lost my guidebook some two weeks back, I wondered how I would find my story on Jewish Shanghai. Yet sitting on the train from Lhasa to Shanghai, the story found me. As I sat sipping tea in the dining car, a security guard on the train handed me a mini-guide to Shanghai, complete with a section on Shanghai¹s Jewish past. Sometimes the story finds you, and God always grants you what you need.

The Shanghai Jewish community has a long and storied history, beginning with the immigration of Sephardic Jews from the Middle East in the mid-19th century. Iraqi Jewish families like the Sassoons and the Kadoories amassed fortunes and built business empires as Shanghai began its meteoric rise. Victor Sassoon made millions in the opium trade, then even more in Shanghai real estate. At one point, Victor Sassoon owned more than 1900 buildings in Shanghai. His other love was horses, and he once quipped, “There is only one race greater than the Jews, and that’s the derby.”

At the turn of the century, Ashkenazi Jews began flooding Shanghai from Russia. Three waves of Russian Jewish immigration followed periods of rising anti-Semitism in Russia: the first in 1904, followed the Russo-Japanese war, the second occurred in 1906 with the outbreak of pogroms, and finally in 1917, the third wave came as a result of the Russian civil war.

With the influx of Ashkenazi Jews to the Hongkou neighborhood, the area was nicknamed “little Vienna.” The area teemed with Jewish-owned shops and kosher delicatessens. Numerous synagogues were built, including the Ohel Moishe synagogue that still exists today as a small museum for Shanghai’s Jewish past.
In the lead-up to World War II, Shanghai became a refuge for many Jews fleeing Europe. When doors were closing to the European Jewish refugees, Shanghai¹s colonial status as a free port allowed it to welcome the displaced Jews. Shanghai was one of the few remaining places that did not require papers or a visa for entry. From 1939 to 1941, between 20,000 and 30,000 Jews immigrated to Shanghai to escape Nazi persecution.
With the coming of the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, the Japanese authorities designated the Jewish as “stateless refugees”and confined their residence and businesses to a somewhat benign ghetto in the Hongkou neighborhood. The ghetto was wall-less but guarded. Meanwhile, the already established Shanghai Jewish community was able to move freely throughout the city to provide provisions for the refugees. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, an organization that aided the refugees in many parts of the world, aided the Jewish refugees in Shanghai as well.

With the end of World War II, and the rise of Communist China, almost all of the Shanghai Jewish community immigrated to America, Canada, Australia and Israel. Traces of the community can still be found in the Hongkou neighborhood, with its European-style tenement houses. In the back alleys of Hongkou, traces of the Jewish community can be found in the form of a door grill shaped like a Magen David and nail holes where mezuzot used to hang. In the heart of the neighborhood is the Huoshan Park; there is a small memorial, written in Chinese, English and Hebrew, to the “stateless refugees” who found haven in Shanghai.

Visiting the Ohel Moishe Synagogue, I was met by Mr. Wang, the diminutive Chinese caretaker of the synagogue. Mr. Wang, today an octogenarian, grew up in the neighborhood, side-by-side with the Jewish families. Mr. Wang shows visitors a video about the Jews of Shanghai, and takes them on a brief tour of the old synagogue and answers any questions that visitors might have about the Jewish community of Shanghai. He expressed a fond recollection of the Jewish community in the area, and noted that both people suffered persecution: the Jews under the Nazis and the Chinese under the Japanese.

Today, the Shanghai Jewish community is the largest in China, numbering around 1,500. It is comprised of a smattering of Jews from all over the world. Shanghai’s role as a center of international trade and investment brings numerous businesspeople to its shores. Meanwhile, Chabad Shanghai runs a Jewish center, complete with kosher cafe, children’s school and weekly Shabbat services. They also have a kosher take-out service that will deliver kosher meals to hotels and offices. There is even a Jewish Shanghai tour, offered by Dvir Bar-Gal ( Bar-Gal is an Israeli living in Shanghai, and gives a very thorough tour of Shanghai’s Jewish history. The history of the Jewish community of Shanghai is a storied one; meanwhile the story of the present Jewish community is being written as fast as the skyline grows.