Purim in Shanghai

Eleven years ago, when I was living in Shanghai with my wife and two young children, I attended my firm’s annual party in celebration of the Chinese lunar new year, which typically falls between late January and mid-February on the Gregorian calendar.

As I was chatting with my Israeli colleague and his wife, the conversation turned to the upcoming holidays on the Jewish calendar. She asked me if I was on the community email list, and if I was aware of the upcoming Purim party. My answer was “no” to both questions. In fact, I confessed, I had not been active at all with the Jewish community since arriving in Shanghai four years earlier.

My office party ended and, after a quick email exchange over the next few days with Chabad’s Shanghai Jewish Center, my family and I piled into a taxi for the 45-minute drive from Pudong, the district of Shanghai located east of the Huangpu River, to the historic city center in Puxi, located on the western side of the river. After climbing out of the car and crossing a narrow street, we entered a walled compound where we were greeted by a couple of youthful but stern-faced Israeli security agents who cleared us for entry.

Placing a kippa on my head, I guided my family toward the entrance of Ohel Rachel, a beautiful but rarely used synagogue that was built in 1920 by the wealthy Sassoon family of Baghdadi Jewish descent. They built many of Shanghai’s iconic structures which still stand today. Named after Sir Jacob Sassoon’s late wife, Rachel, the synagogue served the vibrant Jewish community that lived there during that time and throughout World War II, when Shanghai opened its port to the arrival of thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany. Shanghai was one of the only cities in the world that didn’t require an immigration visa and, importantly, one of the only cities that welcomed Jews.

Today, the synagogue belongs to the Shanghai government, which allows the Jewish community to use it only on a few occasions each year. Besides the Purim party, we later attended a Shabbat service and dinner as well as a moving Yom Hashoah memorial ceremony at Ohel Rachel.

As we entered the synagogue, we were handed a copy of the Megillat Esther (the Book of Esther) in Hebrew and English. Families from Israel, the US, and Europe were chatting and walking around, dressed in costumes. A group of children were on stage performing a Purim shpiel. Party-goers lined up near a table with a spread of delicacies: pita, hummus, chicken schnitzel, and, of course, hamentaschen. (Because, as that ancient Jewish saying goes, “they tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat!”)

This was the very first Jewish holiday we joined in Shanghai. It was also the beginning of a new chapter in my life and for my young family, one marked by lots of reading (and listening to podcasts on my taxi commutes into the city), Shabbat dinners, and holiday celebrations. And it all started with a conversation with my Israeli colleague’s wife. Realizing I was disconnected from the Jewish community, she facilitated my introduction into the community.

After our first Purim, I met Rabbi Avraham Greenberg of the Chabad Jewish Center of Pudong, and my family and I started to attend his warm and “heimish” Shabbat services and festive holiday events. The following year, we celebrated Purim as a part of his community.

Nearly a decade ago, after five years in Shanghai, I moved my family back to Taiwan. Last night, we celebrated Purim with the members of Chabad Taiwan and the Jeffrey D. Schwartz Jewish Community Center in Taiwan. The theme of the event, which was organized by Rabbi Shlomi Tabib and his wife Racheli, was “Purim in an airplane”— an ironic nod to the fact that most of us have been ensconced in Taiwan for the past year due to the pandemic, and have not seen the inside of an airplane for a very long time.

As both a Diaspora Jew living outside of the land of Israel, and an “eternal expat” who has lived and worked outside of my home country for my entire career, I like to imagine a connection —  tenuous as it may be —  between myself and our ancient cousins in the land of Shushan, where the Purim story took place. I feel this holiday speaks to me in a way that no other Jewish holiday does. But what is this message? For one possible explanation, I’ll turn to speaker and author Charlie Harary.

In a recent video, he examines the link between Purim and the story of the Jewish Diaspora: “Remember everything that happens to the Jewish people happens on two levels: the surface and the depth. The physical and the spiritual. So physically it’s Haman, Mordechai, Esther; we almost died, we got saved, we lived. That’s the story. But spiritually it’s something very different. The story of Purim is the story of the diaspora Jew. The diaspora is an experience that we’ve been experiencing for thousands of years. We’ve been going from host country to host country. And in some places treated terribly, and in some places treated very well. But our story has been one in which we have been bouncing around. And the story of the diaspora Jew really is a story that began with Purim.”

Diaspora Jews, according to Harary, have tried to strike a balance between observing their faith while integrating in to  the host country. He continues:

“Jews throughout history have always tried to stay alive, so in every country they’ve ever been in, they’ve integrated into the country, they’ve become great citizens, they’ve become part of the culture. Our job is to light up the world. Every human being comes from G-d. We don’t believe that we’re supposed to take and run, we’re supposed to be part. We integrate. We’re a part of society. We’re a part of citizenry. We participate. And throughout history G-d has thrown us through the world and we’ve managed to build our own oases of faith but still be a part of the larger society.”

It’s remarkable that Diaspora Jews like me who live in places like Shanghai or Taipei— far from home and far from Israel— can still find a few moments in our busy lives to come together in celebration of our narrow escape from annihilation 24 centuries ago, to express our identity as Jews (though disguised as characters that look like anything but), and, in a time of pervasive disease and illness like the one we find ourselves in today, to be thankful for just being alive.

Chag Purim Sameach!

Glenn Leibowitz leads the marketing and communications group in the Greater China region for a global management consulting firm. A long-time resident of Taiwan, he has spent the past decade helping to build the Jewish community there. He currently serves in a volunteer capacity as the Director of Global Communications for the Jeffrey D. Schwartz & Na Tang Jewish Taiwan Cultural Association (JTCA), a non-profit organization devoted to promoting Jewish life and observance in Taiwan and across the world. For more information, visit www.jtca.org.tw.

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