Sunday, April 27, 2008


Passover in Xi’an was a mixed bag. In some ways it didn’t meet my expectations and in some ways it surpassed them.

We had invited several people. My Chinese language teacher, Carly, a devout Christian who is always peppering me with questions about Jews and Judaism, and was very excited to receive the invitation. A lovely Muslim young man from Turkey (Sirkan) whom we have befriended, also very devout and extremely interested in other religions. Sirkan came to Xi’an about a year and a half ago not speaking English or Chinese, and has since become very proficient in both – he’s really amazing and is wonderful with our kids. Sirkan brought his friend, Khalil – also a very lovely guy, wonderful with kids, who showed us pictures of himself participating in a ritual slaughter here in Xi’an before their Id el Fitr feast. Sirkan and Khalil had invited us to their place several weeks ago and (with their other roommates) cooked a marvelous meal for us including home made yogurt, Turkish tea, and other treats. Khalil does not speak English very well, but says he understands much better than he speaks. Lastly we had our friend Tom, an English/Israeli hybrid and his girlfriend Cynthia. Cynthia is from Xi’an and is non-religious.

So, I had wonderful dreams that this would be a very interesting, inspiring, multi-faith experience. Well, it was definitely interesting, and definitely multi-faith. But the problems started before the Seder began.

We went on a trip to a place called Luoyang just before Passover as there was an organized trip from our university. Timing was awful, and we arranged to leave the trip early so we could prepare for Seder . . but it was too much of a stretch. Y was against participating in the trip, but I pushed hard. Travelling is difficult in China and it's nice (and cheaper) when it's organized for you . . and I feel the end of our year approaching and there's so many places I still want to go. Anyway, we came home to an extremely rushed prep experience (we did the Passover cleaning and other prep in advance, but not the cooking), which meant a late starting seder. Challenging for us, especially after 3 days of tiring travel. All of our guests were respectful, and tried hard in their own way, but it was too much of a stretch. Khalil’s English was just not good enough to keep him interested in the Seder, and since he was the playful type, and sitting beside Noam . . . you get the picture. Needless to say, Noam does not need a lot of encouragement to get distracted. So we spent much time trying to encourage Noam to participate without making Khalil feel like we were reprimanding him. But it was not workable. Tal was helpful in the kitchen and in the prep time, but felt a little uncomfortable with all of the unfamiliar adults.

Between the English/Hebrew/Chinese/Turkish translations, there was always someone struggling to understand, and it was difficult to keep everyone focused at the same time. Yoni and I were trying our best, but after a really rushed seder prep, with me constantly fretting about not having enough food (we did), we were not at our best. Even Tal started to become anxious, “are we going to have enough food?” You get the picture.

Of course, it wasn’t all bad. There was some interesting discussion about how the different faiths approached the Exodus story – and everyone was very nice and pleasant to be with. And Noam did a great job with the 4 questions, even though he said he was nervous he came through without a hitch.

Still, we decided to have a family-only seder the next night (didn't really plan on having two seders, but it felt right) after a long family discussion the morning after. This time everyone was better behaved and we all prepared something. It was really lovely and made up for the shortcomings of the first seder, and then some. Next time if we want a diverse seder, I think we will need to bring in some different texts and approach it in a totally different way.

And the lessons of life go on and on and on.

Just another quick note regarding all this talk about Jewish stuff. When a Chinese colleague or friend hears that we're Jewish, the response is very interesting. Almost universally positive, overwhelmingly so. So I began asking people why they think so highly of the Jews. Several mentioned that they have read in many books that the Jews are extremely smart, some of them even say that we're the smartest people in the world. I supposes I could explain to them the multitude of examples where this is not the case, but so far have just enjoyed the good feelings. It's nice to travel in a country where people have such a positive response to your heritage. We should probably try to find some of these , "why the Jews are great" books before we leave . . . to keep us feeling positive when we need it.