By Howard Blas
A few weeks back, an article by Dan Blas, entitled, “A Jew in China” appeared in this column (Dec. 14, 2013). Dan learned his article had been published via the Google alert he received on his iPhone as we settled into our hotel room in Shanghai.
I am one lucky dad. When your son asks you to meet him in Hong Kong, where he had been spending a semester studying at the Chinese University (of Hong Kong) and travel with him through China for 10 days, you get on a plane and go!
Dan showed me the usual tourist spots — from Central to the Midlevels to Victoria’s Peak; we experienced Kowloon at night, and we hiked on Lantau Island. And I witnessed firsthand how the little boy had grown up (he turned 21 just before I arrived), internalized the Jewish teachings and values we strived to impart, and was a really fun traveling companion.
Each Shabbat and holiday, Dan traveled nearly 90 minutes to be with a lovely, hospitable ‘ex-pat’ family who have been opening their home to observant students for many years. Not surprisingly, the family insisted I stay there with Dan during my Shabbat in Hong Kong. I was eager to meet them and say thanks; they wanted to meet me, as they had similarly met the families of previous “boarders.” I learned how Dan sat patiently each Shabbat to help their 10-year-old daughter with her Talmud studies, and how he helped take down their sukkah mid-holiday as the typhoon approached. On Shabbat morning at the Ohel Leah Synagogue, Rabbi Osher noted how nice it is when observant students “far from home, make the commitment to come every week to observe Shabbat and holidays.”
On Sunday, after stopping by the kosher makolet (market) to stock up on food, we were off to Shanghai – to explore a city with extraordinarily modern skyscrapers and upscale stores around the corner from ancient open air markets. While tourist attractions are interesting, nothing compares to the pleasure of discovering a tasty kosher meat restaurant -— and a women’s Chanukah learning group — at a beautiful villa known as the Shanghai Jewish Center Kosher in the Hongqiao area; or discovering the old Ohel Rachel Synagogue (now a government office, which we were permitted to photograph from outside, but not enter); and the feeling of walking through the streets of the Shanghai Ghetto, where 23,000 Jews from Vienna — including the entire Mir Yeshiva and the parents of our friends from New Haven — survived Hitler and the war years.
We left Shanghai for Beijing — the final stop in our China adventure. Beijing is ancient and modern, massive in size, and home to 20 million people. It is hard to know where to begin exploring — and where in the city to stay. Friends had strongly advised us to stay near the Bet Yakov Chabad of Beijing (at the South Gate of Si De Park). We were glad we listened! We hit all of the major tourist sites — the Great Wall, the Forbidden Palace, Tiananmen Square —and the pandas of the Beijing Zoo. After all that exploring by cab, subway, scooter and on foot, we were ready for a restful Shabbat.
Imagine our delight when 80 people came to the Chabad House for Shabbat davening and dinner. We met English teachers from London, a law professor from Michigan, an Israeli father and son on a bar mitzvah trip, diamond dealers, and a (non-Chabad) Chasidic mashgiach on his way to provide kosher supervision for fish — and canned Mandarin oranges. And these were just the people at our table! We were impressed at Rabbi Shimon Freundlich’s welcoming style, his one-hour and 10-minute Shabbat morning “speed” davening, and the fact that there was both a dairy and meat restaurant!
As we made havdalah and returned to our hotel to pack up for our early Sunday departures — mine for New York and Dan’s for Vietnam — for the next leg of his Far East travels (and for Chabad Houses in Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand), I realized how lucky I was. My son and I traveled together successfully — as observant Jews and as friends.
Howard Blas is a freelance writer living in New York and formerly of New Haven.
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