Discovering Judaism in Rural China

By sundown tonight, I will have fasted for 24 hours. No, it’s not for a traditional Chinese celebration (what Chinese holiday involves the absence of food?), nor is it for some outlandish dare conspired by my co-Fellows. In the Jewish calendar, today is Yom Kippur, also known as the Day of Atonement—the holiest day of the year for religious Jews. That’s wonderful, you might say, but what does that have anything to do with me?

Not many people know that I am a quarter Jewish. From time to time, I even forget myself. Because I’m Jewish on my father’s side, some stauncher Jews have written me off as not technically being Jewish at all. There is that, coupled with the fact that I could never stand on a level playing field with my predominantly Jewish classmates in high school. There was Jewish school to contend with, the flurry of bar and bat mitzvahs, and the high holidays that were always observed as school recesses. Needless to say, I had almost none of that personal exposure to the religion. My relationship to Judaism peaked at age six when I celebrated Passover at my Uncle Ben’s house in Upstate New York. All I remember about the occasion, though, was searching feverishly with the help of my cousin and my sister (presumably for the Afikomen), and drinking grape juice disguised as wine at the dinner table. Since then, I have celebrated Hanukkah on one occasion with my dad and my sister (mostly as an excuse to light the menorah my dad inherited from his mother), and have pieced together the rest of my Jewish identity from what I’ve learned on Seinfeld.

But my estranged relationship to Judaism is less a product of my upbringing than it is a reflection of my own interests. I can’t blame my dad for not better exposing me to Jewish culture because I never expressed that much interest to begin with. The intense Judaism of my high school intimidated me, and because I felt that I could never match that level of devotedness and intensity, I chose to down-play that part of my identity. Not to mention that many of my classmates were self-righteously and conceitedly proud of their heritage—flaunting their Jewishness as unabashedly as the Tiffany bracelets around their wrists. It’s not that I was ashamed of being Jewish—quite the contrary. I took my heritage to heart and poured over the histories of Jewish people as if they were uniquely my own. But high school was also a mini-turning point for my identity—and one that was quickly capitalized on at Oberlin. In my grade in high school, I was one-half of only 1 ½ Asian Americans—the other being my best friend—and I realized then that we were something of a rare breed. The familiar “fight or flight” mentality colored my consciousness, and from 7th through 12th grade, we were inseparable, reveling in our common ancestry.

Or at least a part of mine. College represented a continuation of my Chinese-soul searching, largely due to the strength of the Asian American community—four years of meetings, biennial conferences, and annual heritage months, that culminated in my eventual study of Mandarin. It’s what brought me to China in the first place, but all along the way, I’ve felt like a part of my identity has been conspicuously left behind. It seems incredibly ironic to me that it took living in China to finally get in touch with my Jewish side in a way that a New York City upbringing did not.

Perhaps this has to do with the fact that outside of me and Anne, there are no Jewish people in the entire city of Taigu. This fact alone takes off a lot of the pressure associated with not feeling “Jewish enough.” Now that I am surrounded by Chinese people, I again feel like the outsider, this time in my Asian American skin. I am neither American enough nor Chinese enough, so, I figure, I might as well be Jewish. If only the same mentality could be applied to my eventual application to Birthright Israel—so long as it doesn’t go bankrupt first. But the reaction towards Jewish people is very different here then back home. It seems that the very same stereotype used against Jews in America (money-grubbing, good businessmen) is actually used in China to one’s credit. Chinese admire Jewish smarts and shrewdness, and in many ways, the two cultures are parallel in their adoption of these traits. It is said that people who are part Chinese and part Jewish are looked upon very fondly here, and I hazard to agree, despite some discomfort on the actual reasoning behind it.

With my newfound Jewish pride came, of course, the necessary initiation. With a bris or bar mitzvah almost certainly out of the question, it fell upon two major holidays in September to give me a proper induction into Jewish culture. Luckily for me, Anne is as close to a “practicing” Jew as I will meet for the next year and is thus certainly more knowledgeable and more experienced with such ceremonies and traditions than I. We missed the apples dipped in honey on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, but we were determined, at least, to repent properly, even if we couldn’t attend services. The idea of fasting for me was not an easy one. Simply wrapping my mind around it was a challenge. Why would I willfully deprive myself of food, and at what cost to my body and my mind? I have always held fast to the importance of eating and maintaining a healthy diet. If my absurd ratio of blog posts dedicated to food isn’t indication enough, it was also one of the key pieces of advice I gave to incoming first-years during my senior year at Oberlin. During Orientation at the start of the fall semester, I was given the opportunity to sit on the “Many Voices” panel, which, as any Oberlin student will tell you, is a mildly boring but (hopefully) equally engaging introduction to some of the diverse student voices at the college. Rather than talk about the merits of sleep, doing homework on time, or cultivating good friendships, I urged them to always eat breakfast and to never skip a meal—tenets that I still strive towards in my own life.

But I decided that if I was really going to do this, at the very least, I needed a good reason. And, eventually, I found it—not only would fasting be a good discipline for myself, but it would also be a reminder of how many people in this world go hungry every day and have no choice but to experience on a daily basis what I am merely dabbling willy-nilly with for one day. Eating three meals a day is a privilege, and certainly one that after this experience, I will not take for granted. There was also the motivation of Anne herself, who has fasted on Yom Kippur for most of her adult life. Fasting together was something of a bonding experience that made it that much easier to accomplish, rather than if had I chosen to embark on this mission alone. There are also people who fast all the time, perhaps unconsciously, or those who think little of it—skipping breakfast and then forgetting to eat lunch. I knew for myself though, that this would be a challenge, as meals are rarely the sorts of occasions that I fail to remember.

If the last 24 hours have taught me anything else, it’s that starvation dieting is almost certainly not for me. The day started out fine, as I woke up early to finish lesson planning and walked over to my 8am class without a hitch. As luck would have it, the subject for this week was a continuation of the lasts—a lesson dedicated to American food—and I did my best to fritter away the time despite the constant shouting out of ingredients, names of restaurants, and food descriptors. It helped that in my first class, a lot of the lesson was about the pitfalls of American fast food and its affect on childhood obesity, an easy way for me to make a mental plug for my own dismissal of eating for the day.

After class and heading into lunch was when it really started to hit me. I missed my daily breakfast of bing and a banana, and decided that I was going to cheat and allow myself to drink water, as I am often prone to dehydration even when not bound by a no-food pledge. Without eating, I realized how much additional time I had. Not only that, I began to think about how much time is spent snacking in between meals, and how easy it really is to eat mindlessly whenever a pang of hunger strikes. These feelings don’t spur me too often, but today they certainly made themselves known, prompting me on more than one occasion to hide away the snacks I keep for when I need a quick sugar rush. Even my bottle of vitamins started to look good after a while, and it suddenly felt weird to remind myself not to eat them. Over the rest of the day, I experienced a lot of the normal feelings when it comes to being hungry—light-headedness, dizziness, tiredness, confusion. It felt like being drunk or not getting enough sleep—the same sort-of out-of-body sensation that makes you believe you are someone else. I often felt loopy, as if after a day or two more of doing this, I might start to have hallucinations. Going to teach in the afternoon without lunch was brutal, but at least it was a way to keep my mind occupied on a feeling other than wanting to eat but being unable to.

For my first time trying my hand at fasting, the experience went quite well. With the minor detriment to my ability to teach aside, there was no real harm done outside of that inflicted on my stomach. The feeling during the fast was both comforting and painful. My ability to concentrate and focus was raised to a much higher level than I anticipated, and it was interesting to discover how much I sometimes use food to reward myself for completed tasks. With no future incentives to distract me (save for the point at which I would be able to eat again), I felt that I could really live in the present, feeling each minute pass as though it were infinite. Not only that, but I felt incredibly accomplished at having set out to do something that I didn't think I ever could. At 7:30 sharp, we all went out to dinner to celebrate, and there was an almost euphoric quality both to the conversation and to those first few bites. Your mouth gets used to chewing again and your stomach starts churning out the acid it has been gurgling at you for the better part of the day. Like a meal after a bout of intense physical exertion, the food tasted spectacular, regardless of what we were actually eating. Anne and I looked at each other with wide eyes and even wider grins—the taste of food passing over our lips and the warmth and color returning back to our skin. Inevitably, I ate too much, and as we left the restaurant, my stomach started to feel sick again—this time not from an absence of food, but the feeling that perhaps I should start to fast anew.