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Being Jewish in China and Discovering What Really Matters

When my wife and I decided to move our family from Maplewood, NJ to Beijing in 2005 we weren’t really sure what it would mean for our Jewish life. We were prepared to scale it back for a few years, and to take more responsibility for keeping the Jewish education of our three children, then aged 2, 4 and 7, hoping to keep them plugged in enough to pick things back up when we returned in three years.

Instead, we were pleasantly surprised to find a warm, welcoming Jewish congregation waiting for us in China’s capital. Kehillat Beijing is a lay-led congregation with a cleverly titled website — www.sinogogue.org — that reflected a lot about the membership. The founders had been in Beijing for many years and were intent on creating one of the few things they really seemed to miss from home — a supportive, nurturing Jewish community, which I found immediately invigorating.

We arrived in Beijing in August, just a few weeks before Rosh Hashanah. We brought the kids to Erev Rosh Hashanah services, held in the ballroom of an athletic club atop a downtown building. The next day, after much debate, we decided to send them to school while Rebecca and I went to services. There would be no children’s services and we felt the need to be a bit reflective.

I found the whole experience profoundly meaningful and deeply touching. Though I can read Hebrew, I can’t understand it and my high Reform childhood left me woefully lacking in knowledge of many of the basic prayers. Services often left me feeling a bit lost. But now they were very similar to my daily life — lots of talk in a language I couldn’t understand.

But there was a big difference. The familiar melodies and rhythms pulled me in and offered a profound sense of relief and comfort; they were a safe harbor in a world turned upside down. While virtually everything about my daily existence had been radically different, the service was the same in China as it was in New Jersey. Abraham was still going to obey God’s orders with his precious son and we were still going to wonder just what this story meant and ponder who was testing whom.

The relief I felt in the service made me realize how much comfort I had long taken in these rituals, which I had dutifully attended for years without much thought. Now I had been given the opportunity to reinvent myself; no one would know if I skipped services and went about my daily life. I would soon take advantage of this freedom to reboot my life in countless ways, most memorably forming and fronting a blues band with three Chinese members (and one other American) that would go on to tour China and become a sensation.

But some things were not going to change, and being forced to sort through what really mattered to us and what didn’t was extraordinarily useful. I suddenly understood just what I had gotten from all those years celebrating these holidays. Being part of a small group also offered a stark contrast to the massive high-holy day events back in New Jersey. My presence felt more important in this small group. And being gathered together in a ballroom in the middle of this huge city where no one else was really aware that it was in any way a special day made me understand an obvious truth; we are a tiny minority. It is easy to forget this in New Jersey, where life stops and schools close on the Holy days.

In Beijing, it took some real thought and effort to mark the event, and that forced us to pause and really examine what was important to us and consider all the things that made us who we are.

This story is adapted from Big In China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising A Family, Playing The Blues and Becoming A Star in China (Harper). Available now in all formats at all retailers. Copyright 2011 by Alan Paul.

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