The artwork on this note card was created by 5768 WRJ Art Calendar artist Césan d’Ornellas Levine.
Today is Rosh Chodesh Adar (chodesh tov!) and Chinese New Year (xin nian kuai le!). We should never lose sight of our responsibilities to and our place in the global community, but when these celebratory days coincide, we are reminded even more of how important it is to find opportunities for dialogue and connection. Two RAC staffers reflect on Chinese-Jewish relations, and how meaningful this relationship is.
I grew up in a neighborhood in Lower Manhattan that is a 10 minute walk to Battery Park City, SoHo, Little Italy and Chinatown. But, to be perfectly honest, I did not know much about Chinatown and its community until I interned for the New York City Council Member who represents my area. I remember one morning a few years ago when I had to meet the then-candidate at a school on Grand Street, and so I walked the length of East Broadway, which begins in the heart of Chinatown.
East Broadway still has the look and feel of a New York of many generations ago. The climb of the Manhattan Bridge arcs over the low buildings and the crowd of awnings and people is juxtaposed against sleek skyscrapers that nestle the Municipal Building and dot the Lower East Side. As I walked up East Broadway, I was totally immersed in the Cantonese I was hearing and seeing all around me, gleefully mesmerized by what felt like a quintessential New York experience. I started to pay closer attention to the buildings (many of them seemingly former tenements), and I noticed that a number of them had Yiddish or Hebrew writing and Stars of David on them; testaments to the Jewish community that used to live in this area, bracketing the years around the turn of the 19th Century.
I loved that there were still signs of the large Jewish community that used to live around East Broadway. There remain to this day a number of Jewish organizations, and a much smaller (in numbers) community. What a wonderful thing, though, to see the history of the Jewish immigrant story preserved, while a new community is living and thriving on those same streets. And the Chinese and Jewish communities celebrate this shared story, too. A number of community organizations join together for the celebration of the “Egg Rolls and Egg Creams” festival and block party every year, a celebration of food, language, art, music and the history of the neighborhood. When different communities, especially with a similar immigration narrative, can come together in joy and harmony, it is an inspiring look at what cross-cultural dialogue can be.
This Shabbat, we read Parashat Terumah, the portion I read 10 years ago when I became a bat mitzvah. This Shabbat, my family and I also celebrate Chinese New Year—just as we did 10 years ago as I became a bat mitzvah. In a strange, cosmic coincidence that the synagogue administrators certainly did not plan when they assigned my date some years prior, my bat mitzvah fell on Chinese New Year, creating a rich opportunity for us to celebrate two distinct elements of my family's culture by meshing them on this joyous occasion.
We kicked off our weekend of celebration with a Shabbat dinner at my house, a Chinese New Year feast with extended family and close friends. The real kicker came the next day, though--a complete surprise to me and a moment I'll always cherish. At one point during the reception, I stepped out for some fresh air and saw two people in plain, grey t-shirts juxtaposed against beautiful, red and gold embellished pants. They were, unmistakably to me, the legs of a traditional Chinese lion. In a lion dance, the lion’s legs are the combined four legs of the two dancers that operate it, one—the lion’s front legs—standing upright to hold its head, and the other—the lion’s back legs—moving artfully to create its body. I thought it was funny that a group just down the hall from mine was celebrating the festival my family would have focused on that weekend had it not been for my bat mitzvah. It turns out, though, that the dancers were there for us. My parents had arranged to integrate the traditional Chinese New Year dance into my Jewish coming of age, making it truly representative of everything we had to celebrate that weekend.
My parents had stuffed dozens of tiny red envelopes with gold dollar coins so my friends could join in the cai qing ritual as I fed the lion auspicious fruits and vegetables to symbolize a prosperous new year. Sharing the ritual with my family and friends, Chinese or not, Jewish or not, epitomized the spirit of our multicultural celebration. I don't know if I'll ever be able to replicate this unique moment--and I don't need to. What I do know is that I'll always look back on my Chinese New Year bat mitzvah as a reminder of who I am and where I came from, and as a meaningful instance of sharing and celebrating the diverse cultures that brighten our world.
As we celebrate the moments of coming together, may we also take this new Jewish month and new Chinese year to renew our work to promote interfaith, cross-cultural dialogue, to honor our histories of immigration in calling for reform to our currently broken system and to join hands as we work to make the world a better place through tikkun olam.