When friends ask me what it’s been like to live in China for the past six months, I tell them it’s like living in a parallel universe: everything is foreign; conceptions of time and space are radically different; and I’m removed from the norms, customs, and rituals of my life thus far.
Except on Friday nights. Since the first week I arrived in Beijing, I have been frequenting Shabbat services and community dinners at Kehillat Beijing (www.sinogogue.org). There, everything is familiar: the tune of Lechah Dodi; the sequence of Parashat Hashavuah; the taste of Manischewitz grape juice; and the wonder of [global] Jewish geography.
During the school week, my life in Beijing is an infinite crash course, filled with the endless challenges and excitement of learning Mandarin. It can be overwhelming — especially when the culture shock and homesickness hit. So, I started to measure my time away from home with the known intervals of Shabbat.
For the Chinese (whose civilization has remarkable parallels with that of the Jews), the primary unit of time measurement is the year. Most Chinese people who live away from their hometowns return to see their families only once a year – on Chinese New Year. This results in a mass exodus from the cities of 130 million workers. It is the world’s largest human migration.
I decided to go home for a visit.
In celebration of the New Year of the Dragon, we got over a month off school. Which means that I had four Shabbats to enjoy in Canada. I spent them in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, and Winnipeg.
On each Friday night, I marveled at the commonalities that made these Shabbat dinners so similar to one another – and to the weekly tradition at Kehillat Beijing. But I also relished the particulars: my parents kissing me on the cheek; my sister sitting just across the table; my boyfriend’s arm around my shoulder.
It was a great pleasure to return to the Glebe Shul. As soon as I walked through the door, I was thrilled to meet the newest member of our community, baby Moshe Goldstein. Surrounded by dear friends, I savoured every bite of Stacy’s cooking, and listened intently to Michael’s Dvar.
There are some features that make the Shabbat experience a constant in one’s life, no matter where in the world. There are other things that create a unique feeling in specific locales, whether exotic or familiar. In the words of the 13th century poet, Rumi:
“It may be that the satisfaction
I need depends on my
going away, so that when
I’ve gone and come back,
I’ll find it at home.”