21 June 2009

Well, I Think, In the Game of Life

For the second time this year, I officiated at a wedding between a Chinese American and and a Jewish American. These relationships are quite common in the United States and while at the beginning of my rabbinic career my policy was not to officiate at such weddings--between Jews and non-Jews--over the course of time I changed my policy, so long as the couple agrees to an exclusively Jewish wedding and raising children exclusively as Jews.

Today, however, I was truly struck by the depth of similarities and abiding respect that the Jews and Chinese have for one another--the long-held traditions; the profound sense of connection to ancestors; the generational links to wisdom; and, more recently, the similar paths of acculturation and assimilation into American life. Tonight after the wedding (my second of the day, third of the weekend) I had some food and shared a drink with a Thai woman (an OB-GYN) married to a Chinese surgeon, each of whom came to the United States nearly 40 years ago. Their two children are grown--one is a PhD, the other, an MD-PhD, and I couldn't help but marvel at the stunning similarity to a similarly exceptional Jewish pursuit of immigration, education and advancement.

America, as we all know, has been the place of refuge and opportunity for countless millions. And as the rabbi who often presides over the life-cycle moments of great consequence to family narrative, especially when the product of Jewish immigration meets Chinese immigration, I am keenly aware of role as arbiter of the generational connection, the Validator, as it were, of the decision to remain Jewish.

The Ketubah--marriage contract--for tonight's wedding was in Hebrew and English and had one Chinese element: the sign of "double happiness" in Chinese characters which a Jewish uncle pointed out at the Ketubah signing was like "double chai!" (Chai meaning "life" in Hebrew and "double-life" being a sign of particular fortune.)

The Chinese surgeon and Thai OB-GYN were interested in talking to me after services to ask several questions and comments: Did the Jewish word "amen" predate Christianity? Did I realize how much the Chinese guests appreciated connecting "double happiness" to "double life?" And, if my Congregation takes a trip to Israel anytime soon, can they come along? (Absolutely!)

The surgeon then pulled me deep into a conversation about Confucius,and we had a good time talking about similarities between Confucius, some of the Hebrew prophets, Ezra and Nehemia as well as Hillel and the early rabbis. If, as David Byrne imagines correctly, the "bar is called Heaven," then it's a place we all would have been very comfortable having a drink.

Of course, there was an Elijah moment. A tap on my shoulder from a wedding guest revealed that there was a relative from the Jewish side who was a rabbi, and he was eager to speak with me. I didn't know what to expect, especially since the rabbi was clearly my senior. Had I offended? Was my service syncretic, an unacceptable melding of cultures to an older generation? But the rabbi, in his late eighties and in a wheelchair, reached for my hand and kissed it--telling me I had done well. I had addressed concerns, shown respect to Jewish and Chinese traditions, and had conducted a Jewish wedding with honor and integrity.

I say Elijah moment because, well, my most significant teachers have all died. It's very rare these days that an elder teacher appears and offers judgment of any kind on my activities as a "teacher in Israel."

I was humbled. And proud.

I walked downtown to the train, in a respite from the rain. People ate and drank in the cafes of Tribeca; families and individuals moved lightly as Sunday wound down. Clouds and rain and sunshine battled for domination on a summer horizon that has been more wet, but richer, than anticipated. I checked my blackberry to see how my teams had done--poorly in the game of baseball, but well, I think, in the game of life.


Robin said...


David S said...


Interesting post.

My landlord of ten years + is Chinese. The view from over there is a bit darker. Many of the Chinese who grow up on the mainland don't learn about the holocaust, know nothing real about Jews, and have been fed anti-Semitic propaganda.

Even after his relatives found out I was Jewish, they said things to me like, "I don't like Jewish people". It was actually kind of funny, because there was no hint of animus. They'd obviously been programmed by the state, and they sounded like robots who had no understanding of what they were saying.

Their kids are being raised here as Chinese-Americans, of course, they are different.

Andy Bachman said...

David S: Extraordinary. In my life so far I've only encountered interest in Judaism and Jews from Chinese Americans I've met.

David S said...



I have good relations with my landlords.

I'll take a risk here and say that you might be dealing with more assimilated Chinese Americans. My landlord barely speaks English and spends lots of time in China. I think I'm probably the only Jewish person that he and some of his relatives have ever really known.

Like I said, it's a completely different story with his kids, who are indeed much more assimilated.