'The sands of the seashore'

What China and Israel have in common - and where we lag behind.

taglit.sendarticle (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
An ancient Chinese proverb says: "If you are in a hurry, then you will never get there!" Having recently led a tour to China, we found that the determination to push forward, slowly but surely, despite formidable obstacles, is just one of the many similarities between the Chinese and the Jews, who represent the two longest-lasting cultures in the history of the world. China is a fascinating place. It boasts magnificent temples and luxurious palaces of the emperors, set among lush Chinese gardens and quaint gazebos. At the same time China is modernizing at a dizzying pace, with huge skyscrapers and ultra-modern office buildings as far as the eye can see. As zealously as the Chinese hold on to their traditions - still gathering each morning for Tai Chi calisthenics and sipping green tea - they are determined to join the United States as the world's other great economic superpower. They are actively competing for the planet's commodities - from oil and gas to copper and steel - as they systematically transform themselves from an agrarian society into an urban one. THIS LIVING with a foot in each world, the ancient as well as the modern, strikes a chord with Israelis. We, too, struggle to integrate our ancient culture and unique Jewish personality with a fervent desire to join the larger community of nations. We grapple mightily to move our country's body politic forward without completely abandoning our Jewish soul. Chinese businessmen in three-piece suits stopping for a snack of dim sum and sushi on the streets of Xian are the mirror image of our own hassidim grabbing a quick slice of pizza on the streets of Jerusalem. THEN THERE is the fascinating history of the Jews in China. While legend hints that the Chinese may actually be one of the Lost Tribes of Israel, documented evidence of the Jewish presence there dates back to at least the eighth century. The Italian traveler Marco Polo visited China in the 1200s and noted how the Jews were prospering. Numerous Jewish communities sprang up in China, most notably in Kaifeng, which existed from the Song Dynasty of the 12th century until the 19th century; in Harbin, where Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's grandfather is buried; and in Shanghai, which, as the only city on earth that allowed refugees to enter without a visa, gave life-saving refuge to more than 20,000 Jews during World War II. Today, the number of full-fledged Jews estimated to be in China varies from several hundred to several thousand, with Jewish tourists and businesspeople making up the majority. Their Jewish needs are served primarily by Chabad, which runs centers in both Shanghai and the capital Beijing. (Hong Kong island has its own established Jewish community - said to be the most affluent in the world - which includes synagogues, kosher restaurants and the only mikve in China). MOST STRIKING about any comparison between the Jews and the Chinese, of course, are the numbers. China is not only the third-largest country in terms of land mass - after Canada and Russia, just ahead of the US - but is the most populous nation on Earth, with almost 1.5 billion people. The cities are overflowing - Shanghai alone has more than 16 million inhabitants - and cities of a million people are a mere shtetl in the government's estimation. The exponential growth of the population has led China to adopt the radical "one-child policy," which, through a combination of incentive and punishment, pressures Chinese to limit their family to a single offspring. As the Chinese premier told president Bill Clinton when he visited China: "We have more people studying English in our country than you have people speaking English in yours!" Contrast this with the Jewish world, where we inhabit but a sliver of the Middle East, and are still struggling to regain our pre-Shoah numbers. While the Chinese and the Jews began their civilizations at roughly the same time, the Chinese grew steadily - enormously - while we stayed small, largely due to the ravages of war, pogroms, assimilation and intermarriage. Particularly in Israel, we are determined to increase our numbers, so that we gain a critical mass that will ensure our viability and increase our security. Our emphasis on ingathering the Jews of the Diaspora, and the priority we place on children, are just two indications that we feel the need to "grow" Israel as fully and rapidly as we can. Throughout the Torah, God promises that He will make the Jewish people as numerous "as the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore." A puzzling prophesy, considering our limited ranks. Some explain this phrase as indicating that we stand out among the peoples of the world, overrepresented in many important fields, magnified far beyond the statistics by our overachieving nature. Others offer the idea that while we may be numerically small in any given generation, when you add up all the Jews who ever lived - as well as future generations - our total becomes virtually uncountable! While I accept these explanations - and appreciate that quality can be as valuable as quantity - I believe that God is as much prodding as promising us. He looks forward to the day when we are a great and populous people, filling our land to overflowing. To that end, it is our sacred responsibility to fill our homes with Jewish children, to welcome others into the fold, and to gather up our brothers and sisters from throughout the world. That, simply said, would be worth all the tea in China. The writer is director of the Ohel Ari Jewish Outreach Center. jocmtv@netvision.net.il