Seeking their fortunes in Beijing

A trio of transplanted Israelis has been busy meeting Olympics visitors' culinary and spiritual needs.

Pitta china 224.88 (photo credit: Allon Sinai)
Pitta china 224.88
(photo credit: Allon Sinai)
When his home city of Haifa came under fire during the Second Lebanon War, Ohad Tiktinsky decided to make a life-changing move. Knowing China from the time he had spent there on a scholarship a few years earlier, he booked a flight to Beijing 18 months ago and has been there ever since. A mammoth of a man, especially when standing next to the usually small Chinese, Tiktinsky opened a bar when he first arrived, but for the last three months has been the manager of Dini's kosher restaurant. "I majored in East Asian studies at the University of Haifa and I received a scholarship to study in China after that. I returned to Israel to open a business when I finished, but after the Second Lebanon War I decided I needed a time-out. After a couple of close calls with the rockets in Haifa, I decided that I needed a break," Tiktinsky says. "China was an obvious choice as I knew the language and I love its culture and people. I don't regret for a second the decision I made. I currently have a Chinese girlfriend and I intend to stay here in the coming years." Ten meters away from Dini's is the Israeli owned Bite-a-Pita bakery and restaurant. Avi and Shuli Shabtai opened the place four years ago when they felt the Chinese capital needed a pita bakery. "We've been here in Beijing for eight years now. I originally came here on a different job, but after understanding that we would be staying, we decided to open a pita bakery as we felt that it lacked one," Avi says. Unlike Tiktinsky, the Shabtais are in Beijing purely for business and are looking forward to the day they return to Israel to their grown children and their extended family. "We want to expand and we have plans, but if there's a change we will be happy to return to our family," Shuli says. "We have mixed emotions about being here in China. Our family's in Israel and we are very connected to the country. We have a business and if it does well we will stay, but if it doesn't we will come back home," Avi says. Rabbi Mendy Raskin is in charge of Chabad in downtown Beijing and despite his strong connection with his homeland is hoping to remain in China. "At Chabad we treat every position we undertake as a lifetime job. I see my future here," he says. "I've been here for two years and came to China after spending time in Ukraine and Russia. Most our work here is on Shabbat when we arrange prayers for businessmen, tourists and backpackers." Raskin frequently visits Dini's restaurant, but doesn't eat at Bite-a-Pita as it's not kosher. "We don't serve pork or seafood, but our meat is not kosher," Avi says. "Israelis who are looking for a place without pork and people who want to eat vegetarian come here as we can guarantee them that we only use vegetable oil." Shuli explains that a financial reason stands behind their decision not to make their restaurant kosher. "You can only buy kosher meat from one place and the prices are very high. It doesn't make any financial sense," she says. Most of Bite-a-Pita's costumers are foreigners, with many of them Arabs coming to the restaurant to enjoy the Mediterranean menu, which includes falafel, shwarma and a large selection of salads. "Our customers come from across the globe and we also have some Chinese clients," Shuli says. "There's a large population of foreigners in the city and most of our customers come from that group." In a way, Dini's restaurant is family owned as well, with the brother-in-law of Chabad's chief rabbi in Beijing, Shimon Freundlich, one of the owners. "Rabbi Freundlich had many visitors and his wife, Dini, had massive amounts of cooking to do at home. She suggested they open a restaurant to make life easier for her and for everybody else as well," Tiktinsky says when asked about the origin of the restaurant. Tiktinsky says he didn't have much connection with kashrut before he began working at Dini's, but that has all changed now. "From day one I understood that the success of the restaurant would be decided by its kashrut," he says. "We don't allow anybody to enter Dini's with food or drink. Even when rabbis from abroad come with their own bottles of wine, we don't use them. You can only eat and drink the restaurant's products." Tiktinsky, the Shabtais and Raskin all come from different backgrounds and each has different plans for the future. All, however, have one thing in common: a love for Israel, which remains their home even though it's halfway around the world.