From Lanzhou, China, to Tel Aviv

Spending time with Yaakov Wang of the Chinese Wall restaurant.

Yaakov Wang welcomes guests to an incomparable culinary experience at the Chinese Wall restaurant in Tel Aviv (photo credit: MIRIAM KRESH)
Yaakov Wang welcomes guests to an incomparable culinary experience at the Chinese Wall restaurant in Tel Aviv
(photo credit: MIRIAM KRESH)
Something exotic is happening on Mikve Israel Street in Tel Aviv. Pass by the first few buildings.
They’re ordinary enough. Now look to your left.
At No. 26, two enormous red Chinese lanterns swing in front of a glass doors shielded by bamboo shades. Enter and sniff the exciting smells. A waiter or one of the managers will immediately come forward to welcome you. The Chinese Wall restaurant is intimate and homey, a family enterprise whose owners are Jews – Chinese Jews.
I sat down with Yaakov Wang, 58, the tall, gentle- mannered owner, who told Metro his story. He left China 26 years ago, looking for better opportunities and with a great curiosity about Israel for personal reasons. His ancestors were Jews living in Kaifeng long ago. But the Kaifeng Jews were no more immune to the pressures of war, natural disasters and persecution than any other Jewish community. By the beginning of the 20th century, all that was left of their Jewish identity were a few rituals and the habit of avoiding pork. Wang’s grandparents moved to Lanzhou, a town famous for manufacturing pulled noodles, and opened a restaurant. Assimilation seemed complete.
But the Jewish spark never died completely. Wang, a trained engineer, felt compelled to know more. Extensive reading fueled his desire to know Israel and study Judaism. At age 32, already married and the father of two daughters, he embarked on his voyage alone, promising his wife, as men have done over the centuries, that he would send for them when fortune favored.
“I took a train to the Ukraine, and wound up in Kiev,” says Wang. “There, a rabbi took an interest in me. He took me to his family home, and I lived with them for three months while I began studying. It was very hard, because I spoke no Russian or English.” The rabbi wrote a letter to the head of a yeshiva for Russian men in Jerusalem, urging him to accept Wang and help him on his way to Judaism. Armed with this letter, Wang came to Israel.
Once in Jerusalem, the yeshiva’s head rabbi put Wang in touch with a rabbi in Safed who is fluent in Chinese.
They spoke on the phone. Convinced of Wang’s sincerity, the new friend welcomed him to Safed and mentored his studies. Wang converted formally at Safed’s rabbinate two years after leaving China.
At the time of his conversion, his funds had run out and he needed to work. His rabbi in Safed put him touch with connections in Itamar; Wang settled there.
“At first, I worked in the greenhouses and the chicken coops in the morning, and studied in the afternoons.
After a while, the management offered me a salaried job: cooking for the yeshiva. I taught myself to provide what the boys like for breakfast and dinner: omelets, bread, dairy products. But for lunch, they got my version of my mother’s cooking. They liked it!” he recalls with a smile.
Wang had never thought to become a cook. “I just like to eat,” he says in his strongly accented Hebrew.
“I like to travel, and when I taste something good, I go back to my house and reproduce it. So it was easy to cook the dishes I remembered from my mother’s kitchen. Except I had to order items like soy sauce specially.”
True, one doesn’t expect to find soy sauce on the tables of a town in Samaria.
Living simply and economizing, Wang was able to send for his family. His wife attended a women’s seminary in Jerusalem, and after a year she also converted.
Wang’s daughters, who are 100% Israeli and Jewish, converted, too. They have served in the army, and one is studying law in Jerusalem. Wang has Sabra grandchildren now.
Eventually, his sister Rivka came with her husband and children, all of whom have long since converted.
They are tightly bound families, managing the restaurant together and even living on the same block in order to stay close. Originally, both families shared a small apartment in Itamar, the children in school and the adults working and saving to launch Chinese Wall.
Wang pours jasmine-scented tea into small cups.
“This,” he says with a soft bang of his fist on the table, “is home. We’re happy here, and have long-time friends. We don’t think of ourselves as Chinese nationals, but as Jews and Israelis. Everything about Israel is so much better. And if you’re cooking, there’s no comparison between the clean, healthy produce you buy here and what you get in China. Over there, you can’t even drink water out of the tap. In general,” he adds, “kosher food is cleaner and better.”
I’m thinking what a classic immigrant story of hard work, patience, frugality and optimism in the face of hardship that I’m hearing.
Chinese Wall has been a successful Israeli enterprise for 20 years, with a faithful clientele that has followed its relocations. At first, Wang established a restaurant in downtown Jerusalem, but business took a dive in 2000 with the wave of terrorism that rocked the city at the time.
“I used to hear the explosions, and then the balagan [noise and panic] afterward,” says Wang. “Once, there were two attacks on the same day.” The family moved to Tel Aviv and after several years on Ahad Ha’am Street, launched the restaurant, always named Chinese Wall, at its present location on Mikve Israel Street. Wang still produces Chinese culinary events in Jerusalem via the Tourism Ministry.
If you arrive at Chinese Wall between 3 and 4 p.m., you’ll find one of the cooks pulling noodles in the traditional way of Wang’s native city, Lanzhou. The dough isn’t rolled out as the Italians roll pasta, but undergoes stretching out and folding by hand to obtain thin noodles made of multiple thin layers. It’s a sight worth watching. The place fills up for dinner, and looking at the smoking platters of Szechuan beef, sweet-and-sour chicken and Peking duck, it’s easy to understand why.
Chinese Wall stands by its reputation for satisfying the hungriest and most discriminating seekers of authentic Chinese food.
Spicy Beef with Vegetables (Yu Xinag Rou)
Serves 4
• 500 grams roasting beef (No. 5)
•1¼ cups mixed raw carrots, green bell peppers, fresh mushrooms and onions
•1 tsp. corn oil
For the sauce
• 4 Tbsp. cornstarch
•½ tsp. salt
•½ cup white cooking wine
•2½ tsp. garlic, pressed
• Fresh whole hot pepper in one piece: size of a teaspoon for mildly hot; size of a tablespoon for fiery
• 2 Tbsp. soy sauce
•2 tsp. white sugar
•1 Tbsp. + 1 tsp. vinegar
•1 Tbsp. fresh gingerroot, finely chopped
•2 Tbsp. sesame oil
Slice the beef into long thin strips, against the grain. In a small bowl, dissolve the cornstarch and salt in the wine. Slice the carrots into thin discs. Slice the mushrooms thinly. Chop the green peppers and onions coarsely. Heat a wok over medium-high heat.
Add the corn oil to the wok and swirl to distribute it. Place the beef strips in the wok. Cook and stir 3 minutes. Remove beef to a plate. Put the garlic and hot pepper in the wok, stirring until the garlic aroma rises. Add all the vegetables and stir. Add the beef to the vegetables. Add the soy sauce, sugar, vinegar, ginger and sesame oil. Cook, stirring, 3 minutes. Remove the hot pepper piece if desired. Stir the cornstarch mixture well and pour it over the beef and vegetables. Maintain medium-high heat. When the sauce is thick and covers the beef and vegetables, remove all from the wok. Serve with white rice or noodles.
Chinese Wall
26 Mikve Israel Street, Tel Aviv
Tel: (03) 560-3974
Open Sunday to Thursday, noon to 11 p.m.; Fridays noon to the start of Shabbat; Saturday nights after Shabbat until 11 p.m.
Certified kosher by the private Mishmar Hakodesh organization.