by Erica Lyons
It was a single course my freshman year in college, Jews and the Immigrant Experience in America, that sparked the centrality of Judaism to my identity. This was no longer an identity forged by years of forced attendance in Hebrew School, where I learned to aptly memorize words without meaning. Nor was it from an occasional synagogue service or a lesson on the Holocaust transmitted through a shock strategy involving too many graphic films that haunted my nights. I knew growing up that there had to be more than that to Judaism, but this was all the Jewish world had so far offered me.
I had no Jewish past. I never had the opportunity to know my paternal grandparents and my maternal grandparents rarely spoke about the old world. They had all shed their shtetl skins the second they saw Lady Liberty in the harbor. We had few family legends of our own coming to America, save for one largely fictionalized one ending with my ‘almost’ 4-foot-10 great-grandma Schwartz beating a woman over the head with her well traveled quilt and candlesticks when she arrived in America. (This woman was apparently living with great-grandpa Schwartz in New York while great-grandma fled the Cossacks with their toddlers in tow.)
Through this undergraduate class, I had found a way to meaningfully connect with Judaism and I became hungry for more knowledge. I was ready to actively claim it for myself and wanted to learn about all the Grandma-Schwartz’s of my past. I began to see through cross-referenced classes that Judaism was always there in my other interests too; it found its way into my literature classes, my women’s studies class and my creative writing. I was even able to work Judaism into my physics class in an essay entitled, “Faith and Physics.”
By understanding Jewish history and peoplehood, I was beginning to connect with other Jews with diverse backgrounds and cultural contexts, other nationalities and differing levels of observance. I started to see, through history, where our strengths lay, where our roots were planted, where our prayers were directed, where our stories converged and where I fit into this collage.
I went on to serve as a teaching assistant for my university’s Judaic studies department. I now had a view of Jewish Diaspora life that was full, rich and diverse. I could piece together my grandparents’ Jewish world in Eastern Europe to better understand both what they left behind and also what they carried with them. Though the great-grandma Schwartz candlestick bashing episode was likely in a large part born out of my grandfather’s own very active imagination, I could understand why the candlesticks entered into that story in the first place and why they would be saved. While it was perhaps too late to rescue their stories, there were so many to discover. I thrived on Jewish narratives and connections.
I carried this newfound pride with me through law school where I was an active leader in Jewish Washington, D.C. and even managed to take a course on Jewish law at a Jesuit university. Jewish New York welcomed me with open arms where Jewish life came easily, but I also carried this pride as I traveled throughout Europe and began to see the world through a very Jewish lens. I eventually took it as far as Hong Kong where I have lived since 2002.
In Hong Kong, I discovered an entirely new bundle of nearly forgotten narratives and chapters in Jewish history, the history of the Jews of the Far East, a history that rarely made its way into Western centered Jewish studies. While attempts have recently been made to save from obscurity stories like those of the Jews of Kaifeng, it comes generations too late for that community. (In 1850, the community sent its final desperate letter out to world Jewry pleading for help. Their pleas went unanswered and their synagogue was sold off brick by brick, their story untold and their Jewish identities lost.)
Living in the Far East has given me a very different perspective on Jewish history. It is one that I am eager to share. While my New Jersey/New York Jewish world was white and largely born from the Eastern Europe of the turn of the last century, the Jewish world of the Far East offers a very different view. The Jews of Eastern Europe certainly occupy a space in the history here, but there are so many other narratives to explore and share. There are stories told by Indian Jews, Chinese Jews, Baghdadi Jews, Burmese Jews, among others. Also, while Jews of European backgrounds share a history that includes anti-Semitism and persecution, the Jews of the Far East have, for the most part, lived without this legacy. Our local neighbors are also quite eager to learn from us about Jewish history, culture, values and spirituality. With this knowledge, they have the ability to become powerful allies for Israel and the Jewish world.
Geo-political realities are rapidly shifting and the world is beginning to look East but we, as Jews, are truly global. We, as a people, always have been here in the Far East. Our stories here are new and they are ancient. They are happening now and are part of history. Like great-grandma Schwartz I have made a new home for myself far across the globe (though for me it was entirely by choice) and very much like her, candlesticks were among the most important things I carried with me.
Erica Lyons is the founder of Asian Jewish Life, a journal of spirit, society and culture. She plays an active role in the Hong Kong Jewish community, serving on the Board of the Hong Kong Jewish Historical Society, the board of ZAKA of Hong Kong, China & Macau and on the Management Council of Ohel Leah Synagogue. She is also a writer for numerous international publications, often writing about Jewish Asia.
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