From Singing a Niggun in Beijing to a Jewish Halloween Party in Shanghai

Selected impressions from my trip to China
by Matti Kovler

My visit to China was initiated by an invitation from the Beijing Conservatory to perform “The Unbearable Lightness,” a piece I composed for seven double basses, as well as to conduct a workshop for Chinese music students on the use of Jewish folklore in my work. I was naturally curious to see China for the first time, faintly recalling some conversations about the Israel-China relationship in the field of science (just earlier this year, the Technion, where my father works, launched a “mini-Technion” at the Shantou University, for instance). Moreover, I was curious to “feel out” a potential, if any, to develop some interesting artistic bridges in the field of Jewish Musical Theater, which has been the focus of my musical activities for several years.

From a preliminary web search I found several interesting artistic projects in China since the warming of diplomatic relations in the early 90’s. Although the Israeli Embassy’s website listed a 2012 Israel Philharmonic visit as the top of its “What’s new” section, I suspected more creative collaboration was happening both within and outside the official establishment.

Getting the particular insight I was interested in would not have been possible without the connectivity magic of ROI – from the confusing yet exhilarating hodgepodge of the 2013 Summit I remembered Jonathan Dworkin, a fellow ROIer living in China, and reached out to him before my trip. Jonathan, who divides his time between teaching Western etiquette to Chinese businessmen and reviving the Jewish community life in Beijing, graciously helped me to navigate the Chinese branch of the “global shtetl.”

Jonathan belongs to Kehilat Beijing, a thriving community without their own Rabbi, maintaining a busy schedule around holidays and Shabbat. “While Judaism is not one of the five official religions here,” he explained, “China is tolerant towards Jewish practice.” The government, however, restricts conversion to Judaism inside China and often prohibits local Chinese to attend Jewish communal events. Aside from the stereotypical, “Jews are smart or good at making money,” not many real aspects of Jewish culture were familiar to the Conservatory students I worked with.

Following a successful premiere and workshop on Jewish folklore, I went with the students to a local, (and exceptionally non-Kosher) restaurant. After the meal, I had much fun teaching the Conservatory students how to sing a niggun. Imagine the sound of this improvised tish, singing “Ya-Bam-Bam-Bam” with a Chinese accent! The guttural Erhu calls (Chinese fiddle) answered our singing from the street – a different time and geography, and yet the same ancient conviction.

From Beijing, I set out for Shanghai to get a glimpse of Jewish life there, and to gauge the potential for some creative collaboration. Following an obligatory visit to the Jewish Heritage museum (which recently started to house theatrical productions) I went to the Shanghai Conservatory. There I discovered that among the Conservatory founders in the early 1920s were many Russian-Jewish immigrants (a detail missing from the official website).

It also turned out that the very site of the Conservatory building, located on Fenyang Road, used to house a Russian-Jewish club which in the 40s was the hub for anything Jewish in Shanghai, from hazzanut concerts to academic lectures. The news of the founding of Israel were read to the community from its stage.

No longer a “Noah’s Ark” for several thousands of fortunate Jews escaping from the Holocaust, nearly 70 years after the flood, the Jewish Shanghai has transformed into a Chinese cousin of Tel Aviv, with Israelis driving electrobikes on their way to enjoy the traditional “drunken chicken” or a Chinese massage after work. The absolute, and most surreal highlight of my stay in Shanghai was attending a Jewish Halloween Party organized by the Israeli community at a fancy local bar (see photo attached).

The scope of this Micro Grant blog is too short to describe all of my Chinese adventures, but apart from a successful concert and workshops, museums, parties and synagogues, I left China with more questions than answers. The artistic and Jewish communities seem to circle on different orbits; I was not able to find as many intersections between the Chinese and the Jews as I would have hoped, and yet – the potential exists.

Just earlier this week, I heard from a newly-made friend at the Shanghai Conservatory that they agreed to host a Jewish Musical Theater production in May 2014. For the first time in half a century, the stage of the former Russian-Jewish Club will host a musical evening in Russian, Hebrew and Yiddish.

A warm thank you to the Schusterman Foundation and ROI for generously supporting this trip.

Matti Kovler is a Russian-born Israeli composer, and the founder of the Boston-based Jewish Music Theater.