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An Accidental Lunch:
When Chinese Worry Met Jewish Angst
Copyright © 2002 by Phyllis B. Grodsky, Ph.D.
It was one of those hazy, humid summer days when the New York cable news TV
channel advises people not to exercise outdoors, a message they repeat every
ten minutes. While strolling around Manhattan's Lower East Side is not
exactly an extreme sport, I decided to skip lunch and go directly -- albeit
early -- to my acupuncture appointment. I quickly walked past an
undistinguished Chinese restaurant that was once the site of the illustrious
Garden Cafeteria, a legendary eatery where Jewish intellectuals fervently
argued the fate of humanity. Then I crossed the street and stood in front of
a Buddhist temple; a cream-colored Jewish star, built into the building's red
brickwork, quietly announced that this structure used to be a synagogue.
Impatient to get inside, I pulled open the large wooden door and entered a
cool, dimly lit vestibule.
The foyer's dark walls were bare except for a heavy brass plaque embossed
with thick Hebrew letters. I was gazing at the plaque when Dr. Tan, my
acupuncturist, came out of his office. With his usual cheerful demeanor he
inquired: "Tell me, what does it say?" "The Hebrew writing might be the
names of elders, and others, who made a contribution to the synagogue," I
replied. He responded: "It's good to remember." I said: "Not far from
here there's a synagogue, the Eldridge Street Synagogue, that fell into
disrepair after the Jewish immigrants and their families left the
neighborhood. Now, another generation of Jews is not only restoring it, but
creating a Jewish heritage center as well." Dr. Tan smiled and nodded in
approval. He told me he was about to go to a hall in the basement and have
lunch with his wife and some friends, and invited me to join them.
Downstairs, I glanced around the sparsely furnished room, looked beyond a
large whirling fan, and recalled another immigrant group, speaking a
different language. I imagined a kind of fiddler in the basement; simchas
-- happy occasions -- with joyous music and plenty of food, including
chopped liver prepared by Jewish cooks who hadn't yet developed an aversion
to chicken fat.
People were laughing and amiably chatting in Chinese. I was hungrily
eyeballing a steaming platter of vegetables when, to my delight, a woman
seated beside me started speaking in English. After exchanging a few
pleasantries, she cut to the chase, and stated: "My son, born in America,
won't go to Chinese school. He wants to play baseball all the time." She
said she wanted him to succeed, become a doctor, but worried Chinese culture
would not survive in America.
I had empathy with her concern: like Jews, Chinese people look at high rates
of intermarriage -- about 50% for Jews, around 40% for Asians born in the
United States -- and fear their ranks will rapidly diminish.
I knew baseball could be a magnet for angst, and said: "In another era there
probably was a Jewish mother in this very room with the same hopes for her
son, complaining that baseball kept him from studying Hebrew." My luncheon
companion didn't buy into the comparison, and retorted: "Jews are 'people of
the book,' and will never lose their tradition." She insisted that Chinese
culture, though ancient, was not deeply rooted.
During the Cultural Revolution Mao Zedong destroyed art and artifacts and
ruptured Chinese society in ways that have yet to heal. Dr. Tan told me his
wife, who was also an acupuncturist, saw the handwriting on the wall and fled
to Hong Kong with their young daughter. Dr. Tan said he remained in China
because he thought the whole thing would be over quickly and, in any event,
he considered himself nonpolitical and beyond reproach. But he was wrong.
He and other intellectuals were termed "enemies of the people" and demonized
by legions of students called Red Guards. Without going into the gory
details, he calmly stated: "Many people died. Some couldn't take it, and
killed themselves." I was touched by the gentle way he eluded to harsh acts,
and asked: "How were you able to endure?" He replied that his disposition
saved him; he maintained an even temper throughout the ordeal, even though he
feared he might never see his wife and child again.
Did Dr. Tan's resilience give my luncheon companion hope? I said: "After
suffering brutal persecution, didn't Dr. Tan bring his culture to America so
others could remember?" Her worried frown suggested she wasn't comforted.
I looked up and my mind's eye settled on the image of two boys in baseball
caps separated by time and tradition. Their deepest wish may have been to
hit a home run, but their mothers didn't see the nation's pastime as merely
a game: for them, the boys' field of dreams was a killing field.
While I was imagining the cracking of bats, I heard the clinking of plates
being stacked, and that signaled lunch was over. Dr. Tan quietly slipped
away. Others lingered for a moment, as if they saved their best tidbits of
conversation for last. I said a goodbye to my luncheon companion, wished her
good luck and reflected on what I saw: not only was Chinese culture thriving
all around me, but the Jewish roots on the Lower East Side were being
lovingly restored, too. Then I hurried upstairs, eager to get past the sharp
sting of the acupuncture needles and feel the soothing effect that followed
in its wake.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
PHYLLIS B. GRODSKY, who holds a Ph.D. in Social/ Personality psychology, has
previously published in The Jewish Magazine. See: "On Chametz and Haggadahs:
A Passover Story",
"In the Presence of the Rebbe", and "Making Amends".
from the February Purim 2002 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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