Shanghai Passover: Celebrating the holiday in China's COVID lockdown
For most Israelis, Passover of 2020, with its lockdowns, Zoom Seders and social distancing, has become a dim memory of the distant past. The pandemic has receded from the news, and the banner medical headlines that dominated our lives have been replaced with bulletins about judicial reform.To get more breaking news shanghai
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Yet, for the Jewish community of Shanghai, the memories of the pandemic Passover of 2022, with its strict lockdown, remain fresh in their minds, and are likely to be so for many years to come.
The community has had a long and varied history. Jews began arriving in the port city in the mid-1800s, when Elias David Sassoon, a Jew of Sephardi descent, came to Shanghai and established a branch of his Bombay-based firm which dealt in cotton, tea, opium and silk. By the beginning of the 20th century, the Sephardi Jewish community had built a synagogue and established a Hebrew school. Soon after, Russian Jews began to arrive from Siberia, Manchuria and North China. Following the Russian Revolution, the number of Russian Jews arriving in Shanghai increased.
The history of Shanghai's Jewish community
In November 1938, after Kristallnacht, Jews from Germany and Austria began to arrive in Shanghai, and later a group of students from the Mir Yeshiva came. By the end of World War II, the Jewish community in Shanghai numbered between 32,000 and 35,000. After the war, most of the Jews left and moved to Israel and other countries.
In recent years, approximately 3,000 Jews have been living in Shanghai, according to Rabbi Avraham Greenberg, who has served as an emissary (shliach) of Chabad in Shanghai since 2006. Greenberg’s brother, Rabbi Shalom Greenberg, was the first Chabad rabbi in Shanghai, and led the central branch of Chabad in the city, located in the Hongqiao neighborhood. Avraham became the rabbi at a second Chabad center in Pudong, a newer area of Shanghai.“Shanghai is a modern, beautiful city,” says the 42-year-old Greenberg, who has a pleasant and friendly demeanor. “The majority of the people in the Jewish community are young families, people doing business here, and there are many students. It is challenging, but has a young and positive spirit.”
Before the pandemic, he says, Chabad operated three centers in Shanghai. Two were headed by the brothers Greenberg, and a third was operated by Rabbi Shlomo Aouizerat. “It was fun,” recalls Greenberg. “We had Shabbat services and meals for hundreds of people each week, we taught adult education classes, and we operated a Hebrew school in two locations for 70 children.”
Yael Farjun has lived in Shanghai for 13 years and says it is difficult to categorize the Jewish community of Shanghai. Farjun grew up in Eilat and works with a company that helps international firms enter the Chinese market.
“It is not just one community,” she says. “It is a combination of groups and communities. Among those groups, some are defined by religious affiliation, such as Chabad and another Sephardi group that is Orthodox. There is a liberal Jewish group, and there are French Jews, and there is also the Israeli community, which is not strictly affiliated with one group or another.”
Aviv and Roy Grinfeld, who have lived in Shanghai for five years, have enjoyed a pleasant Jewish life with other Israelis in Shanghai. Roy, who has spent nine years in China, heads a transportation design studio, and his wife, Aviv, runs the Israeli Dance Center.
“We have Shabbat dinners together, spend Shabbat together, and we have an opportunity to go to Chabad for dinner to celebrate the Jewish holidays with the rest of the Jewish community,” says Roy. “It doesn’t matter if you are religious or not. As Jewish people, we are always attached to our culture and our tradition, and it is something that is important to us. In Shanghai, it is possible.”
Jesse Golden-Marx, 31, arrived in Shanghai six months before the pandemic in late 2019. Born and raised in Saratoga Springs, New York, Golden-Marx has been conducting postdoctoral research at Shanghai Jiao Tong University. Since his arrival in Shanghai, he has become an integral part of the progressive Jewish community in the city, which is affiliated with the Union for Progressive Judaism, based in Australia.