Metro Beijing
2014-04-18
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Different from all other nights

Metro Beijing (2014-04-18 MB04-05)
By Li Lin

Members of Jewish community wash their hands ahead of eating following the traditions of Passover. Photo: Li Hao/GT

 

When Eytan Tepper, 43, was a little boy in his hometown Tel Aviv, Israel, he was always happy and excited when it came time to celebrate Passover. "According to the Israeli tradition, before the dinner, our father would break the matzo in two halves and hide the larger half," recalled Tepper, referring to crisp, unleavened bread eaten by Jews during Passover.

"The children look for the hidden half when the adults prepare the dinner. The child who first finds it gets a toy, so it is a good and happy time for children."

Like many Jewish families, his family would go through the house in a kind of thorough spring cleaning before the Passover dinner. His mother was in charge of the dinner while his siblings and father helped.

Tepper has been in Beijing for two and a half years, and it is his third Passover in a country where people eat pork and "almost everything" - including many foods forbidden by Jewish tradition. This year he enjoyed a Jewish traditional Passover at the Capital Club.

The Beijing Jewish community gathers for a Passover Seder at the Capital Club in Beijing. Photo: Li Hao/GT

 

Food and history

Passover is one of the most important traditional festivals for Jewish people. In some ways it is similar to Spring Festival for Chinese people, especially in its focus on food and togetherness. During the traditional Seder meal that starts Passover, different foods are used to memorialize Jewish history and to strengthen religious traditions.

Passover marks the evening when God killed the firstborn of every Egyptian, passing over the homes of Israelites, in order to persuade the Egyptians to release the Israelites from slavery. Pharaoh relented and freed the Israelites, who left in such a hurry that their bread did not have time to rise. This is why bread cooked without yeast or baking soda is eaten during the Passover Seder. Matzo is thin and crisp, and tastes like soda crackers. In Beijing it is hard to find, so every year the Jewish community has to import it from Israel.

God told the Israelites to apply lamb blood on their door frames so he could recognize them and pass them over when slaying all the firstborn in Egypt. A roasted lamb bone and a hard boiled egg memorializes the lambs butchered on Passover and other sacrificed animals; chopped apples and nuts symbolize the bricks the Israelites made when they were enslaved in Egypt; bitter herbs like grated horseradish memorialize the pain the Israelites suffered.

Other dishes at the Capital Club Passover Seder included egg and vegetable salad, hummus, roasted chicken wings and beef, and also unleavened pies decorated with strawberries.

Eating matzo. Photo: Li Hao/GT



10 plagues

During the dinner, excited children ran to and fro, each holding a bag of toys, including a plastic tiger, spider, locust, frog, and a bracelet made of little skull-shaped beads.

Anna Sophie Loewenberg, a Jew form the United States accompanied by her 2-year-old daughter, explained the toys represent the 10 plagues God brought on the Egyptians which frightened Pharaoh into freeing the Israelites. Among them are frogs, beasts, locusts, cattle disease, lice, and plague of the firstborn. "Now the children play with the 'plagues'," joked Loewenberg's husband, while looking at his daughter playing with the other children.

Before the dinner began, there was also a simple ceremony related to the 10 plagues. According to the Haggadah, the text that guides the Passover ceremony, Jews should fill their wine cups to remember their joy at being able to leave Egypt. Yet their happiness is not complete, because the Egyptians, who are also God's children, suffered from Pharaoh's evil ways. For this reason, they spill a drop of wine from their cups with a finger or spoon as they say each plague.


 

Toys and drops of wine representing the 10 plagues. Photos: Li Hao/GT

Explaining traditions. Photo: Li Hao/GT

 

Jews in China

Jews have been active in China since the Tang Dynasty (618-907), with notable communities in Kaifeng, Henan Province, and later Shanghai. Nowadays the Jewish community in Beijing has about 2,000 members.

On Tuesday, about 200 attended the dinner on the second day of the 2014 Passover. The dinner was prepared with traditional Passover recipes, and was made by Chinese chefs.

Gan Bing, the head chef at Capital Club, told Metropolitan that he has prepared a Passover dinner 13 times.

"Actually, what we make is not one hundred percent strict kosher," said Gan. "The strictest kosher food even can not accept an egg which has too much shadow when it is seen through the light. Additionally, the kosher process of butchering animals is strict and complicated. A butcher must recite certain scriptures and use a knife to end the animals' life in a quick, painless way." Gan does not use animals forbidden by Jewish laws, but procures his meat from regular channels.

Gan said the food preferred by Jewish people "has its own taste." He took horseradish as an example. The flavor is distinctive, a little bitter, and very spicy. Many people cannot get used to the flavor, but Jewish people like it a lot, he observed.

At the traditional blessing ceremony before the meal, diners dip horseradish into salty water then eat it.

The salty water symbolizes their ancestors' tears and sweat when they were enslaved. It is bitter, symbolizing the bitter life of their ancestors.

For orthodox Jews in Beijing, the most well-known place for serving strictly kosher food is Chabad House, which is located not far from the 798 Art District. There is also a shul (house of prayer) and a bimah (a stage for delivering sermons and passages of the Torah) for the ceremonies before or after the meal.

"Actually I am not strict about food rules. Chinese people eat everything, like animal blood, heads, feet and guts. I do the same, and I have never eaten kosher in Beijing," said Shimi Azar, a 30-year-old IT worker who came to China from Israel 3 years ago, and joined the Seder at the Capital Club.

"But these Chinese chefs' Israeli dishes are very similar to what I had in Israel, reminding me of my home and family."

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