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Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Conclusion of the Matter 

My bed in the Foreign Teacher's dormitory has a hole in it. Well, not actually a hole. Let's call it a deep valley. It's been there since I moved in a couple years ago. We had all been moved out for the summer so that they could renovate the apartments, and when we moved back in, I decided to move one apartment over so that the thin wall of my apartment could be hard on the office, which is quiet after five o'clock. I should have taken my old mattress with me, because although it was very stiff and quite lumpy, it was more or less universally lumpy. This mattress has a low spot on one side. It is a double bed mattress, so if I skooch way over, I can stay on the shore, so to speak. But if I move to close to the center, I will fall in. But my bed has one huge advantage. It's my own bed. It's good to be home.

But it was good to go, too. The little town of Nancha is really interesting, and the surrounding countryside is so white and clear. And you can't beat the food. Really exceptional for a small town like that. The place where I stayed after I went to Harbin was low cost and very nice, and the shower house was close by. No wireless. I doubt if the little lady even knows what wireless is. But as luck would have it, I was situated next to the Shangdao Cafe, so I was able to tap into theirs. Weak connection, but good enough to bring in the BBC, and get my email. Don't worry. I had to go to the coffee bar once to get the password, and I was there several times after that, so they got their money's worth out of me.

Harbin was interesting. If you don't share my interest in history, perhaps you wouldn't think so, but do try, at least to develop an appreciation for the contribution that ordinary people in extraordinary times make to the history of a country or people.

That brings me to the Harbin Jews. The other day, I was having coffee at the KFC near the place I was staying in Harbin, and the plastic cover on my Styrofoam coffee cup was not fastened properly. The result was that I picked up my cup to take a sip and poured half a cup of coffee all over everything. It was not a disaster for me personally, because my scarf sorta acted as a bib (I do tend to do better with a bib). But my Bible was drenched. Jeremiah was swimming in coffee. That's OK. What good is a Bible without coffee stains? Would you want one? People would start to ask questions. "No coffee stains on your Bible? What. Don't you ever read it?"

But it did get my attention. I thought perhaps there must be something in Jeremiah I should pay attention to, so I dried out the pages and read the same pages every day for several days. One particular passage caught my attention:27 But as for you, have no fear, my servant Jacob,
and do not be dismayed, O Israel;
for I am going to save you from far away,
and your offspring from the land of their captivity.
Jacob shall return and have quiet and ease,
and no one shall make him afraid.
28 As for you, have no fear, my servant Jacob,
says the Lord,
for I am with you.
I will make an end of all the nations
among which I have banished you,
but I will not make an end of you!
I will chastise you in just measure,
and I will by no means leave you unpunished.

(Jeremiah 46)
Of course these words were not directed at the Diaspora. They refer to the Babylonian captivity. Nevertheless, they do emphasize that God preserves his people, and that this preservation overwhelms whatever we have done to deserve the trouble we are in.

But there is something else that is more germane to my thinking over the past couple weeks. It is the idea of "returning." Always, throughout history, the life and faith of the Jews is influenced by this idea. There is always and always the idea that the place where they are currently living is not really home. I have mentioned some of the factors that influenced the departure of the Harbin Jews from Harbin. The harassment of the Jews, as exemplified most poignantly by the gruesome kidnapping, torture, and murder of Simon Kaspe, son of Joseph Kaspe, proprietor of the Hotel Moderne (which is now a bank), certainly had a lot to do with why they left and when they left. The best telling of this tragic incident is in Chapter Two of My China, a brief online autobiographical sketch. The Jews were troubled by anti-Semites among the White Russians. They were troubled by the Japanese. At the end of World War II, they were troubled by the Soviets, who entered Manchuria as conquerors, and sent many of them to the Gulag. But even if none of those things had happened, they still would have left. That's my point.
I visited the cemetery, which is located in a beautiful countryside spot. But the cemetery is not in the original location. It was moved out in the country by the Chinese to make room for development. I am not saying the local people did not have a right to do this. But think about it..if your relative was buried there, would you be comfortable about his or her grave being moved? You see, even in death, the Harbin Jews were wanderers. They could never really rest in peace, because they were not home. So they had to leave. They wanted a place where they would never again be forced out of their homes. I think they only place this could really happen is Palestine.

I have had this discussion many times with Israelis I meet in China. Most of my Israeli friends tell me they are not religious. They say that the land isn't really important to them. Whenever I hear this, I always ask them if they really wouldn't mind living in Uganda. Personally, I think the land matters. Of course there are all kinds of Biblical reasons why the land matters. But I mean even in terms of Jewish social life. I don't think Israel could be Israel without the land.

Think about the current situation. Public Jewish life often seems to be driven by the large number of common people in Israel who just want to be left alone to live their lives in peace. And sometimes (especially during war), those of us who do not live in Israel sometimes get the impression that the Israeli government is pursuing a policy that is at odds with the Israeli people. Palestinians speaking about Israel often make that point. But the fact is that conflicts like the current one tend to move the common people to the right. The recent "victory" of Tzipi Livni seems, at first, to indicate the Israel may not be quite so conservative. But I don't see it this way. If you read the news reports, it really looks like the hardliners are splitting the right-wing vote. The land seems to matter to most people.

I am not sure what percentage of the Harbin Jews would have described themselves as "not religious." But the presence of two synagogues seems to indicate to me that faith and life were intertwined for the Harbin Jews. And Zionism had lots of adherents in the Harbin community. At least I would say that even if everything had been peaceful for the Harbin Jews throughout their stay in Harbin, the Jewish community would have dwindled (although perhaps not as quickly as it in fact happened) once the nation of Israel came into being.

Well, I have to admit that is speculation. We can only surmise. What is not open to question is that the Harbin Jews played a very important role in the development of modern China. A thorough understanding of the history of modern China is not possible without considering their place as players on the stage of the troubled Twentieth Century in China.

I did come across one book in my research over the past couple weeks that I really would like to read. It is called White Terror, by Jamie Bisher. It is available on Amazon, but it's terribly expensive. If anybody sees this thing in paperback, do please let me know.

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