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Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

A Synagogue and a Coffee Bar 

Sitting here in the coffee bar in the old synagogue here in Harbin. Strange how this little piece of history, a small reminder of what this place must have been, has intruded into the present world. Harbin is so different now from what it was then. Harbin was always a Russian city. The Russians established it because of the railroad of course, but it was the Russian Jews who transformed Harbin from a railroad outpost to a bustling commercial center.

Keep in mind, there was no Israel then. Each Jewish corner of the world was its own "Little Israel," with its own distinct features--all part of the life they lived with their own hopes and dreams. They dreamed of one day being able to return to their common home. They dreamed of a day when they could live in their own country without fear of reprisal for just being themselves. They dreamed of many things. Things we will never know, because such dreams are very personal. But we can be fairly certain that none of them ever dreamed of a dimly lit coffee bar, with groups of people talking quietly, and "Tennessee Waltz" playing softly in the background.

Several factors influenced the exodus of the Harbin Jews from this community. There was an unfortunate strain of anti-Semitism among the White Russians, who came to Harbin after the Bolshevik Revolution. When the Japanese entered Manchuria in the thirties, they did not treat the Jews kindly, kidnapping one of their number (with the help of gangsters), and sending parts of his body one at a time as enticement for ransom, much as Jihad Muslims would do today. Understandably, the Jews began to leave. With the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, all but a few of them were gone, never to return. That was their destiny. The life they had lived here was over. It was destined to change anyway, but one way or another, they had to leave it behind. They couldn't take it all with them. So the few noble remnants of their life here stand as a patient but persistent reminder of a people who changed their world because they would not allow their world to change them.

So how about us? Will the synagogues of our transient sojourn be strong enough to stand unchanged through all the "changing scenes and seasons," as Longfellow expressed it? Strong enough to penetrate the insipid dailiness of some future sitz im leben, and offer quiet repose to some weary pilgrim searching for understanding? It seems to me we don't usually think about this.

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