Author Archives: Michael Levy

Just Like Comrade Karl Marx

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Earlier this week, Michael Levy wrote about Jews and Chinese food and what Chinese people think about Jews. He has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog.

Central China is a strange place.  Unlike the globalized, westernized cities on the coast, the land-locked, impoverished provinces of the interior rarely get foreign visitors.  These provinces are home to the laobaixing, or “old hundred names,” a euphemism for the billion-or-so Zhou Six Packs I got to know while serving as a Peace Corps volunteer.

Among the laobaixing, foreigners are assumed to be missionaries.  This is because most of them are missionaries: Mormon, Catholic, Seventh Day Adventist, you name it.  There’s not much reason to visit places like Guizhou, so most people go only if God tells them to.

The result is a blanket assumption among the locals that white folks are all Christian.  “Do you love Jesus?” was often the first thing a new friend would ask me.  This would be followed by “can you use chopsticks?”

I can use chopsticks.  But I do not love Jesus.  “Nope,” I would always reply when asked if I was Christian.    “I’m Jewish.”

This would always result in stunned silence.  The legend of the Jews has penetrated all parts of China.  “Ah!” I would hear.  “A Jew!  Just like Comrade Karl Marx!”  I would nod, and wait for the line that would always follow.  “And Einstein.”

So it was that I was imbued with a patina of Communist purity and mathematical genius.

These stereotypes earned me a lot of respect in China.  They earned nothing but a look of disgust when I mentioned them to my waiter in Buddha Bodai on Mott Street in the Manhattan Chinatown.  “Marx was as bad as Hitler,” he told me before heading off to place my order.  Buddha Boddai has a Kosher certification hung proudly in their window, and they do a surprisingly good job combining Jewish and Chinese traditions.  My Marx-hating waited brought me a delicious General Tsao’s “chicken,” a passable “shrimp” dumpling, and a wonderfully spicy “veg steak with Chinese broccoli.”

When I finished eating, my waiter offered some parting words:  “Marx really hurt China, but I don’t blame Jews.  Actually, you guys are my biggest tippers.”  He smiled and headed back towards the kitchen.

So keep tipping well, my Jewish brothers and sisters.  It will save us all a lot oftsuris.

Michael Levy’s Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating with China’s Other Billion is now available.

Posted on August 12, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

What Chinese People Think about Jews

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On Monday, Michael Levy wrote about Jews and Chinese Food. He is the author of Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating with China’s Other Billion.

My last post began with a list of stereotypes about Jews. We tell jokes; we like Chinese food; etc. While living and teaching in central China a few years ago, I ran into a few stereotypes that were new to me. I was serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guizhou Province teaching English at a university WAY off the beaten path. I was one of a small handful of foreigners –- and the only Jew — in a province of 40 million people. My students could be forgiven for a few strange ideas about their guests.

Thus, when one of my students handed in a paper with the title “GREAT JEW” I knew I was in for a few surprises. The letter summarized the status of world Jewry:

Jew in the world:

There are 14 million Jews in the world, 5 million of them are in the Israel, and 6 million in the USA. They have done so many great things for people in the world. They good at jokes, doing business and managing money so that there are a large number of Jewish tycoon in the world…. In the Wall Street which is the controlling financial interests of the United States, it is the world of Jews who dominate the “street.” Jews deserve careful study though their history is pitiful.

The student also included a bullet-point list of facts she had gleaned from her textbooks and from local newspapers:

* Einstein is the greatest scientist in the world

*Every Jew has received high education for their family tradition

*Jews can begin law school in the second year in America, because they are advanced in law

* Phelps, a swimming Jew, will win many gold medals in the Beijing Olympic Games

Chinese in rural Guizhou Province have some interesting ideas about Jews. What about Chinese in the slightly less bucolic neighborhoods of Manhattan? I decided to test the Jewish knowledge of the staff at Eden Wok on 34th Street, the self-proclaimed “finest Glatt Kosher Chinese restaurant and sushi bar.”

First, a word on the food: meh. I really wanted to like the food more, if for no other reason than out of respect for the effort. Truly kosher Chinese food is as strange an idea as Phelps the swimming Jew.

Pork, after all, is to Chinese food what cheese is to Italian food. You take it away, and you’re left with nothing but starch. Still, Eden Wok makes a solid lo mein.

Next, a word on the staff: friendly and — happily — quite knowledgeable about Judaism. Vicky, my waitress, was from Guangdong province. She never met a Jew in China, but “loves Jewish customers.” I showed her my student’s letter and she giggled. “I hope you went easy on her,” she told me. She also gave me a free egg roll.

Michael Levy is the author of Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating with China’s Other Billion. He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog.

Posted on August 10, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Jews and Chinese Food

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

Michael Levy is the author of Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating with China’s Other Billion. He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog.

My therapist once told me a joke: “Chinese culture is old, perhaps 4000 years. But Jewish culture is 1000 years older! The only question is: how did we survive for 1000 years without Chinese food?

He’s a great therapist, but a lousy comedian. Nevertheless, our interaction—like a Chinese box—was layered. We were knee-deep in stereotypes, each containing a grain of truth. Jews are either stand-up comedians or failed stand-up comedians. Jews are either in therapy, therapists themselves, or both. Jews love Chinese food.

I fit all these stereotypes. The last one is particularly true, in large part because I lived in China for three years, serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guizhou Province (drop a finger on the dead-center of China, and you’ll likely hit this remote location).

It was a surreal experience. I was one of the only foreigners my students had ever seen, and they reacted to me the way I would react to Chewbacca walking into a classroom. I was stared at. I was feared. I was recruited to play on a university basketball team (the only Jew to ever truly earn the nickname Shaq). I was told I must play Santa Claus in a Walmart.

When things settled down and I was a bit more integrated into the community, I got down to my actual job. I taught grammar and vocabulary to hundreds of kids from tiny farming villages. They, in turn, taught me how to eat everything from millipede to chicken talon. . . and beyond.

Unlike David Sedaris—possibly the worst traveller on earth—I fell in love with the food in China. Notice I did not write “Chinese food.” This is deliberate. “Chinese food” is what I eat every Christmas Eve in America. It is lo mein, wonton soup, and moo shu. It is General Tsao. “Food in China” is not remotely like this. Not remotely.

I love food in China. I also love Chinese food. I also try to keep kosher. Can these three statements co-exist? Over the next week, I will be blogging about my attempt to find the restaurant in New York that best fits all three criteria. As Karl Marx—the most beloved Jew in all of China— once wrote, “Working people of the world unite and find good Kosher Chinese food!”

Check back all week for more posts from Michael Levy, author of the recently published Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating with China’s Other Billion.

Posted on August 8, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy