Perhaps you have heard about the devastating floods that have swept through southern China, killing dozens and setting China’s industrial heartland billions in the red. Perhaps you are more familiar with the similar floods that have left a path of destruction in the American heartland. Neither storm is anywhere near my present whereabouts in western Beijing. But on Friday I had my own little Noah’s Ark adventure. And when the water was past my knees and rising, there were moments when Beijing’s vastness was washed away and I could just as easily have been in any little town in Iowa or Guangdong province.
The deluge began when my friend Richard showed up unexpectedly at my dorm two hours before dusk. Earlier in the week we had thrown around the idea of my hosting him for Shabbat (a punishable offense according to Chinese law but hey, doesn’t God look after His children on the seventh day?) as an alternative to spending the weekend at the local Chabad. Richard and I had met two years ago in Washington D.C. when we worked together at the Congressional advisory body on Chinese politics. Sometime between 2006 and this past fall, Richard went from asking me whether the watermelon on my head had any special ritual significance to quizzing me on the minutiae of obscure Shabbat law that he now observes as a ba’al teshuva. Perhaps I see myself as somewhat responsible for his acceptance of halakhic observance. Or maybe the fact that Richard’s change of heart means the number of reliably religious young Jews with an insatiable China curiosity has doubled is the better explanation for why his presence unerringly compels me to best represent what an authentic Jewish lifestyle can embody. Whatever the reason, when Richard showed up on my dorm-room doorstep, I immediately decided that my facility could not provide the Shabbat atmosphere he required and hence we would together go to Chabad.
We had a good two hours before Shabbat began and little reason to be concerned we would not make the half an hour trip across town. And then it started raining. And as this ain’t Spain, the rain was not limited to the plains. We're talking sheets of water, pouring from the high heavens, slooshing down streets, forcing thousands to leave the bicycles by the curb and scramble for higher ground. Richard and I wound up standing at opposite ends of a major intersection, our hands outstretched in vain for the cabs that refused to emerge from the deluge. We eventually gave up and the rest of the story involves a random bus ride, a fascinating incident when I asked a bus-ticket lady for directions and half the people on the standing room only rush hour bus chimed in with vocal suggestions, and finally me throwing myself into the passenger seat of a cab and insisting he accept the fare upfront and take us as close to the Chabad House as time allowed.
The ascent, they say, is always more rewarding than the summit. In this case, both will be difficult to forget. With my hair still plastered from the rain soaked journey, Richard and I entered the Kosher restaurant where Chabad of Beijing hosts their Shabbat meals. I quickly spotted and waved at the familiar faces—but there was one who nothing but a hug and whoop of joy could do justice to my surprise at seeing her, for the first time in more than a year, at Chabad of all places. Last summer I had tried in vain to persuade a Jewish classmate of mine to accompany me to Chabad of Shanghai. She had expressed interest but each weekend I went other plans would intervene. Now she was standing across the room, singing along to Shalom Aleichem, joining with me and the rest of the Beijing Jewish community to welcome Shabbat as guests of Chabad. Sitting at dinner, with friends from the past two summers joining me for a Shabbat that in the past had been confined to my imagination, it was remarkable. And considering what transpired over the rest of the Shabbat, only a sign of what lay in store.