Are Chinese and Yiddish Mutually Exclusive?

February 9, 2016Rabbi Loraine C. Heller

I ask you, is this a sheyn punim (a pretty face)? I’ve been dying to say those words for the past four years, ever since I came to China to work as a teacher of oral English at Nanyang Normal University.

Sometime around my 50th birthday, I was hit by wanderlust, and though I’ve met many Jews throughout my travels, as far as I know, I’m the only one currently living in Nanyang. I’ve spent Shabbat in Shanghai, Passover in Kaifeng, and Yom Kippur in Beijing. But what’s been missing is the opportunity to relate everyday experiences in the language that fits the moment like no other, Yiddish.

Every day, I see adorable kinderlach (children) in the apartment complex where I live, as they’re lovingly cared for by their bubbes (grandmothers) and zaydes (grandfathers). According to Chinese tradition, these bubbeles (dear ones) are not only a source of naches (joy) when they’re children, but the key to a good future, as they’ll someday earn gelt (money) to help support their mishpocheh (family, relatives).  

When I arrive at school, I schlep (carry myself) up many flights of stairs to get to my classroom. As I walk through the halls, it sounds like chevrusahs (study groups) going on, as I hear the voices of students reciting their lessons out loud. But unlike Jews, who customarily study by engaging in discussion with partners, the Chinese review their lessons individually in preparation for their frequent and arduous exams.

My classes at the university have gone well. I love teaching Chinese students, who have a high regard for education. Having worked so hard to enter a university, it would be a shandeh (shame) not to succeed. Luckily in my cheder (school), I rarely have to say shah (quiet)!      

When the clock strikes 11:40 a.m. the school clears out for a long mid-day break. As I walk home, I pass a lot of street vendors selling nasherei (snacks), including grilled meats on a stick, stinky tofu, baked sweet potatoes, and steamed buns. It’s hard to resist, but I decide to sit down to a real meal. I head for a café owned by some of the many Muslims in China. At least I know I won’t find any treif (non-kosher food) there; according to the laws of Halal, pork is strictly forbidden.

One of the great pleasures of eating in a Muslim café is the lokshen (noodles).  After making a large mound of dough, the cook gives it a klap (slap) on the kitchen counter, then stretches it as far as his or her arms will reach. After a few pulls, the dough magically divides itself into stringy noodles. The finished noodles are then dropped into boiling stock along with other ingredients to make soup. I love this special dish, called la mian, and enjoy every last bite. It’s a scrumptious meal at a great price – a mechayeh (a wonderful, welcome thing).

With lunch finished, it’s the perfect time to go to the supermarket. This is because it’s a Chinese custom to gei schlufen, take a long nap after eating lunch and before resuming work or classes. As a result, the markets are quiet, giving me an opportunity to buy a few things I need.

Many markets in China are located below street level, so I go down the escalator, then walk past shops full of seemingly endless racks of schmattes (rags; often clothing) and tschachkes (small decorative objects, trinkets). It’s little wonder China is often called “The World’s Factory.”

After a few minutes, I get to the supermarket itself. When I first arrived in Nanyang, I was completely farmisht (mixed up, confused) when I went shopping, not being able to read a package label or find many foods that were familiar to me. But I’ve used my keppeleh (head) and my zitzfleisch (perseverance) to learn some Mandarin, so now I know just what to buy.

After nap time, I return to school and teach my afternoon classes. Then I head home again to freshen up for a yontiff-dick (holiday-like) dinner with staff and colleagues. The dinner won’t exactly be a seder, but will have various rituals according to Chinese tradition. We’ll drink a bissel (a little) wine or beer, say gan bei (bottoms up), order the best dishes, and kibbitz (chat) in English, Chinese, and sometimes Chinglish. If there’s a fish on the table, its head will be pointed toward the guest of honor. We’ll ess (eat) and fress (drink) and maybe even get a little schicker (tipsy, drunk).

In my eyes, it looks and feels and sounds like a simcha (a happy occasion). The one thing missing is l’chaim (“to life,” often used as a toast)!

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