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In Hanoi, the metropolitan-area ratio of one motorbike for every two people calculates to a total of three million motorbikes, every last one of which seems to be barreling past as you attempt to step off the curb. There are crosswalks here, but no stop signs that I have been able to see; and if they do exist, no one else here seems to be able to see them either. The process of crossing the street is as follows:
1) Cross the street.
2) Do not change your pace; do not run; do not stop or jump back.
3) Get to the other side (presumably, this is why you cross the road).
So long as you adhere strictly to Step #2, the motorbikes (and for that matter, the occasional car and tractor-trailer cab) will continue to barrel toward you, but will not hit you, weaving around you innocuously, except for a chorus of high-pitched honks. The first time you step up on the far curb unscathed, it seems almost like a miracle. (The Egyptians then follow you in and get completely run over.)]]>
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but the Chinese seem to have a very objective standard as to what qualifies as “scenery.” On more than one occasion, we have been told by a guide, “This is the end of the scenery,” even as miles of once-in-a-lifetime mountain vistas or cavernous expanses of hundred-million-year-old cave formations stretch out before us-or at least so it appeared to our untrained, un-Chinese eyes.
Determining whether something meets the Chinese criteria for scenery requires a rather simple formula: Can this mountain/limestone surface/stalactite/stalagmite/other rock formation in any way be described as resembling a dragon/horse/camel/turtle/jellyfish/baby Buddha/beautiful lady/Monkey King/other animated form? Try this simple example:
Which of the following features is scenic?
a) A mountain resembling a tiger.
b) A mountain resembling a scenic mountain.
Did you get the right answer? Answer B-”a scenic mountain”-can’t possibly be scenic, because there is no way to tell a story about it, and every worthy piece of scenery needs a story. Why? Duh - to set the scene. And let me go ahead and spoil it for you: every single story ends with “…and he/she/it/they turned to stone.”
Let’s take the tiger-mountain from our example. You can see (well, you can’t see, but trust me, what you can literally see is, ironically, not all that important when it comes to Chinese scenery) that this mountain is a mother tiger, and she is crouched, facing the river. This is because-”some people say”-she had brought her cubs down to the river to bathe and play one day and, in the sudden tumult of a flash flood, they were washed away. But she returned to the river the next morning, hoping for a sign of life, and she repeated this ritual every morning forever until, eventually…she turned to stone.
Now, what would you call a mountain like this? Tiger Mountain? Mother Tiger Mountain? You are not understanding. The proper Chinese name for a mountain such as this is something along the lines of Mother Tiger Yearning For Baby Cubs Lost in Rushing River…Mountain.
As far as I know, there is no such mountain, but it is inspired by several real examples, including one that was listed on the map as Yearning For Husband Mountain. No, it does not resemble a 35-year-old Jewish woman on the Upper West Side responding to messages on J-Date, but rather a married Chinese woman with a baby on her back. She is looking out over the river in anticipation of her husband’s return from war; he, of course, has been killed in battle and will never return, but she continues to wait every day. (Oh, and I totally almost forgot-she turned to stone.)
Now I am probably being superficial. There is a moral to most of these stories; Yearning For Husband is supposed to provide a cautionary tale against all war. Even Mother Tiger…Mountain could offer a message of extra-special concern for one’s cubs: i.e., always keep your kids safe, and never let them ride dangling from the side of your motorbike with its unenclosed engine as you weave in and out of traffic at excessive speeds on a half-paved road.
Such a mountain and its moral would be really helpful here.]]>
Seen, on a sign at the entrance to a hiking park near Yangshuo: The itinerary of Immortal, a list of directives which includes, “It is not to climbing on the bad thunderstorming days.”
It’s the little things that matter. As many people of distinguished age will tell you, the secret to long life really is a series of small insights, day in and day out. You can smoke until you’re 90, eat fatty foods until you’re 100, but… be sure to find the joy in each moment; never turn down a friend or loved one in need; and, no matter what others may want you to do, it is not to climbing on the bad thunderstorming days.]]>
During our time in China, much has been made of the death and devastation wrought by the Japanese during their occupation of the mainland from the 1930s through the end of World War II. Every official guide we’ve encountered has made at least one mention of something destroyed by the Japanese.
One bit of history they left out: The Manabe coffee-and-fast-food chain was founded in 1970 in Japan. After first expanding to Taiwan, the brand now boasts dozens of locations on mainland China, including nearly 30 in Shanghai, the newest of which opened this summer on the main Expo axis. This is where Annie and I rather randomly–and having not yet Googled the information I just relayed–chose to grab a quick cheap lunch.
It seemed like a good-enough idea at the time, as the place was packed with locals (or rather tourists from other parts of China-but far more local than us). The slimy spaghetti-like noodles and chewy meat-like meat product was never going to be a culinary highlight of our trip, but I was pretty certain the experience would begin and end there. (And in 1931, the Chinese thought Japan would be content with Manchuria.)
Unfortunately, what followed is a dark period that I can only refer to, forgive me, as the Poo Dynasty (19 August 2010 - 21 August 2010 A.D.). Fortunately, an invasion of Pepto eventually lead to its decline, and since history is written by the, ahem, victors, it need not be mentioned further.
But such is one of the wonders of international travel: a person with whom you can barely communicate puts something unrecognizable and mildly unappetizing in front of you, and, either before or after paying them, you input it directly into your system and wait to see what happens.]]>
Relying purely on first impressions, there are two ways to recognize immediately that you are in China:
1) China is full of Chinese people. Everyone in China is Chinese. In all seriousness, think about that for a moment: Everyone. For example, take Shanghai, where we first arrived, which is perhaps China’s most cosmopolitan, international city. Imagine New York City, double the number and density of people, and then, make them all Chinese-not just in Chinatown or in Flushing, but in the East Village and the Financial District and Harlem and Flatbush and Riverdale and Brownsville and the Upper West Side and Astoria and Staten Island. Every person you meet or interact with on a daily basis, from your Pakistani cab driver to everyone who works at the Greek diner to the Uzbeki guys at the barbershop (well, at my barbershop) to those Indian women at those eyebrow-threading places-everyone of them is Chinese. Yes, even the Korean grocer on your corner is Chinese.
Continue this exercise for Westchester and Long Island and all of New Jersey and even Connecticut, too.
Which raises another point: you will soon realize that one reason the city is so crowded is that thousands of the people you see are not from there. They are only visiting; they are tourists from all over the country, as far as way as, say, Kansas or Texas or Oregon or Arizona or Oklahoma or Alabama. And here’s the thing: They are all Chinese, too.
Now, to be fair, of course, not everyone in an international city like Shanghai is Chinese or for that matter Asian. A small number of them are white people, yet even these tend to be the kind of white people who come from Europe or Britain (which is, in some ways, part of Europe) or Australia or New Zealand-people who look like white Americans so long as you don’t look too closely at their clothing and accessories (especially their shoes and satchels), or listen closely enough to hear that they are not speaking English (it may be French or Spanish or whatever they speak in New Zealand), or pause to take note of the fact that the vast majority of them are not obese. There are also a few Canadians, who would be the hardest to distinguish from Americans were it not for the Third Geneva Convention, which forbids any Canadian traveling abroad to appear in public without a maple leaf patch sewn to his backpack.
Also, I saw a black person.
2) Everything you see around you was built since 1990; if you are in Shanghai, any building you see was most likely built or renovated last week. This includes nearly all pagodas, temples, and other structures that appear as if they predate the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911 A.D.), unless they are clearly marked with a sign declaring “National Tourist Attraction - AAAA.”
Everything else-which is most of what you will see-is currently under construction.
As many of you who are familiar with the system of tubes that is the internet will know, “blog” is net-speak for “web log.” That’s web as in the World Wide Web, and log as in “a document preserving knowledge of facts or events” or “a written record of events on a voyage”-in other words, a blog is a means by which to create updates and distribute them world wide, in real time.
Therefore, the best time and place in which to first try one’s hand at a blog is not, for example, while traveling in a country like the People’s Republic of China where the current regime does not allow for local access to just about any site on which one could post this blog (or to YouTube or to Facebook, either, though that may indeed be in the People’s best interest). However, this merely forces me to come up with a framework in which immediacy is not essential, and ensures I recognize the “lessons” I learn will just be as valid when I finally do have a chance to post them online from the safe haven of a freer, more open nation, like the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.]]>
– an amazing woman with amazing breasts in a tight, thin cashmere sweater and no bra
– the woman sitting next to me is clearly reading a copy of the Starr Report in Spanish
– LaGuardia is surprisingly not busy; the people are surprisingly friendly
– “ethnic” man in a jump suit, unzipped jacket, hairy chest–his daughter, in CK sweatshirt, yells after him, “Get me burrito!”
– the woman next to me is intently involved with the Starr Report and is now clearly making notes on it
– a uniformed security guard rolls past with a dolly full of cardboard boxes marked fragile — he dumps them with a loud whoomp in the corner
– a huge man with huge biceps, shoulders, chest, and legs is pushing a luggage cart — its contents: one small suitcase that can’t weigh more than 30 lbs.
– CK sweatshirt daughter and jumpsuit father are now happily chomping on burritos
– news on Lewinsky and Tripp broadcast over the CNN Airport Network; the woman next to me perks up and leans forward in her seat attentively
Super Shuttle back to LaGuardia
– Driver who lived in Seattle
– Little old lady from Sun City, originally from NY
– Two gay men (ages 21 and 35) from Dallas
– Pretty young blond grad student at Harvard, visiting boyfriend in NY
– “I come to New York twice a year to renew my accent so they don’t think I’m some poor old thing.”
– “I lost my husband in 1991, so now I’m a free agent. I can do what I want.”
– “In Sun City, when more than three cars pass at once, we assume it’s a funeral.”
– “The reason my bags are so heavy is because of all the Playbills–they’re my diary.”
– (Upon hearing how soon the grad student’s plane is leaving): “It’s a good thing she’s young, because she’s going to have to run like hell.”
– “Here in New York, they don’t need abortion clinics — just get on a bus. Those potholes!”
– (Upon picking up the gay couple from their hotel): “They’re staying at the Roosevelt, and they can’t afford a taxi?”
– “Young man, remember the Williamsburg Bridge — no toll!”
– “Growing up during the Depression, we were over-entertained and underfed — we would rush to the theater every afternoon before the prices changed.”
– “Husband number one worked for Warner Bros.”
– “It’s such a shame who they make into celebrities — this Leonardo DiCaprio? I don’t even think he’s that good-looking.”
* Driver tells stories and always mentions Seattle: “Lived there 10 years, moved back for 8, been here the last 16 months, just started driving in May…” etc.
*Makes no sense; his dates just don’t add up
*His stories include:
– pretty Asian girl that his friend in Seattle knows was on the cover of the NY Post for subduing two would-be attackers at 1 a.m.; her brother runs a martial arts studio
– an apartment building on 27th Street fell apart on top of some parked cars, including the one belonging to his girlfriend, who had parked in a hurry; his point: “In New York, you never know what’s going to happen.”
*Every story is full of unnecessary details and take forever to get to the point (but there is always a point)
* Two men from Dallas:
– on a weekend to NY
– constantly checking to see what they have pictures/postcards of
– younger one is exhausted: “My first weekend in New York — I had to do it right! I’m 21, but I must look 40 right now!”
– the older one pulls on his blackout mask to nap: “Well, I’m 35, so I must look 50!”
Perhaps because the headlines of the day are dominated by new violence in Israel, I stop, pivot, and walk briskly to catch up with him. And I am rewarded for my quick action. As this man, Elad, explains, the means for settling the intractable conflict between Arabs and Israelis is really very simple. “Golf,” he tells me, and hands me a flyer outlining, in grammatically inexact English, the ongoing efforts to establish a three-hole course and club south of Tel Aviv that would welcome all people in peace. I thank him and promise to examine his web site, grateful for this moment that I would have missed had I not stopped for a closer look.
I have long since lost track of how many times this has occurred - that a person, a sound, a commotion, a crowd catches my attention and I round the corner or retrace my steps or dash down the stairs or otherwise alter the course of my day just to see what I might be missing. Most of the time - or at least it seems that way - I am not disappointed.
As an outsider, a non-native in New York City, I can’t say if my powers of observation are any more powerful or even more attuned. Perhaps, even after living here for years, I just get a bigger kick out of what I see. And being a Jewish outsider, I have noticed that I enjoy something of a unique inside/outside view on the country’s largest Jewish community.
In May 2001, I was asked to write a regular column for the Kansas City Jewish Chronicle, my home-community newspaper. The idea was simple enough: Share my twenty-something, Midwestern impressions of uniquely New York episodes. Acknowledge New York as the center of the Jewish universe, and then step back and admire, ponder, and whenever possible, taunt (lovingly). On a regular deadline, I started seeking out stories and personalities that would intrigue the “folks back home,” and under the banner “Letter From New York” eventually expanded the column’s reach to other communities around the country. Along the way, I started collecting notes and writing other passages not specifically for publication.
As I wrote in my first letter, “I am fascinated by the millions of small universes - lives, families, communities - that exist here behind the steel scaffolding and old brick facades.” To that, I can add an extended list of locales: museum halls and stadium bleachers, taxicabs and dressing rooms, pickle shops and subway platforms, yeshiva hallways and television studios, hot dog stands and hotel ballrooms.
I have used this observational undertaking as an excuse to explore those crevices of Jewish life in New York and to meet unique characters in their natural city settings, from the subbasement of a downtown nightclub to the back of a Bukharan bakery in Queens to the top of the Empire State Building. I met people who divergently define what it means to be Jewish - or to be a New Yorker, an American, an immigrant, whatever self they are embracing at the stage in which I encounter them - and who rely on a range of touchstones around which to center their identity, from synagogues to Seinfeld, from bagels to Baghdad.
Looking back, the five-year period covered in these dispatches has been, for better or worse, an eventful time to be in New York and to be Jewish. When something profoundly impacts Jewish communities elsewhere, particularly in Israel, the effects reverberate here. And when a major incident happens in this city, whether it’s tragic or triumphant, there is always a Jewish response. Or rather, thousands.
I never intended this process as an overt search for my own Jewish identity - thanks to my family, my Jewish identity was not something I ever had to look for, even while growing up in suburban Kansas. People (especially Jewish people from New York) love to ask me what it’s like to be a Jew from Kansas, as though I had to evolve and adapt to a completely unnatural ecosystem just to make it out of there. I like to point out that there was a time when the only Jews I knew - dozens and dozens of them! - were from Kansas. Through synagogues, summer camps, youth groups, and my parents’ network of friends, I never felt isolated. Being Jewish is about being part of something larger, and the first taste of that comes from the immediate community.
Still, when I got to New York, and in the years since, my sense of my Jewish self has grown in ways that it could not anywhere else. Not through inward meditation, or spiritual searching, but the cumulative effect of internalized observation, of gauging my own reactions to what I experience here and what I learn from people who are like me in some ways and so dissimilar in others. In that sense, these writings do represent and elucidate a personal journey, even when the writer is not so seemingly present. Though I prefer to focus on the landscape as I pass, it is always me at the center of the current.
Or perhaps traffic is a better metaphor. Because sometimes in traffic, like in life, you get stuck - and those are the best times to look around.
New York, NY
July 4, 2006]]>
Alpern, who now lives with her family in Geneva, is in New York the week before Passover to talk about her book, Manischewitz: The Matzo Family – The Making of an American Jewish Icon (KTAV Publishers, 2008). It is a novelized account of her great-grandfather’s voyage to America, the origins of his company, and the unfolding narrative of the generations that followed, and if there is a central message, it might be this: Manischewitzes are people, too.
At the Museum of Jewish Heritage in lower Manhattan, several dozen people have gathered to hear Alpern chat onstage with cookbook author and all-around Jewish American culinary authority Joan Nathan, despite an April downpour. (Or perhaps they have come for the promised free box of Manischewitz’s best—“though that may not have mattered,” one of the organizers tells me. “Nobody likes soggy matzah.”)
Most of the discussion will center on the pioneering and somewhat domineering figure of the company’s founder. Dov Behr Manischewitz was a man who, quite literally, made a name for himself. In her book, Alpern recreates the moment when her great-grandfather, born Abramson in Lithuania, presented the U.S. immigration papers to his startled wife: “Look, Nesha, this is our name in America. May God grant us prosperity with it!”
The family, Alpern says, isn’t exactly sure where the name came from—one theory is that Behr took a friend’s name to escape service in the Czar’s army; another, that he purchased the passport of a dead man to hasten the emigration process.
In any event, Manischewitz, with his young family and new name, relocated in 1886 to Cincinnati, where the community of Jews from his hometown had offered him a job as a shochet, a kosher slaughterer. But when Passover rolled around, he noticed how difficult it was to obtain matzahs, and he started baking them himself. He saw his venture as a good business, but also a mitzvah. One small bakery became two, became three, became a factory, and by the 1920s, the next generation of Manischewitzes were producing 1.25 million matzahs per day and shipping them around the world.
Eventually, as more year-round products (Tam Tams, anyone?) were introduced, the company built a larger plant in New Jersey to be closer to New York City’s Jewish population. Alpern grew up in the 1950s and ’60s as one of the last Manischewitzes left in Cincinnati. Her father went to work at the factory every day (“It may be matzah to you, but it’s bread-and-butter to me,” was one of his favorite sayings) and every year, days before Passover, a large box would arrive with every one of the company’s products. “Today, it would take a truck,” she says, noting that Manischewitz—sold off to a conglomerate in 1990—now makes everything from bottled borscht to potato knish mix. (The famous Manischewitz wine is actually produced by an outside company that has maintained a licensing agreement to use the name since the 1940s.)
Like any good story involving Jews and food, this one is not without controversy. Before Behr even got his business too far off the ground, a cadre of local rabbis questioned the kosherness of making matzah by machine (the support of other rabbis, plus Behr’s own authority as the product of a respected Lithuanian yeshiva, kept the customer base growing). And when Manischewitz introduced matzah meal in the 1930s, it set off another debate that in many quarters remains unsettled to this day: Should the centuries-old method of making matzah balls—mixing egg with soaked chunks of matzah—be abandoned for the newer, fluffier formula?
“It changed Jewish cooking all over the world,” Nathan later tells me, while en route to The Martha Stewart Show, where she will prepare two Passover dishes for the TV audience. “My mother-in-law lived in this tiny town in Poland and she started using it, too. But frankly, I am among those who believe matzah balls should always be al dente.”
Nathan affirms that Manischewitz’s lasting legacy is in bringing matzah to the masses, making the necessary elements of any seder accessible as never before in a country where Passover is the most celebrated Jewish holiday. After centuries of round matzahs, Manischewitz’s machines made it hip to be square. The pseudonymous “Deborah Ross,” author of the company’s popular Yiddish-English cookbooks, used to receive more letters per week than Betty Crocker.
The central objective of Passover is an ordered retelling of the exodus from Egypt, specifically to transmit the tale and tradition to future generations. With her book—which started as “a small genealogy project”—Alpern is proud that she has passed on her family’s story to her daughters and others, as well as “the idea of Passover as the Jewish holiday closest to our hearts.”
And in so doing, she has reclaimed her name. Whereas her mother would sometimes mispronounce it deliberately to avoid attention (Muh-NIH-shoo-WITS?)—and she herself was relieved to change it upon getting married—Laura Manischewitz Alpern says she now feels much closer to the events and the family she brings to life in her book. “I am very proud of my name,” she says. “I think, hey, I’m part of something special.”]]>