Living in China as a Peace Corps volunteer, Michael Levy felt compelled to drop his adherence to kashrut. After all, mainstays of the local cuisine include insects, stinky tofu and dog meat, and a guy’s gotta eat.
He tried dog only once. Reluctantly. Yet in all other respects, Levy soaked in the culture of rural China, where he was the only Jew within a few thousand miles.
Levy, 35, tells the tale in his book, “Kosher Chinese,” a hilarious and often poignant account of his two-year adventure.
After 9/11, he was inspired to give something back to his country, so Levy decided to give the Peace Corps a shot in 2005. After extensive language training, he was a stranger in a strange land when he arrived in Guiyang, a small city in China’s remote west. His job assignment: teach English at the local college.
Soon he was big man on campus, sought out for advice on love, playing on the school’s basketball team and hosting Shabbat for students, none of whom knew a thing about Judaism.
They called Shabbat “Friday Night English and Cooking Corner Club,” and nicknamed Levy “Friendship Jew.” When he wanted to explain his ethnicity, he’d tell people he was a Jew “like Comrade Marx.”
“I was a little bit of an alien,” Levy said from his Brooklyn home, before heading to San Francisco for an appearance at Books, Inc. “My students said there are things we can talk to the foreigner about that we can’t talk to parents about. They felt safer with me.”
“Kosher Chinese” charts the course of Levy’s budding friendships with students, colleagues and townies. Many bonds formed around the dinner table, where feasting and drinking went late into the night.
“You sit down and you have to eat,” he recalled. “This is where Jews and Chinese overlap. Every meal is like a Passover seder, with four cups of rice wine. I did more drinking in those two years than four years of college.”
As a teacher, Levy found his students eager to learn. Yet he found the Chinese education system, which relies mostly on rote memorization, sorely lacking.
He tried to give his students a taste of critical thinking whenever possible, and they responded enthusiastically.
“The average American education is so far superior to what the average Chinese gets,” he said. “Throw the Tiger Mom book out the window. What I saw was typical of China, and it is a really deadening educational experience.”
That may explain why he so often was asked for advice. Students and colleagues pressed him for opinions on romance and God. Both seemed impossibly distant to his Chinese acquaintances.
“I have something to lean on, even if its something like chanting the Sh’ma,” Levy said of his Judaism. “I have access to all this history and spirituality, and no one in China has it. You were persecuted if you were religious, and the thing that replaced it is something nobody believes in: communism.”
As much as he valued the Chinese way of friendship, he was appalled by other aspects of Chinese culture, such as routine animal cruelty. He also marveled over the Chinese tradition of guanxi, which loosely translates as “connections.”
In China, it is definitely all about who you know, not what you know.
At a local talent contest, the clear winner – a peasant girl Levy befriended, and who could have used the $100 prize – lost out to the less talented son of a local Communist Party official.
Now back home and teaching in a Brooklyn private school, Levy says he misses China, especially the food and the quiet pace of life. That rural tranquility ultimately made him less Type A about sweating the small stuff.
It also reinforced aspects of his Jewish identity.
“I’ve enjoyed the process of being Jewish,” he said. “It’s included very observant times in a yeshiva in Jerusalem, and very non-observant times in China. Moment to moment, I struggle. I don’t know how to be a good Jew, but I do know how to be a happy Jew and that’s to wrestle.”
“Kosher Chinese” by Michael Levy (256 pages, Henry Holt and Company; $15)