By Qianyi QinIn Haifa, I met Hannah, a seventy-six year old Jewish woman, while I was in Israel for an internship. Hannah was visiting Fakhrieh, her neighbor and my host in Haifa. Fakhrieh handed us cups of Arabic coffee and introduced us. “This is Tsien-eeh. She is from China!”
“Ni hao!” The white-haired lady greeted me in perfect Chinese intonation.
“Ni hao! Did you study Chinese?” I’d met a few Israelis who studied Chinese or East Asian studies, so I wouldn’t be too surprised if she picked up Chinese in college.
“I was born in China. But I left when I was four, so I’ve forgotten most of it.” Now that was a surprise. For the next two hours or so, Hannah shared stories about her life, which involved much wandering, from China to Belgium, Congo, Beirut, Canada, the U.S., and at last, Israel. Her personal story is intertwined with much strife within the nations that hosted her, whether it was civil wars, racial segregation or cultural division. Daughter of a stateless father, Hannah is now citizen of Belgium and Israel. But new cracks have started to emerge in her national identity due to perceived rise of anti-Semitism in Europe and power of the religious orthodox in Israel.
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Hannah’s grandfather traveled from Poland to Manchuria in the early 1900s and made a living as a furrier. He later settled in Tianjin, a major port city. The Chinese government didn’t grant citizenship to foreigners born in China, so Hannah’s grandfather bought his son a Russian passport with fifty pieces of gold, and sent him to Belgium to study. At university, he met Hannah’s mother and they both came to Tianjin after finishing their degree. Hannah was born in 1943, in her grandfather’s house inside the British Concession, insulated from the poor Chinese population.
“I had an A’ma. She breastfed me.” Hannah has fond but ambivalent memories of her Chinese wet nurse. “My grandfather bought her. It was basically…no different from slavery, you know?” Hannah looked at me in the eyes. Her eyes were calm, but her lips made a slight downward movement.
Some Chinese businessmen and officials at the time were extremely rich, but the majority of the people were poor. There were always beggars lining the streets, she recalled. “Big inequality. Maybe it’s always like this in China?”
It was a crude assessment, but I was saddened by the truth it contained. China has undergone immense economic growth since Hannah’s childhood, but the income gap has also widened, and the rampant corruption in the bureaucracy has only exacerbated it.
As the Second World War ended and the Chinese civil war ensued, most foreigners planned to leave for fear of their property and safety. Hannah’s father’s Russian passport, issued by the Czar, had become useless since the Soviet Union had taken power. All he had was a “Heimatlos (stateless) paper”. Fortunately, Hannah’s mother had Belgian citizenship and secured Belgian papers for the family. Hannah’s grandfather remained in Tianjin. Communist soldiers occupied his house and he was left with only one room. He eventually died in Tianjin.
Hannah traveled back to China about a decade ago, as part of a Belgian delegation to prepare for the king and queen’s official visit. While in Shanghai, she looked for her uncle’s old apartment, but couldn’t find it.
In 2013, Israel Prime Minister Netanyahu visited Shanghai and hailed its role as the haven for Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Europe in the 1930s and 40s. On a blog, I read old Jewish residents of Shanghai sharing fond memories of the community and deep appreciation for the friendly people who helped them in hard times. On Hannah’s Facebook page, her hometown remains “Tianjin, China.”
I later read in the New York Times that as the Chinese authorities have been tightening control on religion, a small Jewish community that has lived in Kaifeng since the 12th century has come under suspicion. Religious gatherings have been prohibited, community center closed, and relics of old synagogue removed.
The welcoming community that the exiled Jews found in Shanghai and the suspicion that the small Jewish community in Kaifeng is now facing form a disturbing contrast that makes my heart cringe.
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Hannah grew up in Belgium, and after she finished college, the family moved to Belgian Congo, a Belgian colony in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. “It was very segregated,” she said of her experience there. A white young woman like Hannah was not supposed to mingle with local black people, and Hannah was living with her strict parents, who further limited her social circle. Under such circumstances, marriage was liberating because it allowed her to have more social interactions. She married a schoolteacher from Lebanon, born to Macedonian and Greek parents. They later moved to Beirut and stayed there for two years before immigrating to Canada.
In 1969, Hannah left her husband and drove from Toronto to the U.S. with her two young sons. “He wasn’t a good husband or father,” she said, but didn’t explain more. She later came to Charleston and found shelter in a homeless people’s camp. The supervisor of the camp helped her find an affordable apartment and she worked as a nurse. She began dating a military officer, but found weekly parties with all the “army wives” suffocating. She also didn’t enjoy going to church with her Protestant date. Her ex-husband is a pious Christian while Hannah is an atheist. She had spent many Sundays at church with her ex-husband and didn’t relish the idea of continuing to do so.
I asked if she found a sense of belonging within the American Jewish community. “They were obsessed with manners and appearances. More than the rest of the society,” Hannah said, “Women would always wear those lace gloves when they went out.” She smiled, as if trying to communicate to me the ridiculousness of the social etiquette in the ‘60s.
After a few years in the U.S., Hannah moved back to Belgium with her sons and stayed with her family for a while, before she left again in 1974 for a new destination, Israel.
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Hannah lived in a camp for new immigrants outside Jerusalem before she moved to Haifa for a training program for nurses. Haifa is a city built on the slopes of Mount Carmel. Fakhrieh’s apartment is on an uphill street. Hannah lives a block away and often comes over in the evening to have a cup of Arabic coffee.
In Haifa, Hannah remarried to a Jewish man twenty years older. “A very nice man,” she said. Her children all live in Belgium, and she visited them frequently.
When Hannah’s husband passed away six months ago, she went to Belgium to deal with their bank accounts. They’d used the same bank for decades and never had any trouble. But this time the clerk told her she couldn’t access the account, even though she’s a joint owner. “They were just giving me troubles,” she said, the cause of which she attributed to her Hebrew documents. Hannah feels there is a rise of anti-Semitism in Belgium. Maybe it was just a small incidence, maybe there had been more that she didn’t tell me, but those small incidences had created a crack within her national identity.
“I used to feel I belong. I grew up and went to college there. It’s my country. But recently I don’t feel I belong anymore.” Hannah said, “Not everyone feels the same. My sister disagrees with me.” Her sister thinks it’s perfectly fine and nothing has changed for Jews in Belgium.
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“When you don’t have an identity, you make associations everywhere. I’ve been with Chinese, Belgians, Christians, Jewish Americans… I can talk with them, live with them, but I don’t feel I belong to any of them.”
What about Israel?
“Here in Israel it’s better. But I don’t feel I completely belong either… Not entirely.” Part of that has to do with the rise of religious orthodoxy in the government and communities all over the country. Hannah doesn’t appreciate that her life is increasingly being influenced by the religious orthodox.
Cultural and national identity for Hannah has been as unstable as her places of residence. But she does appreciate the community in Haifa, where Jews and Palestinian-Israelis live together. But the city is not equal. Jewish and Arab neighborhoods are largely segregated, Hannah and Fakhrieh’s proximity being the exception rather than the rule. Jewish, Muslim and Christian kids go to different schools, and Arab citizens generally have lower economic statuses and upward mobility.
It was near the end of Ramadan when I visited. Fakhrieh had hung beautiful strings of lights over her yard. On the wall hangs a painting that Hannah gave to Fakhrieh. It depicts her yard, where four or five friends are sitting in a circle, chatting over cups of Arabic coffee.
Qianyi Qin ‘17 is a Philosophy major in Trumbull College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.