Jewlicious Summer Reads 1: Choosing Kugua over Kugel

Kosher Chinese: book cover

What are you reading?

One of the latest books I read KOSHER CHINESE: LIVING, TEACHING, AND EATING WITH CHINA’S OTHER BILLION BY MICHAEL LEVY (July 2011) Holt. If David Sedaris became a Jewish Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) and was sent to China and wrote a book about it, you could get an inkling as to the comic adventures of Michael Levy.

Levy graduated from high school in Philadelphia and headed off to Cornell. He traveled to Israel to study at a yeshiva in 2000, but the “intifada” cut his sojourn short. He settled in Manhattan instead in 2001, just in time for the 9/11 attacks. What’s a nice Jewish guys to do? Join the Peace Corps, of course, where he was sent to Western China to teach English in a college. And here our gefilte fish out of its gel, tall and thin, Jew-fro’d and hairy, with no Western toilet in sight (though the school’s basketball coach has one), arrives at Guizhou University.

Levy with some students (Foto Credit. M Levy)

On his first day, he is offered a bowl of insects to eat. He refrains from tasting them. But they are sweet and coated in honey, he is told, “and Americans love sweets.” But still, he declines the offer, for you see, he is Jewish and kosher. Jewish? Ah yes, Jewish, they realize, he is Jewish like Comrade Karl Marx and Einstein. Could he impart on them the money secrets of the Jews? And so begins the adventures.

Along the way, Levy shares with us the absurdities and highlights of his life in China, his students’ self-chosen English names (Pussy, Moron, Dandy, Shitty), his founding of a campus “Hillel,” his selection for the school’s basketball team, and more. He learns about China’s form of “protectzia” or guanxi, and follows the rules of basketball with a Chinese characteristic, meaning don’t block the shots of players who are leaders of the youth wing of the Communist Party. He befriends some local minorities (Bouyi kids) and tries his hand at tikkun olam. Nicknamed the “Friendship Jew” in one of China’s poorest provinces, he is asked by one of the city’s local Wal-Mart’s to play Santa Claus for Christmas. Can Levy keep kosher? Well… if pork and dog and the local kugua melon are kosher, then yes, he kept kosher.

KOSHER CHINESE is a perfect Summer read, and along the way, you learn about the aspirations of young rural Chinese students, and can put yourself in Mike’s place and wonder what you would have done or taught in the situations he confronted. After two years, Levy was replaced by another Peace Corps Volunteer, who was also a Member of the Tribe. This volunteer however chose to just identify as American and keep his religious affiliation private. Levy currently teaches in Brooklyn at a private school that shuns grading and exams – a far cry from the exam happy China.

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