Jewish adventures in Asia

Ladies Market in Hong Kong

Life has a funny way of working out – at least that’s what I kept telling myself, over and over again. But nonetheless I was scared. I was leaving for a working holiday in Asia and flying to China, solo.
Ladies Market in Hong Kong
You might think that for someone who – by choice – has stepped out of perfectly good airplanes at 12,000 feet in New Zealand, raced in the Olympic bobsleigh run with the Swiss Olympic silver medalist at breakneck speeds (1,612 metres in 49 seconds) in St Moritz, Switzerland, and dared to be seen in a bikini having a swim lesson with the great Olympic gold medalist Jason Lezak, nothing would phase me.

Wrong! Not only was I flying to China, I was spending Passover in Hong Kong, and I did not know a soul. Passover is such a family-oriented holiday that I debated not going on my Asian adventure, but my mom, of all people, said, “It’s such an opportunity. You can always go to the Chabad house in Hong Kong for seder.”

I immediately contacted Chabad in Hong Kong and they were more than gracious with information.

Photo of Hong Kong taken from the Peak, the highest point in the city.

Meanwhile, after I wrote an article for the New York Times about Israeli figure skater Tamar Katz’s not being allowed to represent Israel in the Olympics, out of the possible millions of people who might have read the article, I received one e-mail from a man I didn’t know, Steve Goldberg.

His son Brian qualified to compete for Israel in Luge, in 2002. Alas, he suffered the same fate as Katz of not meeting Israel’s internal standards and was not allowed to participate in the Olympics.

I asked what Brian was doing now, and Goldberg explained that Brian had completed his master’s degree at Columbia University (just as I did) and was now living and working in Hong Kong.

Reading the e-mail, I started to laugh. Talk about an answer to my prayers. It also got me thinking about reaching into my own network on Facebook and trying to find a few friends in Hong Kong.

After I posted a request to be introduced to people in Hong Kong, my friend Ilknur Aslan from Turkey immediately introduced me her friend Rita, and my friend Ed in South Africa introduced me to Timothy, who works in international security. Needless to say, I felt a lot safer and less scared; it seemed as if my Hong Kong adventure just might work out. I contacted Brian, and we decided to go to a seder together – talk about an interesting first meeting.

Hong Kong is really where Asia meets the West, as it is a sophisticated city, mixed with ancient Chinese culture and customs, a fusion of sorts. Most intriguing was walking around the Soho area of the city, which one minute is filled with pricey clothing stores more expensive than those in Rome, Italy, and on the next corner is a “wet market,” a street filled with stands and stores selling everything from fresh fish to furniture. (They are called wet markets because at night, the shops are closed and the streets are hosed down with water.)

Brian picked me up from the Four Seasons Hotel, where I had experienced possibly the best massage of my life – Jade stone therapy. A full-body massage, it is based on an ancient Chinese practice of gua sha. According to this practice, the heated jade stones produce negative ions supposed to strengthen the immune system. The description got lost in translation, but I certainly felt fantastic.

Prior to the seder, Brian took me on a tour. We drove in his little green convertible all through Hong Kong Island, past beaches and lush green forests. I was surprised. I’d always thought it would be just a metropolis, a banking city at most.

We arrived at the seder, and I could have been back home at the Chabad house in Scottsdale, except for meeting more Asians. The reception was warm and inviting. The service was filled with meaningful stories, happy children shouting out, making us all laugh, and plentiful, delicious food. It was the first time in my life I was away from my family for a seder and I did not feel completely homesick.

I met people from South Africa, Russia and France. I still always marvel at how the Jewish connection can make anywhere in the world seem like home, or close to it.

My Asian home was now at the JW Marriott. The hotel hosts kosher events and can accommodate its Jewish guests in a variety of ways year round. Tea in the lounge is a real treat, with 60 different choices. You can even buy some to take home, which I did. (You have to buy tea in China – what else?)

The next day, I met Timothy, who became my personal bodyguard and guide, introducing me to Buddhist temples, street markets filled with shopping galore; and to my new best friends, two Jewish women, Melissa, an international television correspondent, and Stacey, a South African.

Girls night out with (from left) Melissa, Masada, Laura, right foreground, and sitting next to her is Stacey.

With our Jewish connection, we immediately bonded. It was crazy – thousands of miles away from home – and I was invited to a girls’ night out.

We met another lovely woman, Laura, a midwife from Scotland, and spent the night laughing at life’s stories, and our similarities stood out. It was as if we had been friends for years.

I spent only a week in Hong Kong, and as usual, my fears were unfounded. Somehow, life does work out, and occasionally in the most wonderful of ways. By the time I left, I felt a sense of community and as if all the pieces of the puzzle of Jewish travel and adventure had fallen into place.

So I wonder: the next time an adventure comes knocking at my door, will I embrace it or be nervous? Probably both.


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