Sunday, May 30, 2010

Festival Musings

When I first envisioned a Chinese Jewish Festival more than ten years ago, I thought it would be good for the neighborhood and for our mission to tell the story of the immigrants who made and make our neighborhood special. I imagined Chinese and Jewish artists and musicians sitting side by side informing the public about their traditions. What I did not expect, but experienced starting at our very first festival back in 2000, is the deep feeling of community and joy that emanates from all the participants and festival goers – this is a New York Moment.

Walking south on Eldridge Street from the B Train on Grand Street, you are in Chinatown: dumpling shops and markets sell more than 20 varieties of soy sauce and all sorts of dried foods in bins, fish so fresh that it still moves and store signs in Chinese with auspicious names like Prosperity Dumplings or Good Lock Locksmith; there is a Buddhist temple, too. However, if you look closely, you might notice Harris Levy Fine Linens and remember that your bubbe went there to buy her wedding linens; or you might see a tenement with Moorish windows and a faded Star of David on the fa├žade – a sign that the building was once a synagogue.

If you've been lucky enough to visit us on the first Sunday in June over the past 10 years, you might have thought you had stumbled into a whole other wonderful world. You hear strains of klezmer music and see folks dancing a hora. If you stay a bit longer, the strains of Ray Musike’s Romania Romania slowly change into a Chinese folk song led by bandmaster Mr. Hoy and members of the Qi Shu Feng Peking Opera transform themselves into monkey kings and tigers and flip through the air. You shake your head twice, no three times, and enter the 1887 landmark Eldridge Street Synagogue. Sitting side by side is a Hebrew scribe, demonstrating this sacred art, with a Chinese calligrapher. A bit deeper into the sanctuary there is a tefillin maker, a most holy man who so loves his work that you, too become intrigued by his story and his ritual objects and you feel that you might have just stepped into a shop in Jerusalem.

You learn that the synagogue is still a place of worship but just as important that this neighborhood was always an immigrant neighborhood, that just as years ago the shops had Yiddish signs and sold yarmulkes and tallisim and prayer books, now there are Chinese signs and the mamma loshen and lukshen has been transformed to Chinese and pulled noodles and somewhere this odd juxtaposition of Chinese and Jews has turned into a day of mutual respect and sharing. It’s New York after all, where benign indifference can turn into neighborly love, and egg roll meets egg cream for an afternoon of shared delight

-Hanna Griff-Sleven, Director of Programs

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