How Baking Challah in a Chinese Village Brought Me Back to Judaism

My internship with the Beijing Academy of Sciences came to an end — unexpectedly. I was 26, it was 2014 and I didn’t know where to turn. I was hoping to find a new internship that could turn into a job in China didn’t have a plan B. I hardly knew anyone where I lived (a small city of about 6 million in a province the size of France with a population of around 30 million). That is when I can assuredly say Hashem sent me a shaliach (messenger).

Then, I visited a friend who ran a farm to table restaurant that I’d helped out with. Through her, I became connected with someone who would ultimately become the most impactful person I met in China, bar none. He was the person who in no small way influenced me to take a second pass at Judaism. 

Her friend, let’s call him Johnny, lived in a fascinating town. In certain respects, it was kind of like the Tzfat of China. Artists, seekers, teachers, medicine men and women and international and Chinese tourists abound. He invited me to his second home — a huge courtyard style house near apple orchards not too far from jagged fifteen thousand foot snow-covered peaks. Surrounding the compound were sour plum trees, pear trees, and peach trees. In the courtyard dwelt something more beautiful. 

Johnny lived with a group of Chinese and Taiwanese who lived together as children and adults and who decided to pursue a spiritual life living off savings, pensions, and donations. In hindsight, they lived almost like a tiny kibbutz — they shared everything.  On the other hand, they were also almost like what I now know to be Chabad shluchim — each week they would go out to the town square reaching out to people. They would pass out poetry they’d written and play music. When they met people, they invited them back to their home to get to know them and to feed them with love and take an interest in their soul.  And that was exactly what they did with me.

At the time, I was a rather disaffected Jew.  I wasn’t hostile but I wasn’t too interested either. But, after living far away from family doing research in remote mountain side communities of twenty people or less for months on end I simply needed the feeling of a family and home.  

The comfort I felt with the people I visited in this Tzfat like town stirred something inside me — the fact that I was a person on a journey, that my life and story mattered.  Something awoke and I couldn’t shut it off.  I didn’t even know I was looking for it, but my soul came home.

The plan was to stay in the village for one week, but I could have stayed longer. They would have welcomed me with open arms. I felt like something had been lifted in my soul as my time with these new friends ran out. In fact, leaving it felt that our time had only begun. Leaving, I could breathe more easily. 

Sometimes, I imagine Hashem is like a talented boxer. He works you over one way to get you to favor one side or the other. Then he comes in for the knockout from the opposite direction. The “blow” he gave me came out of nowhere I could have predicted, and it bowled me over.  Hashem’s punch knocked me out but at the same time, I found my soul.

My last morning began. That morning, Johnny surprised me. We’d finished breakfast and in the most casual way ever asked, “Would you like to make challah?” It took me a few moments to process. It was a food and a question which would never have crossed my mind in China, let alone in the middle of the countryside. “Challah?” What, how, who — how do you even know that word? Johnny wasn’t Jewish. Most people in China asked me if I believed in Jesus when I told them I was Jewish. Challah, here? I had subsisted off of very dry sausage, steamed buns, green tea and chili paste for months on end. The closest I could go for western food was a twelve-hour overnight train ride. This sounded divine. 

It’s an understatement to say, I was shocked. It would be like a recent Chinese immigrant living in Texas at a fourth of July barbeque being handed a plate of homemade pork dumplings because they knew the Chinese person had missed out during Chinese New Year in Texas. “Well, yeah. Let’s do it!” 

Then the second shock came. Johnny moved some stuff in the kitchen and revealed an industrial bread mixer. I don’t know which shocked me more — real bread making equipment or challah in a Chinese village? Average Chinese people don’t even get bread as a concept, let alone know how to make it or eat it. Bread is terrible in China. You have to find a western owned bakery to find anything edible. And it costs a fortune relative to the costs of living. Safe to say I was excited.

With that, the process began which would transform our friendship and both of our lives. In the morning, we prepared the dough and then we waited for the dough to rise — waited and waited and waited. I had to leave by 2pm to catch my train. The dough didn’t rise — it was too cold out or the yeast was old — I don’t remember. “Don’t worry,” Johnny said. Time would not be our enemy today. It would work on our side. 

I have to admit — I was embarrassed that I didn’t know how to make challah. I had made it one time with my sister years earlier but I couldn’t have made it again if you’d asked me. “I’m going to be taught how to make challah by a Chinese guy?”  I thought…I should be the one teaching him. In reality, Hashem was teaching me. How could I be abashed when the Creator himself gave me a loving, personalized invitation to learn? I swallowed my pride and dove in with a smile. 

You’re probably wondering about the elephant in the room here — how did Johnny learn to make challah? To be honest, the details of it are quite heady to me. I was still floating in the dream-like experience of making challah in rural China taught by a Chinese guy. I was at a loss for words. Something about a backpacker named Rivka he hosted twenty years ago taught him. Then some other backpackers seeking kung fu lessons after finishing their stint in the Israeli army visited him and taught him Jewish poetry. Twenty years before I ever laid foot in China, when I was nigh a toddler, Hashem already laid the plan.

Miraculously, the dough rose. Egg basted on to make a golden crust. It was now proofing. I had finished up my packing and was loading my things into the fourteen-passenger van. We had about thirty minutes to go. Time ticked by — my return train ticket was expensive and although I would have been welcomed to stay if I missed it, I didn’t want to miss it. I wanted to go. It was time to go. 

Now I sat in the passenger seat of the van, window rolled down, looking at the grey sky which was common during the summer rainy season. It didn’t seem like we’d get to finish the bread making. I really appreciated the sentiment. It would have been nice to have some homemade challah. Actually, there were three foods I learned to make while I lived in China. They were the main ones that I missed from home and never would have been able to find there: bagels, challah, and Chicken soup. All Jewish. It’s like it was a sign. 

Then Johnny appeared in front of my rolled down window with a paper bag with its top folded in both of his hands. With a big smile, he said “Here you go, so you’ll have something to eat on the train.” I almost cried. It was so Jewish. We’re the type of people that would freak out if we found someone left our home to travel without food to have along the way. The type of people who would drive to the airport a second time to bring food we forgot to give. The type of people who would traverse across Nazi Europe to find an etrog for Sukkot.  

It was such a Jewish moment. Long after the bread cooled, sitting on the hard seats of the trains I loved to take, the warmth stayed with me, thawing out the icy waters of my yearning soul. He wanted me to come home.

There is an endless stream of music. It plays ceaselessly. But it remains concealed beneath what we take for granted and ordinary. When we only see the concealed, we are deaf to the music. Occasionally, we get a glimpse of the score. Even more rarely, we hear a taste of the music. The music foregrounds, the background fades away. We are in the music, rejoicing with our connection. That music is the flame of our soul as it dances and flickers in the wind of Hashem’s breath. When we come home, for even only one minute, we are changed forever.  Even if we can’t hear it, now we’re aware of it. The mind stretched can never go back. Hashem rekindled my flame in my soul.    

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  • Avatar photo Darya Heras says on August 16, 2023

    Very inspiring!

    • Avatar photo yaakovschy@gmail.com says on August 16, 2023

      Thank you so much, Darya. If you liked it please share it!!

  • Avatar photo Xi Ruan says on August 17, 2023

    My friend, good article. Everyone needs to have believe. Good and positive believe is positive energy and can infect more people. It brings confidence and happiness. Sometimes life is difficult, but there is always hope. I’m proud of you!


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