"From Tianjin, China to Tsfat, Israel"
What brings a young man born in modern, communist China to the Land of Israel and to Orthodox Judaism?
Connection: Weekly Reading of Lech Lecha--"Go: from your land, from your birthplace, from your father's home...."
Reminder: BOOK LAUNCH IN JERUSALEM
(Chabad of Rehavia, 8 Ramban Street)
For "Festivals of the Full Moon" - Y. Tilles' 2nd book
From Tianjin, China to Tsfat, Israel
Part I - China
He has all the external characteristics of an ultra-Orthodox man: A hat and a black suit, a beard and peyot and tsitsit. And a solid Jewish name too.
Aaron Waldman was born in 1983, in Tianjin, China (a city southeast of Beijing with a population of 13 million). His father was an engineer and his mother was a technician.
"After conversion, I chose 'Aharon' as my Jewish name, because the biblical Aharon was known as a man of truth and a lover of peace. The Jewish people are lovers of truth and peace.
"My Chinese name, Chai, translated into English means "wood". In Yiddish it is "valde"; that is how I chose the surname Waldman when I became Jewish-I am 'the man of the wood.'
"Yet, I am like a 'rootless tree.' Modern China is not classic, traditional China. It has become very much a Western-style country; it is not really Chinese. In modern China we were not educated with tradition. We are cut off from the root. I feel the spiritual emptiness.
"I was taught when I was young, in elementary school, that the universe has no beginning and no end," he recalls. "If you believe there is a beginning of everything, you are religious. That means you're superstitious, you're stupid.
"In the university in Tianjin, where I studied mechanical engineering, I was taught that the universe has a beginning, called the Big Bang. If you do not believe that the universe has a beginning, you are stupid. What's the truth?
"When I was young, communism was the truth. After I did research, I realized that it cannot be.
"One day during my senior year of university, the American teacher of my graduate-level English class spoke with me about religion and the Bible - a topic with which I was completely unfamiliar. He gave me an English-Chinese Bible to read. I was eager to learn English, and the book seemed like an excellent learning tool. I started to read the book carefully, word by word. This raised many questions - not only the definitions of certain English words, but also the concepts discussed in the book. I went back to the teacher again and again with my questions. I didn't realize that he was a Christian missionary with a hidden agenda of proselytizing.
"After acquiring a Master's degree in mechanical engineering in 2005, I got a good job working as an engineer in automotive design. I spent most of my free time undertaking a more thorough study of religion. I spent years studying the Bible, along with any books I could find about Western religions.
"When I started to research religion, I read maybe 10 versions of the Bible. But English Bibles and Chinese Bibles are all translations, and I found many contradictions between the versions. I realized that to know the truth, I would have to read the original text. So in order to be able to do this, I decided to learn Hebrew on my own, biblical Hebrew.
"After two years the huge central library in Tianjin finally acquired a Hebrew-English dictionary. Becoming proficient in Hebrew was a slow, steady process. After a while, maybe five years, I could read the Bible in Hebrew. I still didn't know how to pronounce anything because while a dictionary helps for reading, you can only guess at the sounds.
"Another couple of years later, with Israel and China normalizing diplomatic relations, a Chinese tourist went to visit and brought back a "learn Hebrew" CD. That eventually got passed along to me and I crossed another hurdle in my quest, finally hearing spoken Hebrew for the first time.
"So who is telling the truth? The Christians insist they are. But check the Bible. It says G-d is one, while they say G-d is three, including a man who died on a cross. There's no three in the text. The Bible says you should protect the Sabbath. The Christians don't do that. It is the Jews that do. And so forth.
"I realized that only Judaism was faithful to the original text. I became less focused on Christianity and more independent in my search. I set out to read any book I could find that was even remotely connected to the Jews - everything from holocaust memoirs to Israeli politics. Around this time the internet was coming into full swing. The Chinese government had not yet instituted filtering technology, so I had full access to everything from Maimonides to Martin Buber. All this made a tremendous intellectual impact on me.
"Five years later, in 2000, I reached the conclusion that Christianity was wrong. Only Judaism has the whole piece. So I made the choice that I want to live this way of life."
"But In China I couldn't, there was no synagogue in mainland China at that time. And how would I keep kosher?
"I decided to try locating a Jew in China. It was not easy. Finally I got in touch with a man named David Buxbaum, an American Jewish lawyer practicing in East Asia, with an office in Beijing.
"It was a real breakthrough to talk with a flesh-and-blood Jew who believed in the veracity of the Jewish Bible. What really impressed me was how humble, sincere and scholarly this man was. Now I knew that the negative stereotypes I had been getting from the Chinese media and the numerous Christian pastors I had consulted in my investigations were indefensible.
"I identified very clearly with the Jews, wandering the world in search of the Promised Land. I felt that I, too, was wandering in search of my homeland. After a long build-up, I finally reached a point of utter clarity. I decided to become Jewish and move to Israel, although I had no clue what precisely that would entail.
"I soon discovered it was logistically impossible to achieve this from the confines of China. I needed a halfway stop to serve as a launching point - enabling me to gain Western citizenship, become Jewish, and then go to Israel. There was no direct path and I needed a plan.
Part II - Canada
"I had a friend living in Canada, a Chinese guy who had successfully navigated the immigration process. He showed me exactly how to do it. In 2005 I was able to move to Toronto and get a job in mechanical engineering. There I saw Judaism alive and in action. Imagine my first attendance at a synagogue, my first taste of matzah, my first shofar blast, my first dance at a Jewish wedding. It was all so beautiful, so pure, so untainted by the cynicism and materialism that has overrun our lives.
"As I learned more and more, it felt hypocritical that I was not putting this into practice. I decided to become observant: Lighting Shabbat candles. Prayer. Kashrut. The big deal was when I stopped eating pork, which is a main ingredient in almost all Chinese dishes.
"I studied, I struggled, and I questioned. I was determined to take this as far as the truth would allow. A few years passed and I was starting to feel like a Jew. I identified with the Jewish people who have been so unjustly slandered and persecuted. I understood that Judaism is true, and in order to solidify my love for the truth, I was ready to become Jewish. I studied extensively with Rabbi Robinson in Toronto, who guided me carefully through the whole process.
"In 2011, after 16 long years of searching, I completed my conversion with Rabbi Shlomo Miller in Toronto. I had finally come home to the Jewish people.
Part III - Israel
"In May 2012 I made aliyah to Israel, and enrolled at Yeshivat Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem--directly across from the Western Wall! -- where I continued my passion for studying Torah.
"I knew that the Land of Israel was to be my homeland. And indeed, when I arrived here I felt that I found home. This was what I was looking for: A sincere, honest, devoted life. (Although I must admit being disappointed that the modern state of Israel has less Jewishness than I expected. For me this was a culture shock.)
I began a Chinese blog to provide basic knowledge of Jews and Israel so Chinese people will not be easily brainwashed by the negative media bias. I also worked on translating counter-missionary materials into Chinese, in order to refute religious slander against the Jews.
"When I came to Israel my parents were furious. The Chinese and world media isn't friendly to the Jewish people. So from my parents' point of view, they thought that I joined an evil cult and I went to an evil country. Now I think they reconciled somewhat.
"In Sivan 2014 I married Shalvi, and about four months after that, we moved to Tsfat (Safed). I studied in several different yeshivas and kollels (Torah centers for married men). But it is difficult to earn a living in Tsfat, so I spent a total of about a year in China teaching Judaism.
"Ironically, today there is a growing Chinese fascination with Judaism. Three universities have departments of Jewish studies, with probably a few hundred masters and doctoral candidates, all of whom are Chinese.
In operating on a purely academic level, however, these studies tend to miss out on the spiritual core driving the Jewish people. The Talmud in particular has gained a reputation as the "grand repository of secret business advice." With popular Chinese titles like "Crack the Talmud: 101 Jewish Business Rules," this faux-Talmudic wisdom has now become a guide for fortune-seekers.
"As for me, I am grateful to have discovered that the real "wealth" of Judaism is in its ethics and spirituality. That's why I joined.