A Question of Coffee

So as far as Fulbright updates go, I’m settling into the book project. Read the biography of an old Harbiner last week, and now I’m on to a book of essays about Harbiners by a Harbiner. Going well so far.


Also doing some research on Jewish culture in general to better inform myself.  Tuesday saw me spending a good bit of time reading in order to answer the simple question, “Could a Jewish woman in her 20’s or 30’s conceivably be found alone in a cafe?” I.E. did women have that much social mobility in Harbin in the 1910’s?

What I found most interesting in the process of answering that question was Jewish feminism, which has gotten especially big since the 70’s, but has been working for a long time.  Judaism has an interesting view of gender roles that Christianity dropped explicitly at least.

Some of you may or may not know that Judaism is passed through the maternal line, so only if a person’s mother is Jewish are they considered a full Jew.  So a lot of texts put emphasis on that, how the mother is the ruler of the household, it is her duty to manage that domain, raise the children etc. etc., stuff you see in cultures all around the world.

What stuck out to me though is how harsh and based in scripture some restrictions placed on women are.  What do I mean? I stumbled across a story where a woman asks a real insightful question to a rabbi and he refuses to answer her, stating, “I would rather see the words of the Torah burn than be taught to a woman.”  That’s a little fucked up.

Jewish women did have it better off than Christian women though, a Middle Ages rabbi named Maimondes decreed that a women could initiate divorce if she found her husband repugnant as, “she should not be forced into intimacy with a man she reviles, as she is not his slave”. Sound reasoning.  Women could also divorce for lack of sex so it goes both ways.


There is the problem of “agunah” or “anchored women.”  Jewish divorce, no matter who initiates it, must be acknowledged by both parties, and served by a document known as a “get.” Suppose though that you’re a woman whose husband went away to war or on business and never returned.  Is he dead? You assume he is, so you remarry.  Suddenly your husband returns, and you’ve committed a bunch of sins. None of your children from the second marriage are legitimate, both your marriages are null, and you’re kind of on your own.  So to avoid that risk a woman would never remarry without hard evidence her husband had died.  And if neither the husband nor evidence arose, she was “anchored” to that marriage.  Rough deal. Some men would apparently give conditional gets with a term of x months or years to avoid this, but apparently the problem still vexes orthodox scholars to this day.

Also, women were pretty much forbidden from pursuing higher education up through the 19th Century.  Until recently women also didn’t count minyan, a quorum of ten Jews required for many religious practices, and Israel still practices gender segregation in a bunch of ways, particularly in orthodox communities.  That said, Jewish women started becoming rabbis in the late 19th century, and the reform movement in particular has been working hard to made Judaism a more inclusive space in the past 50 years.  Real interesting stuff, hope to learn more, and I encourage you to look into it yourself.

The answer to my question though is a definite “yes.”  As early as 1916 Harbin had a Jewish Women’s Zionist Organization, they were extremely active, and all the study groups/schools I could find pictures of in Harbin specifically at the time had co-ed membership. So that short story is a go!


In other news, had a very nice dinner with some Chinese Fulbright alums in Changchun (capital of neighboring Jilin province) put on by the American consulate. Ate a lot, met some very interesting people, and generally had a great time.  I was only one of three Americans, counting one FSO. Felt really professional, traveling to another province just for a dinner, a bit silly admittedly, but it only cost me like $20 which is probably less than the meal would have cost anyway.  Thanks Fulbright!

And as for my biggest Fulbright news: I have a draft article only a week behind the schedule I set in March! Holy shit! I will say, it really more resembles a Jackson Pollock painting than even the roughest sketch of a complete article, but it’s progress, and with the relish I’m tackling the book project with it feels really good! So soon begins the onerous task of editing, editing, and more editing. While I have lower standards for this than I did, I still don’t think I’ll be able to get it into the August issue of the journal, gonna aim for October.  Oh! And the June issue of the journal is out which is the first to have all of its English abstracts translated by yours truly!  That feels good, and I finally feel like I put in good work.  All-in-all some good Fulbright success for my June report! 😀

I realized that I am a narcisisstic putz and only put up the pictures of me last week. Here’s some that I took of that wonderful walkway and adjacent village north of the river I went to way back when everything was frozen.

Saturday I went to a poetry talk featuring a local author of some renown named Li Qi. She had some really cool thoughts on poetry like, “poems make our hearts soft.” Not soft in a bad way. Soft as in malleable, as in flexible, soft enough to absorb the punches that life throws at our guts and keep on going. Soft so that we are no longer brittle eggshells that crack under pressure. (Analogies by me).  Also she was really really happy that Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize. I found that funny.

I then spent the rest of the day hanging with some Chinese college students which, while exhausting, was ultimately really rewarding, we had some great talks, I saw a new part of Harbin, and even met a Chinese Wiccan! Who woulda thought?

Here’s one of Li Qi’s best-known poems, 《当你老了》or “When You Are Old”. Based on this poem by Yeats.  I think it’s incredibly beautiful, and I hope my translation does it justice.

When you are old, these words first said by Yeats,
gently say them, these five little words
they sound as if they want to cry.

When you are old: these soft, downy words
love and cherish them
and the riotous colors between each syllable.

When you are old, when said with a soft and tender tone
is the golden rays of dusk, the silver streaks of moonlight
rising warmly, like the strains of a cello.

When you are old, when those two pairs of eyes have lost their brightness
and gaze into each other in old age, this beauty
will tug at your heart.

When you are old, when you have a pilgrim’s soul
when you hear the chimes of love
calmly sounding their last pledge of loyalty.

When you are old, I truly hope
this poem will be written for me, or
in many years time, I’ll be the one to write it.

A few other things actually happened this week, and I’ll save some for the next post as this week might not be as eventful. I will end with a hilarious cultural interaction that I felt incredibly guilty about.  On Friday I went back to the Jewish museum to do research, and afterwards went to Central Street to get bread and enjoy the scenery. I sat down on a bench, and an old man comes up and says, “hello!” in somewhat stilted English. I had already had this happen with a guy who wanted a picture with me so I was not in the best mood. (Like really buddy? All this beautiful architecture around you and you wanna snap a picture with the scruffy white guy?)

As a result, I tried a seldom-used defense mechanism where I pretend to be Russian and therefore give them no option but to speak Chinese with me.  Turns out the guy’s Russian was better than mine! Shit! We ended up talking for about fifteen minutes, I maintained the illusion that I was Russian, told him where and what I studied, and learned that he had studied abroad in Russia back in the day (I assume the 50’s).  He was amazingly sweet, nice, and adorable, and even invited me to his house to “做客” (zuo ke, dzuo kuh literally “be a guest” which sounds perfectly natural in Chinese and Russian). The only thing I can assume is my pronunciation is good enough to convince him I was Russian despite my limited vocabulary. Or he noticed something was up, but attributed it to his own old age and/or not having been to Russia in a long long time and gave me the benefit of the doubt.

I eventually excused myself before I gave myself away, but I felt *incredibly* guilty! This old guy was nothing but nice to me and I lied to his face for fifteen straight minutes! So at the time I was really at a loss for how to accept his invitation and explain that I was actually an American. Consulting with Chinese friends has given me the answer that I should just tell him when I get there, apologize, and bring a present. Probably tea. So I still feel bad, especially considering I’m supposed to be representing America at all times as a Fulbrighter, but hopefully he’ll be alright with it.  It did feel really cool to get to be able to use my Russian like that though!

And kitties!  Always kitties!  Got the perfect picture of Meow on the left here. See you soon!




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