Bridging a Cultural Gap At the Jewish Holidays

AS my body sank back into the chair and relaxed, I felt Zhang Hon's body stiffen. He leaned forward, squirmed and started to wring his hands. Beads of perspiration multiplied on his forehead. He leaned toward me and whispered "Must I say prayer? Must I stand up?"

"No, you may do whatever you wish," I answered.

My husband, our 15-year-old son, and I had brought our newly arrived Chinese exchange student to the synagogue for the Friday evening Sabbath service. We proudly took our seats on the folding chairs arranged in the atrium lobby.

The informal summer service began with the cantor playing his guitar under the changing light of the setting sun. The rabbi recited the opening prayers. I felt peaceful after a hectic week trying to acclimate our family life to a 16-year-old who had never been outside of Beijing.

"It is hot here. I sweat. This makes me nervous. When will it be over?" he blurted in his staccato-like way of talking.

I couldn't understand his anxiety.

The whole week had been difficult with adjustments to the varied cultural differences. But what was so disturbing about sitting in this peaceful service for 40 minutes? The music, the setting, the silent moments, the prayers - they were all calming influences on me.

He wasn't even going to give me this oasis of peace.

I leaned toward him, restraining my bubbling anger, and assured him that the service would be over in 30 minutes and we would be able to discuss his unhappiness then.

Once in the car, Zhang Hon sat up very tall and moved to the edge of the seat. His hands grasped the seat so tightly his knuckles turned white.

He spoke forcefully and passionately, "I do not believe in God! I stand for China and only for China!"

We were stunned into silence. David, my husband, clutched the steering wheel, turned his head toward the back seat to look at Zhang Hon as he cracked the stillness with his gentle but strong voice.

"In America, Hon, we can believe in God and stand for America. Some people don't believe in God and stand for America, and some people don't even stand for America. In America, that's okay."

"I do not understand all this. I do not understand. I stand for China and only for China," Hon repeated in his raised voice.

Life had its ups and downs for the next few weeks. We never knew what we would bump up against. The cultural differences were so many and so deep that I wondered if we would ever reach common ground. Sometimes we all laughed so hard we nearly burst our seams, and other times I felt like crying, wondering to what I had committed us all.

A month passed since the incident in the temple and Zhang Hon was beginning to feel more comfortable in the house and to trust us. During the times we went to the synagogue, we made other arrangements for Hon and kept discussion of religion to a minimum.

As the Jewish holidays approached in mid-September, activity in the house began to change. My son, Mark, started to prepare for the sounding of the shofar (ram's horn) in the synagogue service. His piercing blasts alerted the neighborhood to the coming holidays and shook Zhang Hon to his core.

My husband started to listen to his Richard Tucker records of religious music, while my holiday cooking permeated the house with new and unusual fragrances.

Hon, much to our surprise, took an interest in all these activities. He asked questions about the shofar, he enjoyed the music, and even told me that he and his father made chicken soup the same way I did except that his father killed the chicken.

The day before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, Mark and Hon brought out the extra tables and chairs for the dinner. We all set the table and when Hon counted the table settings he exclaimed, "Twenty-two people to eat in house! I cannot believe it! Do you go to temple again?"

"Yes, after dinner and again in the morning," I answered.

I was anxious to hear what was going on in his mind. I didn't have to wait long.

"Does Grandpa go?"


"Does Uncle Paul and Auntie Judy go?"


"Does Uncle Paul's number-one son go?"


"Does Uncle Paul's number-two son go?"


"Well ... then I go too," he said with a grin from ear to ear.

Halfway through the service, I looked down the row to see if Hon was as anxious as he had been a month before. This time his head was lowered, bobbing while he was dozing! All of a sudden, he twitched and whispered, "Oh my God, I sleep!"

On the way home in the car, Hon surprised us again when he commented, "I think this poem from the temple very beautiful. I memorize it tonight." And then he repeated verbatim:

We are your people

You are our King

We are your children

You are our Father

We are your possession

You are our Portion

We are your flock

You are our Shepherd

We are your beloved

You are our Friend.

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