AS I MADE my way through Michael Levy’s amusing account of the two years he spent as a member of the Peace Corps in Guiyang, China, what came to mind time and again were not the glories of globalization or the dire consequences of American cultural imperialism or any of the twenty-first-century forces at play in contemporary China, which Levy both rues and relishes. What came to mind was Benjamin of Tudela, that intrepid Jewish traveler of the twelfth century, whose peregrinations took him from Spain to China—the “land of Zin”—where he was apparently the very first European to report on its marvels.
Originally handwritten in Hebrew, Benjamin of Tudela’s manuscript of approximately a hundred pages was eventually translated into Latin, French, German, Yiddish, and English, where it was published under the title The Itinerary of Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela. Richly detailed, his account inventories the number of Jews in any given locale and describes their living conditions as well as the trade routes that sustained them. A merchant himself, Benjamin carefully takes note of what people traded on the island of Kish (“all sorts of silk, purple and flax, cotton, hemp, worked wool”), what they ate in India (“lentils of every description”), and what they found when they gazed at the heavens. In the land of Zin, he tells us, “the star Orion predominates and a stormy wind prevails.”
It would be nice to think that Levy modeled his account after that of his medieval predecessor, but I doubt it. There is little to suggest that the author of Kosher Chinese has even heard of Benjamin of Tudela. And yet there is something in Levy’s wry sensibility and the ways in which his Jewish identity serves as a foil against which to take the measure of another, equally exotic, culture that render Michael of Philadelphia and Benjamin of Tudela close kin.
In this decidedly post-modern iteration of Jewish travel literature, Levy finds himself in the rural heartland of China where incongruities abound: Pizza Hut competes with Dog Meat King, whose bill of fare was, yes, the eponymous dog meat; the local People’s Park features a replica of the Louvre Pyramid, and statues of Mao nestle alongside the two Wal-Mart’s in town. Levy’s mandate is to teach English to thirty undergraduates at Guizho University, who innocently style themselves “Moron,” “Pussy,” and “Hitler,” thinking these names cool. He has his work cut out for him.
To keep things in perspective, the Peace Corp volunteer-cum-English professor turns repeatedly to American television and film characters. Whenever he confronts an improbable or uncomfortable situation, allusions to old kung fu movies and The Karate Kid, episodes of Saved by the Bell and the songs of Wu-Tang Clan are laid on thick. Droll the first and second and possibly even the third time around, this device soon becomes tiresome, too cute by half.
Levy’s Jewishness is another matter entirely. Where the supports of popular culture fall short, the author’s relationship to his Jewish identity not only rings true, but also structures his narrative and organizes his day-to-day experiences. At once a moral compass as well as a reminder of home, Levy’s Jewish identity grounds and orients him even when he’s sloughing off its religious demands. Although he refers to keeping kosher and observing the Sabbath when stateside, it doesn’t take too long before he throws these practices overboard. Occasionally Levy suffers a pang or two of guilt, but they are quickly assuaged by his newfound Peace Corps identity, which places a premium on “immersion.” “I had decided that China was not the place” for keeping kosher, he writes just as he’s about to dig into a pork dumpling. “I want to integrate as much as I can into Chinese culture … and I know food is a big part of it. So I’ll eat whatever my hosts are eating.”
Even so, there are limits to his flexibility. When confronted by the sight of hundreds of creepy crawlers in his rice bowl, which no amount of détente can persuade him to consume, he announces, with mounting desperation, that “Jews can’t eat insects.” His hosts know little enough of the Jews and of Jewish history but what they do know is enough to turn the situation around. Marx was Jewish and Einstein, too, they acknowledge, intimating that Michael Levy was in such good company that they were inclined to forgive his glaring faux pas. “You must be very clever,” they say.
But clever Levy’s Jewishness doesn’t just come in handy now and then. It turns out to be one of the things that his colleagues, students, and basketball teammates find utterly fascinating and even downright irresistible about him. They christen him You Qing You Tai, which means ‘Friendship Jew.’ In an act of solidarity, several of his colleagues decide to establish the Guizhou University Jewish Friday Night English and Cooking Corner Club (what a mouthful!), where, purportedly, they gather together on the eve of the Jewish Sabbath to study Jewish customs while baking challah. Mostly they get drunk. In another incident that Levy recounts with both bemusement and empathy, a somewhat chubby student, upon learning from him about Yom Kippur, decides to fast because it might just help her lose weight. “Yom Kippur is not a diet,” Levy tries to explain. “It’s a Day of Atonement.” But she would have none of it. To her the notion of actually setting aside a day for dieting made cultural sense. And it worked. The student ended up losing a few pounds.
We, in turn, end up gaining a great deal of insight into the nature of cross-cultural exchange and its unintended consequences. When Benjamin of Tudela set off on his travels, he was determined to see for himself where and under what circumstances the Jews of the far-flung Diaspora made a life for themselves. Much that he encountered surprised him, especially when it came to the wide variations in religious practice among his fellow Jews. When Michael Levy of Philadelphia set off on his travels, the fate of world Jewry was the last thing on his mind. He came in search of adventure, envisioning himself a latter day Indiana Jones. He discovered “Friendship Jew” instead.
Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies & Professor of History at The George Washington University, blogs at www.fromunderthefigtree.com.