Last night was the first night of Passover. For the past few weeks, I’ve been trying not to think about it. It’s not that I don’t like Passover; in fact, it’s my favorite holiday (tied with Thanksgiving). I was just worried about how the celebration of the first night—which I associate so strongly with family, songs, and chocolate macaroons—would fit into my life in Lijiang. I figured I had three options: the first was to find some Jewish people in Lijiang or the surrounding areas, and try to join them in a makeshift seder. This would be my first choice. I was really excited when I met an Israeli woman in Dali who said she’d be interested in doing something to celebrate. In the end though, our plans fell through, I couldn’t reach her, and we each did our own thing in our own cities.

My second option was to take the lead and make a Passover dinner myself to share with the Chinese people I’m living with. This option was intimidating. If you’re trying to do it correctly, leading a seder is no easy task. The word “seder” itself means “order,” and the meal must follow a strict order of songs, prayers, hand washing, wine drinking, and the consumption of ritual foods. Although I’ve been celebrating Passover all my life, I suddenly realized that I’ve never paid enough attention to be able to lead the seder myself. It seemed like way too much responsibility, not to mention the fact that 90% of the required ritual foods would be impossible to find in China.

My third option, of course, was to do nothing. It wouldn’t be the first time. Last, year, Passover coincided with the Middlebury crew team’s spring training trip to Georgia. At the super-Walmart in Buford where we did our shopping for the week, my requests for Passover food were met with blank stares. The little old ladies in Walmart aprons squinted up at me and drawled, “You’re lookin for what now?” In the end, I had to fill my cart with bread and pasta and Oreos just like everybody else, and put Passover out of my mind entirely. But Jewish Guilt is a powerful thing, and I was determined not to let the holiday pass me by this year.

In the end, I decided to go with a modified Option Two. Something casual, experimental, symbolic, and wildly untraditional.

I decided not to make a whole dinner, but instead focus on a couple of chilled appetizers. Charoset and deviled eggs, to be exact. I figured the ingredients for charoset would be easy enough to find—apples, walnuts, wine and oranges, plus I already had cinnamon that someone had given me in Nanjing. What I hadn’t figured was that the walnuts would burn and fill the kitchen with an acrid stench when I tried to “roast” them by frying them in a flimsy metal pan. I was also disappointed that I couldn’t buy Manischewitz wine, the sweet kosher wine that’s synonymous with Passover. Yet somehow, the cheap Chinese wine I purchased without reading the label ended up being a heavily sweetened wine flavored with Osmanthus flowers, and it tasted startlingly similar to Manischewitz. This was the first of several happy accidents.

After the apples were chopped and stewing in their Osmanthus-scented juice, I started the deviled eggs. I figured they’d be easy to make and very American, something Chinese people hadn’t encountered before. Plus, they’re pretty. What I hadn’t counted on was the unavailability of mustard. Before going shopping, I asked my housemate Wenli where I could find yellow mustard. She stared at me. Yellow or green? Yellow, I repeated, knowing that green mustard referred to Japanese wasabi. Wenli switched to English: yellow or green? Yellow, I repeated again. No luck.

I gave up on finding mustard, and decided I’d try ketchup instead. After all, ketchup and mustard are the twin kings of American condiments. They’re practically interchangeable, right? I squeezed two packets of ketchup from Dico’s into my bowl of egg yolks and mashed them into a paste. The yolks darkened a bit, but didn’t lose their yellow color. I tasted the mixture. Not bad, but could use a little salt. I added a splash of soy sauce and tasted it again. Wow. It was more delicious than I could have possibly hoped, salty and pungent and just a little bit sweet. I spooned the mixture into my waiting white egg bowls and sprinkled them with dried basil, since I didn’t have paprika.

I put the finished dishes on the living room coffee table—our only table—and added a box of plain white crackers to substitute for matzah. 差不多—close enough. Then I called everyone to dinner.


In addition to Wenli, a recent graduate from Shandong province, I am also living with my boss Lucy and her 4-year-old son Jackie. Lucy’s husband (Jackie’s dad) lives in Beijing where he works for a television station, and the family is rarely together. For the past few days, he’s been visiting his family in Lijiang. Jackie has been practically delirious with excitement. Even Lucy, who is a very serious and straightforward person, has been wearing colorful clothes and even earrings every day.

Rituals aside, as far as I can tell the Passover seder has three important functions. The first is to bring the family together. Although it wasn’t my family, it was still satisfying to see Lucy’s family together at last. The second function is to retell the story of the Exodus, and I tried my best to explain the holiday and outline the basics of the story in broken Chinese. The third function is to eat delicious food (obviously). Here I wasn’t entirely successful. The deviled eggs were a big hit, but the charoset had an off flavor as a result of the burned walnuts. Luckily no one else seemed to notice, however, probably because they had no other charoset to compare it to.

It is always interesting for me to talk about Judaism with people in China. If they’ve heard of it at all, they always have a favorable, if somewhat stereotypical opinion. Many people will immediately say something to the effect of “you must be really smart then,” to which my automatic reply is “not necessarily.” Most Chinese people associate Judaism with Albert Einstein, Mark Zuckerberg, and successful businessmen. In recent years, books like “Crack the Talmud: 101 Jewish Business Rules” have become immensely popular. While such a book would be unimaginably offensive in the west, I truly believe that they mean it as a compliment. Still, it can be satisfying to bust the myths and explain that Jews can be just as stupid, lazy, and money-blind as anybody else. Just look at me, I say—I’m a volunteer at an NGO! I am also eager to explain the astonishing similarities among Judaism, Christianity and Islam. I like to emphasize that although I identify as a Jewish person, I am not religious and I do not accept the bible as absolute truth. Above all, I emphasized to Lucy, her husband, Wenli, and Jackie that Jewish festivals are all about food and family. Family and food.

And also, in this case, wine.

After the meal we toasted with osmanthus wine in giant tea mugs, saying both “L’chaim” and “干杯.” Little Jackie toasted with strawberry yogurt, and far more gusto than the rest of us combined.

I can hardly call last night a traditional Jewish celebration, but I know one thing: it sure beats last year in Georgia.