Religion & Beliefs

That Jewish Kind of Guanxi

I was chatting with a Chinese co-worker last December when she asked why I wasn't going back to America for Christmas like other foreigners she knew in Beijing. I offered what seemed like a simple explanation: "Jews don't celebrate Christmas … Read More

By / July 21, 2008

I was chatting with a Chinese co-worker last December when she asked why I wasn't going back to America for Christmas like other foreigners she knew in Beijing. I offered what seemed like a simple explanation: "Jews don't celebrate Christmas because we don't believe in Jesus."

She looked puzzled, as though I had just uttered a non sequitur. Most Chinese don't really know what exactly makes someone Jewish; they know only that Jews are some kind of minority group in America who also have their own country, Israel. Some also seem to believe that the two distinct Chinese words for "Jewish" and "Israeli" are, if not exactly synonyms, then at least denotative of the same set of people. To my co-worker, my response was like saying I didn't celebrate Christmas because I was black or French (though she may also have been unaware, as some Chinese are, that Christmas is in fact a religious holiday, rather than a secular gift-giving festival like the lunar new year).

So how exactly do I explain to them who Jews are — and aren't — using concepts that are more or less directly translatable into Mandarin?

Calling Judaism a race is obviously wrong, in addition to smacking of Nazi pseudoscience. We're too similar to other races, and too racially diverse within ourselves, to be a distinct race. We're also not an ethnic group inasmuch as that requires a common language. So my first instinct is usually to say something like, "Judaism is a religion, like Christianity or Buddhism."

But this is incomplete at best, and probably misleading. And anyway it won't really end the conversation. After all, Christianity is rapidly spreading in China, so people have a relatively clear notion of what that entails (even if they may not realize that "Christianity" is related to "Christmas," since in Mandarin the two words lack a common root). If Judaism is like Christianity, my acquaintance invariably asks, why don't I go to church or temple or whatever, like the Christians s/he knows? Again, the first instinct is to try something like, "Well, I'm not a very observant Jew," or "I'm a secular Jew." But "observant" and "secular" are complex notions with no precise Mandarin translations, and anyway these answers just kick the original question down the road. The question remains: What does it mean to be a non-observant Jew? What makes a secular Jew still a Jew?

Of course, the question of "Who is a Jew?" is age old, and it certainly isn't just a problem of translation. But outside Asia, it can seem unimportant, at least as a day-to-day matter. After all, even if most Americans and Europeans (or, for that matter, Arabs) can't offer a clear-cut answer to the question, they still know basically what it means to say that so-and-so is Jewish. In particular, they know that not all Jews go to shul, wear a kipa, or even keep kosher. Like many words in our language, they know what "Jewish" means in context, even if they can't offer a precise definition.

But how do I explain to someone who, though well educated in her own culture, totally lacks the relevant conceptual framework? At this point, the usual approach is to say something like, "Besides the religious aspect, Judiasm is also a cultural tradition. so you can be considered a Jew even if you don't go to temple, or even if you don’t believe in God."

This is better, but even this fails to satisfy the more inquiring of Chinese minds. One reason for this is that Asia is now awash with self-help books purporting to reveal "business secrets of the Jewish" and "how to raise your kids like the Jews." As a result, even though they most likely don't understand what actually defines Jewish identity, educated Chinese may already know that Jews are often skilled businessmen, bankers, and professionals. They may even know that Jews from were among the first wave of foreign businessmen who set up merchant empires in Shanghai following the First Opium War in 1842. What one hears over and over, at any rate, is that Jews are "smart and make a lot of money."

Highly cosmopolitan Chinese, who are aware that Jews have distinct communities with deep roots in countries all around the world, especially in large cities, are the ones who tend to be most unsatisfied with the explanation of Judaism as merely a cultural tradition. That's because the notion of a generations-old diaspora made up largely of merchants, businessmen, and professionals is readily comprehensible to the Chinese. These kinds of tight-knit, assimilation-resistant, financially successful communities would appear to Chinese just like the tight-knit, financially successful overseas Chinese communities that exist today in countries around Asia — including Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines — and, of course, Chinatowns all over Europe and the Americas.

Indeed, the similarities between the Chinese and Jewish diasporas are striking. In both cases, the minority diaspora communities have remained, to varying degrees, distinct from majority society, even as they've influenced these societies significantly. Both diasporas have also periodically suffered oppression, partly as a result of resentment in majority society towards their business acumen (by some estimates, ethnic Chinese account for 70% of GDP in Indonesia despite making up less than 10% of the population).

The explanation of Judiasm as primarily a "cultural tradition" doesn't fly with my acquaintances here because Chinese instinctively understand that like their own diaspora communities abroad, Jewish communities don't merely share a distinct culture but also comprise a concrete social formation that explicitly includes some while excluding others. The Chinese are masters of networking and glad-handing, and the concept of guanxi — which literally means "relationship", but implies the notion of connections, suction, knowing the right people — is central to the way business and politics is done here. Guanxi is what everyone wants and what people with money and power have. It's also what people born into tight-knit, financially successful diaspora communities automatically have with each other, in part because they tend to suffer from a kind of negative guanxi, i.e., prejudice, at the hands of the majority society. So naturally, they stick together and help each other out.

Familiarity with the concept of guanxi is why Chinese people instinctively recognize that Judaism is not simply a culture, or even a religion in the sense that one may become Christian or Buddhist simply by accepting and practicing certain religious doctrines and rituals. Chinese people can become jazz musicians, rugged individualists, capitalists, or Mormons. Even though these are originally American cultural and ideological traditions, they are fundamentally open to everyone. By contrast, even were the Chinese government suddenly to lift its current ban on Chinese citizens attending foreign religious services, average Chinese would still not be welcome at the Beijing branch of Chabad house, where I occasionally attended Shabbat services during my first year in Beijing, partly for the free dinner and plentiful vodka, and partly in the hopes of meeting someone who could help me find a job.

I haven't summoned the guts to try it yet, but I suspect Chinese would have no trouble understanding that being Jewish means having a particular sort of guanxi with other Jews. This guanxi manifests itself as social, cultural, and religious affinities, but it is ultimately based on ancestry, just like the 56 ethnic groups that all schoolchildren learn about (always 56, no more, no less), and just like the Indonesian Chinese. To the corpulent, bearded rabbi at Chabad House, I am a Jew, no matter how pathetic my Hebrew or how firmly rooted my atheism. A Jewish hippie returns to his roots People get more conservative as they age. With Jews, of course, they get more Jewish, too, and then we can see the conservative notions rooted deep in Jewish identity. In fact, for secular or "cultural" Jews, these notions are central to of what it means to be Jewish.

Recently I've been thinking that whiling away the rest of my 20s in China — writing, teaching English, and spending long mornings with my local girlfriend — might be a good decision. But on floating this idea past my father, the notion of such a course-setting on my part seemed to strike a chord.

In a phone conversation from Beijing, I was shocked to hear my dad urging me — as we talked about how I might proceed with a career in China, having lived here for two years and dabbled in widely contrasting expatriate lifestyles — to consider seriously that I was well-positioned, living and working in this kind of boomtown environment, to make "serious" money.

It was the exact opposite of the life my dad, now in his 60s, chose for himself when he was my age. In his mid-20s my dad was touring the country in a VW bus, exploring new ways of life (read: drugs, black girlfriend) and sending idealistic letters home to his own dad, a workaday small businessman who owned several shoe stores in metro Cleveland ¬but certainly never made "serious money." Later he straightened out a little and went to law school. But though intelligent, he was an un-ambitious student and lawyer who never made much money and eventually moved into the more idealistic but even less lucrative field of divorce mediation.

The conversation with dad might have ended there, with the grim realization that my father, like other older folks I’ve heard of, is getting more conservative as he ages. But then he added, almost as an after-thought, that he didn't want to see “the earning power gene in our family die out with you.” It was a supremely bizarre statement coming from a man who once quit a promising job covering the "youth movement" for Time, including the raucous Chicago 7 trial, to join a commune in Taos, and later worked for legal aid, rather than a corporate firm, after finishing law school Challenged on this, dad freely admitted he hadn't taken his own advice. In fact, it became pretty clear that he was urging me to avoid some perceived failures of his for which he felt regret, coupled with a characteristically Jewish kind of guilt. He felt guilty for selling short his talent and potential through lack of ambition, aversion to competition, and a philosophically-justified laziness.

Were these just my dad's late night ramblings, or does this concern about losing the "earning gene" seem to echo the concerns of our Jewish leaders about intermarriage and assimilation? My dad was 23 when he spent his first summer in San Francisco in 1967, ushering in the "Me" Generation. Forty years later, my own Me-inspired musings about a life of expatriate leisure, subsidized by the People's Bank of China's commitment to an undervalued renminbi, seemed to raise the awful possibility that the consequences of his life decisions might still be rippling down, beyond his own life, to influence my own un-ambitious, half-assed choices these decades later.

And wouldn't the cross-generational trajectory of our family — assuming I follow through on these choices — serve to illustrate to a disturbing extent the worst fears these same Jewish leaders have about our children intermarrying, assimilating and (though this is rarely stated explicitly) losing our competitive edge by diluting our culture of high expectations for our children's academic and professional achievement? Koreans, Indians — these are the "new Jews" at elite universities, children pestered to financial success by relentless immigrant parents. Meanwhile, the great-grandchildren of those who fled the Holocaust fritter away the hard-bought fruits of their ancestors struggle. The trajectory goes something like this:

First generation: scientists, bankers, novelists, Hollywood studio execs, Communists

Second genearation: doctors, lawyers, journalists, liberal political/social activists

Third generation: still plenty of lawyers and i-bankers, but quite a few failed artists and expatriate degenerates,

And isn't this such a Jewish kind of notion — feeling guilty for one's lack of professional success? Looking back on their lives, wouldn't most gentile men who never made big money say that it was because they were cheated, or because they faced insurmountable external obstacles (e.g., poor family background, racism, sexism), or they had really bad luck, or maybe even just admit that they weren't smart or strong or talented or whatever enough?

But not Jews. We feel guilty, as if we've somehow betrayed our birthright, squandered a place in society that was made available to us only through the struggle of our industrious, long-suffering ancestors. We're ashamed that we could just slap it away, like a toddler petulantly knocking over a glass of warm milk while children in China starve.

My dad's sudden conversion to materialism reminded me of nothing so much as Kevin MacDonald, the presumptively anti-semitic anthropologist and author Culture of Critique, a trilogy on Jewish history and culture. MacDonald argues that Judaism is best understood as a "group evolutionary strategy," a social formation defined by social practices evolved to produce material success in modern, complex, urban societies.

Through social and cultural norms and practices, MacDonald argues, Jewish societies have effectively bred successive generations of offspring to select for traits like intelligence and a certain kind of intellectual aggressiveness. In Jewish societies. intellectual brilliance, rather than athletic talent or physical attractiveness is what earns a male high social status and desirable females. And, of course, intelligence and material success are often closely related.

It's always risky mentioning MacDonald's name in polite Jewish company, but I doubt I'm the only one who's read his monograph "Understanding Jewish Influence" and felt that certain parts of it were weirdly on point. For all its flaws, perhaps even its bigotry, I've never read another writer who seems to put his finger so squarely on that specific kind of guanxi that defines Jewish identity, even — or rather, especially — among those who aren't religiously observant.

In a bizarre way, "Understanding Jewish Influence" is reminiscent of those email forwards I've received from certain far-right Zionist great uncles listing the 178 Jewish Nobel Prize winners in one column and the nine Arab winners in the other, followed by the observation that there are twelve million Jews in the world compared to more than 1.4 billion Arabs.

The analysis is the same in both, namely that Jews are superior to some particular group. In MacDonald's case, the group is unsuspecting white European-stock societies subtly undermined by intelligent, highly aggressive Jewish dynamos (think Ari Gold or Joseph Flom). In my uncle's case, the out-group is the Arabs who surround Israel. But the concerns motivating the analysis are quite different. MacDonald apparently wants to jolt gentile whites out of their complacent slumber and into a realization of the threat to their society. My right-wing Zionist great uncles want to justify Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.

The "tight-knit" quality of both Chinese and Jewish diaspora communities is what MacDonald calls "ethnocentrism," which suddenly makes it sound sinister. But it's not exactly news that traditional Jewish parents discourage their children from intermarrying.

And what other word could there be for my dad's sudden rediscovery of his long-dormant "earning gene"? It seems to rise directly from a sense of group identity that is perhaps strongest among secular, non-Israeli Jews. As such, my dad's comment seems to illustrate MacDonald's point that Jewish social norms — such as the sense of material success as a birthrite — exert a powerful and often unconscious influence even on those, like my dad, who have rejected religious observance and other obvious markers of Jewish identification.

It's not hard to see how materialism could become rooted in the Jewish experience. A history of struggle, persecution, and fighting for security blends seamlessly into materialism. Money and status weren't pursued for their own sakes but because they equate to protection and safety.

Weren't the Jews who got out of Europe the ones who had the money and connections to do so? Of course, many of them fled Europe with only what they could carry. Still, others, like my German-Jewish great-grandmother, shrewdly deployed what money and connections she had to spirit out her family's hard-earned wealth in a room-sized crate that eventually found its way to New York harbor. That crate contained the lovely set of hand-painted china that brightened my childhood Passovers and an arresting German expressionist canvas sold last year to the Neue Galerie, on the upper¬east side, for a tidy sum.

Apart from the impulse to financial success, Jewish identity as defined by MacDonald also explains other aspects of dad's twisty life path. In his twenties, my dad dated a black girl and later a Chinese girl before settling down with my Jewish mom in his early 30s. "I didn't set out to marry a nice Jewish girl from the Midwest," he has told me. "It just happened that way."

MacDonald cites genetic similarity theory, which states that "people are attracted to others who are genetically similar to themselves," as the scientific basis for his claims about Jewish character traits. The theory, he argues, "predicts that Jews would be more likely to make friends and alliances with other Jews, and that there would be high levels of rapport and psychological satisfaction within these relationships." To this theoretical foundation, MacDonald adds anecdotal accounts from Jewish authors remarking on "the incredible sense of oneness … with other Jews and [the] ability to recognize other Jews in public places, a talent some Jews call 'J-dar.'"

Again, calling him an anti-semitic seems beside the point because whatever motivates MacDonald's analysis, the analysis itself resonates. Though I've been with my own Chinese girlfriend for nearly a year now, I realized some time ago that I could never spend my life with her. We lack that "high level of rapport." We both speak each others' native languages, and yet there is too much about me she could never understand, too many of my jokes she could never get. Self-hating Jews

The Zionists who put together those Nobel prize lists will label me a self-hating Jew, and they won't be too far off. But I don't exactly feel guilty for my people's success. My feeling is that we earned it. Things weren't easy for us, to say the least, and no one handed us what we have.

Still, there are certain things I don't readily share with my Chinese acquaintances, when we talk about what it means to be Jewish. On one early trip to Beijing Chabad, I met a man with two kids who, on hearing that I was looking for a job and confirming that I was, in fact, Jewish, immediately offered to send my resume around to guys he knew around town. Isn't this — like the Bar Mitzvah money that makes your gentile friends jealous — a characteristically Jewish experience? And yet it's not an aspect we flaunt.

Any complete account of Jewish guanxi must include the fact that having it carries real risks — anti-semitism is real. But on balance, in most parts of the world in 2008, including China, I have to conclude that it's enormously advantageous to have this sort of guanxi, just as it is advantageous to be born ethnically Chinese in the Philippines.

But unlike these ethnically Chinese communities, I don't share a common language with the Jews I meet at Chabad House in Beijing. So the question for Jews like me, who cannot fully embrace either the religiosity of the Chabad rabbi, nor the militant Zionism of my secular great uncles (or the many secular Jewish professionals who come to Beijing Chabad for Shabbat when they pass through the city on business, but whose Hebrew is evidently no better than mine) is what binds us together?

Of course, there is also a tradition of secular Jewish intellectual and artistic productivity, as well as social, and political involvement. When shopping this essay around, one editor, after expressing some interest, finally rejected the essay on the grounds that "Who is a Jew?" isn't a question that ignores or even undermines this secular tradition. He wrote:

What does it matter *what* the Jews are? Why is this a worthy subject for an essay? Or for a series of new magazines that have appeared in the US in the past five years (Heeb, Zeek, Jewcy.com, Guilty Pleasures, etc. etc. etc.)? As someone committed to the tradition of secular Jewish humanism and leftism, I find all this profoundly disturbing.

What this argument ignores is that "the tradition of secular Jewish humanism and leftism" is precisely what is at stake in the question of what the Jews are. To Jews under about 60, this tradition may feel ubiquitous, like the ground we walk on. But the fact is, it's a very short tradition — maybe 100 years old — and very fragile. Jewish leaders see this clearly, which is why they're so concerned about the secular liberals in their ranks. They don't believe that kind of Judaism can sustain the community against assimilation, intermarriage, and creeping leftism, which calls for applying universal norms of human rights, rather than the appeal to Jewish particularism used, at various levels of explicitness, to justify Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. And neither do I. Indeed, maybe all these Jewish magazines really are lame. But that's precisely the problem: it's pretty much all you've got left once you've stripped away religious practice and hardcore Zionism. The intangible guanxi, the traditions of "secular Jewish humanism and leftism" — these currents are parasitic on the traditional religious and Zionist institutions, even as they reject them (define themselves in opposition to an "other," etc). Think of Phillip Roth's iconic short story "The Conversion of the Jews," which seemed to place heretical questioning of Jewish orthodoxy at the very center of Jewish experience.

"The tradition of Jewish secularism" feels secure now, but perhaps this is because it has already reached its zenith. It looks to me increasingly like a temporary, atavistic relic of the trans-generational process of Jewish assimilation. As this process reaches its latter stages, "Jewish liberal secularism" seems likely to fade into the broader tradition of liberal secularism generally.

"Who is a Jew?" matters — now more than ever — because after thousands of years of maintaining highly endogamous communities (under 10% intermarriage), rates are up to 50%. The point isn't whether or not we're Jews — obviously we are — it's whether our children will be.

While my generation happily partakes of this atavistic tradition of Jewish secular humanism, children of intermarried couples mostly don't self-identify as Jews. So by the time we're grandparents – well, that's all she wrote. It's lights out in the temple.

If Judaism is to survive, we need a modern Jewish identity that can stand up to the pressures of assimilation, while still fostering the values of liberal humanism that make secular Jews proud to identify as such. The "earning gene," the effortless rapport with nice Jewish girls, the online magazines — these must be the starting points, not the sum total of who are.