Our youngest son celebrated China’s Spring Festival this month in a village south of Kunming, a beautiful, ethnically diverse, medium-sized city of 6 million.
While our son spends the year studying Mandarin at Yunnan University in Kunming, my husband, Todd, and I are hosting a high school student from Beijing.
Our exchange student’s Grandma fed our son delicious dumplings, which symbolize togetherness, in Beijing this summer. Our homestay student enjoyed sharing meals with our children’s Grandma who visited us from Vancouver recently.
As you may know, student exchanges provide incredible opportunities to share the best of our world’s traditions. Sharing stories offers another wonderful way to explore the richness of our common humanity anytime.
And what better story to share than a tale about food. One of my favorite gastronomic yarns shares Chinese, First Nation and Jewish roots. Aspects of this story, which I call “Choose Heaven,” even show up in a British drinking song that blesses “…the elbow where it bends.”
In China, the story is told with long chopsticks and appears in Isabelle Chang’s out-of-print anthology, “The Folktales of Ancient China.” A First Nations version, featuring long spoons, can be found in Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, “The Bean Trees.”
When I first started telling this tale in the 1990’s, I wondered if it was really a Jewish story after all. Faced with a Jewish question in the days before Google, who do you call? A Rabbi, of course.
Back then, Victoria did not have a local Rabbi. Though the Jewish community has maintained a lively presence here for the past 155 years, sometimes our population became so tiny that we could not afford, or achieve enough unity, to hire a Rabbi.
Fortunately, travelling Rabbis have commuted from Vancouver or other larger Jewish communities to share their wisdom. One such scholar is Rabbi Hillel Goelman, PhD
, a Human Development, Learning and CultureProfessor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
Rabbi Goelman confirmed that he had heard a Jewish version of this cross cultural story from his teacher, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi of Boulder, Colorado.
Schachter-Shalomi is a gifted educator, author and the Father of the Jewish Renewal Movement
This illustrious leader kindly responded to me by email that he had heard the story told in a Jewish context, however he could not recall the storyteller’s name and hadn’t seen him since.
“It’s a good story,” this great Rabbi assured me. “Go ahead and tell it.”
Eventually, I found a version of this classic story written from a Jewish perspective, with arms that don’t bend, in a delightful anthology called “Spinning Tales, Weaving Hope; Stories of Peace, Justice and the Environment,” by Ed Brody.
In all these adaptations, there is only a slight difference between Heaven and Hell. In the latter, people can’t feed themselves due to the length or rigidity of their eating implements.
In Heaven, on the other hand, each person learns to feed their neighbours and receives sustenance in the process. In yet another version of this tale, a Rabbi, when given the choice between Heaven and Hell, chooses the latter so he can help people choose Heaven.
*This article was published in the Faith Forum section of the print edition of the Times Colonist on February 16, 2013
Shoshana Litman is Canada's first ordained Maggidah (a female Jewish storyteller), an administrator for the Mussar Institute of Vancouver B.C., and a tour guide for Congregation Emanu-El, Canada’s oldest synagogue in Victoria, B.C.
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