Jewish Journal


September 11, 2008

A boy becomes a man in Beijing


Isaac Shapiro takes in America's Olympic basketball 
romp over Spain before his bar mitzvah in Beijing. 
Photo by Alison Klayman

Isaac Shapiro takes in America's Olympic basketball
romp over Spain before his bar mitzvah in Beijing.
Photo by Alison Klayman

Isaac Shapiro managed to fit in a visit to the bimah during his busy Olympic schedule.

After attending a night of competition at the Bird's Nest, and before seeing American NBA stars blow out world-champion Spain on the basketball court, Isaac was called to the Torah for the first time on Shabbat.

The teenager from Highland Park, Ill., marked the milestone in front of his close family -- and a bunch of strangers.

"This shows our children that there is community everywhere," said Isaac's mother, Marjie.

Isaac chanted the maftir and haftarah in a loud and confident voice even though he was slightly hoarse from cheering at events all week. His humorous d'var Torah, filled with sports references, made the regulars at the Chabad shul laugh out loud.

His Torah portion reviewed the Ten Commandments, and his talk emphasized not to worship idols, including "sports heroes," or covet material objects like his friend's new iPod.

"Instead, I should appreciate my old one," he said.

While Isaac's bar mitzvah was a centerpiece of the Jewish happenings in Beijing during the Olympics, it did not play to the packed house that Chabad Rabbi Shimon Freundlich had predicted. Nor did Dini's, the local kosher eatery that stayed open 24 hours, seven days a week for the Games, find itself overflowing with customers, although business did increase.

Still, for the Shapiro family, the chance to celebrate Isaac's bar mitzvah was a highlight.

"So many people we have met during our trip to China have told us that what we're doing is really special," Marjie said of her family's decision to stage the simcha during an Olympic trip. "Other tourists, especially Jews, were really blown away when we told them about the bar mitzvah. Lots of people said it was the best story they'd heard yet in Beijing."

"And for us, even with seeing gymnastics finals and tennis and the U.S. basketball game," the Shabbat morning service "was definitely the highlight of our trip," she said.

Her husband, Sam, offered kudos to Freundlich, calling him "really incredible."

The bar mitzvah wasn't special simply because of the Olympics or the Bird's Nest-shaped cake at lunch. Isaac also read from the Torah using a yad, or pointer, from the Chabad House's new Chinese Jewish artifacts display. The yad was made in 1903 and used by the Jewish community in Tianjin. Its handle is a large open-mouthed dragon forged with intricate details.

The small exhibit contains other similar ritual objects, including a menorah shaped like a Chinese canal boat from the Shanghai community, letters and other communications from Jews in China. There are books about the Jewish communities of China, and even books in Chinese about how to learn Jewish secrets to financial success.

About 50 people attended the Shabbat service and lunch, although more than half were visitors from the United States, Israel and South Africa. Not all the guests came from far away: One woman was visiting from northern China's Ha'erbin just to feel the Beijing atmosphere during the Games.

The assistant manager at Dini's said the Friday night dinner on Aug. 15 also was less crowded than usual, with only 70 people, including small children.

Despite the Shabbat dip in attendance, Dini's business has risen by 30 to 40 percent since the Olympics began on Aug. 8.

"Most of the guests are from Israel or America," Willy Wang, the assistant manager, said, "but Chinese people have also been coming. Many are locals who read about the place online and think it's something special, or especially clean and healthy because it's kosher."

Wang said they have been making many deliveries to tourists in hotels. The only delivery to the Olympic village was to Bat-El Getterer, an Israeli taekwondo competitor who is observant.

"She knew she could not survive two weeks in pre-competition training on vegetarian airline food," Freundlich said, so he was able to negotiate a special Dini's delivery for her.

A kosher-observant bodyguard with the Israeli delegation noticed the service and asked to be included.

"He was just eating rice," Freundlich said.

The rabbi also doled out 68 challahs in the village for the first week's Shabbat.

Walking around the village, his Chabad attire alluded to his Jewish status, which he said inspired many Jewish athletes or delegation members to introduce themselves.

"The first question everyone asks is, 'What's your event?'" the long-bearded Freundlich joked, grabbing his belly. "I always reply, 'the marathon.'"

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