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Jewish Journal

A Mazel Tov in Shanghai

by Dvir Bar-Gal

July 11, 2002 | 8:00 pm

Anna Podtoptannaya poses for a photograph during her wedding to Peter Cohen -- Shanghai's first Jewish wedding in some 50 years. Photo by Dvir Bar-Gal/JTA

Anna Podtoptannaya poses for a photograph during her wedding to Peter Cohen -- Shanghai's first Jewish wedding in some 50 years. Photo by Dvir Bar-Gal/JTA

This cosmopolitan Chinese city of Shanghai has witnessed what is believed to be its first Jewish marriage ceremony in more than 50 years.

Peter Cohen, originally from New York, met Anna Podtoptannaya, who hails from the Ukraine, when he worked there as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer.

Seeking adventure, the two later moved to China, ultimately settling in Shanghai, home to some 300 to 400 Jews. Cohen works there as a management consultant and Podtoptannaya runs a brand management company.

Their wedding, which took place less than a month after the opening ceremony of Shanghai's Jewish community center, highlighted the international flavor of the Chinese city. Guests arrived from the United States, Europe, Australia and Asia.

The ceremony itself turned out to have a wider-than-expected audience.

Many of the employees and guests at Shanghai's Cyprus Hotel -- used to Chinese weddings, but unfamiliar with the Jewish ceremony -- watched through the hotel's windows.

The last Jewish wedding in Shanghai took place in 1950, Cohen said.

The wedding had three parts: The chuppah was raised and a traditional ceremony held; then, a representative of the Ukrainian Consulate registered the couple; lastly, the bride and groom read their vows to each other.

The leader of Shanghai's Jewish community, Rabbi Shalom Greenberg, and his wife, Dina, had difficulty arranging all the Jewish aspects of the ceremony, including having documents proving the couple's Jewishness sent from overseas.

Since the mikvah, or ritual bath, at the new Jewish center is under construction, Dina Greenberg took the bride to Lake Tai Hu for the prewedding immersions. As a natural body of water, Tai Hu, one of China's largest lakes, qualifies as an acceptable mikvah, she said.

For Podtoptannaya, going into the lake's cold waters was something of a shock.

The trip to the natural mikvah wasn't the only symbolic part of the wedding: The post-wedding reception and dinner were held in the Sassoon halls, named after Sir Victor Sassoon, one of the leaders of Shanghai's Jewish community in the early 20th century.

The couple plans to live in Shanghai for the next few years.

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