In some ways it’s the same but in others it’s very different. The service is the same, the tunes are pretty much the same, the language is the same and the men all look the same.
How can I tell I’m not at home? My family are 6000 miles away around someone else’s Rosh Hashannah table, not mine.
Oh, and you can actually kiss your friends hello quite easily here as barely any of the women bother with hats. In fact many don’t even bother with a skirt or nice shoes! The number of pairs of jeans and flip flops I saw in the ladies gallery shul on Yom Kippur was quite jaw-dropping. Each to their own I guess – I know I hardly set a good religious example myself in many other ways so shouldn’t really judge!
Rewinding back to Rosh Hashannah, given that almost everyone that we know here is without their immediate families, Rosh Hashannah in Hong Kong is about spending time with friends. We spent a lovely first night at friends who entertained a largely ‘English crowd’. Everyone mucked in, bringing a couple of dishes each, there were as many kids as adults, actually probably more, so the kids had a blast basically going wild and a good time was had by all. It certainly took the edge off the homesickness.
Now 1st day Rosh Hashannah lunch is usually my turf but private lunches aren’t really done here as the shul lays on a fantastic spread for the community on both days, including a separate childrens lunch, so why would anyone want to go to the trouble and expense of entertaining privately when you can feast with your friends at shul – for free! So whilst my family were all fending for themselves back home, cursing me probably, I was relaxing in Hong Kong being waited on – c’est la vie!
Second night was another unique one for us, we were invited to the Rabbi’s place! I knew it would be a nice evening since the Rabbi and his wife are a lovely laid-back couple, our age, with 2 boys who Joshua is friendly with and a little girl a bit younger than Eden. We actually left Eden behind anyway so she could go to bed at a normal time and we could have a more relaxing evening without worrying about her wreaking havoc at the Rabbi’s! It is good having on-tap babysitting here but poor old Eden missed out quite a lot over Rosh Hashannah and even though she’s always fine a minute or two after we’ve gone, it’s never nice seeing her get upset as Dan, Joshua and I walk out the door for a night out – but it is better that way, really, it is. Many people have said to me that no one ever saw their kids out at night until they reached about 3 years old. I think I’m just trying to justify it to myself really. When we entertain here on a Friday night however, she’s the star of the show, staying up as late as the rest of us!
Meanwhile, at the Rabbi’s, a very pleasant evening was had by all. We hadn’t managed to discover anyone else we knew that was invited so we were intrigued as to who would be there as we know they always have a big crowd when they entertain. We soon found ourselves sitting amongst the ‘High Holidays Chazin’ and his family. This particular Chazin isn’t local to Hong Kong any more but he spent many years here, now lives in Israel, after also having spent years Chazin-ing at Norris Lea shul (trigger usual ‘what a small world’ conversations blah blah blah). He and his family now return to Hong Kong every Rosh Hashannah & Yom Kippur with their grown up children and grandchildren, all of whom were there at the Rabbi’s as he is the Chazin at our shul during the High Holidays and his kids seemed to make up a large part of his accompanying choir in shul, who really all made the whole thing very enjoyable – even for me!! We held our own at dinner amongst the Rabbi, the Chazin and their families (!). It was an all-singing affair with the Rabbi encouraging the Chazin to sing snippets of the Rosh Hashannah service to the tune of hit musicals – most amusing and despite the Rabbi pleading with him to repeat these tunes in shul the next day, the Chazin very diplomatically informed us he’d be sticking to the traditional as this wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste. Of course.
Lunch on the second day was back at shul, even nicer than the day before but slightly less busy as 2nd day always is. Dan rather guiltily (but he did it anyway!) slipped off to work in the afternoon, saving the half-day holiday he had now gained for when his parents are in town in a couple of weeks – much more of a mitzvah!
And 10 days later, Yom Kippur rolled in. It comes round all too quickly every year and never leaves fast enough! It still leaves you hungry no matter where in the world you are. One of the main differences I noticed was that, in London at around 2pm on Yom Kippur afternoon, we are normally wrapped in our duvet with the heating cranked up to combat the chill that fasting always induces. However, in Hong Kong, even fasting doesn’t cool us down and we still had the air con cranked up! And check me out, I even attended Neila this year, something I never do as I’m normally busy helping my mum butter challah slices or putting the kids to bed. The main reason for my attendance this year was because we were breaking the fast at shul so I had to be there, and again, with on-tap childcare, I didn’t really have any excuse not to be!
Breaking the fast at shul. Yes, this really was a sight to behold. This particular meal is sponsored every year by one of the wealthiest families in the Hong Kong Jewish Community. Each year they post a fancy embossed invitation to all members of the community inviting everyone to join them in breaking the fast at shul. We’d been advised this was something not to be missed! And therein lies the reason for the appearance of people that I’ve been informed are never spotted anywhere near shul from one Yom Kippur to the next – the free meal! Needless to say, most of these people were members of the Womens Jeans Brigade who obviously didn’t mind how obvious it looked that they’d arrived just for the dinner!
And what a dinner it was. This really was a case of survival of the fittest. There was no question of the food running out, you’ve never seen so much constantly replenished food in your life. But still, the pushing, shoving, reaching and grabbing was a sight to behold. I mean, you’d think people hadn’t eaten for a whole day. Finding a seat was the greatest challenge. But we’d been pre-warned of the overflow room set-up in the upstairs restaurant so we headed for there instead of fighting with the majority of the crowd downstairs. This was marginally more civilised and we just about managed to get a seat. We had plenty to eat, no one dragged it out and after an hour or so we were on our way home with a days worth of food in our bellies. That’s that for another year. We survived.