Exploring Harbin: Jewish New Synagogue Museum

My One-on-One professor, Dr. Wang, switched our Friday class to Monday (National Day). He brought me to the Jewish New Synagogue, which was built in 1921 and used to be the largest synagogue in Northeast China. It has been converted to a museum in 2004 to remember the once flourishing Jewish population that resided in Harbin in the early 1900’s.

New Synagogue (Jingwei Street, Daoli District) Photo borrowed from here.

This post’s goal is to organize my thoughts about my experience at the museum and prepare me for my speech and paper that’s due next week.

Joseph Levikin designed the building so that it could hold up to 800 worshipers. A part of the synagogue also took the position as the Harbin Jewish Publish Library. The synagogue was used from when it was built to around the mid-1950’s. In the mid-20th century the majority of the Jewish population moved (to where, I don’t know…Israel and Europe?). The New Synagogue Museum has three levels:

First Level–Art and Photo Gallery: First half consists of traditional-style water and oil paintings of Old Harbin. Painting included St. Sophia Cathedral and other religious or European style buildings around the city in the early 1900s. Second half of the gallery consisted of modern-day photos of Harbin and modern art pieces that expressed Harbin culture. This gallery’s goal seems to compare the different time periods (early 1900s to today) and emphasize on the recent increase in economic development. Many of the modern photos showed tall skyscrapers, vast public parks, a tall television station radio pole, advanced bridges, and European-style buildings juxtaposed against Chinese city backdrop. The first level did not talk about Jewish history.

Second Level–History of Jewish Entrepreneurship: Entering the second level entryway, there was a 7-foot tall Menorah and a semi-circle hall that introduced the history of why 20,000 Jews escaped from persecution (xenophobia) and landed in Harbin. A quote introduced the second floor:

“Harbin is a city in China where some 20,000 Jews lived for many decades. Most importantly, they encountered no antisemitism among the Chinese, such as [was] prevalent in other lands. [F]rom the Chinese people they encountered no anti-Jewish bitterness or violence. As one result, former Jewish residents of Harbin called themselves ‘Harbintsi'” –Israel Epstein

The second floor (and the entire museum in general) emphasized the fact that the Jewish population in Harbin were never discriminated against. Discrimination is a sensitive topic in the CCP. Contemporary debates continue about whether the Chinese government is or is not discriminating against the populations in Tibet, Xinjiang, and Mongolia. With this in mind, I understand why the museum emphasized on this fact. This fact in history is a good model example for how China’s promotion towards societal harmony–和谐 harmony–and a peaceful nation. Whenever one can brag about one’s achievements, brag; however, always keep the bad parts hidden. I thought Peter Hessler made a good point in Oracle Bones: “One important fact about propaganda: the key information isn’t what you put in, but what you leave out” (Hessler 2006: 113). I’m not saying that the Chinese were actually cruel to the Jewish population. The frame that is being used to describe the non-discriminatory behavior towards the Jewish population in this modern museum can be analyzed to understand how the Chinese government (who put money into this project) wants us (the viewer) to perceive the Chinese nation. Is this museum’s goal to show Jewish history, to promote China, or both? What is the museum organizer purposely leaving out that rekindles modern day phenomenons?

The majority of the second floor’s display showed the entrepreneurship of many Jewish “Harbintsi,” including the opening of many pharmacies, schools, mills, and other industries. There was also a section that showed the “average” life of a Harbin Jew, but the life they showed was extremely extravagant: long, intricate wooden tables and desks, sculptures, paintings, figures…there was a Menorah made out of jade (syncretism).

Third Level: Upon reaching the top of the stairs, the wall leading to the main hallway was covered with dozens of picture frames of “Famous Jews:” Einstein, Spielberg, Gershwin, Salk…We then enter the main hall, the displays continue with the entrepreneurship theme and then moves on to the daily lives and culture of the Jewish population. It emphasized on the arts (violinists, pianists, etc), education, and outdoor activities (sledding, ice skating). My favorite part of the exhibit was the individual stories of the well-known Jewish members of the community. There was an entire wall of their stories. It gave the “Harbintsi” a face, than just a name.

Everyday Live of “Harbintsi”

The final part of the exhibit was the current state of the Jewish population–which is non-existent. However, descendants of the Harbintsi still come to Harbin to see their childhood homes and/or visit their parent’s graves (in the Jewish cemetery outside of the city). Also, the end was the collaboration the government and Jewish population in creating the museum. Unfortunately, I had to skim this portion of the exhibit.

My classmate, Emily, joined my professor and me to the exhibit. She is Jewish and was able to give us more information about her religion past the displays and exhibits. I really appreciated her company. After the walking through the museum, we walked to Zhongyang street and had a delicious lunch at East Dumpling King. We ate all sorts of dumplings (vegetable, beef fried, and pork soup dumplings), slices of pork, pickles, spinach, and other scrumptious foods.

Happy Birthday CCP!

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