Hebrew Voices #57 – The Chinese Discover Hanukkah

Nehemia Gordon with two of his high school students he taught Hanukkah to in China.In this episode of Hebrew Voices, The Chinese Discover Haunukkah, Nehemia Gordon explains how he found himself teaching about Hanukkah, Christmas, and the ban on the Name, to hundreds of atheist high school students in China.

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Hebrew Voices #57 - The Chinese Discover Hanukkah

You are listening to Hebrew Voices with Nehemia Gordon and Michale Rood. Thank you for supporting Nehemia Gordon's Makor Hebrew Foundation. Learn more at NehemiasWall.com.

Nehemia: I ended up staying for a year in China. Part of it was that I was going through some difficult personal things in my life, and I needed a break from ministry. As you know, Michael, ministry takes everything you have out of you. It takes not just physically, emotionally, spiritually, it takes everything. It’s draining. I decided I needed a break, so I ended up getting this job as a high school teacher in China, teaching English to 658 students. I’ve made the joke when I did prison ministry, that I’ve always wanted a captive audience. The prisoners don’t laugh at that. They don’t think it’s funny. But I think it’s hilarious. They’re actually not a captive audience, because in the prison, they could decide whether they…They have to be in prison, they’re captives. But they’re not captive to the chapel, to the teaching of that. They can go in the yard, and whatever else they do in prison.

But in high school, they were a captive audience. They had no choice but to be in class. So, there I am, teaching 658 high school students in China. They’re 15 and 16 year-old boys and girls. I said, “What do you want me to teach?” They said, “Our students know grammar really well. In fact, they probably know grammar better than you do.” I’ll just give you an example.

I had students who would ask me, they’d say, “Lǎo shī, Teacher, is chair a countable noun or an uncountable noun?” I would say, “There is no such thing in English.” They’d say, “Yes, there is. You can say ‘a chair’ but you can’t say ‘a weather.’ Weather’s not a countable noun, and chair is.” I’m like, “I didn’t know we had that. I just know how to speak the language.”

In Hebrew as well, just like in English, but Chinese has no such thing. They have to learn for each word in the English language, is it a countable noun or an uncountable noun?

Michael: I never thought of it.

Nehemia: I know. They knew grammar better than I knew English grammar. The point was, they said, “We don’t need you to teach our students grammar. They know it better than you do. What we want you to teach them about is your culture.” I said, “My culture? Wǒ shì yóu tài rén, I’m Jewish. You want me to teach my culture?” They were excited when they heard this. They knew before I came that I was Israeli, but they didn’t connect that with Jewish necessarily.

They said, “Oh, you’re Jewish?” Every person I met in China had the same response when I said I was Jewish. I have to say, the Chinese culture, they don’t have political correctness quite yet. They think in stereotypes. When I said I was Jewish they’d say, “Oh, Jewish. Very smart, very rich.” I said, “Well, not exactly. If I was very rich, I wouldn’t be teaching high school to 658 brats in China. I would be sitting on the beach in Hǎi nán sipping lemonade. But I am very smart, I accept that. I agree.” They said, “This is wonderful, if you teach our students about your culture it’ll unlock the secret for them to becoming very smart and very rich.”

In other words, they believed that there must be something in the Jewish culture that makes them very smart and very rich. If I would share that with the students, they would become very smart and rich, which is their objective in life – to be rich, at least. Anyway, so there I am in China. I said, “What about my culture do they specifically want to hear?” They said, “Chinese people love to hear about three things. They love to hear about food, travel, and holidays.”

The ideal Chinese story is, you go on vacation, traveling during the holiday and you eat a special type of noodles. I literally would have colleagues who would go away on vacation during the Chinese New Year holiday, and they would come back and show me pictures on their Huawei phone. They would say to me, “These are the noodles I ate in Guì lín.” I would say, “Really? Those were the noodles you ate last night here in town.” They’re like, “No. Very special noodles. Special spice.” This was a big deal to them, that it was special noodles and special spice.

There I am, and I end up teaching classes about Jewish food – don’t eat pork. They were shocked by that. My students looked at me and they said, “How are you alive?” I said, “I seem to be doing pretty well.”

Michael: No dog, no cat, yeah. Yeah, wow.

Nehemia: I can’t say that the Chinese eat cat, because I didn’t see that. But I saw dogs hanging skinned and quartered in the marketplace. I know that for a fact, they eat dog. They would say, “We don’t eat it all the time, only when we’re cold, in the winter.” That’s what they do. I ended up teaching a lot about the holidays. One of my first classes was about Sukkot, the Feast of Booths.

Michael: You were teaching this in a secular…

Nehemia: Oh, yeah.

Michael: …communist controlled high school?

Nehemia: This is a private, secular high school. I had 658 students, 3 of them are Christians, 1 of them was a Muslim. The other 654 were atheists who occasionally worshipped their ancestors. They would tell me, “Méi yǒu shàng dì, there’s no such thing as God.” I would say, “I’m not trying to teach you that there’s such a thing as God. I’m trying to teach you what the Jewish culture is.” It’s illegal to proselytize, but I’m a Jew. I don’t proselytize.” I wasn’t trying to convince them of anything. I was telling them, “This is my culture.” They loved that. They appreciated it, and they really believed they’d somehow get rich from understanding the Jewish culture. It’s not even a joke.

Anyway, there I am in China. I end up teaching a class about Sukkot. I taught them that my ancestors were slaves in Egypt, and the God of Israel, whose name was “Yē hé huá,” that’s the Chinese of Yehovah – it’s actually written in the Chinese Bible, “Yē hé huá.” All my students knew that the God of the yóu tài rén of the Jews is Yē hé huá, that He took us out of the Land of Egypt into the desert. He proclaimed to us from the top of the mountain. He said, “Anochi Yehovah Elohecha, I am Yē hé huá, your God.” All my students, they learned this. They thought this was fascinating, the Jewish culture.

Michael: They don’t even learn that in Christian church in America.

Nehemia: You don’t? Okay.

Michael: No, no, no.

Nehemia: Here’s how I explained it to them, and they really appreciated this. Sukkot coincided that year with the Mooncake festival. I said to them, “This is your big holiday, your third biggest holiday, Moon Cake festival. Why do you eat the Moon Cakes?” They said, “Because it’s the Mooncake festival.” “Yeah, I get that. But why Moon Cakes?” “Because it’s the Moon Cake Festival.”

I’m like, “So there’s some history behind it, and you have no idea what it is? The reason that Jews are very smart and very rich is because we know why we do what we do. That’s true, I believe. I was sharing with them my culture, but I do think there’s something to that, that you even have Jews who are secular who win the Nobel Prize, because we put value on knowledge. Also, I think we’re blessed by the Creator of the Universe as well, but we do culturally put value on knowledge. So, there I was. I ended up teaching two classes on Christmas.

Michael: Christmas.

Nehemia: Christmas. They said, “Yes, you’re Jewish, but you’re also an American. We want to know about Christmas.” Why do they want to know about Christmas? In America, they lament the commercialization of Christmas. The Chinese people are yearning for the commercialization of Christmas. They know there’s some secret in Christmas that will create Black Friday. They just know it. They know there’s some way that they can get rich from Christmas. They just need to figure it out and unlock the secret to produce this internal Christmas economy, and then they won’t have to depend on exports.

Chinese society is yearning for figuring out the secret to Christmas. I teach two classes on Christmas. The first one I teach about Santa Claus.

Michael: A Jew teaching about…Okay, go ahead. I’ve got to hear this.

Nehemia: Here I am, an Israeli Jew, teaching about Christmas to the Chinese atheists, who tell me, Méi yǒu shàng dì, there’s no such thing as God.” I explain about Santa Claus. Really, my job is to teach English. When I tell them about Christmas, I’ve got to emphasize, Santa Claus rides a sleigh. I teach them the word “sleigh,” and how it’s spelled, and what it is. These are people who come from a sub-tropical environment. They’ve only seen sleighs on television.

Michael: A lot of reindeers out there.

Nehemia: A lot of rain, but we don’t have so much reindeers. It once rained for 88 days straight in [inaudible place name 7:43] but no reindeer. I tell them about sleighs and Santa Claus, and chimneys. Even if they culturally knew what a chimney was, they didn’t know the word in English. I end up teaching a second class, because they wanted more. I taught them about Yeshua. They call him in Chinese, “Yē sū.” It’s a tonal language. I teach them about Yesaw, and I tell them, “Yē sū was actually this Jewish man who lived 2,000 years ago in Yǐ sè liè, the country of Israel, where I live. He was a Jewish man named ‘Yeshua.’” They said, “Lǎo shī, Lǎo shī!” They were raising their hand. “Oh, oh, Lǎo shī, Lǎo shī! You’re confused. Yē sū wasn’t a Jewish man. He wasn’t Yóu tài rén. He wasn’t Jewish. He was Jī dū jiào. He was Christian.” I said, “No, unlike Santa Claus, who was a fictitious character, a mythical character…” You have to understand, in their culture there’s a lot of mythical characters. There’s millions of Gods. One of their favorite Gods is the Chinese God of Fortune. He’s this man who wears a red coat and has a long, black beard. He gives you a red envelope on the Chinese New Year. There’s money in that envelope. This is a very important concept in Chinese culture, the red envelope with money. They pray to the God of Fortune and they get money in the red envelope.

Michael: Sounds like Jesus in the televangelist world.

Nehemia: What I explained to them is that this man who lived 2,000 years ago, Yeshua, isn’t like the Chinese God of Fortune, or like Santa Claus. He was a real person, and He was Jewish. He was a Yóu tài rén, and His name was Yeshua. They said, “Oh, Yē sū, Jewish. Very smart, very rich.” Exactly. He was very smart. Here’s me, the Jew from Israel, trying to teach the Chinese about Christmas, which they think they can get rich from. I’m telling them that Jesus was really Yeshua, who lived 2,000 years ago. They’re like, “Oh, He was a real person? He was Jewish? It’s amazing.”

What an incredible experience. It was such a blessing. I taught one class about Hanukkah. In the Open Door series, I think it’s the third volume…

Michael: Third volume, yeah.

Nehemia: It’s called “Stand Against the Ban.” They got the English language teaching version of Stand Against the Ban.

Michael: Did they?

Nehemia: They did. It was amazing. I taught them about how when the Greeks came to Israel – and here’s how I explained it to them, because I needed to explain it to them in terms they’ll understand in their culture. I said, “Imagine if the Japanese came,” because they’ve got issues with the Japanese, to this day – in some ways, even more than the Jews do with the Germans, in many ways. I’ve never heard a Jew say, “I hate Germans.” My students would very openly say, “We hate the Japanese.” They just hate them, because of what happened in World War II.

I explained, “Imagine that the Japanese came and instead of wanting to kill you with swords and guns, they said to you, ‘You must be Japanese. You must speak Japanese. You have to adopt the Japanese culture.’ What would you do?” My little 15-year-old boys said, “We would kill them.” Little 15-year-old kids. I said, “This is what the Greeks wanted to do to the Jews. They didn’t want to kill our bodies. They wanted to destroy our souls, and make us Greeks.”

“The way they wanted to do it is, they imposed certain laws upon us.” I had to keep this message real simple. I brought the three main things. I told them that first, they banned Shabbat. I said, “Do you know what that is?” I told them the Chinese word for Shabbat, which is “Ān xī rì.” I remember the looks on the children and the students. They had these very solemn looks. They said, “We know what it is.”

I said, “What? What is it?” They said, “It’s when you’re dead.” I said, “No, it’s not when you’re dead,” because they think about like, rest in peace. “Ān xī rì” literally means, “day of rest.” They think it’s when you’re dead. I explained, “No, it’s the reason you have a seven-day week.” Even they have a seven-day week. You work six days and rest on the seventh. They’re like, “Oh, okay. It came from that.”

Then I explained, “The other thing is, they forbade circumcision, the Greeks.” I tried to explain what circumcision was.

Michael: That must have been…High school students.

Nehemia: They’d never heard of this concept, right. They’d never heard of this concept. I showed them the Chinese word. They didn’t know what that word meant. I tried to explain to them, and I remember the look of the little girls as I said it. They said, “Oh, so you don’t have…?” I’m like, “Yeah, I do.” I literally had to, I’m not kidding, draw a picture on the blackboard, take an eraser. I remember the looks flying. I explained, “This is a covenant between the God of Israel and the People of Israel, going back 4,000 years.” The Chinese people respect that. They understand that concept and they respect it.

Michael: But ancestor worship, going back, what…?

Nehemia: They understand ancient things from ancient culture. They don’t necessarily know the history behind it, but they respect it. They respected this covenant. Then finally, I explained, “They forbade us to speak the name of the God of Israel, which is what Stand Against the Ban is about. It says this in the ancient sources, that this ban on speaking the name “Yehovah” started out as a Greek prohibition to wipe out Judaism. I said to my students, my 658 students, “Do you know what the name of the God of Israel is?” They all responded, “Yē hé huá!” and I was so proud of them.

Michael: Amazing.

You have been listening to Hebrew Voices with Nehemia Gordon and Michael Rood. Thank you for supporting Nehemia Gordon's Makor Hebrew Foundation. Learn more at NehemiasWall.com.

Makor Hebrew Foundation is a 501c3 tax-deductible not for profit organization.

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Related Posts:
How to Keep Shabbat
Sukkot (Feast of Booths)
The Truth About Christmas and Tammuz
Open Door Series #13 - Information Unleashed
A Chinese Christian Who Loves Israel
Hebrew Manuscripts from China
China's tiny Jewish community in fear as Beijing erases its history
Nehemia Gordon's Studies on the Name of God

  • Gregg Walker says:

    I love this one. Heard it before but just am amazed at the opportunities you have had, Nehemia! This ends with these Chinese students saying Yehovah’s name! That was so cool!

  • Pono says:

    You so smart. You so rich!
    Smart in the mind. Rich in the spirit.

  • David says:

    Love hearing about other cultures learning about Yehovah. Keep up the amazing work Nehemia!

  • Saundra Gano says:

    Great share! I can only imagine their faces upon learning of circumcision. Eating the family dog must sound much more pleasant and reasonable!

  • Miri~ says:

    This was amazing! on every level! So informative, interesting, and so funny! Your delivery, timing, and accents are great! You’re a comic!
    I guess your book on “Travels in China” needs to be written!
    Truly, Nehemia, you have had a singularly interesting life, and still going strong!

  • wonderfull! Chag Chanukah Sameach, from Brazil!