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La Chaim, Laowai!

By Jack Aldane (Global Times)

14:43, December 12, 2012

Lighting the first candle of Hanukkah.(Photos: Li Hao/GT)

"We rabbis just love to party!" cheered Nosson Rodin, a 29-year-old rabbi, at a celebration for the first night of Hanukkah.

More than 200 members from around the world, part of Beijing's 2000-strong Jewish community, gathered at the restaurant Moscow, in Chaoyang district, to light the first candle of Hanukkah, an eight-day Jewish holiday known as the Festival of Light.

Celebrations of the Jewish holiday will last all week until December 16, ending with a "recovery brunch" at Moishe House.

Leading the lighting was Shimon Freundlich, head rabbi at Chabad Lubavitch, located in Lido, Chaoyang district. Candle lighting during Hanukkah symbolizes the everlasting light of the Temple of Jerusalem.

At Moscow on Saturday, the crowd enjoyed a festive spread of fruit as well as traditionally oily foods served especially at Hanukkah, which hark back to the single drop of olive oil that sustained a miraculous light in the Holy Temple. These oily dishes included latke ­- potato cakes - and deep-fried doughnuts known as sufganiyot.

The scent of starchy goodness wafted through the restaurant. Children would totter up, eye level to the tables, plucking multicolored jellybeans as the rabbis and other guests merrily imbibed vodka.

"We are open to anyone who wants to come by and enjoy the festival with us," said Freundlich. "Come, celebrate. This is a time to be thankful and warmhearted."

Chabad Lubavitch prides itself on its openness to visitors. Some Chabad members came with Chinese spouses.

"Chinese nationals are technically welcome here," said Jonathan Dworkin, an American and 7-year Beijinger who organizes gatherings at Moishe House, a space for Jewish community engagement, from yoga to wine tastings. He said Chinese nationals are neither explicitly prohibited nor particularly encouraged.

"The problem is that Chabad doesn't want to be seen as proselytizing," Dworkin said. "If a Chinese person came here wanting to be converted, I expect they'd be turned down. Chabad is just slightly sensitive to having one too many visitors in case this draws the attention of the government."

"As for Hanukkah," Dworkin went on, "it's absolutely fine to come by and share an event like this."

One man attending, Yang Moshe, 49, is from Kaifeng, Central China's Henan Province.

"There is only a small community of Chinese Jews in China," Yang explained. "Most of them, like me, are originally from Henan Province, where Kaifeng is."

Yang estimates there are 1,000 Jewish families still in China.

Although a business trip to Shanghai this week will keep Yang from attending more Hanukkah events in Beijing, he said he will light the traditional menorah each day for Hanukkah.

Jonathan Dworkin said keeping up the faith despite all odds is the essential, uniting theme of most Jewish celebrations: "They tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat."

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