Following a relatively comfortable - although 10 hours long - flight from Tel Aviv, Hong Kong International Airport is an eye-opener.
Having grown up with JFK and LAX airports, "busy" was not an unknown quantity, but this airport is something else. An immense physical space filled with crowds of people.
Despite some long walking stretches, escalators up and down and a train to another terminal, everything was very efficient. The car service driver was waiting for me when I emerged from baggage claim.
I had been expecting cold, wet weather, but it was a warm 20C following yesterday's cold 8C, the driver told me. The 40km drive from the airport to the hotel in Mid-Levels was fast, no traffic at all, until we hit HK proper. It was a bit misty - think Los Angeles morning mist - but the hills were spectacular, as well as the views from the bridges.
This large bustling city is filled with very tall, slender buildings. When you don't have much land, the only way to go is up.
Mira Hasofer, the Hong Kong Jewish Community Center's program director, called to make sure everything was fine and to confirm our arrangement to meet at the JCC's traditional Sunday night BBQ dinner.
It was a short walk up (emphasis on the "up" as in "up hill") from the Bishop Lei hotel as I had to stop at a few places along the way looking for nail polish remover. My brand-new manicure had completely distintegrated. Three shops, not one had any remover at all, not even one bottle. Tomorrow I may just go for a new manicure.
There is major security at the JCC: a guard out front who checks passports and other papers and asks many serious questions in a friendly manner, and two more in a glass-windowed office watching everything. There is a metal detector and a check of bags. It reminded me of attending services at the Guadalajara (Mexico) synagogue
Downstairs, I met Mira, her attorney husband Menachem and her father Moshe. Originally from Sydney, Mira and Menachem, have been in HK about eight years and have three young children, the youngest only 3 months.
Mira introduced me to a number of community members who were also enjoying this Sunday night tradition, including Rabbi Stanton M. Zamek and Rabbi Martha Bergadine of the United Jewish Congregation and their two children. Rabbi Zamek is the Purim Spiel person. I'm looking forward to attending that production!
I especially enjoyed meeting Mira's father, Moshe. His family originally left Bushehr (southern Iran) in 1904 for Palestine, then to Bombay. Regular readers of Tracing the Tribe may remember that the ancestors of Samy Yecutieli (Caracas, Venezuela) were also from Bushehr. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the two families knew each other back then.
Moshe's family went to Bombay and back to Israel again. We kept wandering in and out of Farsi mixed with Hebrew and English. Moshe knew our cousin Sassoon z"l Menashy's father, Menashe, in Bombay. Menashe - son of Moshe ben Israel Dardashti - was a wedding singer and sang at most of the community's events. Moshe's father was also a singer and participated in those events.
Visiting HK and looking for a kosher BBQ buffet dinner? Visit the Jewish Community Center on Sunday nights, from 6-10pm. It's also a good place to meet the friendly local community.
The chefs barbecue on the patio outside, and treats include meat, chicken, turkey, fish, a chicken wok dish (as well as baked potatoes, french fries and other treats). There's also pasta, various salads and platters of delicious fresh salmon sushi and sashimi as well as baked salmon.
Don't miss the desserts, there's a fudgy brownie cake that is a MUST, along with other sweet treats and fruit.
The buffet, in the Garden Room, has a view of the 150-year-old Ohel Leah historic synagogue (see photo above left). Mira's husband Menachem explained that there are few buildings of that age left in HK. In the absence of zoning restrictions, they've most all been torn down to put up new towering buildings.
Ohel Leah was named for the mother, Leah Gubbay, of of David Sassoon's three grandsons. The land where the synagogue stands was purchased when the site was far above the city, and given to the Jewish community. The foundation stone was laid May 1901; it was dedicated April 1902.
In 1905, the Kadoorie family funded the Jewish Recreation Club on part of the synagogue grounds. Its facilities included a large hall, restaurant, bar, library and billiards room, a tennis court and a wide lawn with Victoria Harbour views.
Originally a Sephardic community, Ashenazim from Eastern Europe arrived during the 1880s, 1890s, and 1930s. In 1937, property below the club was given to the community by J.E. Joseph. Named Beit Simcha - in memory of his mother - the property was purchased to preserve the harbour view, to house the rabbi, along with a ground floor mikvah.
During World War II, HK was occupied by the Japanese, community members were placed in POW camps; the synagogue was requisitioned by the Japanese. The Torah scrolls were smuggled out and hidden during the war. The synagogue did not have serious damage but the Club was destroyed. In 1949, the Kadoorie famiy funded a new club on the same site.
Menahem said that when the Sassoons first bought the land, the area was not desirable and no one wanted to live there. Today, however, the neighborhood is a prime district filled with beautiful tall apartment buildings.
There's more to the saga. The Club included a large field gradually surrounded by these tall blocks. The once-undesirable plot of land was now worth a pile of money. The community's Trustees of the community decided to develop the land. In partnership with a local developer, two residential towers were built, with a percentage of the apartments in the two 40-story towers belonging to the Trust.
Also part of the agreement with the developer was that a Jewish Community Center be built. Today, the facility has some six floors, including a Jewish day school, library, kosher supermarket, meat and dairy restaurants, an indoor swimming pool, function rooms and offices. It is also completely wireless!
There was some controversy over whether the historic synagogue should be preserved or destroyed. Luckily, it was preserved, and completely renovated while retaining the original feel. In 1997 work began and the building was rededicated on October 18, 1998.
In 2000, UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards recognized the conservation and restoration project with an Outstanding Project Award for Cultural Heritage Conservation.
The JCC also has the Sabra Coffee Shop - a glatt kosher meat restaurant that also offers a Wednesday evening buffet, the Waterside Restaurant (informal dairy) and the Coffee Bar. The facilities also include a Kosher Mart retail shop.
There are seven synagogues in Hong Kong today. Ohel Leah, three Chabad branches, and a Progressive/Reform congregation.
The community even has a glossy magazine, Jewish Times Asia, the first - and only - regional community publication, distributed in nine countries.
Tomorrow, I'm doing the Escalator Walk with a community member and we'll visit The Lanes - lots of shops. Mira assures me that on the way back there are some excellent manicure places, so I may do that.
There is a Hong Kong Jewish Historical Society, and more on that later in the week.