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Sha Boli, China’s Jewish Translator, Writer and Movie Actor

On a muggy day last year, I biked through Beijing’s gray-brick hutong, backstreet alleyways, beneath a smoggy sky. My front basket ferried a batch of fresh bagels bought from an entrepreneurial expatriate New Yorker. A nosh is the usual price of entry for a chat with Sidney Shapiro, one of Chinese literature’s pre-eminent translators into English.

Born into a Brooklyn Jewish family in 1915, Shapiro is known to millions of Chinese as Sha Boli (Shah Bo-Lee): longtime “friend of China” and portrayer of perfidious Americans in Chinese movies. He’s among the handful of foreigners who have become naturalized citizens of the People’s Republic. Outside China, he is renowned for his translation of the classic novel “Shui hu Zhuan,” “Outlaws of the Marsh.”

Approaching Shapiro’s gate — red lacquer wood framed by gray brick — I spotted what I thought was a mezuza. “How neat!” I thought. Upon closer inspection, though, it was a screw-mounted tube, angled to hold aloft China’s red, five-starred flag on political holidays.

Cognitive dissonances mounted. I was welcomed by a stooped but lively man with a smooth helmet of white hair and a deliberate mien. As the bagels toasted and small talk began, in his thick Brooklyn accent he largely disowned even the most secular sort of Jewish identity. The veering conversation did acknowledge a few culinary exceptions.

“Not from me,” he avowed when asked if the children of his Chinese wife had any Jewish upbringing. Not even some Yiddish words? Or that progressive secular Jewishness that Tony Judt pegged as “a sensibility of collective self-questioning and uncomfortable truth-telling”?

Mostly not, to hear Shapiro tell it: “I [am] an intellectual Jew who did not believe in God and was infuriated by these terrible stories in the Torah, but… I’m a Chinese [citizen]” as well, he explained. “I’m culturally and ethically… in admiration of the fundamental ideas [of Judaism], but also I’ve become a member of the news and publications committee of the Chinese People’s [Political] Consultative Conference as an agent of the foreign propaganda department of the party.” His house is barren of Jewish decorations; several photos show him flanked by major leaders of the Chinese Communist Party.

What about those books, then? Some Jewish sensibilities emerge from an astonishing life in his 2000 memoir, “I Chose China” (Hippocrene Books). First, the Brooklyn upbringing and law school in Depression-era New York. Then, wartime Mandarin training leads him to Shanghai, where he marries a beautiful actress and communist agent named Phoenix. Settling in post-Revolution Beijing, Shapiro forsakes his passport for Chinese citizenship and undertakes a career in translation, somehow avoiding prison during the xenophobic Cultural Revolution. Later he takes a government sinecure and continues his translation and writing. Phoenix passes away in 1996. Today he still lives in Beijing, receiving visitors and sending acerbic e-mails. His sharp mind and tongue seem undimmed by his 95 years. “I don’t understand the question,” he told me at one point. “I’m not sure you understand the question, either.”

“I Chose China” is not introspective about the political or moral questions usually generated by a lifetime’s devotion to Chinese socialism. On sensitive subjects like the Cultural Revolution, Shapiro’s views hew to the party’s official verdicts. Questions of Jewish identity are no more deeply examined.

Rather, Shapiro’s reputation as China’s elder Semitic statesman rests on another book. The compendium he translated, “Jews of Old China: Studies by Chinese Scholars,” delivers what it promises. That plus the Brooklyn brogue and unofficial “maven” status to Beijing’s lay-led Reform congregation, and you start to understand the many pilgrimages to his hutong door.

Still, he is reluctant. In the Mao years, he “was the only non-foreign-communist Jew living in Beijing… as far as I know, the rest were all sent here by various communist parties.” No temptation to throw an informal Purim party? A Seder with one of those social justice Haggadot and some Dutch or South African communists, just for kicks? “No, never.” Why the book, then? Why does everyone seem to think he’s such a maven?

Shapiro has a theory: “Here I am, and people are… dropping in, [saying] ‘Shapiro, you’ve been in China all these years, and you know about all these Jews.’ I didn’t know a f–king thing, I wasn’t interested in it, but I thought… I’d better find out. I started going around China, calling on every intellectual. No one had bothered to codify it together.” And that was really all there was to it?

But then, the pendulum swings: “I do have an emotional, cultural attachment to being Jewish.” And again: “You don’t even have to be Jewish; if you live in New York or Beverly Hills, you’re drenched in… Jewish humor.” This appears to be the key point and the reason for our many miscues: Living in China for the past 60 years has isolated Shapiro from the ebb and flow of Jewish culture. These decades are all that most of us have ever known. Your correspondent will cop to over-projection — but all the same, my mouth fell open when he claimed ignorance of the whole Chinese-food-on-Christmas thing. Of all people.

“I’m from a different era altogether,” he reminded me, telling a 1930s-era joke about American communists and peaches and cream. We chuckled awkwardly, and I tried again to engage the Jewish-scholar-in-China sensibility conjured in my pre-interview imagination: someone lacing political recollections with excited references to literature, as Marx himself was wont to do in the more vividly readable moments of “Capital.” Someone eminently qualified to speak about the challenges of a life devoted to Chinese culture while working for a regime that often suppressed it. And all the better, I had thought, to hear it from a man whose own heritage emphasizes literacy and a continuous textual tradition of interpretation and debate.

No dice. “Why should Jewishness be a special thing?” he asked persistently. “What if you’re an Episcopalian or a Mohammedean, or any sort of different ethnic group, why would anyone think that’s something unusual or mysterious?” “But, but,” I stammered, “if not the Torah, then ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’? ‘Annie Hall’?”

“I love all that stuff,” Shapiro averred. He smiled bemusedly, signing my copies of his books. “I loved it then, and I love it now, but what does that make me? What significance does that have?”

Nick Frisch is a writer in Hong Kong and an occasional bagel delivery boy in Beijing.

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