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Culture

For Shabbat in Beijing, A Bar Mitzvah and Kosher Bird’s Nest

This morning, as Michael Phelps was preparing to tie Mark Spitz’s record seven gold medals in a single Olympic Games, another young American was in Beijing as well, also getting ready for the biggest day of his life so far. Just a few hours after Phelps accomplished his dream, Isaac Shapiro stood up and approached the bimah, where he read the haftorah of Parshat Ve’etchanan as a bar mitzvah. Both have been practicing daily for this moment — to arrive in Beijing and stand before friends, family and, yes, the Almighty — and perform. Yes, it’s true Shapiro doesn’t have 36 years of Olympic weight on his shoulders. He has thousands. Jews were coming of age long before Pierre de Coubertin began thinking about rings.

Sitting among Jews from around the world today in Beijing’s Chabad House with Shapiro and his family, who came all the way from Chicago to daven (okay, some Olympic events were on the schedule, too), it struck me how much the Jewish community lives and breathe the Olympic motto of “One World One Dream.” Numerous accents, languages and professions packed the room, yet for those few hours, we were just Jews, praying together with the same words in one language.

And of course, it’s not every day that a Lubavitcher rabbi can go from pontificating on the power of God’s voice to the power of the U.S. beach volleyball team’s arms.

After the service, the mass of tourists, businessmen and students headed to Dini’s Restaurant for Shabbat lunch. We began with kiddush and ended with a cake shaped like the Bird’s Nest. I spoke with a Jewish Chinese man from Kaifeng who lives in New Jersey and listened to the rabbi welcome the Olympic crowd to a city in which he has transformed the Jewish community in seven years.

Everyone had an Olympic story to tell: The observant Israeli Taekwondo athlete who needed an emergency delivery of kosher food to her room in the Olympic Village at 11 p.m. last week (“She said she needed protein”). The Chinese staff member at the Westin Hotel who knew exactly what was required of a Shabbos Goy (“Would you like to take the stairs or should I take you up in the elevator”), and the rabbi’s negotiations with Chinese Olympic officials over his role as Official Olympic rabbi (“They wanted me to stay in the Olympic Village for Shabbat, but I had to read Eicha for Shimon Peres!”)

How incredible that we could share them together at a Shabbat lunch table in Beijing.

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