When Silas Aaron Hardoon, one of the richest people in Asia, saw the same strange dream every night, in which his late father kept asking him to build a huge synagogue, he became troubled by it. Far from being observant, he nevertheless went to ask a Rabbi – where else would a Jew go when something is troubling him? As the wealthiest person in town, he didn’t go to just any Rabbi, but to the Chief Rabbi of Shanghai, Rav Meir Ashkenazi. “It is clear to me, – said Rav Meir, – that you have to build a synagogue for four hundred people.” “Four hundred! – exclaimed the tycoon, – But we already have two synagogues, and between you and I, Rabbi, there is barely a minyan (ten Jews required to complete services), other than on High Holidays. Why do we need such a mammoth building?” “Four hundred, – repeated the Rabbi, – and your father will rest in peace and will not trouble your dreams any more.”
This is not a legend, Beautiful People! Silas Aaron Hardoon built a synagogue in 1927 as a gift to the Shanghai Jewish Community. It was named Beth Aharon (The House of Aaron) in memory of his father and had the capacity to house 400 people (Shanghai Chronicle, Shanghai Municipal Government). And it stayed empty for more than a decade, causing all kinds of sarcastic comments. The dreams ceased, however. Mr Hardoon was happy, yet baffled, until something happened that was nothing short of a miracle. But we have to go back a few centuries, to the times of Peter the Great.
The Russian Empire had owned a large chunk of Manchuria since the time before Peter the Great became Great, that is when he was still a kid sharing the throne with his half-brother Ivan under the regentship of their older sister Sofia. Following her instructions, the boys signed a treaty with China, dividing a Siberian territory Manchuria into unequal parts, Russia getting a smaller piece.
I find it amusing that the Russian waltz composed upon the completion of Chinese Eastern Railroad, build by the Russians following their acquisition of a much larger chunk of Manchuria (Outer Manchuria), is here performed by the Men’s Chorus of the Chinese People’s Armed Police. We shouldn’t be surprised, though, as the communist movement and Mao Zedong himself originated in Manchuria. By the end of 19th – beginning of the 20th century the Russian Empire not only owned half of Manchuria north of the river Amur, but also built and managed the railroad connecting Russia with China, whose major hub was in Harbin, China. This didn’t last long, though, as Japan had its own territorial aspirations.
Another old Russian waltz, “On the Hills of Manchuria,” here delivered by the late world-famous baritone Dmitry Chvorostovsky, commemorates Russian soldiers who perished in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904 – 1905. Russia lost the war and a southern section of the railroad together with most of Manchuria. Nominally Chinese republic, the country was now controlled by Japan. Following the Russian revolution, both Harbin and Shanghai, another large Manchurian city, were flooded with hundreds or thousands of refugees (Reichers, 2001). However, they were preceded by the Jews who had taken advantage of the newly built railroad to escape from 1905 – 1913 pogroms in Tsarist Russia. Jews from the Middle East also migrated to the booming area, to establish trade companies. Among them was a poor family of Aharon Hardoon from Bagdad. It was Aharon’s son Saleh (Silas Aaron), a brilliant businessman, who became a real estate tycoon. His spectacular synagogue stayed mostly empty until 1941, until a miracle happened.
The list of refugees saved by Chiune Sugihara contained 459 names. They traversed Russia to Vladivostok, using the old Chinese Eastern Railroad, then came to Kobe, Japan, with the intention of going to the United States. But Japan was already preparing for an attack on Pearl Harbor and certainly didn’t Polish and Lithuanian Jews in the middle of the picture, so escapees were sent back to China, where they joined almost 20,000 Jewish refugees from Germany, Austria, Poland, and Czechoslovakia (Shanghai Jewish History, 2006). Among them were all 400 students and rabbis of the Mirrer yeshiva (Rabbinical college), the only yeshiva to survive the Holocaust intact, as well as some other prominent rabbis and several students of other yeshivas (Ristaino, 2003, Port of Last Resort: Diaspora Communities in Shanghai). What had seemed a fantastic whim of an extravagant tycoon, the spectacular Beth Aharon synagogue housed the light of Judaism throughout the war and became one of the most active centers of Jewish learning.
I first heard this unbelievable story when Nobuki Sugihara, the late consul’s son, came to South Florida to speak to our congregation. If you can spare 30 minutes, Beautiful People, please watch this clip and listen to the full story.
Meanwhile, what brought it to my mind now was a lovely spaghetti squash. “Noodle pumpkins,” as they were called by thousands of Jews from Eastern Europe inhabiting Shanghai Ghetto in the International Settlement suburb, had originated in Manchuria about the same time the Russian Empire grabbed half of it. To the memory of all those refugees and the Righteous Among Nations who saved them:
You don’t have to stuff it back into the shell, but doesn’t it look festive served this way!
- Large spaghetti squash
- 1/2 medium onion, chopped
- 3 – 4 garlic cloves, diced
- 1 inch (2.5 cm) ginger, grated
- 1 cup mushrooms, chopped (about 1/2 pint)
- 1 cup ground beef substitute (I use Beefless Ground)
- 1/2 cup substitute bacon bits or more to taste
- 1/4 cup soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
- Garam Masala or chili pepper to taste
- Bunch of fresh cilantro, chopped
- Cut squash in halves lengthwise, de-seed, clean. Place on microwave-ready dish shells up, add 1/4 cup of water. Microwave uncovered for 8 minutes. Remove, let cool.
- Using Dutch oven or deep skillet, sauté onions and garlic in olive oil until soft and translucent. Add mushrooms and ginger. Sauté for 4 – 5 minutes, stirring constantly.
- Add the rest of ingredients, except bacon bits. Save some cilantro for garnish. Sauté together for a couple of minutes, until well blended.
- Using a fork, carefully scrape the inside of squash, leaving both shells intact. Add to the filling, mix well.
- Divide filling equally between two shells. Cover with bacon bits, bake uncovered for a few minutes before serving.
- Garnish with fresh cilantro.
About the guest author:
Dolly Aizenman is the brainchild behind Kool Kosher Kitchen (Which her blog and her book are named after).
This charismatic Russian blogger is fond of cooking and writing.
She has a BA in Art and Music Education, MA in English, MS in Education and Ed.D. in Educational Leadership.