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Articles and Stories by Sonia Pressman Fuentes

Sonia Pressman Fuentes

A Seder in Shanghai

In 1990, after a routine mammogram, I was given the shattering news that I had breast cancer. I reached out blindly for help and one of the organizations I called was the American Cancer Society in Washington, D.C. There, as fate would have it, the woman who answered my call was a social worker named Wilma Scheuren. She was a person whose life was devoted to helping cancer patients. Her compassion saw me through the ordeal. As a result, after my mastectomy and chemotherapy, I remained interested in breast cancer and joined the American Cancer Society. As a feminist, it was only natural that I be involved in fighting a disease that affected primarily women. A couple of years later, I was elected to the Board of the D.C. chapter.

In 1992, I learned through my feminist activities that the Chinese Medical Association was promoting a two-week trip to China in early 1993 by individuals concerned with women's health. It was to be the First International Conference on Women's Health, with stops in Beijing, Shanghai, Suzhou, and Xian. The American Cancer Society agreed to let me go as its representative. I went to learn about the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer and other cancers in China. The group consisted of about one hundred fifty men and women from around the world. In addition to those from the United States and China, the roster included participants from places like England, Ecuador, Nigeria, Bangladesh, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Tanzania, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Panama, Singapore, and New Guinea. I was one of two Jewish lawyers in the group; most of the other participants had significant backgrounds in the health fields, as doctors, midwives, nurses, professors, and other health professionals.

Toward the end of March in 1993, shortly before my scheduled departure, I realized I'd be in China over Pesekh. On one of my calls to the organizer of the Conference in the United States, the Foundation for International Cooperation & Development, I mentioned casually my regret at missing a seder while we were away. "Not to worry," the staffer said. "We're planning to have a seder there." I couldn't understand how we could have a seder in China. How would people find the ingredients for a seder there? "Everyone will bring something from the United States," she said and assured me it would come to pass. She asked me to bring cinnamon and walnuts for the kharoset.

In early April, when we arrived in Shanghai, there was much discussion as to where to hold the seder. The Chinese Medical Association kindly offered us one of the offices in their headquarters building and it became the site.

Shortly before the seder, a number of the Jewish members of the group told me they would not be attending. They had more interesting things to do in Shanghai. On the other hand, a number of Christians asked me if they could possibly attend; it would mean so much to them, they said, to be able to participate in a seder. We told them all would be welcome. And so on the night of April 5, 1993, nineteen members of the group came together for a seder in Shanghai in the offices of the Chinese Medical Association. There were ten Jewish women, one Jewish man, five Catholic women (including a Franciscan nun), two Chinese men (one of whom was the head of the Chinese Medical Association) and one Chinese woman.

Somehow, we had the necessary ingredients. That night, we celebrated the exodus of the Jews from Egypt at a candlelight dinner in Shanghai. We had a seder plate with kharoset, a roasted bone, a roasted egg in salt water, horseradish, and parsley. We drank Pesekhdike wine and ate matzos with gefilte fish. Our Chinese hosts brought baked chicken, cabbage, and rice. We did not have the heart to tell them that among Ashkenazi Jews rice was not appropriate for Passover.

We took turns reading from the Haggadah around the table in English and Hebrew, and we sang Hebrew and Yiddish songs. When the head of the Chinese Medical Association proudly read from the Haggadah, there wasn't a dry eye in the house. While I'm far from an expert on Jewish traditions, among the blind, the one-eyed woman is queen. So, I gave a brief explanation of the meaning of the holiday, the passages we read, and the songs we sang.

None of us who were there will ever forget it.

After the service, as we left the building, I turned around and took one last look at the building where I had participated in such a meaningful service. To my amazement, I saw a Mogen Doved on the building. "What is that?" I inquired of a member of the group who lived in Shanghai.

"That's the Star of David," she said. "This building used to be a synagogue."

When I returned home, I corresponded with the nun who had been on our trip, Sister and Doctor Miriam Devlin, Medical Director of the Bridgewell Corporation in Bucksport, Maine. She had written an account of the trip for a religious newspaper.

Here is what she wrote:

“As we entered into the Holy Week preparations, several of the women with us who were Jewish, began talking about celebrating the Passover Meal . . . . Several had planned to have a very private celebration in their rooms. But it was discovered some of the Jewish women on the organizing committee had actually planned to have a common Seder Meal. They had brought the Haggadot (Prayer Books), matzo, kosher wine, bitter herbs and all. They were even willing to have non-Jews attend, and so several of us Gentiles signed up, including three Chinese people. The first thing was to find a place. That was provided by the people from the Chinese Medical Association, who gave us the use of an upper room on the fourth floor of their building. We met there after sundown--about ten Jewish women and one Jewish man, five Gentile women (all of whom turned out to be Catholic), two Chinese men and one Chinese woman! The Jewish women were from all different backgrounds: Ashkenazic and Sephardic, American, Israeli and Algerian. In a wonderful atmosphere of cooperation, they set about making the haroseth and preparing the table. There being no lamb, we settled for chicken, vegetables and rice! In some of the traditions, even rice is not allowed. However, at this time, a lot of concessions had to be made. We shared the Passover meal under the leadership of Dr. Leah Dickstein [president of the American Medical Women's Association and a professor at the University of Louisville in Kentucky] of wine, bitter herbs, matzo and haroseth. We sang the hymns of liberation, and read the story of Exodus together. We blessed each other with Shalom and to next year in Jerusalem.

“Much to our surprise, we found out later that the building in which we were was thought to have been a former synagogue! With that, we went out into the night, filled with the spirit of liberation and joy and a new sense of ecumenism. Next year . . . !”

©1997 Sonia Pressman Fuentes

This story is an excerpt from her memoir, "Eat First -- You Don't Know What They'll Give You," by Sonia Pressman Fuentes. Ms. Fuentes was a founder of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and other nationwide women's rights organizations in the mid-1960s and early 1970s and was the first woman attorney in the General Counsel's Office at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Ms. Fuentes, who retired from Federal government service in 1993, lives in Potomac, Maryland, winters in Sarasota, Florida, and devotes her time to writing, public speaking, and doing readings from her memoir.