New Shavei Israel emissary to Kaifeng teaches himself fluent Chinese
Tuvia Gering had never been to China. Growing up, he never met anyone from China. He wasn’t even a particular fan of Chinese food. But beginning in his last year of high school, Gering became fascinated with the Chinese language. Using just video lessons he found on the Internet, he taught himself Chinese and five years later, Gering – who now understands and speaks Chinese at a high level – is finally on his way to the Land of the Red Dragon. He will spend six months in China as Shavei Israel’s latest emissary to the Jewish community in Kaifeng.
Formally, Gering will be studying Chinese at the city’s Henan University. But much of his time will be devoted to teaching the Kaifeng Jews about their heritage. Gering says his emphasis will be different than previous Shavei Israel teachers in China, who focused on experiential learning such as workshops in challah baking or how to blow a shofar.
“I want to focus on the core of Jewish education – questions about faith and philosophy, history and Zionism and the Holocaust,” the 22-year-old Gering explains. The Jews of Kaifeng “are trying to figure out why it’s important to be Jewish. We want them to at least have a stronger Jewish identity.”
That’s Gering’s plan for the community as a whole. But there are several individuals in Kaifeng with whom Gering will be working especially closely – five women hoping to make aliyah Israel soon (we’ll have an announcement about this in the coming weeks). “The idea with them is to teach as much Hebrew as possible before then. Because if you want to live in Israel, there’s no other option than to speak Hebrew,” Gering emphasizes.
He ought to know. His father is an immigrant from the U.S. He met Gering’s mother – a Sabra from Sde Eliyahu, a religious kibbutz in the Jordan Valley – and the family speaks only Hebrew at home. Gering learned English, ironically, not from his father but in the same way that he learned Chinese: from the Internet and by watching English language movies.
It was during a trip three years ago to visit his grandparents at Sde Eliyahu that Gering met two of the Chinese Jewish men who were studying Hebrew at the ulpan in the very same kibbutz. “I met them by accident,” Gering recalls. “Someone in the kibbutz dining hall said – hey you’re studying Chinese and there are some Chinese guys here on kibbutz.”
Gering and the two Chinese men, Gideon Fan and Yonatan Xue, became good friends. “Now we’re practically neighbors,” Gering says: Fan and Xue, who are currently finishing up their Israeli army service, live only about 20 minutes walk from Gering’s family in Jerusalem. They often join the Gerings for Shabbat meals. “We’re like their adopted family,” Gering says.
Gering finished his own army service just a month ago. He served as an officer in the IDF’s Home Front Command, where he also worked as an instructor, helping civilians understand what to do in case of a missile attack or an earthquake. Gering estimates he’s taught over 10,000 people during his army service. He spends a full week with fifth grade students, and does one off seminars with adults – lawyers, managers, government officials. So Gering feels well prepared to work with groups during his six months in Kaifeng.
Of course doing it in Chinese will be a challenge, but the language isn’t as hard to master as many people think, Gering says. “There are just 400 syllables in Chinese. Those are modified by a number of tones. So, if you’re trying to teach yourself Mandarin Chinese on the Internet, for example, you only have to listen to and repeat about 1,100 recordings.” Compare that with English or Hebrew, which by combining vowels and letters, results in nearly “an infinite amount of possible syllables,” Gering says.
In China, Gering will be known as “Tao Wenya” since Chinese doesn’t have the sound “v.” Tao is a common last name that means “pottery,” and Wenya literally means “cultured Asia.”
Gering was initially recruited for the Kaifeng position earlier this year at an IDF course graduation ceremony for Xue, which both Gering and Shavei Israel staff attended. Gering was already familiar with Shavei Israel and the match was quickly sealed. Xue, Fan and Gering will be reunited in Kaifeng later this year when the two Chinese men are released from the army. “We hope to do some traveling in Yunan province in the south of China. It’s supposed to be one of the prettiest places in the world,” Gering says.
All this begs the question of what got Gering interested in Chinese in the first place. “The truth is, I was just curious about how difficult it was to learn Chinese. I had some free time, so I went to check it out. I started studying, and I got caught into it,” he says.
As for Chinese food, Gering has gotten a small taste of what to expect from his Chinese friends. “The Chinese food we eat in the west isn’t really Chinese, and it tastes horrible to people from China,” he explains. “One time, though, Yonatan cooked us a real Chinese meal here in Israel.” How was it? “Delicious!”
We’ll be reporting more on Gering’s half year in Kaifeng – and we’ll have profiles of the five Chinese women who are making aliyah – in the weeks to come.