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Guiding Lights

Chaviva Warner’s journey from Tianjin to Torah

When Chaviva Warner converted to Judaism eight years ago, she knew she’d have to choose a Jewish name. Maybe Batsheva, she thought, since she’s the seventh daughter in a family of eight. Maybe Shulamit, since it sounds similar to her given name, Shunli.

But her rabbi, Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald, had other ideas.

“Everybody loves you,” he proclaimed. “Your name should be Chaviva!”

So Chaviva it was.

When I meet her at a café in Flatbush, I instantly see what Rabbi Buchwald meant: Chaviva is lovable. We’ve never met before, but she greets me with a huge smile, hugs me, and immediately tells me how good I look (which, at my age, is welcome flattery).

Chaviva looks great, too. Now 55, she looks much younger, with slightly red-tinted black hair that looks freshly blown dry, discreet makeup, and stylish clothing. (“My weakness,” she admits cheerfully.) She brims with verve and energy, and her story bubbles out of her, a tale of how a woman born in Communist China, who was six when she lost her father and thirteen when she lost her mother, managed to get herself to the United States, marry and divorce an unaffiliated Jew, and gradually find her way to Yiddishkeit.

Turmoil in Tianjin

Chaviva grew up in Tianjin, a city in northern China near Beijing. It’s an industrial town on the coast, with a large shipping industry. Her family lived half an hour from the ocean, in a European-style neighborhood built by settlers from the eight European countries who sought to colonize the region in the early 20th century. Chaviva’s house was only a few blocks from a synagogue, built by Russian Jews who had come to China for business or to escape the war, but she had no connection to it.

Chaviva’s father, originally from Henan, was a highly successful businessman prior to the Communist takeover in 1949, when Mao Zedong declared the People’s Republic of China. Chaviva’s parents had six daughters before they finally had a son. Hoping to provide a companion for the boy, they had another child. But it turned out to be a girl: Chaviva.

“My father chose my Chinese name, Shunli,” she says. “It means ‘smooth sailing.’ ”

Her life would be anything but smooth sailing. By the time she was born, the country was in turmoil. Mao Zedong’s agricultural plan had been a massive failure, causing millions of Chinese to starve to death. The Communists began seizing the business and property of the wealthy. Chaviva’s father was brought onto a public stage and ordered to confess his wrongdoings. He refused, and the consequences were beatings, torture, and being labeled a criminal.

The Cultural Revolution began in 1968, four years after Chaviva was born. Aiming to purge the country of dissidents and inspire a love of Communism, Mao’s government incarcerated and executed millions of people. Two years later, Chaviva’s father, physically and emotionally broken by his experiences, passed away.

“I don’t really remember him,” she confesses. “I just remember that if I wanted something, like a candy or a small toy, he’d always have it in his pocket for me when he came home.”

She remembers her mother as a beautiful woman who always dressed in silk, and who would oil her black hair every morning, even after she’d had a stroke and lost movement in one arm. The intense stress in their life caused her mother to develop heart trouble, then suffer a series of strokes.

“In China, our hospitals had a Western part and a traditional Chinese part,” Chaviva relates. “I remember a lady who would come to give my mother acupuncture treatments.”

Chaviva’s siblings suffered greatly during the Cultural Revolution. Before those events, they’d been sent to the finest local high school, and her oldest sister dreamed of going to college and studying chemistry. But now the government, in its war against elitism, began sending high school students to work on farms, and farm youth to colleges.

Her oldest sister, furious at her father for being a supposed criminal, refused to speak to him for several years. Her second sister was sent off to work on a farm; the third sister, still in high school, was punished for their father’s status by being deprived of a chair and forced to stand in the back of the classroom all day. She was so humiliated, she volunteered to go work on the farm with her sister.

“I still remember that we all went to the train station to say goodbye,” Chaviva recounts. “As soon as the train started moving, my mom fainted on the platform, and we rushed her to the hospital.”

Once widowed, Chaviva’s mother sold what little she had to keep going, such as the inner workings of a once-magnificent German clock (the family had smashed the glass and wood casing to prevent the government from confiscating it). Her sisters brought in a little money by constructing cookie boxes at home to sell to the local bakery. Yet despite the hardships, Chaviva remembers that her family managed to eat well (“food was very cheap back then”) and maintained a happy atmosphere as they worked, laughing and chattering.

Her mother died when she was only 13.

“I was only a child then, and under Communism I’d been given no religious context to think about death,” Chaviva says. “We used to listen to the Voice of America radio shows, and I would think, ‘Those voices come from so very, very far away. Maybe that’s where my mother is now.’ ”

Perhaps it was those broadcasts that inspired her to major in English literature in college. By the time Chaviva began college in 1982, the Cultural Revolution was over, and her family was no longer banned from higher education. She graduated almost at the top of her class, after which she landed a job working for the government in garment production for the Eastern European region.

“Openings were very limited, especially in English-speaking countries,” Chaviva says. “I was lucky to get that job.”

Her job involved frequent travel — she always kept an overnight bag packed. Often she’d supervise railway shipments from Beijing to Russia.

“I didn’t understand the Russian language, so the shipments would come in — 20,000 or 30,000 boxes at a time — and I’d have to match them by number to my list to make sure we shipped the right items!” Chaviva says. “But I loved my job.

“I remember one time we dealt with an order to manufacture jackets for basketball fans in the US, with the team logos on the back and front. We did it all with no cell phones and few computers, almost all of it on paper. I was so into my work I’d wake up in the middle of the night in a sweat, thinking, Oh, no! Did I make sure to order the zippers we needed? The buttons?”

By 1992, when she traveled to Poland, the country had emerged from Communism, signed a formal treaty with Russia, and begun to implement a democratic government and a capitalist economy. Communist Party members had lost their perks like government cars and houses, and private industry was allowed. Chaviva’s farsighted boss predicted, “Soon China will be like this.”

“He saw his government-owned business starting to shrink,” Chaviva says. “When an opportunity came up to append me to a trade delegation going to the United States, as a translator, he got me in. He told me he had no money of his own to pay me, but advised me to find the funds, go to America, and try to find him customers.”

Both of them knew that if she left China, she wouldn’t return.

Chaviva’s family and friends all chipped in, and she left for the US with $4,000 in her pocket. She’d be working at a trade show in the Javits Center, and was lodged in a house in Tenafly owned by a Chinese company for traveling businesspeople. Before long she was meeting people and discovering New York.

Family Ties

In her explorations of New York, Chaviva soon found out that there are Chinese organizations, rather like the old Yiddish landsmanshaften, for people who share the same family name. Chaviva’s family name was Zhao, so she located the Zhao organization in Manhattan. But when she got there, all she found were some old ladies from Canton playing cards.

“I don’t even speak Cantonese!” she says. “That’s in the south, and I come from the north!”

She was told that the Zhaos from the south originally came from the north. They escaped to help protect the emperor, from whom they descended (the family name of the Song emperors was Zhao). The organization in New York had portraits of all the Song emperors on the walls.

Intrigued, Chaviva found a thick book of Chinese family trees, which included the Zhao branch; she began a Zhao family chat in the Chinese version of WhatsApp (WeChat or Weixin).

“I met a woman from California who was a Zhao, who’s the chair of the Organization of Chinese Women in California. She asked about my family name and told me, ‘According to your family information, we come from the same branch of the family tree. You’re a 72nd-generation descendent of the Song royal family.’ ”

In today’s China, that wouldn’t do much for her. But it’s always nice to think one has royal blood — especially if one is on the road to developing a royal character.

First Exposure

While working at the trade show, Chaviva met a divorced, unaffiliated Jewish man named Stanley Warner who, like her, was in the garment business.

“Stanley is immensely talented,” Chaviva says. “He breathes garments! He has an eye for color and design, and he also has a business mind that many designers don’t have.”

They began dating and eventually married, moving into a hotel suite before buying an apartment in Beverly Hills. Their lives were very busy with work and friends, but not children.

“In his heart of hearts, my husband was still very Jewish,” Chaviva says. “I think he didn’t want a non-Jewish, Chinese baby.”

Chaviva herself was always a spiritual seeker. While in China, she devoured all the traditional Chinese texts, and read up on Christianity, Buddhism, and Judaism (Islam never attracted her attention). But her first direct exposure to Judaism came from her husband’s friends.

One couple, the Goodmans, took Chaviva in like a surrogate daughter. The Warners used to go to the Goodmans for Pesach Sedorim.

“Dr. Goodman used to skip a lot of parts in the Haggadah. But during that week we didn’t eat bread,” Chaviva recalls. “We’d go to shul on Rosh Hashanah — Stanley would buy me new clothing and jewelry — and fast on Yom Kippur.”

Stanley also had many business associates in the Persian community, and they were frequently invited to those homes for “Friday night dinner,” which was somehow never referred to as Shabbat. Yet despite Chaviva’s closeness to the Goodmans and willing participation in the Jewish rituals she saw, the watered-down version of Judaism didn’t capture her heart or soul.

Her marriage hit unexpected challenges due to a family crisis, and after ten years of marriage, the two ultimately parted ways.

Go East

Chaviva had always loved New York, and decided to move there to put some distance between herself and the divorce. She had a friend who said her brother might have a job in business for her. When that didn’t pan out, she found work as a translator.

Then her friend’s billionaire brother, Alexander, asked her to accompany him as a translator when he’d go to buy apartments, and she became his personal translator — not big money, she says, but enough to live on. It was around that time that she met a religious Jewish family.

“We lost touch, and I can’t even remember their name. But they left such an impression on me,” she says. “I saw that their Judaism, unlike that of my husband and his friends, was the real thing. They saw I wasn’t happy, and suggested I try going to synagogue.”

She only knew Reform Judaism, and tried going to a Reform temple. Yet as ignorant as she was about Judaism, she was turned off by the scene: The rabbi’s non-Jewish wife was performing on the bimah, singing to the congregants. Then she somehow found the Fifth Avenue Synagogue and the Manhattan Jewish Experience (MJE), led by Rabbi Jonathan Feldman, himself a baal teshuvah who, once he saw Chaviva was searching for spirituality, shared his own journey with her.

MJE hosted a parshah class every Friday night followed by a Shabbos dinner, and Chaviva was entranced.

“I just loved it!” she says. “Then I found out that MJE was really meant for people in their twenties and thirties, and I was already in my forties. I confessed this to the rabbi, but he just smiled and said, ‘So don’t tell anyone!’ ”

When she expressed her frustration at not knowing any Hebrew, Rabbi Feldman suggested she attend Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald’s Hebrew crash course at the Lincoln Square Synagogue. Back then, the shul itself, before it moved into its new building, was unprepossessing: It was rather decrepit, and the food served was nothing special. Yet there was something about it she couldn’t shake.

“The rabbi’s singing wouldn’t leave my head!” she says.

For a time, she’d attend MJE on the East Side on Friday nights, then walk to Lincoln Square on Shabbat mornings, where she loved the singing. But the walking back and forth got to be too much, and she finally threw in her lot with Lincoln Square. She became close to Rabbi Buchwald and his family, and embarked upon the conversion process. Rabbi Buchwald sponsored her, and the RCA oversaw her conversion eight years ago.

“It was a very emotional moment, like being born as a new baby,” she says.

Rabbi Buchwald recalls meeting Chaviva even before she moved back from Los Angeles, when her interest in Judaism was more academic. But the more she attended classes, the more she decided she needed to convert.

“I remember she announced to everyone that she was an MOTIT,” Rabbi Buchwald recalls. “A Member of the Tribe in Training. After she converted, she said, ‘Now I’m an FST — Frum Since Tuesday!’ ”

She threw herself into classes, learning to read Hebrew fluently and pronouncing it with just a bit of Chinese accent.

“She was the star of the beginners’ minyan,” Rabbi Buchwald says. “She put her Jewish-born classmates to shame with her devotion and sincerity. She was always ready to help with projects or set up when we had luncheons or parties, and she was our expert on floral design.”

I can’t resist asking Chaviva if there weren’t any Jewish practices that might have struck her as strange.

“Hmm,” she says, reflecting. “Well, I think peyos are cute on little boys, but I’m not used to seeing them on grown men. And I can’t believe women pay thousands of dollars to cover their hair with more hair!”

As for eating kosher, she says, “I ate at so many business dinners that for a while I got too fat! But that means I’ve tasted everything I could possibly want to taste.” She smiles. “Well, I do miss Peking Duck a little. The kosher versions aren’t like what I remember.”

As Chaviva learned more about Judaism, she found some interesting parallels with Chinese practices. The Chinese custom of hanging red paper on the doorposts of houses for good luck on the New Year reminded her of the Jews smearing blood on the doorposts before Yetzias Mitzrayim. The Chinese spring festival, which is also the New Year, involves cleaning the house inside and out, cooking a feast, and then refraining from cooking, cleaning, sewing and other work during the holiday; the Chinese aren’t permitted haircuts for 30 days during that time. They also have the custom to place pebbles on tombstones.

“I think the Chinese learned many things from the bnei Keturah, Avraham’s children by Keturah,” Chaviva says. “Even the Chinese religion, Taoism, comes from the word tao, which means ‘the way,’ like halachah.”

She also finds hidden meanings in Chinese characters, and has reams of them annotated with possible Jewish connections. The ideograph for the number eight, for example, can be broken into components that individually mean hand, separate, knife, and strength, suggesting bris milah. The character for “light” has a crown like the sofrim make atop the letter shin.

Rabbi Buchwald relates, “Chaviva gave some classes at Lincoln Square to show her research into the possible Jewish meanings in Chinese characters, which people found interesting.”

Chaviva feels incredibly lucky to be where she is today. There are 15 million people living in her home town, and when she last visited she regarded the huge sea of people and thought, “There must be a G-d. I’m so lucky to have been chosen to join the Chosen People!”

She seems especially grateful to have joined a people with high moral standards and fine middos. “I work with Chinese companies every day, translating,” she says. “Some people are good, but so many of them have no moral limits. If there’s something they want, they won’t stop at anything to get it. You have to watch your back, because you can’t trust anyone.”

By contrast, she cites the example of her “Ima and Tatti,” Jerry and Karen Feldhammer, an older couple who have “adopted” her (they have four sons, all married, but no daughters). They’re a well-known family on the Upper West Side and are close friends with the Buchwalds. Chaviva adores them, and often spends Shabbosim with them.

“They’re such holy people, and they have such a respectful, loving relationship between the two of them. Seeing their relationship made me decide I’d like to get married again, to try to create that sort of relationship in my own life.”

“Chaviva and my wife became very close,” Mr. Feldhammer says. “They go to museums together, and Chaviva comes to the Monday night Tehillim group we have in our house. We serve as surrogate parents — if things look promising when she dates, she brings the man to our house to meet us.”

Yet Chaviva will probably be moving on, at least partially. She visited Eretz Yisrael four times since her conversion, and fell in love with it. She’d like to live there a good part of the year, and is currently in the process of arranging her aliyah (she takes out her phone to show me a photo of her Chinese birth certificate, proudly apostilled for the Israeli government). She’s not worried about making a living there; she says Chinese-English translators are in big demand.

It’s getting late, and I have to get home. Chaviva’s not done with Flatbush, though. She asks where to go to buy shells and tzniyusdig clothing while she’s in the area. And she impresses me again with her middos and her regal bearing.

She may have been into a royal family, but now Chaviva has become true royalty.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 678)

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