If you were to scan the men in the kollel of the chareidi community of Rechasim in Northern Israel, Aharon Waldman would look like any other person in the room. But upon closer inspection, you would discover that under the yeshivish black hat is a cheerful Asian face.
Who is Aharon Waldman, and how did he end up in such an unlikely place?
For many years, Waldman had felt an inexplicably deep connection to the Land of Israel and yearned to go there.
Aharon Waldman was born and raised thousands of miles away, both geographically and culturally—in China. His original name is Chiang Chai, chai meaning firewood. “In Yiddish,” he explains, “‘wald’ means forest, so I derived my new last name from that. Then, as a first name, I chose Aharon, because Aharon Hakohen loved peace and pursued peace. That was one of the things that fascinated me about Judaism from the very start, and I wanted to perpetuate the idea of pursuing peace.”
We’ve all heard stories about Jews born and educated in Western countries who strayed from their heritage and felt a spiritual emptiness that ultimately led them back to Judaism’s embrace. “Well, that’s how I felt about contemporary Chinese society, like a tree that had been torn from its roots,” he says. But what’s unusual about Waldman’s story is that his detachment from his Chinese roots is what led him to Yiddishkeit.
“Chinese culture and society are ancient, having existed for thousands of years. But the China of today has moved very far from its roots. The modern Chinese culture is no longer authentic. The Communists eviscerated thousands of years of tradition. The Cultural Revolution of the 1960s erased the culture and introduced a new ideology that barely resembles what it replaced. The real China no longer exists.”
Mao Zedong, the founding father of the People’s Republic of China, quickly set about eliminating the traditional pillars of Chinese society. During the Chinese Communist Revolution, his followers killed millions of people and destroyed historical sites and works of art. The new ideology emphasized labor and the working man. Scholarship, science and religion were cast aside.