About 100 guests milled around the Loft at the Wilshire Grand Hotel in West Orange on Oct. 17, eating Chinese food scooped from chafing trays into their “takeout” boxes. Alan Paul and his blues band were providing live music for “Size Matters,” this season’s opening event of the Young Leadership Division of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
Jews, blues, and China might well be the elevator pitch for Paul’s memoir, Big in China, which HarperCollins released in March. In it Paul recalls the three years he spent in Beijing, when his wife, Rebecca Blumenstein, became the China bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal.
In his book — subtitled My Unlikely Adventures Raising a Family, Playing the Blues, and Becoming a Star in Beijing — he details his experiences bringing up three children in China and his sudden fame as the lead guitarist in a band called “Woodie Alan,” which would be voted Best Beijing Band. The band has recently released a CD.
Paul, who lives with his family in Maplewood — they returned from China in December 2008, after three-and-a-half years there — served as the keynote speaker at the YLD event. The family belongs to Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange.
Paul described how he met his fellow bandmate, Woodie Wu, when he brought a broken guitar to him to fix. The two found their musical tastes and playing styles overlapping and complementary; the group they formed became a Beijing phenomenon.
Also captured in the book are Paul’s experiences as a Jew in China. “We had moved in August, just before Rosh Hashana,” he told the gathering. “We weren’t sure what to expect in China.” But the family was living near Kehillat Beijing, a lay-led Jewish congregation he described as “a warm and welcoming place.” The High Holy Days provided a pivotal moment of reflection.
“What I found was that after a lifetime of going to services on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur out of habit — most of the time I didn’t give it a lot of thought — I had a choice to take a break for a few years.”
Instead, he decided to go the services, realizing “how much a part of me it was.” He also experienced for the first time the reality of the Jewish presence in most of the world. In New Jersey, he said, “the holidays are such a big part of daily life. My kids go to public schools, and they are closed. Everyone knows it’s Rosh Hashana. In Beijing, the holiday meant nothing except to the people” assembled for services. “My kids went to a British international school, and it meant nothing there. It was a reality check. Most people didn’t know and didn’t care.
“But services really rooted me; they really grounded me.”
Paul is also a journalist who wrote “The Expat Life” column for WSJ.com while living abroad, and reported for NBC, Sports Illustrated, and Guitar World.
Jonathan Liss, chair of YLD — which provides opportunities for Jews 45 and under to meet new people, support Israel, and involve their families in Jewish life — told the gathering about an experience he had a few years ago. At a federation event, he was seated near a man, close to his age, who was called upon to speak. Thinking he was one of the key lay people for the event, Liss said, he was completely taken aback when the man said Jewish Vocational Service, a federation beneficiary agency, had helped him find employment after a difficult period. For Liss, this was his “ahah” moment, when he recognized the tangible impact that federation makes in people’s lives in Greater MetroWest and around the world.
When Liss followed with a request for people to “super-size” their gift, an additional $30,000 was raised for the UJA Campaign that evening.
The event was chaired by Michael Tiger and Ilona Shmaruk.