TORONTO — Like many Chinese immigrants, Aaron Wood anglicized his name when he arrived in Canada – in his case, partly to avoid association with a kind of strong tea.
Aaron Wood holds a Hebrew primer, written in Mandarin. [Ron Csillag photo]
He used to be Aaron Chai.
In his native Mandarin, “chai” (“ch” as in “children”) means wood, and he smiles and nods knowingly about the auspicious meaning and symbolism of the word in Judaism.
“Yes, it means ‘life,’” Wood says. “I know.” And he pronounces it perfectly.
Wood knows this because he has immersed himself in Jewish studies and Hebrew in the hope of converting one day and “becoming a member of the community.”
In fact, Jewish studies have become a chief priority for the earnest 37-year-old, who trained as an engineer and now works as an acoustics consultant. Books on Jewish philosophy, Israel, Hebrew and Holocaust memoirs, which he devours, are strewn about the apartment he shares with his wife, Lisa. Taped to the wall above his computer is a chart of a Hebrew keyboard.
“I am learning Hebrew for one purpose,” Wood tells The CJN. “To understand the Torah.” He shows a reporter his dog-eared copy of the Jerusalem Bible. Hebrew words he does not understand are highlighted in yellow marker. There aren’t many.
Wood is a fixture at Toronto’s Village Shul – a shlep, he concedes, from his home near Humber College in Etobicoke, where his wife is studying to become a nurse. She too has joined him on his path to Judaism and attends synagogue with him each Shabbat and, sometimes, during the week for women’s classes.
“It’s not easy for us to go to any synagogue,” Wood says. “We want to move closer to Bathurst Street so we can be more exposed.”
Wood’s exotic story began in his native Tianjin, a city southeast of Beijing. He was raised in a “totally secular” family (like many Chinese, he feels that Buddhism and Confucianism are cultural forces rather than religions). Ironically, his first contact with Judaism came by way of Christian missionaries he met at university about 15 years ago.
“They gave me a Christian Bible, Old and New Testaments. I started to learn it and went to a few churches,” he recalls. Comparing the Christian sources with the Tanach, “I found something was wrong. I said, ‘This is the opposite of the Torah.’ [Christians] borrowed and twisted Judaism into something else.”
Wood knew virtually nothing about Judaism. “I heard about this other ‘ism,’” he says, “but that’s all.” He began reading Jewish sources such as Maimonides and Martin Buber, and went online to discover more.
“This made a tremendous intellectual impact on me,” he says.
Soon, he was leading Bible study groups and he visited a Chabad centre in Beijing. He encountered a few other Chinese who shared his interest. Officially, the Communist government recognizes just five religions, and Judaism isn’t one of them. “As long as religion is private and not against the government, they don’t care,” Wood says.
He also began to learn Hebrew. “That was very hard for me. There was no material. It took me a year to figure out how to write a daled.”
Wood also began listening to distant radio broadcasts about Israel and why Jews should “return” there. That intrigued him. He was more used to Chinese media depictions of Israel as an aggressor and an American proxy.
A friend directed him to Canada, and he arrived in 2005. It was only after he left that he discovered Tianjin had a synagogue that was built in 1939 by Russian refugees.
As a gentile – for now – Wood feels a duty to defend Israel. “I’m quite right-wing on Israel,” he says. “The surrender of land is wrong. China once tried land for peace, and that dynasty collapsed.”
Today, Wood firmly believes the Torah “is based on fact, not blind belief.”
He also blogs in Mandarin on Jewish affairs at jewishjournal.com/you_tai_ren.
In all, he says, “I feel very comfortable here.”
From Aaron’s Blog: