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Following in the footsteps Jack Kerouac never trod

Updated: 2012-05-29 11:08
By David Reiss ( China Daily)

Following in the footsteps Jack Kerouac never trod

I think it was Jack Kerouac who wrote that everybody should have the experience of total solitude at least once in life. The same could be said about living in a very foreign culture - it forces one to come to terms with a lot of beliefs that might be otherwise taken for granted.

I was thinking aloud to my girlfriend about what the people at Babaoshan Cemetery might be thinking about my being there on a sunny, nearly silent, Sunday afternoon.

The public sections of the cemetery are for national heroes and important members of the early Chinese Communist Party. Perhaps, I thought to myself, the slightly curious people there might conclude that I was a student of history. In this they would be correct, as I am not only a student of history, but also a teacher.

Perhaps, I said aloud, they might think that I was coming to pay respects to somebody who once did a favor to a family member of mine.

Following in the footsteps Jack Kerouac never trod

Many Jews escaped the Holocaust by way of China and it is not inconceivable that a distant and unknown relative of mine might have been saved by one of China's national heroes.

In the middle of the most important cemetery in China was a woman whose name was not only Yiddish, but who shared the same family name with me. Her tomb included a dignified picture of her during her later years, and I froze when I read her name. Large Roman letters spelled the name "Manya Reiss."

I couldn't believe my eyes. I tried to recall the proper Jewish prayer to recite by a gravesite, but not having been to a synagogue in several years, my memory failed me. Even so, I managed to recall a few words of Hebrew to the same effect, "Hashem yishmarehu", or "God watch over you".

We continued on our tour, looking for the national heroes my girlfriend had read about as a student in school but it was almost closing time and the presence of a security guard made it clear that it was time to go.

As we were about to leave the cemetery, the words of the prayer I had forgotten, sprung into my mind and I felt I would be leaving something very important unfinished if I were to leave without saying the prayer by her grave.

We made our way quickly back and the same security guard was there. I was definitely pushing my luck, but I asked my girlfriend to explain to him that I had forgotten to put some food at her grave and that I felt it was my duty to do so. He understood and I said I would only be a moment.

I recited the first line of the "Kaddish" prayer, which is recited for the deceased (hence Allen Ginsberg's dedication of his poem of the same name to his mother after her passing). I whispered the words "yis-Gadol v'yis-Kadosh sh'mey Rabbah" - "May His Name be Exalted and Sanctified." I deposited a bright red strawberry on the cold gray stone of her grave and made good on my promise to the kind security guard to make it quick.

When I got home, I looked up Manya Reiss on the Internet. She was a founding member of the Communist Party in America, and she was an important journalist and member of the Party here in China. Our family does hail from the same part of the world (the constantly shifting borderlands of late 19th century Russia), but whether or not we are actually related is a fact probably lost to the sands of time. Until its publication in the last decade, a novel co-written by Kerouac and William S. Burroughs was also lost to the sands of time.

In it is described Kerouac's dream of visiting China, a dream he was never able to realize. I consider myself very fortunate to have been able to realize that dream. In some ways China, as I expected it would be, is totally different from anywhere I have ever lived. But every place has its surprises.

Manya Reiss was a surprise for me - one that spirited away many of my feelings of being out of place.

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