Children’s book author Richard Ho knows that many people embrace a new religion with a born-again fervour. They are overwhelmed with emotion once they see the light. In contrast, his journey to becoming an Orthodox Jew didn’t include a great deal of drama.
“For me, it started off as an intellectual exercise,” Ho tells Pancouver over Zoom.
While the Harvard University grad acknowledges feeling the spiritual pull of Judaism, he stresses that he was drawn in by the faith’s rational thought, rules, and laws.
“There is a structure to it that I found very appealing and I didn’t find in a lot of other religions,” Ho states. “That was the beginning. After college, I started learning more and more.”
Even though he never attended law school, Ho really appreciated studying Gemara in Talmud. The friendly author likens it to breaking down case law. According to Ho, Gemara’s logical derivations appealed to the scientific, rational side of his mind. A few years after leaving Harvard, he chose to become a Jew.
“At that point, I decided I was going to do an Orthodox conversion because that’s the most universally accepted,” Ho says. “I figured if I’m going to do it, I’m going to go all the way.”
On Wednesday (February 14), Ho will deliver a free lecture about his book, Two New Years, at Vancouver Talmud Torah School as part of the Cherie Smith JCC Jewish Book Festival. It revolves around a family with Chinese and Jewish roots who celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Lunar New Year.
Ho saw similarities between New Year celebrations
When Ho set out to write Two New Years, he had a much wider lens, hoping to cover the convergence of Chinese and Jewish cultures. He planned to draw parallels over the cycle of life—including birth, growing into adulthood, and marriage.
“It quickly got out of hand,” Ho concedes. “That’s not a children’s book. That’s like an encyclopedia.”
So, he narrowed the focus to the New Year celebrations in both cultures. From there, it became a matter of lining up the customs on each side and looking for similar themes to connect them together.
“That’s something I noticed right away as I was starting to learn about Judaism,” he says.
Food was an obvious avenue of exploration. Both cultures embrace fish on the New Year. Jews serve this dish on Rosh Hashanah in “the hope that families will be fruitful and grow”, according to the book. Chinese people see fish as a symbol of abundance.
Two New Years also highlights how Simanim, which means “signs” in Hebrew, are symbolic foods served with the first meal of Rosh Hashanah. They include pomegranates, black-eyed peas, leeks, beets, spinach, and other foods, which are supposed to bring good luck. And both cultures serve round foods on their New Year—sweet rice balls filled with black sesame paste for Chinese people, and a traditional bread called challah for Jewish folks.
That’s not all. Ho points out in his book that traditional Chinese and Jewish calendars are both lunisolar, which is based on the Earth’s orbit. This is the case even though their New Year celebrations begin at different times of the year. In addition, people wear new clothes on both Rosh Hashanah and Lunar New Year.
Author praises illustrator Lynn Scurfield
Illustrated by Canadian Lynn Scurfield, Two New Years won the Sydney Taylor Book Award and a National Jewish Book Award. In his interview with Pancouver, Ho expresses deep admiration for Scurfield’s work. This extends to her decision to incorporate a paper-cutting technique common to Jewish and Chinese cultures.
Scurfield has Asian ancestry and her step-family is Jewish, so she had already knew about Rosh Hashanah and Lunar New Year.
“It’s just been amazing to work with her,” Ho says enthusiastically. “There is just so much about her work that is perfect for this story.”
Ho chose Judaism. His four sons, on the other hand, were born Chinese and Jewish.
“Although I see it as two separate traditions that are mixed together, they see it as just their tradition,” Ho states. “I always love that idea that when you’re born into something like that, there is no conflict there. There’s no distinction. It is what it is. It’s a beautiful blend. I really envy that about them.”
They live in Passaic, New Jersey, where every synagogue is Orthodox.
“It’s a very embracing, open community—very open to diversity and different backgrounds,” the author states. “That’s why I found it so appealing.”
He’s far from unique in being a Jew of Asian ancestry. Moreover, he points out that the Jews lived for centuries in the Chinese city of Kaifeng in the province of Hunan.
“There are Chinese people today that can race their ancestry back to the Kaifeng community, which is interesting,” Ho says. “In recent years, I think a number of them have actually made Aliyah and moved to Israel. And some of them are in the process of conversion.”
Parents came from Hong Kong
He adds that there isn’t a strong structured community of Jewish converts. However, if he sees a convert in the news or on the street, he feels a bit of a gravitational pull toward them because of their similar backgrounds.
“I’ve noticed more and more that there are people that look like me—and I love that,” Ho reveals. “But at the same time, I’ve never felt that was the defining trait of my Judaism. The community here has been really great about embracing me wholeheartedly without necessarily looking at my race as something that they need to focus on.”
Ho’s parents immigrated to America from Hong Kong in the 1970s, settling in New York City. His dad was not religious at all, whereas his mother has a couple of Buddhist traditions that she has followed throughout her life.
They lived in the Bronx before moving to suburban Westchester County when Ho was in the first grade. His first Jewish experience came while attending his friend Jason Woliner’s bar mitzvah, which had a Star Trek theme. Woliner was a child actor who played the bratty kid in Weekend at Bernie’s before growing up to become a film director.
“He was a very outgoing, theatrical sort of kid,” Ho says. “I remember his bar mitzvah being amazing. It was just like a show.”
Inspired by Linsanity
However, it wasn’t until Ho entered university that he started looking at Judaism on a more serious level.
Ho’s next children’s book, which comes out in April, will also explore identity from a different perspective. He has always been a New York Knicks fan, which led him to write about basketball star Jeremy Lin. If Lin Can: How Jeremy Lin Inspired Asian Americans to Shoot for the Stars is illustrated by Huynh Kim Liên and Phùng Nguyên Quang.
Ho emphasizes that it’s not a straightforward picture-book, cradle-to-grave biography of Lin, whose parents emigrated from Taiwan. A Harvard grad, Lin’s explosive start in the 2011-12 season spawned intense adulation among his fans, which came to be known as Linsanity.
“He’s like the skeleton structure for exploring how this trio of nameless Asian American kids are witnessing his rise and using that to empower themselves in their own dreams,” Ho explains. “It was more about writing this book for the theoretical five-year-old me who would have been so thrilled to see this happening.”
The Cherie Smith JCC Jewish Book Festival will present Richard Ho in a free lecture at 10 a.m. on Wednesday (February 14) at Vancouver Talmud Torah School. This event is sponsored by Esther Chetner. The festival continues until February 15. An additional event with The Wolf Hunt author Ayelet Gundar-Goshen is scheduled on February 25.