Erica Cohen Lyons is the founder and editor-in-chief of Asian Jewish Life as well as a freelance writer. When I first moved to Asia, an Israeli friend of mine immediately put me in contact with Erica and her wonderful magazine. This connection allowed me to start creating a regional Jewish community for myself, and who better to help support that aim than a woman like Erica who has made Hong Kong her home and whose mission is to create community. Let’s get to know Erica and learn from her.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I’ve been living in Hong Kong with my husband and children for over thirteen years. Hong Kong is home. We’re American and a big piece of our hearts is in Israel too. I am a recovering lawyer who has followed my passion and become a writer and editor with a strong focus on the Jewish world. When not working, I focus on family, volunteer work for the Hong Kong Jewish community, reading, running, hiking, and traveling.
How do you connect to Judaism?
Our synagogue, Ohel Leah Synagogue, is a very central part of our live. We attend services weekly on Shabbat and I am on the management council for the synagogue as well as an active member of the board of the Hong Kong Jewish Historical Society. Built in 2001, it is one of the oldest synagogues in the region, in continuous use since its establishment. Being connected with a place so rooted in tradition is an incredible feeling. Our children attend Carmel School, currently the region’s only through-train for Jewish education (U.S. preschool-grade 12). Having a family and living far from family has more firmly grounded our Jewish life.
How do you prepare to host people for a holiday meal or celebration?
I am slightly embarrassed to admit, but one of the many great advantages of living in Hong Kong is the affordability of domestic help. We have a lovely amah (Chinese word for nanny) who has been with us for thirteen years and happens to be a tremendous cook. She is the one who remembers to buy challah every week and restock our kosher grape juice. It will certainly be a shock to my system to one day have to host on my own. Our group of friends are also always more than willing to pitch in and even cook together before the holiday.
How does the ideal holiday celebration look and feel to you?
The ideal holiday celebration is one that includes and involves all members of the family. When our children were younger, this was easier to accomplish, but it is somewhat more difficult with teenagers. Having them attend a Jewish day school makes this easier as their year moves in the same rhythm.
Leading up to, during, and after the holidays, how do you reconnect with yourself?
The holidays are my chance to reconnect with myself and to focus on what is important. It’s easy to get caught up in things that lack substance and meaning in our daily lives. The Jewish calendar builds in time that “forces” you to slow down and break from routine. Incidentally, the Chinese calendar is lunar and there is some overlap in the timing of festivals. For example, Mid Autumn Festival falls on Sukkot, making it even easier to carve out the time.
What is one of your most memorable holiday experiences?
My most memorable holiday experience was the first time I observed my children being active participants in the seder: able to read, ask meaningful questions, and incorporate their learning from school into responses to others’ questions. It was one of those lightbulb-type moments where you could see them evolving and making connections. Pesach has always been my favorite holiday. Being a natural storyteller, I appreciate a good narrative and especially love how with each read, new details and questions emerge.
What’s your absolute favorite holiday dish?
I have been a vegetarian since I was thirteen, so there are many traditional dishes that I can do without. That being said, my mother began making a vegetarian “chopped liver” for me using eggplant as a base.
Do you have any nontraditional holiday rituals or habits?
My non-traditional holiday “tradition” has been to surround myself with friends on holidays. Growing up, we didn’t have extended family with whom to celebrate the holidays. A group of family friends, with similar situations, banded together and spent every holiday together after that. Moving to Asia in 2002 was easy for me having grown up with such an expansive notion of family.
While some friends in the U.S. remark on how difficult it must be for us on the holidays, we have never felt that sense of loss. The Jewish community in Hong Kong is very close knit. Our friends here quickly became our family. While being with their actual first cousins is always special when we return to the U.S., my children have grown up with a very liberal understanding of who is family and as well as a very fluid definition of home. This experience has also diversified our holiday menus. Spending so much time with Jews from all over the world creates a very colourful and blended holiday experience.
What was something that your mother (or another influential figure) shared with you about the holidays that has stuck with you?
My mother taught me that you can choose your family. She also taught me to make holidays special. While to her this was pulling out her fine china, silver, and crystal, for my husband and I it is more about including some aspect of family Jewish learning and working together to create our own traditions.
We have spent every Pesach with one family, and have expanded to include many others, since arriving here 13 years ago. They created a way to keep children (and adults) engaged throughout the seder by giving prizes of chocolate squares for questions relevant to the section we are reading and then squares for the best answers. This is a tradition we definitely plan to continue for many years.
What’s your number one tip or trick you’ve discovered that makes the holidays smoother, more positive and meaningful for you?
I love the chaos of holidays. I enjoy having inadvertently invited “too many” people and also jump at the opportunity to include others at the last minute. Once you let go of the idea that everything needs to be perfect, you can enjoy the time with family and friends, and reflect on the true meaning of the holiday.
Erica, thank you for sharing. I particularly love your comment about creating community wherever you are, and including non-family in your celebrations, as well as how you love and invite in the chaos (me too)!
This post is part of our Chag Notebook series where we interview inspiring women and men about their approach to the holidays.
What most inspired you about Erica’s experiences?