March 8, 2011
Unearthing China’s hidden Jewish past
When Shi Lei finished a presentation about China’s hidden Jewish past recently, his California State University, Northridge (CSUN), audience was full of questions.
They wanted to know more about the former synagogue in Shi’s hometown of Kaifeng and about his Jewish ancestors who settled there 1,000 years ago. One yenta, however, had more contemporary concerns on her mind:
“Is there a nice Jewish girl back in China for you to marry?”
Perhaps, but there can’t be too many, given that only about 500 people in Kaifeng, a city of more than 4 million in eastern China, identify themselves as Jews. How that came to be is a largely untold story that goes back centuries.
“I don’t think many people hear about Chinese Jews in Kaifeng,” Shi told the capacity crowd of about 100 on March 2. The tour guide, who has studied in Israel, visited the university as part of a cross-country speaking tour.
Originally, the Jewish merchants who were his ancestors came from Persia to China via the Silk Road. The first to settle was a group of about 1,000 that arrived in the late 10th or early 11th century. At the time, Kaifeng was China’s capital, and they were received by the emperor.
Shi said the emperor was pleased with their wares and happy to welcome them into his country. They were allowed to follow their own customs and even received citizenship. There was one problem, though.
“The emperor was confused about the names of these Jews. How to pronounce their names? No clue. What to do?” Shi said.
An easy solution, he said, was to give them the emperor’s own surname and those of his six ministers.
In 1163, the Jews bought property downtown and built their first synagogue, its size and location evidence of the merchants’ success. The structure, which no longer exists, mimicked the architecture of Asian temples.
Eventually, Shi explained, the Jewish community realized that the path to success in China was not through business but by civil service. In a way, this led to the community’s undoing.
“They [became] more and more involved in Chinese learning, but somehow at the expense of their Judaic studies,” Shi said.
Over time, they became ignorant of Jewish practices and began to intermarry. Their last rabbi died in 1810, and after rebuilding the synagogue numerous times over the years due to river floodings, they abandoned it in the 1850s.
“They forgot, in a word, all the Jewish practices,” Shi said.
They did not forget, however, their roots. The fact that they came from a Jewish background continued to be relayed from generation to generation as part of the culture’s stress on ancestor worship.
“These words — ‘You are Jewish. You are from Israel.’ — get passed down,” Shi said.
He speaks from experience. Always filled with a desire to go to Israel, the 33-year-old studied there for several years before returning to Kaifeng. Others have followed his example.
While Shi said that Israel does not consider the Jews of Kaifeng to be Jewish according to halachah, the community in China is in the process of revival. Individuals study Hebrew together, and even though there is no rabbi or synagogue, they celebrate major holidays and Shabbat in their own way.
Some physical reminders of the ancient community still exist. Inscribed stone monuments provide evidence of its history, not to mention Torahs and manuscripts housed around the world. (The Skirball Cultural Center offers occasional exhibitions on the Jews of Kaifeng and permits private group tours of related items from its collection.) Little remains in Kaifeng, however, where Shi has turned his grandparents’ house into a mini-museum dedicated to the city’s Jewish history.
He takes joy in talking about his past, like how the Jews of generations past circumvented a requirement to have a tablet in every house of worship praising the emperor by adding the word “shema” in golden Hebrew letters above the required inscription, indicating that God was above all else.
But he likes talking about the future, too.
“The community died,” he said. “Now it’s living again.”
Jody Myers, coordinator of the Jewish studies program at CSUN, said she believes Shi’s presentation offers an important way to remind people that Jews can be found across the globe.
“It’s a way to really show that we are a diverse people and we’re very interesting,” she said.
Shi’s speaking tour was sponsored by Kulanu. The New York-based nonprofit, whose name means “all of us” in Hebrew, supports isolated and emerging Jewish communities around the world.
“Kulanu stands for the idea that the Jewish world is a diverse world, that not all Jews are white or American or Israeli, that there are Jews in places you never thought of,” said Harriet Bograd, the organization’s president. “We think that American Jews are enriched by a knowledge of that.”