Kaifeng Jews Help Art Dealer Finish Four-Decade Trip to China

Gallery owner Norman Tolman’s debut collection in Shanghai brings to mind one of those travel quizzes that tease with an unidentified photo and ask, “Where are we?”

One painting shows a towering gate with a Chinese idiom declaring the city blessed by the nation and heaven. In the crowd below are men wearing Jewish yarmulkes atop their queues, the traditional imperial braided ponytails. Another depicts a synagogue at Rosh Hashanah, the congregation in long robes and white shawls, the rabbi reading from the Torah. Carved mahogany screens and a Chinese incense burner complete the scene.

The exhibit of 21 paintings takes us to Kaifeng, along the Yellow River 375 miles southwest of Beijing, starting around the 11th century. Jewish merchants from Persia traveling the Silk Road passed through the city, capital of the Song Dynasty (960-1279).

Some stayed. They built a synagogue in 1163 and took Chinese surnames. At its peak around the 1600s, Kaifeng’s Jewish population was about 5,000. Then, isolation, intermarriage, war, poverty and floods decimated the community and culture. Today, only a few hundred Kaifeng residents (who look Chinese) identify themselves as Jewish. They have little knowledge of Judaism and its traditions.

Kaifeng’s Jewish history motivated Tolman to commission Yin Xin, a Chinese native based in Paris, to illustrate the ancient community. “I may be known as the guy who dared to tell Chinese they’re Jews, and the Jews, they’re Chinese,” said Tolman, 71, in an interview at the Shanghai exhibition. He has displayed the acrylic paintings at his galleries in New York, and Tokyo, where he lives.

Chance Remark

Tolman first heard of Kaifeng’s Jews while studying Mandarin and Asian linguistics at the University of California in Berkeley. A professor mentioned them in class and Tolman, who is not Jewish, read up on the subject out of curiosity.

After earning a master’s degree, he headed to China. During a short stop in Tokyo, Tolman said he was waylaid by Japanese art. He opened his first gallery in 1972, specializing in modern Japanese graphics, and expanded into publishing.

About six years ago, itching to do something new, Tolman visited China and decided to try business there. He brought Japanese prints to art fairs in China and last year arranged a small exhibit in Tokyo of contemporary Chinese artists.

To launch the Tolman Collection in Shanghai, the art dealer said he wanted something “I thought no one else knew about.” He remembered Kaifeng’s Jewry. Tolman had previously bought several of Yin’s depictions of Han Chinese and ethnic minorities in pre- 1949 China, before Communist rule, so he asked Yin to paint the historic Jews.

Chinese Bar Mitzvah

Yin did research at the Musee d’art et d’histoire du Judaisme in Paris. Besides portraying actual people, he recreated a meeting between Jews and the Chinese emperor, a Jewish school and an 18th- century bar mitzvah. The artist’s prevalent browns and grays add somberness and almost palpable weight to his subjects, reminiscent of Van Gogh’s “The Potato Eaters.”

In the background of some of the paintings, Yin has added footnotes in red, Chinese characters. For instance, one says that the woman hidden in a dark robe and white scarf and holding a red rose was widowed on her wedding date 45 years ago.

Tolman is a latecomer to China’s gallery scene, which has expanded dramatically in the past few years, fueled by soaring prices of Chinese contemporary art. He joins other foreign-owned galleries in the city such as Gallery Leda Fletcher, Msg.art, Art Scene China and ShanghART, which has a solo show of Liang Shaoji works until Oct. 15. Tolman said he’s not worried about arriving late, nor that his gallery is removed from Moganshan and the other art districts.

Art Fair

His opening in Shanghai coincided with SH Contemporary, the city’s latest attempt to develop a top international art fair, which ran last week. Aside from the Kaifeng Jews, Tolman will show what he knows best — Japanese art, “in a place where Japanese aren’t supposed to be beloved,” he said.

“The Chinese shouldn’t hate it because of the people who made it,” said Tolman, adding that he wants to “take nationality out of art.” Tolman plans to bring works by young Thai, Vietnamese and Korean artists to his Shanghai space.“I want Shanghai people to be more international,” he said. “We’re supposed to be educating, teaching people.”

“The Story of the Kaifeng Jews,” Tolman Collection, Shanghai, Villa A, Ruijin Hotel, 118 Ruijin Second Road, through Sept. 16. Contact +86-21-5466-1002 or https://www.tolmantokyo.com .

For more photos, click here.

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