An Israeli Visits Kaifeng

My name is Gavriel. I am 23 years old from Tel Aviv, Israel. After finishing a 3 year army service I decided, as is fairly popular among young Israelis upon finishing their army service, to go traveling for a few months. I decided to travel to the Far East, choosing China as my primary destination. It’s a complicated and interesting country, possibly now more than ever, and I ended up spending over 5 months traveling there.

I started my travels in Beijing, where I landed in mid-November. About a week later, on a day train to the city of Datong, an important historical Buddhist center, I decided to go to Kaifeng, which I knew to be the ancient capital of China and the home of China’s oldest Jewish community.

Having not prepared for this, having no real knowledge about the city, I spent quite some time trying to find out as much information as possible. I read a couple of guidebooks, which were helpful in information about the city itself – tourist sites, accommodation, etc. – and which had very little information about the Jewish history there. I remembered having read an article or two and having watched a TV program or two about the subject in the past, but I had only a vague recollection of those. I thus turned to the internet. The net proved itself, as always, to be a good source for information. Some of the sites I found were actually promotional sites – some for books, some for companies arranging Jewish history tours in China. Of all the sites containing a good historical background on the subject, two noteworthy ones are those of the Sino-Judaic institute ( https://www.sino-judaic.org ) and Beit Hatfutsot ( https://www.bh.org.il ). Each of these websites contained an interesting in-depth account of the city’s Jewish history.

I thus arrived in Kaifeng in late November of 2005 with some knowledge about the city’s Jewish and other history. I was, however, faced with a question that seemed almost impossible to answer – I had some knowledge about the Jewish history in the city and about the city itself, but absolutely no clue about real Jewish life in modern day Kaifeng. How do I begin exploring this in a place where I don’t speak the local language and don’t know anyone who can help me?

I contacted Rabbi Anson Laytner of the SJI through the institution’s website. He replied quickly, providing me with the details of his contact – Prof. Zhang Qianlong, head of the Institute of Jewish studies at Henan University. I tried to contact her and kept looking for something that could help me find a way to contact today’s Jewish descendants in the city. I spent the next 3 days walking around town, seeing the local tourist attractions and trying to find out as much further information as possible on the internet. Finding information regarding Jewish life nowadays turned out to be quite difficult for more than one reason. As I mentioned, information about modern Jewish life in Kaifeng is hardly available on the internet. But suppose I did find it – what would I actually be looking for? I knew that there was no religious aspect to Jewish life in modern day’s Kaifeng and I hardly expected to find any organized Jewish establishment there. I didn’t even know if I would find anyone who speaks English – pretty important, considering the fact that I don’t speak any Chinese… To top it all off, the best information I could find about independent visits to Kaifeng were very discouraging posts on internet forums – threads started by people seeking the same information as me were answered only by people who had come out of Kaifeng disappointed at not finding any trace of the alleged Jews there.

I thus spent the first few days of my visit to Kaifeng reading discouraging reports and seeing the city’s main tourist attractions. I found it to be a very pleasant, laid-back city. The city obviously lacked a very important feature that characterized the other cities I’d been in before – tourists. In the 5 days I spent in Kaifeng I only counted 3 other foreigners in the entire city, of whom I spoke to 2. The lack of foreigners was a refreshing change and meant that I got a more impartial impression of the day-to-day life led by the city’s inhabitants, regardless of annoying tourists. One thing that stood out was the city’s night market, which is the nicest, most authentic one I’ve found in China. The very prominent Muslim population is very nice and inviting. Though the Muslims at the local mosque spoke no Arabic, they were quite happy to meet someone who did and responded with surprise and interest. And they make the best food in town (with no pork on the menu!). The “iron pagoda” was nice though unremarkable. Longting Park was a pleasant place to spend an afternoon. The Shanshangan guild hall was nice too. The old synagogue’s well was exactly what it was said to be – a well in a boiler room, attended by Chinese laborers. All of these sites were nice, though not enough to justify a special trip to Kaifeng.

I also saw the municipal museum, a boring grey group of exhibitions in a boring grey building. The exhibition about the Jewish history was a little underwhelming and less than what I expected. A museum worker took me up to the forsaken 4th floor of the museum, and opened the door leading to the exhibition. When he turned on the lights it was made quite clear that the place is not visited too often. It was quite dusty and dark. The exhibits are all located in one room; it seemed that the adjacent, smaller room was being prepared to display some more exhibits though none were on display at the time. The items on display were all in Chinese, as were the signs accompanying the various exhibits, of which very little, if at all, was translated into English. Only based on my prior reading did I realize the importance of these items. This being said, the visit to the museum was definitely worth my time as it enabled me to visualize some of the things I had read about.

Here it would be interesting to mention a coincidence that occurred a few weeks later, in Xi’an. I was waiting for a friend in his hotel. While waiting, I started talking with an Australian woman who worked in China as an English teacher. She said she had a friend who was very interested in Kaifeng’s Jewish history, and that this friend had decided to take it upon herself to translate all of the exhibits in the above mentioned exhibition into English. It was quite a funny coincidence that I happened to meet another person who’d actually been to Kaifeng, let alone come to know such interesting and pleasant information. That conversation was brief and lasted only about 10 minutes, and I didn’t get any more information about the matter. I don’t know if her friend’s intentions were serious or if they were carried out. This was in December, and quite some time has passed – it would be very nice to go back now and see the entire exhibition accompanied with comprehensive English translations and explanations. If it has not yet been done – it’s definitely a task well worth undertaking.

On the morning of my 3 rd day in Kaifeng, I met Jason – a local tour guide tricycle driver who spoke English and offered to take me around town. I tried my luck, telling him that I wasn’t interested in going around town but only in meeting some of the city’s Jewish inhabitants. I was fairly surprised when he said that he could arrange that. He said he knows some Jews and could take me to meet them on the next day. I immediately agreed and we set a date for the next morning.

When I met Jason the next morning, we got right to it. I got on the tricycle and he started pedaling towards the old synagogue. Jason is not his real name, only the English name he chose for himself as many Chinese do nowadays, to make communication with foreigners easier. He is a self-taught English speaker and speaks relatively good English. He is a devout Christian and so on the way he kept reciting full passes from the new and Old Testament in English with great pride. He told me about some other foreigners that he’d taken around the city, of whom many were Jews, interested in meeting other Jews. He thus came to know a few Jews around town. After I told him I’d already seen the old synagogue well, we turned into what later turned out to be “Teaching the Torah Lane South”?. This narrow alleyway, built in the old traditional Chinese style, is very close to the place of the old synagogue. This is where the Jewish community was centered in the past and where some of the Jewish descendants still live today. This is, geographically speaking, very close to both the center of the old walled city and to the place of the municipal market – a location that seems to indicate some importance, as it was given to the Jews by the authorities with the intention of them making it their home.

Within the lane, we stopped by just another house and got off the tricycle. In the front courtyard there was a sowing circle of three elderly women. Jason turned to one of them, introduced me to her and told her why I was there. She said hello. She left the sowing circle and invited us into her house. The house was made of one room which had in it a kitchen, a bed, and a table at which we sat. The house seemed rather old and gloomy, and was spotted with Judaica – hanukiot (Hanukkah candelabras), hamsot (“no evil eye” hands), Hebrew signs, drawings of the old Jewish synagogue etc. I even spotted a mezuzah on the doorstep.

We talked for a while. The conversation was held in English on my part and in Chinese on her part, with Jason the tricycle driver translating. She turned out to be Han Chinese and not Jewish by origin. This woman’s late husband was a prominent figure in the Jewish community and died only shortly before my arrival. She had accepted her husband’s religious beliefs and now believes in one god, according to Judaism. She also refrains from eating pork.

She has five daughters, whom she considers to be Jews – though if she was Jewish and not her husband, she would not consider them to be such. It was interesting to find out that in Chinese culture a child’s religion is decided according to his or her father’s religion (like in Islam) as opposed to Judaism where the child is considered Jewish if the mother is Jewish. This raises the obvious halachic (Jewish legal) problems in recognizing these people as Jews. None of the people I talked to knew that in Judaism it’s the mother’s religion that determines the child’s religion and no one seemed to care too much.

On the wall were pictures of her late husband and his family. She claimed the menorah and mezuzah were centuries old. It was obvious, going by the amount of Judaica objects and pictures and English and Hebrew on the walls, that she was visited by other foreigners before us. And indeed she said the house was frequented by foreigners – especially Jews – who come to meet her (and her husband, in the past) quite often. She said that she is in touch with other Jews in Kaifeng, but not in contact with Jews from outside of Kaifeng. She claimed that in their family, like in other families in Kaifeng, the Jewish identity results in almost no religious customs – they don’t take the tendons out of the meat like people used to do and they don’t conduct any religious ceremonies such as Bar Mitzvah, Brit or weddings.

Before we came into her house, Jason warned me that this woman is a little weird. I kept asking questions, about Jewish life in general and her family’s life in particular. At some point, with no prior warning, she asked us to leave. She tried to sell me some of the artifacts she had in her house just before that. I thought I’d asked too many questions, Jason said she expected me to give her some money or something. This way or the other, we were told to leave and so we did. Indeed, a weird weary old woman.

It seemed like this woman was used to meeting foreigners and was expecting some sort of payment for her hospitality – not exactly the warm welcome I was expecting. Moreover, this made me feel like she was beyond any interest in meeting foreign people, like she was at the point where her entire interest was in taking advantage of the opportunity to sell something and get money or gifts. This made me feel a little uncomfortable and not particularly welcome, even before we were told to leave.

I had come out of this encounter thinking that Jews are truly assimilated in Kaifeng – that marriages and trade relations have brought them to be a fully equal part of the local society. And yet it was weird to see just to what extent this household was keen on showing that it was different – with the amount of Judaica artifacts on her walls, with the silent statement of having a mezuzah on her doorstep. I thus didn’t know exactly what to expect from the other Jews in Kaifeng, when we left “Teaching the Torah Lane South” and headed out to meet another Jewish family that Jason is acquainted with.

After a short while we arrived in another neighborhood, still within the walled city (which we didn’t leave during the entire day). There, out in the street where we stopped, we met another woman, who was younger than the first woman. She took us up to her apartment in the top floor of an apartment building, which was dirtier and seemed to imply a lower socio-economic status than the house we’d just been to – which didn’t seem to suggest a very high standard of living to begin with. As we entered the apartment, two things stood out: a mezuzah on the kitchen doorstep and a seemingly old picture of a man in traditional clothes which hung on the wall. In the house were this woman and an older woman, who was lying in the next room. We were very pleasantly invited to sit at the kitchen table and were served some tea. The hospitality was much warmer than in the first house and there was some festivity attached to this uncalled visit by a foreigner so interested in this Jewish family. We sat down and started talking. Once again, Jason explained who I was and what I was doing there. The woman who hosted us also introduced herself as Han, not Jewish, and spoke of her late Jewish husband as the reason for her adopting Jewish customs and beliefs.

It seemed to me at this point that due to gender-related reasons, women were probably expected to give up their religion in favor of that of their husbands. In addition, the two women I’d met spoke of themselves as Han and not as Jews, so to say that they could not turn into Jews overnight, not even by marriage. Unlike other minorities, such as Muslims who dress and look different, this woman could not be told apart from any other Chinese person. Both women I’d met accepted Jewish religion, but there was a clear separation between that and being Jewish, which seemed to be a term describing one’s ethnic origins. It is interesting to see the dichotomy they make between the two parts of their identity – ethnic identity and religion (which are accompanied by nationality to fully define one’s reference group). Both of the women I’d met were Han Chinese who accepted Jewish faith and considered their children to be Jewish. I was later to find out that there are some who do identify being Jewish with Jewish ethnicity, or “blood”.

I have no idea as to what this woman was doing before I came in, and we did not give any prior notice but rather just showed up at her doorstep – and yet she accepted us very nicely and hosted me and was quite happy to accept this visit from a foreigner. As we started talking, I looked around the room. In the pantry, visible from the kitchen, was a picture of an old man with a black cloth wrapped around it and incense burning in front of it. Apparently this woman’s Jewish husband died only a little over a week before my arrival. This was definitely a Chinese, non-Jewish custom, to burn incense before a picture of the deceased. They were still mourning, of course, though there was no official [Jewish] mourning process like “shiv’ah”. This man was, as his wife told me, a public official. She explained that in the past, special permission from the government was required to speak to foreigners – to make sure that they weren’t spies, she said. It wasn’t clear whether she meant that everyone needed such permission or only the Jews. In any case, since her husband was a public official, their house was rather frequently visited by foreigners in the past. I could only imagine what it meant to meet foreign Jewish (and other) delegations, while representing both the local Jewish community and the Chinese government.

We talked for a while. I, the weird big-nosed foreigner, answered some questions about my travels, who I was and why I was there. I also asked some questions. The picture on the wall, depicting a man in traditional mandarin clothes, which seemed to be quite old, depicts (according to the woman) one of her late husband’s ancestors from centuries ago. He migrated to China with his father and grew up to become an honorable Jewish mandarin. I learned that they are in contact with some other Jewish families in Kaifeng.

As we were talking, a man came into the house – this turned out to be her son. From the moment of his arrival, the focus of the conversation shifted from his mother to him, and we chatted for a while. He is a cook in the county university, and had just come home from work. Unlike his mother, who considers herself a converted Han, he thinks of himself as Jewish “first-hand”?. He had been in a synagogue in Shanghai once, but has no recollection of the event and knows “almost nothing”? about Judaism, other than what the rest of the Jews I met knew – he doesn’t eat pork and believes in one god. He had no knowledge about “shiv’ah” and mourned his father’s death at home for only 3 days after his father’s death. However, he said that his father was buried with a kipa (skull cap) on his head in a family graveyard which has been used for centuries, and is in another county. I wondered if I could see this cemetery but was told it was too far away.

According to this man, the last person in his family to be circumcised (he seemed to know what that means) was his great grandfather. He has relatives – the broader family is comprised of hundreds of people. One member of his family is in Israel and they stay in touch with telephone calls. Another member of his family (in Kaifeng) has a menorah and they light candles every Friday evening. He rests on Shabbat and refrains from working on that day. He said he would be very interested in studying more about Judaism and visiting Israel and his family there, but he has not enough time or money to do either. I asked about his family – his wife is not Jewish and does not believe in Judaism. He has a son whom he would like to go to Israel. When talking about this possibility regarding his son, his eyes shone. He was truly excited about the mere thought of such an option.

When this man talked, he kept swinging back and forth and not standing still. This reminded me a bit of a religious Jew praying, and I found the analogy to be funny.

After a while he escorted me downstairs. I got on the tricycle and, as Jason and I were about to leave, the man came to me, shook my hand and said “shalom”?. This one word gave me a new perspective for this matter and was more touching than hours of stories about familial history. It made it seem as though maybe we do share something after all. After this we left their home.

Jason mentioned a retired high-ranking public official, who, according to what he heard, is also Jewish. We went to one of the municipality office buildings and with the help of some workers there managed to locate this woman. We set pace towards her house. In a small street close to the Longting Park, Jason stopped the tricycle in front of a house enclosed by a wall. We knocked on the gate until finally someone came and, after asking who we were and why we were there, opened the door. As we got into the yard, it became clear that this house was in better condition than the previous ones we’d seen. It was a two storey house housing one family, and it was cleaner and of a higher standard than the previous houses we’d seen. The man who opened the door seemed to be in his 50s or 60s and led us into a nicely decorated house where he was busy cooking (he was wearing an apron). A woman of about the same age was sitting in the living room, playing with a baby. Like in the other houses into which we’d invited ourselves, this woman was obviously not expecting our arrival. Who would? A tricycle driver and a foreign “laowai” knocking on your door one day, with the intention of asking stupid questions in a weird language…definitely a surprise for any person doing housework of any kind in Kaifeng.

We sat down and started chatting. She was in every way like the Jewish grandmothers I know from home and other than the slanted eyes and language – in terms of attitude and what not – could just as well be of Polish descent. She was nice and inviting and did her best to make me comfortable. She was very excited to receive such a visit from a foreign Jew, saying that I was the first one she’d ever met. She herself is of Jewish descent. Her father and grandfather were Jewish merchants and they received visits from American and Italian Jews in the 1940s. They were even invited more than once to Shanghai to study about Judaism there but were afraid of the Kuomintang, which she said persecuted Jews and this led them to hide their Jewish identity. Under Communist rule all this changed – she described life as better under the Communists, who saw Jews as equal citizens. Her brother was invited to Beijing in the 1950s as a representative of the Jews when all the different minority groups were invited to celebrate the October 1 st holiday.

It’s my impression that (at least until recent years) Jews were viewed as a minority, but not as one seeking political liberation and separation from the Chinese country or even cultural autonomy. The Jews who I met view themselves as Chinese Jews and do not seek any alternation of this status. I later read about the change of attitude towards Jews in the late 1990s, when they were required to register as either Han or Hui and not as Jews in the census. However I did not hear any complaints from the Jews I met about the government, be the reason what it may.

This woman in particular, having been a public official, is of course a member of the Communist Party. It’s not uncommon for minority groups, especially Jews in the West, to be the foundation on which Communist groups are based. She sees no contrast between viewing herself as Jewish and a devout Communist. She says that her Judaism is void of any religious meaning and thus there is no contradiction between recognizing her ethnic origins and her political beliefs. She is very proud at identifying herself as a Jew. She has never read the Bible or visited a synagogue, and she learned most of what she knows today from reading in books, newspapers and magazines. She explained that Jews are hard-working, that they put their children’s education as their top priority, and that they are brave. She was happy to say that China and Israel have good relations and seemed to know about Israel’s general situation. (Ariel Sharon, who was prime minister at the time, was very popular and admired everywhere in China). I told her about the Israeli version of Communism, in the form of the kibbutz , and she was interested in that. I asked if there were any other Jews in high ranking governmental positions, to which her answer was that she does not know who is Jewish, so she could not say. Her husband is not Jewish. She has two daughters who she is proud to describe as having “Jewish blood” and so, when I explained that in Judaism religion is decided according to the mother’s religion and not the father’s, she was happy.

It is necessary to say one more thing about our meeting; this woman seemed to be very intelligent and knowledgeable. She answered my questions at great length and with great detail. However, all of what she said to me and the things I said to her were said through a mediator – Jason – whose English is surprisingly good though not completely fluent. I heard some things about the Kaifeng Jews from the people I met that I didn’t know before and haven’t read since. This woman in particular was one of the people interviewed by the municipal museum director when he conducted research about the Jewish history of Kaifeng many years ago, though nobody has spoken with her about this matter since. I asked whatever few questions I could think of and she answered them fully. And yet it was clear that some, perhaps most, of the information was lost in translation and quite a lot of it was mistranslated. In some cases I knew more was said in Chinese than in English and could do nothing about it. There is probably more information to be had from this woman.

Seeing as I was the first foreign Jew – let alone Israeli – that this woman had ever met, she was very happy and excited to meet me. She told me, very seriously, that we are family and that I should not be embarrassed to turn to her if I ever had any problems in China. She offered me lunch and a drink. She enquired where I was sleeping and if I needed anything. And she asked me to come visit her again if ever I was in Kaifeng again and to tell my friends who go there to do the same. I was very sorry that I could not communicate with her directly, that I could not hear everything she wanted to say, and couldn’t say what I wanted. When the conversation ended, she escorted us on our way out. She explained to her grand-daughter who I was and tried to get her to communicate with me as well. We parted. It was probably one of the warmest welcomes I received in all of my travels in China.

Jason and I went back to my hotel. I could say by this time that I had found out what meaning there was in meeting real live people who are those you read about in books. Meeting these people was well worth the 3 days I spent in Kaifeng without doing anything significant, and it was an eye-opening experience in more than one way. I learned to make the connection with what’s written in textbooks about people and day-to-day reality. I learned about this remote and unique Jewish community. These encounters made me more aware of the problems Jews face in the Diaspora and more interested in how Israel and the religious Jewish establishment address these problems. And it also gave meaning for me to what ever it was that connected me in some odd way with these weird people who live in a place about which I can say that the geographical distance between us is only surpassed by the cultural one.

When I went back to my room, the first thing I did was to write down all that I had seen in notes, making sure I wouldn’t forget anything. I went to an internet café and wrote some emails. I recalled Prof. Zhang – head of the Institute of Jewish Culture and History at Henan University, the contact that Rabbi Laytner of the SJI provided me with. I emailed her, asking her about some of the things I had heard from the people I met that day. The next day, I tried to call her on the phone. Failing at this, I turned to the university to look for her. I thought some of the information I heard to be very interesting and that she would make better use of it than me. I also thought she could perhaps benefit from talking to the people I had met. And so, just when I thought my interesting encounters with Jewish-related people in Kaifeng were over, I set pace to Henan University.

The university itself is an old compound within the walled city. Arriving in the university I learned what I would later use for getting around in all of China – when no one speaks English, turn to the local English students or teachers. And so I did – and with the help of two nice English students I soon found myself in the building which houses Professor Zhang’s Institute. Within a few more minutes, with the help of some faculty workers, I was led into the “Shalom” library, where a lesson was being given to approximately 10 graduate students about the Balfour Declaration, the Israeli Declaration of Independence, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and “Hatikva”?, the Israeli national anthem. While I thought at first that I was interrupting and suggested I come back once the lesson was over, the professor and students rather found it an interesting attraction to have a real live Jew – and an Israeli on top of that – in their classroom. I therefore sat down at their invitation and watched as the class went on.

My amazement at all this must be understood – I was expecting to meet one professor at the university, and ended up finding myself in the “Shalom”(!) library, in a university the middle of an out-of-the-way city in China, surrounded by people not much older than myself who choose willingly to dedicate their life to studying Jewish culture and history. I was utterly amazed.

Within a few minutes the lesson was halted and I was turned to, and was requested to speak about the matter at hand. I spoke about the Declaration of Independence, Ben-Yehuda and the Balfour Declaration with its difficulties. The students listened very interestedly and took special care not to miss a single word I said. The professor translated every time I said something that was out-of-the-way.

It is almost impossible for me to try to understand to what extent the foundations on which Jewish thought is based are strange to these students. From discussions with other Chinese people, I learned that ignorance is widespread in everything having to do with western religions. I met a Catholic priest in another town who did not know the name of the newly-crowned pope. And there were many more such experiences. Add to this these people’s profoundly different perspective regarding things such as religion, gods (the Catholic priest’s church was just around the corner from the Confucian temple, which was across the street from the city god’s temple), morality etc. It’s easy to see just how hard it would be for a person from such a different school of thought to grasp the mere foundations on which Jewish thought and belief are based.

I answered questions about politics, Sharon, Hamas, Hizballah, Jabotinsky, Ben Gurion, Iraq, Iran, The U.S.A, China and Maccabi Tel Aviv (then the European basketball champions). What I had to say was taken very seriously and attentively. I was photographed and examined and became quite an attraction. Not every day do these people meet a foreign Jew, let alone an Israeli – they study all about people just like me. And for me – to be taken in with such warmth and so happily in a class for graduate students at Henan University in Kaifeng – who would have thought? I ended up answering questions for about two hours and then turned to speak to Prof. Zhang, who showed me the first hard copies I had seen of “Points East”, and told me about her work and about the time she spent in Israel. I talked to the students and the professor for another half-hour or so and shared a taxi with Prof. Zhang back the city center.

Whatever it was that I was looking for when I decided to go to Kaifeng, I found it. I had also been to other places with Jewish history, such as Shanghai and Harbin, but none were as interesting and surprising as Kaifeng. Both meeting the local people and attending the class in the university were more mind-opening than I could have hoped for to begin with. I found traveling to China to be extremely interesting and important. I now suggest going there to everyone I know. My visit to Kaifeng was definitely one of the highlights of my travels.

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