China: It’s a Surprising Haven for Jews

Jews have endured government-sanctioned persecution throughout history, with Spain, Portugal, Russia and Germany among the centuries’ most recent examples. Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, commemorates a victory over such persecution. Jews will light the menorah for eight consecutive nights to celebrate the victory in 165 B.C. over their Syrian-Greek oppressors.

quot;Hanukkah represents one of the darkest moments in Jewish history, the first time a government Assyrian Greeks under Antiochus IV attempted to extinguish the Jewish faith, an event that would be repeated many times in coming centuries under many governments,” said Palm Harbor resident Joy Katzen-Guthrie.

There have been exceptions to this pattern, she said, and China has been a striking one. Often scolded for violating human rights, the country has welcomed Jews since ancient times, said Katzen-Guthrie. “The presence of Jews in China represents one of the brightest relationships in Jewish history, as the Sung Dynasty invited Jews as equals to settle in the kingdom … as port cities such as Harbin and Shanghai offered refuge to tens of thousands of Jews fleeing persecution from the pograms of Eastern Europe, the Russian Revolution and the Nazi massacres,” Katzen-Guthrie said in an e-mail this week.

Katzen-Guthrie will lead her sixth Jewish heritage tour to China next March. The trip will take in Beijing, Xi’an, Suzhou and Shanghai and is being offered through Temple Beth-El in St. Petersburg. One doesn’t have to be Jewish to go on the tour, Katzen-Guthrie said, adding that non-Jews have enjoyed learning about China’s Jewish history and attending Sabbath services in the Communist country. “It adds an additional facet to China,” she said. Besides the traditional tourist sites, the tour will include visits to two former synagogues and the Hongkou Ghetto in Shanghai. The group also will meet and worship with China’s Jewish community in Beijing and Shanghai and eat at Dini’s, a Kosher restaurant in Beijing.

Lewis Sperber, who moved to China in 1994, owns the kosher restaurant with his wife, Maggie, who is Chinese and converted to Judaism. “Two years ago, I didn’t think that the demand existed. Today, the demand is building, not only with the business traveler and tours, but also the local people’s interest in the Jewish people and our culture. Presently, about 30 percent of those dining at Dini’s are local Chinese,” Sperber said in an e-mail from Beijing. “We have been able to find most of the products in China, but do have to bring many from the U.S. – hot dogs, balsamic vinegar, nondairy topping, chicken consomme, baking chocolate, and others.”

Katzen-Guthrie said the Chinese show a keen interest in Judaism, admire Jewish people and appreciate a shared emphasis on education, ancestors, history and helping others. Before and during World War II, she said, China welcomed Jews – “stateless refugees” – escaping from Germany and countries where the Nazis had revoked their citizenship. Shanghai was an important destination and at one time had what is believed to be about 25,000 Jewish residents. “If they could get out of Europe, they needed no visa to enter Shanghai,” said Katzen-Guthrie, 49, who lectures at Eckerd College’s Elderhostel and the University of South Florida’s and Eckerd’s Osher institutes on popular and historical American music and Jewish history.

Evidence points to Jews’ building a synagogue in Kaifeng, a remote area in north central China in 1163, she said. Descendants live there, though they no longer practice the faith. “Emotionally, these people still consider themselves Jews and honor Judaism in the same way they honor Chinese ancestors,” Katzen-Guthrie said.

These days, there is a Reconstructionist Jewish community that has been in Beijing since the 1980s. In 2001, the Chabad movement, an Orthodox group, established a center in the city and now runs a Hebrew Day School with almost 40 students, said Sperber, whose two sons are enrolled there.

It’s not difficult to be an observant Jew in Beijing, he said. “Surprisingly, the community is never wanting for kosher items, whether it is matzah for Passover or chocolate gelt for Hanukkah,” he said. “In April, the rabbi koshered the kitchen at the Renaissance Hotel, and 300 people enjoyed a kosher Seder. This community has also had the distinction of lighting the first menorah on the Great Wall (in December 2005).” Katzen-Guthrie said the two Jewish communities in Beijing serve travelers, residents – temporary and permanent – and a growing number of Jewish students. There are also Jewish communities in Shanghai and Hong Kong, she said.


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