Chopsticks, Pesach and Aliyah
Some of you may know that I devote much time to helping Jews by Choice make Aliyah, under the Law of Return, when they have been refused by Israel’s Interior Ministry for unfair reasons, in violation of Israeli law. Refusal is usually not related to the denominational affiliation of the Ger. It too often is connected to racial issues. (Ethiopians and Indians are a separate matter). In order to be an honest advocate sometimes travel to local Jewish communities becomes necessary.Kaifeng, a city in China, had an active Jewish community for nearly a thousand years going back to Jews from Persia and India who settled there around 1100. The city was a major trading route and at one point China’s largest city.
The community synagogue, large and elaborate, was rebuilt many times over the years but was not rebuilt, owning to the extreme poverty, after it was flooded by the Yellow river in 1851. The Kaifeng Torah scrolls can be found today in libraries around the world.
From that point forward, and with the death of the last rabbi to serve the community, intermarriage and assimilation became the norm.
The community seems to have practiced normative Judaism. That they observed Kashrut can be deduced from one of the names by which the Jews were known to their neighbors – “The sect that removes the Sinews.” This, of course is a reference to one aspect of laws of Kashrut inspired by Jacob’s wrestling match with the angel.
I was drawn to look into what was happening on the ground when the young man seen to my right on this video ( Pesach in Kaifeng 2013) was refused Aliyah. Shin (or Jaixin), about whom I have written previously, was brought to study at an Orthodox boarding school in Israel from 9th-12 grade. He was refused the opportunity to appear before a Beit Din of the Chief Rabbinate by Israel’s Interior Ministry. He returned to China where he is a part of weekly Shabbat davening and a Jewish “school” that has been established in the city. Last summer he attended the Brandeis Collegiate Institute in LA – for an intensive experience of Jewish learning and culture. It was there that Shin was finally able to complete his conversion. Shin then applied for Aliyah with the full backing of the Jewish agency. Shin wishes to serve in the IDF as his high school classmates have done. The Interior Ministry has refused his request and all of my appeals on his behalf have fallen on deaf ears. I assert that there can be no good explanation of his refusal other than racism.
I felt I needed to see if the rumors of a renewed life of the Jewish world in Kaifeng were true. It is a far less developed and more isolated city than, say, Beijing or Shanghai, where there is a Chabad presence. But let there be no question that something special is happening there.
The families in Kaifeng who descend from the Jews have family records and photos. Each Friday night there is a traditional Friday night davening at Beit Tikvah (one of the local Jewish schools) followed by a vegetarian (Kosher food is not available) Shabbat dinner. The Mezuzah is prominently attached to the door and the sign makes no secret of what the place is. The apartment which houses Beit Tikvah is a gathering place and there are regular classes offered on Judaism – much by Skype.
I traveled to Kaifeng just last month. I had brought quite a bit of KP food with me for the Seder. But to keep my suitcase light it was mostly items like mashed potato mix, Pesach roll mix, Kaneidalach mix, and powdered soup. None of this food was used as the idea of making food from powder and water did not seem to speak to the locals. Our Seder food was mostly fruits and vegetables. What may have needed to be Kashered was dealt with and we bought new chopsticks. Haroset with Lychee nuts – why not? Each person had a glass for wine but all food was eaten off of common plates in the table center. We had prepared for the possibility of needing to make raisin juice and our own Matzot. Wine and Matzot arrived some two hours before Seder from Chabad in Shanghai.
The photo-copied Haggadah was a mix of Chinese and Hebrew. We took turns reading. We had fewer children than I had hoped for as school did not let out until after eight in the evening. A parent may not have a child excused from class for holidays or personal events.
Candles were lit with the traditional blessings recited in Hebrew. Rituals such as hand washing were familiar. I had thought to send Pesach songs in advance using You Tube. It had slipped my mind that You Tube is blocked in China. So too Facebook. It turned out that some of the Pesach songs were known by some of the scores who joined us for Seder.
My friend Shin sat next to me to serve as translator. Shin is equally comfortable in both Hebrew and English.
And yes, our Seder included a Kos Miriam along with the Cup of Eliyahu.
While the last thing we ate was the Afikoman (followed by Birkat HaMazon) – there was plenty of Israeli chocolate on the tables for dessert. The emotional conclusion to our Seder was the singing of Hatikvah both in Mandarin and in Hebrew.
Now many readers will dismiss the Seder participants as being a bunch of non-Jews. But let us recall how many “non-Jews” preserved some sort of identity in the various former communist countries under difficult circumstances. Today we are reviving some of those communities.
It must be noted that many prominent rabbis over the years held “Zera Yisrael” – those of Jewish descent – although not technically Jewish, in a special place. Israel’s first Sefardic Chief Rabbi, Ben-Zion Uziel did not require potential converts to live an Orthodox lifestyle as long as they committed to raising the children as Jews. He stated, “From all this we have learned that the condition of fulfilling the mitzvoth does not prevent a conversion even to begin with…we learn that it is permissible and a mitzvah to accept converts even though we know that they will not fulfill all the mitzvot.” He goes so far as to write that failure to seek out those of Zrea Yisrael will “result in the rabbis being called in front of the heavenly court to explain why they, as shepherds, did not seek to bring in our lost flock.”
I found out, on my last day in China (second half of Hag was spent in Seoul, Korea) that there would be the first Asian Limud in Shangahi just after Pesach. . An “angel” allowed me to fund the travel of both Shin and his uncle to Limud.
The Cultural Revolution came close to spelling the end for Jewish life in Kaifeng- Shin’s grandfather was evicted from his home and sent to a training camp – but life is slowly returning.
Now, if Shin would only have his Aliyah approved by the Interior Ministry.