Fully Chinese – and Fully Jewish
They look no different from the millions of Han Chinese living in China, but what set this community apart is their roots. Meet the Kaifeng Jews.
Seven clans and about 1,000 individuals. They may be just a drop in the vast ocean of people in China, but they are a unique drop. They are Jews, thus born and not converted, and some of them are now finding their way back to their (other) ancestral homeland, the State of Israel.
Shavei Israel is the organisation responsible for bringing the first group of Chinese Jews to Israel. Founder Michael Freund first met them in 2005 in Kaifeng, the city where the community is based. Moved by their desire to move to Israel to learn more about their Jewish ancestors, he got permission from the Israeli Interior Ministry to bring over a pioneer batch of four young Jewish women. (See “From China to Israel: How Jin Jin became Yecholiya Jin.”)
The women arrived in 2006 and studied Jewish history and traditions in a school just outside Jerusalem. In 2007, they underwent a formal process of return to Israel, going before the rabbinical court to be officially recognised as Jews.
According to Israel’s strict rabbinical Jewish laws, the Kaifeng Jews are not “Jews” by definition.
How it all began
The first Jews are believed to have arrived via the Silk Route from the Middle East, during the 8th or 9th century, or the Song dynasty, one of imperial China’s most outward-looking eras.
Artefacts and practices still in existence among these Kaifeng Jews indicate a Sephardic influence, meaning they are most probably descended from Jews from Persia and Iraq.
Commerce and sea trade were thriving between China and the other civilisations of the then-medieval world. Back then, the capital was situated in Bi
anfeng, or modern-day Kaifeng. Artefacts and practices still in existence among these Kaifeng Jews indicate a Sephardic influence, meaning they are most probably descended from Jews from Persia and Iraq.
Scholars believe that when these Jewish merchants arrived, they were welcomed by the emperor and bestowed Chinese surnames, which they still retain today. The Li family – one of the seven Jewish clans in Kaifeng – is believed to originally to have been Levy, the Jewish tribe of the priests.
In 1163, a synagogue was built in Kaifeng which stood till it was destroyed in a series of floods in the mid-1800s. That was also the time when the community’s last rabbi died.
The Kaifeng Jews struggled till the beginning of the next century, when they sent out a plea to the world Jewry. They were losing some of their Jewish traditions.
An 18th century remake of a Song dynasty painting of Kaifeng
Non-Chinese Jews in Shanghai responded and invited a group of Jewish young men from Kaifeng to study with them. Then the First World War broke out, and a huge influx of Russian Jews fleeing from the war arrived. The Shanghai community had to divert their resources to receiving these refugees, and efforts to help the Kaifeng Jews waned.
Centuries of inter-marriage and assimilation into mainstream Han Chinese society took its toll on the Kaifeng Jews. They adopted the Chinese patriarchal system of lineage, instead of the traditional Jewish one, where a person is only Jewish if he is born to a Jewish mother.
This is one of the reasons rabbinically-speaking, the Kaifeng Jewish community are regarded as descendents of Jews, rather than as Jews.
Unperturbed, the four young Kaifeng women embarked on the process to formally convert to Judaism in the eyes of the rabbis.
They went through a period of study, which included experiencing the life cycle of the Jewish calendar over the course of a year with all the holidays and the sabbaths. They studied the Jewish traditions, before finally a group of rabbis assessed their knowledge of Jewish culture and heritage, and decided if they were ready to become Jews.
The four young women passed and are now rabbincally Jews, but Freund acknowledged learning a 5,000-year-old tradition was no mean feat.
“Their study habits were simply phenomenal, the way they were able to absorb so much material so intensively,” said Freund of the four women.
“I think it just shows that when you put Chinese brains and Jewish brains together, it can accomplish a lot.”
Shavei Israel battled the Israeli bureaucracy for two and a half years to bring a second group of seven young men from Kaifeng last October. They are currently studying in a yeshiva, or a men’s seminary, in Jerusalem.
Altogether, according to Freund, Israel’s Chinese-Jewish community numbers about 14: the four young women, the seven men and a family of three that arrived separately. With the community back in Kaifeng, they are just over 1,000, but Freund believes they can serve as a bridge between China and Israel.
“There is a world of possibilities there. I know a lot of people who do business in China and if you don’t know the language, something is always lost in translation. But these Jews, because of their background, they don’t lose anything in translation.”
Since Jews are not officially recognised as a minority race in China, and neither is Judaism an official religion, Shavei Israel is careful not to operate in the country. Freund says his organisation’s goal is simply to avail to the Kaifeng Jews the opportunity to learn more about their roots in Israel.
Of the nine groups of diaspora Jews including Europeans and South Americans which Shavei Israel is helping to reconnect with Israel, Freund says the reception to the Kaifeng Jews has been one of the warmest.
“Every article written over the years about them in the Israeli press has been positive and glowing even, because when people meet them, they see that it is real that they have a very strong sense of identity and attachment that is rooted in on the one hand in China, and on the other in their Jewishness.
“Many of the descendants can trace their own families for many generations. They have their own family burial plots. I visited one of those and it went back nine or ten generations.
“If you ask most Westerners nowadays who your great grandparents are, many could still say, but once you go back a generation before that, most people in the West at least can’t do that.
“I think one thing that we in the West can certainly learn from Chinese culture is the reverence for one’s ancestors, the respect that they (the Kaifeng Jews) have for the fact that their ancestors were Jews.”
Perhaps it is just as Freund puts it, “a nice mix” of both worlds.