Fundamentally Freund: The First chinese rabbi in 200 years
Standing silently in the middle of an open field at his family’s burial plot, Yaakov Wang gazes at his late grandfather’s tombstone, seemingly lost in thought. Just over a year has passed since Yaakov, a descendant of the Jewish community of Kaifeng, China, completed his conversion before a rabbinical court in Jerusalem. And now he has come back to pay his respects at the grave of the man who first taught him about the family’s unique Chinese Jewish heritage.
The symbolism of the moment is powerful and highly emotive, embodying in a microcosm the tentative rebirth that is taking place among the remnants of Chinese Jewry. Growing up in Kaifeng in the 1990s, Yaakov’s grandfather revealed to him that their family was descended from Jews. And while he knew little about Jewish life or lore, he succeeded in imparting to Yaakov a strong sense of Jewish pride. He also told his young grandson that the Jews had a land of their own, very far away, and that all of them, one day, would return there.
The disclosure had a profound impact on Yaakov. Whenever he went out for dinner with his friends, he refrained from eating pork, despite the central role it plays in Chinese cuisine. And when Yaakov told his fellow students in school that he was Jewish, many responded by saying, “now I know why you are cleverer than me.”
As Yaakov grew older, and began to delve more deeply into Kaifeng’s Jewish past, he learned that it was a community with a rich and ancient heritage, much of it unfamiliar to most of world Jewry.
Jews are believed to have first settled in Kaifeng, which was one of China’s imperial capitals, in the 8th century during the Song Dynasty, or perhaps even earlier. Scholars say that they were Sephardi Jewish merchants from Persia or Iraq who made their way eastward along the Silk Route and settled in Kaifeng with the blessing of the Chinese emperor. The Jews quickly established themselves in the city, where they found an environment of tolerance and acceptance, in sharp contrast to much of the rest of the Diaspora.
In 1163, Kaifeng’s Jews built a large and beautiful synagogue, which was subsequently renovated and rebuilt on numerous occasions throughout the centuries. At its peak, during the Ming Dynasty (1368- 1644), the Kaifeng Jewish community may have numbered as many as 5,000 people.
By the 17th century, a number of Chinese Jews had attained high ranks in the Chinese civil service, but along with success came the blight of assimilation, which took an increasingly heavy toll on the community and its cohesion. As a result, by the mid- 1800s, the Chinese Jews’ knowledge and practice of Judaism had largely faded away. The last rabbi of the community is believed to have died in the early part of the 19th century, and the synagogue building was all but destroyed by a series of floods which struck the city in the 1840s and thereafter.
Nevertheless, against all odds, Kaifeng’s Jews struggled to preserve their Jewish identity, passing down whatever little they knew to their progeny.
In the 1920s, a Chinese scholar named Chen Yuan wrote a series of treatises on religion in China, including “A study of the Israelite religion in Kaifeng.” Yuan noted the decline the community had endured, but took pains to recall that the remaining descendants still tried as best they could to observe various customs and rituals, including that of Yom Kippur.
“Although the Kaifeng Jews today no longer have a temple where they can observe this holy day,” Yuan wrote, “they still fast and mourn without fail on the 10th day of the month.”
Nowadays, in this city of over 4.5 million, there are still several hundred people – perhaps a thousand at most – who are descendants of the Jewish community.
Because of intermarriage in preceding generations, most if not all are no longer considered Jewish in the eyes of Jewish law.
But in recent years, an awakening of sorts has taken place, especially among the younger generation of Kaifeng Jewish descendants, many of whom wish to learn more about their heritage and reclaim their roots.
It was this stirring which prompted Yaakov Wang and six other Jewish descendants from Kaifeng to make aliya in October 2009. They were brought to Israel by Shavei Israel, the organization which I founded and chair.
Previously, we had brought a group of four young Kaifeng Jews to Israel in 2006, all of whom successfully completed the conversion process as well.
And with God’s help, we plan to bring more in the coming years.
It is hard to overstate what a miracle this is. By any measure, Chinese Jewry should have disappeared long ago. Between assimilation and Communism, the Jewish flame in Kaifeng should have been snuffed out. And yet, even here, in this far-flung corner of China, the pintele Yid – the Jewish spark in each and every one of us – refuses to be extinguished.
After his solemn visit to his grandfather’s grave, Yaakov reiterates something that he has told me before: he wants to study to become a rabbi – the first Chinese rabbi in 200 years – so that he can help other Kaifeng Jewish descendants to draw closer to Judaism.
Given his intelligence and determination, along with his sense of purpose, Yaakov will undoubtedly succeed, and before long he will bear the title of rabbi and spiritual leader.
While his grandfather did not live to see his own dream of return fulfilled, his soul will undoubtedly derive great satisfaction in knowing that Chinese Jewry is once again coming to life.
And that after nearly disappearing, his own progeny is at last returning home, to rejoin our people in our own Land.