Jewish and Chinese: Explaining a Shared Identity

Residents in what was a Jewish neighborhood, next to the site of the old synagogue, in Kaifeng. (Adam Dean for The New York Times)

The ancient Jewish community of Kaifeng, in central China, was experiencing a cultural and religious revival until a recent government clampdown, which has brought a ban on collective worship and forced out foreign Jewish groups. Moshe Yehuda Bernstein is a researcher based in Perth, Western Australia, who has studied this revival and written a coming book, “Globalization, Translation and Transmission: Sino-Judaic Cultural Identity in Kaifeng, China.” In an interview, Mr. Bernstein explained the background to the recent revival and official restrictions.

When I told people I was working on a story about the Jews of Kaifeng, some asked whether they’re really Jews. I’m sure you’ve been asked the same. How did you become interested in them, and how do you answer that question?

Fifteen years ago, when I was director of Jewish studies at Carmel School in Perth, I was invited to lecture on Jewish topics at Nanjing University, where one of the first Jewish studies departments in China had been launched a few years earlier. At the final lecture, Xu Xin, the professor who hosted me, gave me his book “The Legends of the Chinese Jews of Kaifeng.” Until then, I had never heard of the presence of Jews in Kaifeng or their synagogue that endured for seven centuries. This sparked an interest in learning more about this community. As well, the enthusiasm of Chinese students towards Jews and Judaism made me want to learn more about Chinese culture.

In 2009, I made my first visit to Kaifeng to research how Jewish culture survived for almost a millennium in spite of assimilation and language shifts. I was amazed to see this small group of Chinese people learning Hebrew, studying the Torah, celebrating the Shabbat and yearning to return to the land of Israel. As their ancestors had intermarried and practiced patrilineal descent, the Jewish descendants of Kaifeng understand full well that they are not considered Jewish according to Jewish law, where identity is determined by the mother. Their Jewish self-identification, however, is linked to their Chinese identity in which Confucian tradition honors ancestors. Emulating the customs and heritage of their forebears is the Chinese way of paying them respect.

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