Kaifeng, China: Chinese Jews
This was Kaifeng’s welcome to us. Fog? Pollution? Combination? I don’t know but it was one hell of a welcome. I held out my hand and saw nothing. I looked down and I had no feet. We blindly walked forward – away from the train station and closer to the sound of the road. We had a hard time crossing the street. We couldn’t see the cars and bicycles and they couldn’t see us. We played it by ear. Literally. And hailing a cab? I want to say, “Fuggedaboutit,” but we managed to do so. Till this day, it still puzzles me.
Kaifeng is one of the seven ancient capitals of China, which used to have a small but thriving population of Chinese Jews. They are said to be Persian merchants who traveled along the Silk Road from today’s southern Turkey to Xi’an. They preserved their traditions and culture until the 17th century when assimilation began. As a result of the increase of intermarriage between Jews and other Chinese ethnic groups and minorities, Chinese Jews looked no different than their Chinese neighbors.
Discovering a people of Jewish descent in China was certainly new to me. You don’t learn about this in school. It’s one of the beauties in traveling. What is it like as a Chinese Jew living in Kaifeng? Here is an excerpt:
The Jewish community as a community can be said to have died out by 1860, when the synagogue itself was no longer standing. Since we had no communal place to worship anymore, we only retained some Jewish customs within the family and on an individual basis.
For example, according to my grandfather Shi Zhong Yu’s recollection, when he was a seven year old boy, he saw his father Shi Qingchang, during the Chinese new year, using a new Chinese writing brush dabbed cinnabar over the doorpost of his home. After that his father said to the family, “to draw the red line, originally lambs blood was used, later changing to rooster’s blood, now cinnabar is used as a substitution”. Apparently this is the hint of Passover. When the wheat ripens, my grandfather’s father asked his family to make some pancakes without yeast and to cook mutton soup without salt. The whole family ate the pancakes and drank the soup. When my grandfathers sister got married, before she got into the sedan chair, my grandfather’s father asked her to eat mutton and to drink mutton soup, instead of eating a cooked egg according to the Chinese tradition. In is my grandfather’s generation, all practices completely stopped. Today, when we revere our ancestors on special Chinese holidays, we still do not give food offerings that include pork out of respect to our ancestors who did not eat pork. However, most of us today eat pork and are completely assimilated. – Kaifeng by Shi Lei