Kaifeng Synagogue (former), Kaifeng, China.
Kaifeng Synagogue, Kaifeng, China 開封
Strategically located south of the majestic Yellow River, Kaifeng, formerly known as Bianlang, was one of the seven ancient capitals of China.[i] The imperial city, located in what is now the central Chinese province of Henan, was once the capital of the Northern Song Dynasty and was a bustling commercial hub along the Silk Road.[ii] Kaifeng’s location offered obvious trading advantages which were likely a significant incentive for the Jews who first settled in the region in the prosperous years of the Song Dynasty.[iii] Jews thrived in Kaifeng, and built a prosperous community with several synagogues. The first and most well-known synagogue they built was called “The Temple of Purity and Truth”. It was a significant example of how the Jews that flourished in Kaifeng interracted with their surrounding community, and how that community influenced their religious practices.
(The Kaifeng Jewish History Memorial Center that Esther founded in her family’s ancestral home.)
The Great Synagogue:
It was at the intersection of “Earth Market” and “Fire God” streets that the Jews of Kaifeng erected The Temple of Purity and Truth in 1163.[iv] The sole surviving depictions of the synagogue are sketches completed by the French-Chinese priest Meng Zheng Qing.[v] Through these images it can be inferred that the building was approximately 130 meters long by 50 meters wide.[vi] Two large trees flanked the synagogue’s front door, which was only opened from New Year’s Eve until the end of New Year’s day; at all other times the synagogue’s side doors served as its entryway.[vii] Beyond the structure’s main hall was a small library containing various religious texts.[viii] In 1489, the members of the Kaifeng community erected a monument, a stone tablet engraved with their rituals and core beliefs, in a place of honor in the courtyard it shared with two lion figures.[ix][x] For more information on this stele, go here. Also inscribed on the tablet were words thought to have been extended to the Jewish immigrants granted an audience with the Song emperor at the time of their arrival, welcoming the settlers into the land after the turmoil of the late Tang and early Song dynasties as well as acknowledging their distinctive heritage.[xi]
The wall that surrounded the building was unable to defend against the elements- the synagogue was rebuilt at least nine times over the course of numerous fires and floods.[xii] On each occasion of the synagogue’s reconstruction, a stele was created in commemoration of the event, as well as an inscription recounting aspects of Jewish history and religion. These stelae were also constructed in an attempt to preserve aspects of the Jewish religion. Jews in Kaifeng believed themselves to be the last of their kind, and were panicked that if they were to die out, Judaism would be lost. [xiii] Four known stelae exist today, dating from 1489, 1512, 1663, and 1679, respectively.[xiv] Three of these stelae are located in the Kaifeng Municipal museum.[xv] In the 1860s the synagogue was demolished.[xvi] By this time the community had become fractured and disconnected from its heritage, and no efforts were made to rebuild the place of worship.[xvii] Elements of the synagogue were repurposed elsewhere; tiles from the structure were used in the city’s Great East Mosque, which also procured a number of manuscripts and artifacts that had been housed in the synagogue.[xviii] A balustrade from the synagogue was also incorporated into a Confucian temple.[xix]
The Jews of Kaifeng are notable in their adoption of Jewish cultural observances despite isolation from contemporary Jewish communities around the world. Though they partook in observances unusual in China, such as abstinence from pork, many Confucian and traditional Chinese values and practices were observed, including foot binding and the taking of multiple wives.[xx] Various sources reveal that the community had a succession of rabbis and practiced circumcision.[xxi] They observed the Sabbath, read the Torah, and had multiple Hebrew manuscripts.[xxii] Jews in Kaifeng were adamant that Confucianism and Judaism shared the same values and that it was possible to live one’s life in accordance with both philosophies. This belief caused the formation of their unique culture, called Sino-Judaism.
History of the Jews in Kaifeng:
Some historians believe that the first Jews to settle in Kaifeng arrived between the years 960 and 1127 AD during the heyday of the Song Dynasty, but others believe Jews arrived as early as 730 AD [xxiii][xxiv] These first Jewish settlers were merchants who had traveled along the Silk Road and are thought to have originated from Persia or India.[xxv] At the time of their arrival, Kaifeng was the capital of the Song dynasty which saw the area’s first population explosion and the adoption of many elements now at the core of Chinese culture.[xxvi] The Jews of the city thrived in the Song period. Though this is when historians believed the Jews arrived, the Jews themselves recorded a much earlier arrival time. One possible explanation for this is to protect themselves against those accusing the Jews of being too foreign. Though this measure may have given the Jews some protection socially, they were never discriminated against by the government, and had the same civil rights as Chinese citizens. The Chinese people have a history of harboring animosity for foreigners, but they believed that it was a cultural divide, and not a racial or religious one, that separated foreigners from the Chinese people.
A confluence of factors led to the erosion of the Jewish community. The 1489 synagogal stele reveals what became a trend of merging Chinese and Jewish values by attempting to liken the ethical principles of the traditions of both Judaism and Confucianism.[xxx] Chinese-style sacrifices and incense burning were incorporated into Jewish practices.[xxxi] Furthermore, civil service examinations were implemented throughout the Song, Yuan, and Ming dynasties which rewarded long, intensive study of classical Confucian texts.[xxxii] Thus, the young Jewish men of Kaifeng often had to sacrifice Judaic studies in pursuit of the knowledge that would enable them to attain high level governmental positions, ones which would take them out of the city and further reduce and disconnect the population.[xxxiii] Consequently, knowledge of Hebrew diminished to the extent that twelve Torah scrolls written in the 17th century contained hundreds of scribal misspellings.[xxxiv] When the last rabbi died in the beginning of the 19th century, no one was able to take his place.[xxxv] Regardless, the Torah scrolls, then unintelligible to the remaining Jews of Kaifeng, were preserved in the synagogue.[xxxvi] The total unfamiliarity with the language was exemplified by a Torah scroll which was placed in the marketplace accompanied by a small sign offering a reward in exchange for translation.[xxxvii] Ultimately, the community’s complete isolation from coreligionists around the world, acceptance of traditional Chinese customs, and, most importantly, dwindling numbers, proved insurmountable for the continuation of Kaifeng Jewry. By 1861, the synagogue had been destroyed, never to be rebuilt.[xxxviii] By this time, nearly all of the remaining Jews had intermarried and assimilated into Chinese culture.[xxxix] An additional cause of the community’s decline is the especially aggressive foreign policy during the Ming dynasty. The policies put in place caused a gradual loss of contact between the Kaifeng Jews and the outside world, which sped up the demise of the community.
In the last decade of the 20th century, more than one hundred years after the synagogue’s demise, a revival of Jewish heritage in Kaifeng occurred as a result of renewed interest in the community from foreign Jewish scholars, tourists, and businesspeople.[xl] Descendants of the earlier Jews began to reconnect with their Jewish heritage through a variety of outlets, including classes, services, and historical exhibits.[xli] For years the revival continued unhindered. Some of the Kaifeng Jews were even relocated to Israel with the assistance of the organization Shivei Israel.[xlii] In 2016, however, Chinese president Xi Jin Ping’s crackdown on unapproved religions and foreign influences reached the small community in Kaifeng. This governmental crackdown also affected the Catholic and Protestant communities in China. The one or two hundred Jews who have been active in Jewish cultural and religious activities have been barred from celebrating Passover and other holidays and from promoting Jewish heritage.[xliii] The community has seen signs and relics of its Jewish past removed at the hands of the government, including the commemorative marker at the site of the former synagogue.[xliv] Though specific reasons for the crackdown are unknown, religious groups outside of China’s five state-licensed religions (Buddhism, Catholicism, Islam, Protestantism and Taoism) have historically been viewed by the Communist Party as suspect and have faced intense discrimination.[xlv] Throughout their earliest history, however, from the time of the Song Dynasty until the mid-19th century, the Kaifeng Jews faced little in terms of discrimination and persecution. Their amicable relations with the outside community made for easy integration into Chinese society and were in fact central to the assimilation and decline of the community. Relatively miniscule in relation to the staggering figures of the Chinese population as a whole, the few hundred individuals in Kaifeng who identify with a Jewish heritage pose little threat to the national government and, as their forebears, seek only to continue honoring their cultural identities while respecting and living in harmony with those around them.
[i] “Sacred Texts: Kaifeng Torah,” Text, accessed July 4, 2017, https://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/sacredtexts/kaifengtorah.html.
[iii] Simon Fidler, “Kaifeng: Jews in the Heart of China,” The Times of Israel, accessed July 5, 2017, https://www.timesofisrael.com/the-jewish-planet/kaifeng/about/kaifeng-jews-in-the-heart-of-china/.
[iv] Michael Pollack, “Detailed History of Kaifeng Jews,” The Sino-Judaic Institute, accessed July 5, 2017, https://www.sino-judaic.org/index.php?page=kaifeng_jews_history.
[v] “Kaifeng Synagogue,” accessed July 4, 2017, https://www.chinatravel.com/kaifeng-attraction/kaifeng-synagogue/.
[vii] Shi Lei, “Kaifeng by Shi Lei | Chronology | Kaifeng | Communities | The Jewish Community of China,” accessed July 5, 2017, https://www.jewsofchina.org/jewsofchina/Templates/showpage.asp?DBID=1&LNGID=1&TMID=84&FID=949.
[viii] “Kaifeng Synagogue,” accessed July 4, 2017, https://www.chinatravel.com/kaifeng-attraction/kaifeng-synagogue/.
[ix] Michael Pollack, “Detailed History of Kaifeng Jews,” The Sino-Judaic Institute, accessed July 5, 2017, https://www.sino-judaic.org/index.php?page=kaifeng_jews_history
[x] Shi Lei, “Kaifeng by Shi Lei | Chronology | Kaifeng | Communities | The Jewish Community of China,” accessed July 5, 2017, https://www.jewsofchina.org/jewsofchina/Templates/showpage.asp?DBID=1&LNGID=1&TMID=84&FID=949.
[xi] Michael Pollack, “Detailed History of Kaifeng Jews,” The Sino-Judaic Institute, accessed July 5, 2017, https://www.sino-judaic.org/index.php?page=kaifeng_jews_history.
[xii] Eli Braun, “China Virtual Jewish History Tour,” Jewish Virtual Library, accessed July 5, 2017, https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/china-virtual-jewish-history-tour.
[xiii] Shi Lei, “Kaifeng by Shi Lei | Chronology | Kaifeng | Communities | The Jewish Community of China,” accessed July 5, 2017, https://www.jewsofchina.org/jewsofchina/Templates/showpage.asp?DBID=1&LNGID=1&TMID=84&FID=949.
[xvi] Michael Pollack, “Detailed History of Kaifeng Jews,” The Sino-Judaic Institute, accessed July 5, 2017, https://www.sino-judaic.org/index.php?page=kaifeng_jews_history.
[xx] “Sacred Texts: Kaifeng Torah,” Text, accessed July 4, 2017, https://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/sacredtexts/kaifengtorah.html.
[xxii] “Kaifeng Jew | Chinese Religious Community,” Encyclopedia Britannica, accessed July 5, 2017, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Kaifeng-Jews.
[xxiv] Eli Braun, “China Virtual Jewish History Tour,” Jewish Virtual Library, accessed July 5, 2017, https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/china-virtual-jewish-history-tour.
[xxvii] Simon Fidler, “Kaifeng: Jews in the Heart of China,” The Times of Israel, accessed July 5, 2017, https://www.timesofisrael.com/the-jewish-planet/kaifeng/about/kaifeng-jews-in-the-heart-of-china/.
[xxix] “Kaifeng Jew | Chinese Religious Community,” Encyclopedia Britannica, accessed July 5, 2017, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Kaifeng-Jews.
[xxx] Michael Pollack, “Detailed History of Kaifeng Jews,” The Sino-Judaic Institute, accessed July 5, 2017, https://www.sino-judaic.org/index.php?page=kaifeng_jews_history.
[xxxii] Michael Pollack, “Detailed History of Kaifeng Jews,” The Sino-Judaic Institute, accessed
July 5, 2017, https://www.sino-judaic.org/index.php?page=kaifeng_jews_history.
[xl] Chris Buckley, “Chinese Jews of Ancient Lineage Huddle Under Pressure,” The New York Times, September 24, 2016, sec. Asia Pacific, accessed July 3, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/25/world/asia/china-kaifeng-jews.html.
[xlv] Sam Kestenbaum, “Who Are the Kaifeng Jews — and Why Is China ‘Cracking Down’ on Them?,” Forward, September 9, 2016, accessed July 5, 2017, https://forward.com/news/349913/who-are-the-kaifeng-jews-and-why-is-china-cracking-down-on-them/.
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Edited and updated by Olivia Emerson, August 14, 2019
Suggested Further Reading:
Kaifeng Torah at the British Museum:
Shavei Israel- Kaifeng Jews moving to Israel:
Genetic contributions of Far East to Ashkenazi Jews:
Photos courtesy of Alex Shaland.
(The Great Synagogue was located behind this wall. This building used to be a part of the synagogue structure. Now a hospital and a nursing facility stand where the ancient synagogue, first built in 1163, used to be.)
For more information see Irene Shaland, The Dao of Being Jewish and Other Stories: Seeking Jewish Narrative all Over the World, CreateSpace, 2016. and globaltravelauthors.com