Local Rabbi Explores China’s Jewish Roots

On a chilly December afternoon, Rabbi Anson Laytner worked diligently at his desk in his cozy downtown Seattle office, but his mind was thousands of miles away. As the city bustled around him, the rabbi’s thoughts were actually in the ancient city of Kaifeng, China – a place where Jews from Persia and India are believed to have immigrated to as early as the 8th century.

Laytner, who serves as executive director of the American Jewish Committee in Seattle, and president of the board at the California-based Sino-Judaic Institute, has spent the past two decades delving deeper into the history of Kaifeng. What’s most astonishing, scholars found, is not only that Jewish communities existed in Kaifeng for centuries, but also that, for the most part, they coexisted with the native people peacefully. Laytner said the Chinese treated the Jewish immigrants with respect and showed tolerance toward their religion. They even – perhaps unknowingly – influenced their belief system.

“Kaifeng Jews came up with a kind of Judaism that was kind of a synthesis of Jewish thought and Chinese thought,” he said. More waves of Jewish people made their way into China during the next several centuries, finding refuge in Harbin, Tianjin, Hong Kong and Shanghai. About 18,000 Jews came to Shanghai during the Holocaust. Today scholars from across the globe travel to Far East to learn more about Sino-Judaic relations. They study steles, stone tablets with religious inscriptions, to unlock important clues into the history.

However, Laytner said, scholars have found difficulty in getting Kaifeng authorities to cooperate with their research. He said authorities often deny visitors access to museums and important artifacts for unknown reasons. He emphasized that the Jewish experience in China is crucial to study because it demonstrates a rare case of peaceful assimilation. “I’m hoping we’ll be able to establish good working relationships in Kaifeng, both with authorities and with Kaifeng Jews. We just want them to cooperate with us in the spirit of friendship,” he said.

According to Laytner, Judaism never left Kaifeng. “There are still Chinese Jewish descendents who identify themselves as Jews,” he said. The number of Jews currently living in China remains unclear, but through research and cross-cultural interaction, scholars hope to piece together Jewish China’s past and present. Laytner invites people from all backgrounds to explore this topic, which astounds him to this day. “Just the idea that there was this group that was able to synthesize Jewish and Chinese culture – sort of like a hybrid flower,” he reflected.

Laytner believes Sino-Judaic education could help ease tension around the world and foster a better understanding of Jewish people, as well as their hospitable hosts. “I think it challenges stereotypes of who Jews are, and who Chinese people are,” he said.

For more information about the Sino-Judaic Institute, visit www.sino-judaic.org.

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