Matzah and Marco Polo

Explorer Marco Polo traveled from Venice to China in the year 1260 AD, returning a few years later with tales of black stones that heated rooms (coal), clothing laced with gold, and the presence of prosperous Jews in Beijing. These outlandish claims earned him the nickname “man of a million lies.”

Two hundred years later Jesuit missionaries confirmed, at least, the presence of Jews in Beijing. Jesuit Matthew Ricci, in 1605, encountered a young Chinese man, Ai T’ien. In stark contrast to the rest of the Chinese population, Ai T’ien claimed to worship a single God.

Further questioning (after Ai T’ien mistakenly interpreted statues of Mary, Jesus and John the Baptist as Rebecca with Jacob and Esau) revealed that Ai T’ien’s hometown, Kaifeng, (former capital and important stop on the ancient Great Silk Road) was home to a large Jewish population.

The Jews in Kaifeng, Ai T’ien revealed, had their own synagogue, as well as a study hall, a ritual bath, a communal kitchen, and a kosher butchering facility, and a large library.

Ricci sent a Chinese Jesuit Lay Brother to Kaifeng to copy some of the holy books, which proved to be the books of the Torah, with grammatical distinctions that suggested great age.

Ai T’ien confessed to Ricci that it was difficult to follow the commands of the Torah. Success and prosperity in the Chinese culture required conformity, and many Kaifeng Israelites (Ai T’ien did not know the word “Jew”) had begun to eat pork and read the Chinese literature to the exclusion of the Torah).

In 1462 the situation of the Kaifeng Jews was further compromised. A great flood destroyed the synagogue and the scriptures swept away, floating on the huge waves of the flood, killing hundreds of thousands of Chinese in the process–their scrolls carried away on the flood, which killed hundreds of thousands of Chinese.

(Chinese records of this flood refer to the Jews as the “sect which pulls out the sinew”)

The sect rented a house on a hill in which to store what they had been able to salvage, copied their rescued scrolls, and by 1663 had rebuilt their synagogue, erecting a stone stele in commemoration.

Only seven families had survived the flood, however, and none of them was really fluent in Hebrew. Another Jesuit recorded in 1708 that their religious leader could only read some words of the Torah. Assimilation began to erode their traditions and the rate of intermarriage between Jews and the Chinese increased.

Cut off from the rest of the nation of Israel for hundreds of years, now bereft of an understanding of Hebrew, the remnant in Kaifeng set up a Torah scroll in the public square and offered a reward for any traveler who could interpret their Scriptures, but no passersby were able to take advantage of the offer.

One Kaifeng Israelite wrote this to a friend… “with tears in our eyes and with offerings of incenses do we implore that our religion may again flourish. We sought everywhere, but could find none who understood the letter of the Great Country (i.e. Hebrew), which causes us deep sorrow.”

By 1850, the synagogue had closed and was shortly thereafter destroyed.

The Jews of Kaifeng were no more.

Where had they come from? Given the fact that the largest contingent was in Kaifeng, a stop on the Great Silk Road (which began to take shape nearly three thousand years ago), the best guess is that they were early Chinese entrepreneurs.

The fact that the earliest stele erected by the group summarizes the history of the nation but stops at Ezra supports a very early arrival. There are also oral traditions of Jews emigrating through Persia to China after the destruction of Israel in 70 AD.

A business letter written in 718 in a Judeo-Persian mix, discovered in NW China at Danfan Uiliq (another important post along the Silk Road) confirms a Jewish presence in China by that date. The text is written on paper, a product then manufactured only in China.

Recent translations of the inscriptions by Jewish expert Tiberu Weisz would seemingly nail down the Kaifeng Jew’s origins. A group of priests and Levites during the Babylonian exile traveled east, staying in India for several generations, then traveling to the western regions of the Chinese empire.

(The three stele erected by the synagogue in Kaifeng seemingly record in inexplicable detail the rites practiced by the congregation and the building and rebuilding of their synagogue/temple– a fact which supports their authors being priests and Levites.)

The exiles were discovered by a Chinese military contingent in 108 BC and, in Israeli style of today, invited to continue residing there as a buffer from Chinese enemies. (Military records by General Li Guangli confirm contact with a group that “looked strange”, his depiction of their headdress matching the appearance of the phylacteries that observant Jews would have worn.)

When Chinese troops withdrew from the western wilderness in the 3rd century AD, the populations of those areas generally withdrew as well into China’s heartland, which may be how the ancient Jews arrived in Kaifeng and Beijing.

So why do we care? Aren’t the Jews in Kaifeng lost to history?

Not quite.

The destruction of the synagogue in Kaifeng was followed shortly by the fall of the last Chinese emperor and the rise of Communism in China, where conformity was necessary for survival and atheism the required religion. But some families, at least, remembered a heritage seldom vocalized. They continued to avoid pork. Parents and grandparents would remind them, behind closed doors, that they were Jewish and someday they would go home.

The loosening of the Communist chokehold on China and re-establishment of diplomatic relations with the West (particularly Israel) rekindled an interest in Jewish heritage. Today about a thousand residents of Kaifeng trace their lineage back to that early Jewish community; a small minority of those have begun to embrace the faith of their fathers. Shavie Israel is actively involved with Kaifeng’s Jewish descendants and is providing them with Jewish books (in Chinese) and other basic materials for worship.

Shi Lei spent three years in Jerusalem, studying first at Bar- Ilan University in Jerusalem and then Mechon Meir Yeshiva. He eventually returned to China to give classes on Judaism and Hebrew to the rest of Kaifeng’s Jewish residents.

Seven young Kaifeng men applied for residency in Israel under the Law of Return in 2008 and arrived a year later– fulfilling, after ostensibly three thousand years, a promise of God:

“Surely these shall come from afar; Look! Those from the north and the west, And these from the land of Sinim.” Isaiah 49:12

Sinim meaning those in Sin, and Sin (apparently the closest English equivalent to Xin), being the land of China. (The preferred prefix defining the land of China by both Christian and secular dictionaries alike is Sino–i.e., Sino-Japanese accord).

God keeps his promises. Predictably. Historically. Verifiably. Every time.

And sometimes we get to watch it happen.

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