On sabbatical, discovering the Jews of Kaifeng, China
For many people, including most Jews, even lesser known than the Jewish refugee story in Shanghai during World War II is the story of the Jews of Kaifeng, China.
While both stories have been somewhat recently “rediscovered,” the Kaifeng story still carries a certain air of mystery to it. Today there are not a lot of Western travelers in Kaifeng, as by Chinese standards, it is a relatively “small” city of 800,000 people (with a metropolitan area of 4 million). But at one time, it was the largest city in the world. This height of Kaifeng’s glory was during the time of the Song Dynasty, which lasted from the late 10th century to the late 13th century.
For my family, Kaifeng was just one stop on a journey, during my sabbatical that has taken us to Fiji, Australia, China, Dubai — and then ultimately on to Israel for four months.
We enjoyed our time in Kaifeng, even beyond the Jewish part of the tour, because it felt somehow more authentically “Chinese” to us after Shanghai, where residents have more contact with Westerners.
We were introduced to the Kaifeng community by Shi Lei, a descendant of the Kaifeng Jews (a term which, incidentally, has a large Wikipedia entry). Shi spoke in Oakland just before we left for sabbatical, and he also served as our tour guide in Kaifeng, which was like drinking water directly from the spring instead of from bottles. (Of course, in China, as in many parts of Asia, you can only drink water from bottles, but that’s another story entirely.)
The Kaifeng Jewish community is shrouded in mystery today, but most scholars believe that Jews first settled there during the Song dynasty from Persia. There they were welcomed by the emperor and were called, literally, the “people who remove the sinew from the cow.” This appellation is based on the idea that those who keep kosher do not eat any part of the animal that touches the sciatic nerve, derived from the scene in the Torah where Jacob wrestles with the angel.
The Jewish community remained intact for centuries, though they often intermarried with the local population so that they eventually became physically indistinguishable from other Chinese. For centuries, they maintained their traditions, more or less. We learned that in the end, though, they all almost completely assimilated. Then, of course, there was the Cultural Revolution of the ’50s and ’60s under Mao Tse-Tung. As a result, there are only
about 50 members of the community that can trace their roots back.
In Kaifeng there is now a three-room exhibit in the very large Millenium City Park detailing the history of the community and telling their story through painting, writing and photos. There is a wonderful model of the old synagogue and its courtyard, which looks just like any other Chinese holy place and courtyard rather than a European synagogue.
Shi Lei also took us to his own family museum, which is where the community gathers on some Shabbats. There he has photos and ritual objects. Unfortunately, the roof recently caved in, so the community is not meeting anywhere, and thus Shi was unable to gather them for me to meet with them or do any teaching.
He also showed us the site of the former mikvah, which, believe it or not, now is the boiler room of a local hospital. It is locked, so we were unable to peek in. Shi has seen it, and the people in town refer to it as the “old Jewish well.” The hospital is also the site of the former synagogue, so just outside, we sang “Ma Tovu,” “how goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel,” to remind us that we were standing on formerly sacred space.
He also took us to what they call “Teach Torah Lane,” where the Jewish community used to live. It is now a rather poor part of town, where we saw two very sad sites: a cock trained for fighting walking around and a pile of animal excrement. This lane has long been forgotten. How far it is from the Torah that used to be taught there.
We all connected with the story of these Jews.
One really memorable part of the Kaifeng trip involved my son Jonah. On the Shanghai Jewish tour, the tour guide had him go to a toy shop and told him he could pick out any toy in the store. He picked a basketball. Because we don’t have the space to carry around a basketball for 5 months, he decided he wanted to give it to a boy in Kaifeng about his own age. He wanted to give it to someone in the Jewish community, but since we couldn’t meet any, he decided to give it to the first boy he saw at “Teach Torah Lane.” It was a very sweet moment.
Before my trip, I was contacted by an individual who had lived in Kaifeng for a year and taught Judaism to some of the members of the community. This person wants to get rabbis interested in converting the community formally.
Shi Lei’s take — along with other teachers — is that this sadly has divided the community rather than uniting it. It is hard to know who or what to believe.
The situation is further complicated because there are definite cultural differences that are hard for us in the West to understand. Many of us would welcome the descendants of the Kaifeng Jewish community to the fold without hesitation, but they may not be willing to go there in the way that the rest of the Jewish world would require in order for them to gain acceptance.
Regardless, controversy aside, parting with Shi Lei was a special moment during a meaningful journey that we will remember forever.
Rabbi Mark Bloom is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Abraham of Oakland. To read more about his sabbatical, visit https://www.tbaoakland.org and click on his blog. He wrote this piece for Asian Jewish Life; reprinted with permission.