Reclaiming China’s Jews

Aside from annual Christmas Eve dinners at the local Chinese restaurant, most people don’t readily associate Jewish and Chinese culture. But last week at Temple Israel in Sharon, Shi Lei, a native of Kaifeng, China and descendent of the once prominent Jews of Kaifeng, spoke to congregants about his community’s Jewish history.

“From generation to generation, the grandparents have always told their children that they are Jewish,” said Shi Lei. “But my ancestors forgot the knowledge of the traditions and now we are relearning.”

Shi Lei (pronounced sher-lay) is leading that effort. The 29-year-old came to Temple Israel to share his own experience of spiritual rediscovery, which has taken him from Kaifeng on the banks of China’s Yellow River to Israel, where he studied at Bar Ilan University and Machon Meir yeshiva in Jerusalem. He is using his knowledge to reignite an interest in Kaifeng’s Jewish past, both at home and abroad.

“Before I went to Israel, I literally knew nothing,” said Shi Lei. “[My studies] enriched me in Jewish history and traditions and encouraged me to continue my research and to share what I learned with others.”

The first Jews came to the then-capital city of Kaifeng from Persia about 1,000 years ago, according to Shi Lei. They were traders traveling the Silk Road, and were reportedly welcomed by the emperor of the Northern Sung Dynasty. The newcomers soon established themselves as successful businessmen and even powerful government officials. And for centuries, the Jews of Kaifeng maintained their religious traditions, building a synagogue in the capital city and rebuilding the temple four times after floods and fires destroyed the building.

But time and assimilation took their toll, and Kaifeng’s Jews, who at one time numbered between 3,000 and 4,000 practicing adherents, are now almost completely unaware of their Jewish heritage. “Under the communists, the last remnants of the Kaifeng Jewish community were liquidated,” said Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University. “But the Chinese, I think, have a curious respect for Judaism.”

That respect is still evident centuries after Kaifeng’s Jewish community lost touch with its religious past. Remnants of Judaism still play a part in modern traditions, including the exclusion of pork in food offerings made during ancestral ceremonies. Unfortunately, the Chinese people’s respect for Kaifeng’s Jewish descendents is not necessarily reflected by the national government. In 1953, local Kaifeng representatives sought official recognition by the communist regime, but were denied.

“It is a complicated issue,” said Xu Xin, professor and director of the Institute of Jewish Studies at Nanjing University in China. “If [the Jews of Kaifeng] were recognized as a separate ethnic group, even in small numbers, the government would have to give equal political rights and representation in the [National] People’s Congress.”
Xu Xin has researched and lectured extensively on Kaifeng’s Jewish history, and is hopeful that the modern descendents will reclaim their traditions. But, he said, teaching Kaifeng’s Jewish descendents about the religion has its challenges.

“If they become practicing Jews, the government will recognize them one day,” he said. “But they have to learn about their heritage; they cannot inherit it automatically. And very few of them have been serious in this matter over the past 15 years.”

Still, Xu Xin is optimistic that Shi Lei can bring about a reclamation of Judaism in Kaifeng. The young man is schooling himself not only in tradition, but also practice and ritual observance, both of which Xu Xin contends are necessary for any true Jewish revival to take hold.

So far, the Jewish descendents of Kaifeng have been eager to learn about their history, but hesitant to practice the religion, according to Shi Lei. Nevertheless, he has continued his efforts and has even set up a public museum in his home. He also serves as a tour guide and teacher for residents and tourists interested in Kaifeng’s Jews. It is a testament to Shi Lei’s commitment to his people, and a model for all Jews who seek to reconnect with their heritage.
“The most important reason we are doing this is because we are of Jewish descent,” he said. “But any nation, any people should continue to preserve their culture and traditions.”

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