04 September 2008

China: Kaifeng's Jews

This Ynetnews story focuses on Shih Lei, now 30, who studied in Israel for several years.

As a Bar Ilan student, he spoke to an overflowing meeting of JFRA Israel. It is always nice to read more on what he is doing.

1,000 Jews cannot be wrong

Descendants of centuries-old Jewish community in China's Kaifeng rediscover Jewish heritage after near complete assimilation in local community

In Chinese terms, the city of Kaifeng, about 500 miles southwest of Beijing, is reminiscent of the Israeli city of Hadera: The number of its residents is 700,000 – as opposed to Beijing's 15 million or Shanghai's 20 million – and it doesn't even have its own airport.

However, a thousand years ago, Kaifeng was the capital of the Chinese empire, the largest, richest and most advanced in the world at the time, with 600,000 residents that made it the most populated city on earth.

Ancient Kaifeng had a Jewish community – a small but thriving one, whose story is unique in the history of the Jewish people. For the 800 years of its existence, Kaifeng's Jews never suffered from persecution or discrimination. The Chinese authorities, as well as the general population, welcomed their Jewish neighbors, viewed them as citizens in every respect and allowed them to observe their religion with complete freedom.

The story touches on their lineage and rediscovery of the Kaifeng Jewish descendants, now about 1,000 people - some have converted, some are making aliyah.

Thirty-year-old Shi Lei does not try to hide his excitement when he takes his guest, an Israeli journalist, to the central room in his parents' home. His family, which is of Jewish descent, has lived in this home for more than 100 years. After the death of his grandmother and grandfather, Shi, together with his father, turned this room into a mini-museum and a small Jewish center, where he gives classes on Jewish tradition to children and adults of Jewish descent.

Shi Lei, who graduated with a degree in English from the University of Kaifeng, spent close to three years in Israel studying at Jerusalem's Machon Meir and at Bar-Ilan University: "I was the first person from Kaifeng that studied in Israel. I was privileged to receive a wonderful welcome at the Machon Meir yeshiva, and I was treated as a Jew in every respect, although I am not technically a Jew according to Jewish law, and had not yet undergone conversion.

"I decided to return to Kaifeng and to develop my mini-museum, because if I would leave here then there would be no one to teach the younger generation. We feel connected to the Jewish people and to the State of Israel – it's in our blood."

There's more on the community's history and clues. According to the books of Charles White and other scholars, the inscriptions on the synagogue were written in Farsi, Hebrew and Chinese and names on ancestor stones indicated Persian names common into the contemporary era.

DNA testing done over the past few years on the descendents of the Kaifeng Jews, proved them distant relatives of Armenian, Iranian and Iraqi Jews. Most of the researchers, as well as the Kaifeng descendents themselves, tend to suggest that the original Jews in China were merchants from Persia that came by way of the Silk Route (in today's southern Turkey) to the city of Xian in central China.

Now in the city museum, a stone tablet dating to the 1489 synagogue is inscribed inscribed: "According to the commandment of their god, the Jews came from Tian-Sho (Chinese for "India" and "every state to the west of China") with woven materials from the west as a gift for the emperor." He was pleased with the gifts and welcomed the strangers to dwell and keep their customs.

The ancient stone tablet also states that one of the emperors from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) bestowed "the gift of incense" upon the Jewish community. It was given to the Jewish doctor Yung-Ching who appears to have been his personal physician. This indicates that Kaifeng's Jews used Chinese names rather than Hebrew names, and incorporated a Chinese ceremony into their religious rituals – the lighting of incense.

Assimilation proved the downfall of this community - all residents could qualify to become government officials by passing exams. The multi-lingual Jews had somewhat of an advantage and Jewish descendants who applied for government jobs was higher than their actual percentage of population.

Officials studied for five years, and were then sent to other places in the empire. The lack of Jewish brides contributed to assimilation, and Jewish life in Kaifeng ended some 150 years ago. The 700-year-old synagogue was destroyed in an 1854 flood.

Some customs still remain and descendants still live in the old Jewish section of the city. In 1953, 55 minorities were recognized, but the Jews ("youtai") were not one of them.

Read the complete article at the link above.

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