Henan Province, China

posted 1 May 2018, 16:54 by Lodzer Shabbat-Bulletin   [ updated 1 May 2018, 16:58 ]

Where in the world is Rabbi Eli

Henan Province, China

Jews have dwelled in Kaifeng for at least 5 times longer than in Toronto. Which is not to say it is a well-established or developed community nowadays.

According to the last census, only about 1,000 residents of Kaifeng have ties to Jewish ancestry, with about 400 of them identifying themselves as Jewish, and only 10% of those taking part in any sort of Jewish activities.

Kaifeng was the capital of Northern Song Dynasty (10-12th c. CE), and as such enjoyed its bustling cosmopolitan position on that branch of the Silk Road.

Some researchers even date the establishment of the Jewish community to the Tang dynasty period (7-10c.) or even earlier. The Synagogue, however, was established around 1163 by a small community of Jewish merchants, most likely from India or Persia.

Ming dynasty (14-17 c) emperors gave Kaifeng Jews surnames. There are eight in total (Ai, Gao, Gan, Jin, Li, Shi, Zhang, and Zhao), by which their descendants are identifiable to this day. Practically the entire Zhang clan, though, has converted to Islam in 1903.

Europeans had no idea about the community's existence until the famous Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci found out and tried to convert them to Christianity. There is a record of his brief correspondence with the "Master of the Synagogue". Ricci writes that he is a bearer of happy tidings; the Messiah for whom the Jews had been waiting relentlessly has already come! In a scolding response, the "Archsynagogus" wrote that Messiah would not come for another ten thousand years. (Yeah, I know; it sounds better in Chinese.)

In a bizarre follow-up, the Rabbi of Kaifeng, concerned about the lack of an apparent successor, offered Ricci his position, should he "join the Jewish faith and forfeit eating pork" (sic!). Ricci declined, and wrote later that the Jewish community of China were about "to become Saracens or heathens".

Instead, in the late 1700's there were as many as 4, perhaps 5 synagogues in Kaifeng. All of them suffered at different times of series of floods and fires.

In 1850's, the community dispersed altogether during the Taiping Rebellion but later came back (you can read more about those events in Robert Elegant's historical novel "Mandarin", presenting the point of view of a Shanghai Jewish family).

The last synagogue building is long gone, though you can see a model of it in the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv. The kosher restaurant at Beijing Beit Chabad cleverly reproduced the building facade for its bar centerpiece.

With the rise of the Red China, all research on Judaism in Kaifeng came to a standstill till the thawing in mid-1980's.

The Jews in Kaifeng look exactly like the Jews of Canada, Iran, Yemen, North Africa, or Ethiopia - i.e. pretty much indistinguishable from their Gentle neighbours. Many remember some of their grandparents' customs - not eating chazer or shellfish, wearing kippah, saying blessings, lighting candles - and some have been emulating those customs since childhood.

While China has never really been antisemitic, the attitude towards religion is iffy, with only "officially registered religions" enjoying protection by the law (and - nope, Judaism is not one of these).

4 years ago, authorities initiated a crackdown on the Jews of Kaifeng, shutting down the Jewish school and demanding all mezuzot be removed from the doorposts. It appears to be a local initiative rather than a Beijing-directed move.

As of the moment, the formal position of the Judaism in Kaifeng is dubious, and the Jews try to keep a low profile (I enclose no pictures of the community members, at their request). We can only bring small groups of Jewish travelers to visit them at this time.

In fact, as the crackdown started, they implored Jewish rights' organizations not to raise much protest, fearing it may cause further ire of the powers-that-be. In an open letter, they emphasized their loyalty to the party and People's Republic of China, pride in being a part of the multi-national communist culture, and desire to live in peace with all peoples...

Writing to you from the banks of the Yellow River, I will use this opportunity to confirm that I, too, am proud to embrace the teachings of the People's Republic leaders towards equality, peace and prosperity for all people on earth. My loyalty to the words of wisdom bequeathed to us all by the Great Helmsman himself cannot be questioned.

Shabbat Shalom,