Thursday, April 7, 2011

China--Jewish Shanghai


This post is late, because the blogspot sites are blocked in China.  I knew Facebook and Youtube would be, but the blog block was an unpleasant surprise.

The most important Jews in China, at least for the purposes of this trip, are the Bessler/Baum family:  Joni, Casey, Eli, Max, and Sammy.  They are our hosts here and the reason we decided to make China part of this trip.   Traveling in places where everyone speaks English is easy and comfortable.

  In places where very few people speak English, nervous travelers like us need hosts, and Joni and family have been amazing.  They have arranged everything for us, from booking our hotels, trains, and planes, to driving us around to picking the restaurants to bargaining for us in stores.  All three kids speak excellent Mandarin as well, so they ask all the questions and do most of the translating for us.
They live in Shanghai, where we started, and then traveled with us to Kaifeng and Beijing.  

Many people know of the rich history of the Jewish community in Shanghai, and it is fascinating on so many levels.  I am oversimplifying this here.  For more details, take a look at this website:
Essentially, it has four stages. 

The first was led by the wealthy, Iraqi Jews who came following the Opium Wars of the 19th Century.  The most prominent families were the Sassoons and the Kadouries,  who eventually owned most of the prominent buildings in Shanghai and were also incredibly philanthropic with both the Jewish and general communities.

The second was a group of turn of the century immigrants fleeing the pogroms of Eastern Europe.  Most went to America, many went to Israel, but some went to Shanghai as well.  Shanghai was an open port, internationalized and shared by France, Great Britain, and China, and they welcomed just about everyone as immigrants.  How very different from the China of today! 

The third and most famous group were the Holocaust refugees, mostly from Germany and Austria.  Shanghai was one of the very few places in the world where Jews were welcomed in the midst of the Holocaust (as opposed to America, whose borders were closed).  Many more would have come, but getting a visa to travel anywhere was almost impossible for a European Jew at the time.

Two Asian men who saved thousands
 of Jewish lives during the Holocaust.
Two righteous gentiles, Japanese Consul General Chiune Sughirah in Kovno,  Lithuania, and Dr. Ho Feing Shan, the Chinese Consul General in Vienna in 1938-39, did manage to get several thousand Jews into Shanghai, however.  Because Japan occupied Shanghai and they were cooperating with Nazi Germany, Jews were forced into a ghetto, though there was movement within and the possibility of working outside the ghetto, as opposed to what was happening to their brethren in Europe.  We took the Jewish tour of Shanghai and saw much of the history up close.  It’s really a must do in Shanghai.

The fourth phase is happening today, where Jews of all kinds are moving to both Shanghai and Beijing. Because Judaism is not recognized as an official religion in China  (I had to put “teacher” as my occupation on my visa application because rabbis could potentially be missionizing), so it operates unofficially and under the table but with the knowledge of the Chinese government.  There are American and Australians and French and Israelis, families, students, and businessmen, and they all meet at, where else, Chabad.  We went to Friday night services where we were welcomed warmly, with the Bessler’s sponsoring the dinner.  Because people come from all over the world, their minhag is a wonderful mix of Ashkenazic, Sephardic, Carlebach, and Chabad, with a diversity of davening styles and tunes that I have never seen in one place.  There are shtreimel wearing Chasidic Jews davening right next to Israeli businessmen and American students studying abroad.  The biggest surprise was, in fact, the Shtreimel wearing Chasids, because these are not Chabadniks but Chasids from a different sect.  There is a lot of infighting among various Chasidim, so to see them praying at a Chabad Center was a very positive thing.   To see this combination is very “Shanghai,” since the entire city is really an intriguing mix of old and new, East and West, with sprawling skyscrapers popping up everywhere amidst centuries old buldings and neighborhood.  For more on this aspect of Shangai, see my other post.


  1. very interesting. thanks for posting!

  2. The Sassoons that moved to Shanghai from Iraq in the 19th century are the same Sassoons that I trace my lineage back to. In fact, my dad's full name is David Sassoon Jacob. My dad's family didn't settle in Shanghai though, they moved to Rangoon, Burma, which is where he was born. Today, you can find Sassoons in major port cities throughout south, east, and southeast Asia, and a few of us here in the states. :-)

  3. So glad your trip to Shanghai was educational, fun, and felt like a "family" visit. The Baums are wonderful - it's great to hear how well they are all doing. I do wonder - as you said Judaism is practiced "under the table" if there is ever a feeling of fear for the Jews who live in China permanently?

  4. Actually, there is no anti-Semitism in China at all, so no fear for these Jews. It's just that it's unrecognized, officially, by the government. It's a very strange situation. No recognition but no anti-Semitism, the opposite of the rest of the world.