JEWS IN CHINA—KAIFENG EDITION
Almost as well known as the Jewish experience in Shanghai are the Jews of Kaifeng. There are not a lot of Western travelers in Kaifeng, as it is a relatively “small” city of 800,000 people (metropolitan area of 4 million), but at one time, it was the largest city in the world. This was during the time of the Song Dynasty, which lasted from the late 10th Century to the late 13th Century. We enjoyed our time there beyond the Jewish part of the tour, because it felt more authentically “Chinese” to us, since the residents there have very little contact with Westerners.
We were introduced to this community by Shi Lei, who is a descendant of these Jews and who spoke in Oakland just before we left for sabbatical. He also served as our tour guide in Kaifeng, and it was like drinking water directly from the spring instead of from bottles. Of course, in China you can only drink water from bottles, but that’s another story entirely.
|Rabbi Mark Bloom and Kaifeng Jewish Tour |
Guide Shi lei, in front of his family museum.
The Kaifeng Jewish community is shrouded in mystery, but most believe Jews came 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 often intermarried with the local population so they eventually became physically indistinguishable from other Chinese. They maintained their traditions, more or less, but almost completely assimilated during the cultural revolution of the fifties and sixties under Mao Tse-Tung. As a result, there are only about 50 practicing members of the community now, and most practice very little.
|What's left of "Teach Torah Lane"|
In Kaifeng there is a 3 room exhibit in the very large Millenium City Park detailing 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 like a European synagogue. Shi Lei also took us to his own family museum, which is also where the community gathers on some Shabbatot. There he has more photos as well as ritual objects. Unfortunately, the roof recently caved in, so they are not meeting anywhere, and thus he was unable to gather them for me to meet with them or do any teaching. He also showed us the site of the former mikveh, which, believe it or not, now is the boiler room at a local hospital. It is locked, so we were unable to peek in. Shi Lei has seen it, and the people in town call it 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 who is trained for fighting walking around and a pile of animal excrement. How far from the Torah that used to be taught there.
One really fun story from this part of the trip involves Jonah. On the Shanghai Jewish tour, the tour guide had him go to a little toy shop and told him he could pick out any toy in the store. He picked a basketball, and if you know Jonah, that is not a surprise. 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.
It was an emotional parting from Shi Lei, who was such an amazing host. Before my trip I was contacted by an individual who had lived there for a year and taught Judaism to some of the members of the community. This person hopes to get rabbis interested in converting the community formally. Shi Lei’s take on this is that he, along with other teachers, have sadly divided the community rather than uniting it. It is hard to know who or what to believe, but there are definite cultural differences that are hard for us in the West to understand. Most of us would welcome the descendants of the Kaifeng Jewish community to the fold in an instant, but they may not want to go there in the way that the rest of the Jewish world would accept. Regardless, it was a special moment that we will remember forever.