Ancient Community

01.03.14

China’s Kaifeng Jews Rediscover Their Heritage

In Kaifeng, where Sephardic Jews from the Silk Road settled in the 12th century, their descendants are rediscovering lost religious practices and petitioning Israel for recognition.

“Are you Jewish?” my Israeli boyfriend likes to ask me every time I do something like mumble oy va voy when I spill a bag of oranges outside of the grocery store. It’s a running joke, albeit not a very good one, since I’m ethnically Chinese.

But the premise of our joke—that the notion of a Chinese Jew is oxymoronic— is not technically true. Lately, Chinese Jews have been coming out of the woodwork, and, because of the obvious novelty factor, are getting a decent amount of media attention. In November, Tablet covered the return of a 28-year-old Chinese Jew, Jin Jin, to Israel, where he now lives. Haaretz has been following the conversion of several Chinese Jews in Israel, including Yaakov Wong, who is studying to become the first Chinese Rabbi in over 200 years. And Israeli friends like to remind me that Eli Marom, who is a quarter Chinese, was the first Chinese Jew to hold a top military post in Israel, as the head of the Israeli Navy from 2007 to 2011. Marom’s brother, Moshe Marom, served as the first representative to China for the IDF.

As it turns out, scholars estimate that there are nearly 1,000 Chinese people of Jewish descent alive today—most of whom originate from Kaifeng, an area of the Henan Province in Eastern Central China. According to Irene Eber, a Professor of Asian Studies at The Hebrew University who has written extensively on the topic, the first Jews arrived in China along the Silk Road in the early 12th century and built their first synagogue around 1160, with the help of Han labor.

“Since the Jews in China were Sephardic, they were polygamists, and depending on how wealthy they were, some took several Chinese wives and the children became Chinese,” she said. “Jews became a part of Chinese society, but they also took what fit their religious belief from the Chinese environment and were considered part of the syncretic sectarianism, characteristic of large portions of Chinese society in parts of North China. They prayed, had dietary restrictions and religious writings that only they read.”

At their peak in the 16th and 17th centuries, Eber says there may have been well over 1,000 members of the Jewish community in Kaifeng (others estimate as many as 10,000). By 1900 though, the city’s Jews had lost most of their heritage. By 1866, there was no longer a synagogue in Kaifeng, a problem that persists to the present day, and religious scrolls were dispersed. 

“Despite this, they never forgot their identity,” said Eber. “They were Han Chinese and also Jewish. This Jewish identity is again being affirmed today with the help of Jews that travel to China and guide them into a Jewish direction.”

But whether or not the descendants of this ancient Jewish community—which is referred to as qi xing ba jia in Mandarin and consists of eight lineages and seven Chinese surnames, adapted from original biblical names like Levy (now Li) and Adam (now Ai) —are actually Jewish, is cause for controversy.

Yiyi Chen, the Director of the Institute for Hebrew and Jewish Studies at Peking University, is not convinced. “Regardless of how you define Jewishness—either in conservative or liberal terms—I don’t think there are any Jews currently living in Kaifeng,” he said.

“Some claim that they are Jewish with historical ties, but nothing has been preserved other than the newly learned Jewishness following the opening of China in the late 1980s and 1990s. The only tangible heritage they have is that since the 1980s— some of them are called the ‘blue kippas’ for example, and are being mixed together with the Muslim community in terms of their dietary restrictions. But other than that, there’s nothing that they observe.”

Chen describes the current phenomenon of rediscovering a long-lost Jewish heritage as a small but prominent trend among young Kaifeng residents, born in the 1970s to 1990s, who are attempting to reclaim a forgotten culture. “But it consists of no more than a few dozen people,” he said. “I don’t think they can safely claim that there is a Jewish community there. There is not.” Instead, Chen points to financial motivators behind those promoting the notion of Chinese Jews, including academic, entrepreneurial and local governmental efforts to attract foreign tourists to Kaifeng and expand local revenues.

Officially, the Chinese government does not recognized Judaism as a minority religion, a status that would allow Jewish citizens to frequent synagogues and potentially have more than one child. A recent Chinese documentary on the ancient Jewish community in China interviewed families in Kaifeng with Jewish ties and concluded that Chinese Jews simply no longer exist.

Nor do Kaifeng Jews meet the criteria for Israel’s Law of Return, in which at least one grandparent must be Jewish. So those that consider themselves to be “Chinese Jews” still have to complete a lengthy conversion process in order to become an Israeli citizen.

Even Yecholiya Jin, the Kaifeng Jew profiled by Tablet, concedes that Kaifeng Jews did not abide by religious laws throughout much of their history. “It’s only in the last 10 years that we began to pick up more of our condition and understand the traditions. Before then, [critics] are right in that we didn’t really keep kosher or know Hebrew or much of the beliefs— we only knew we were Jewish and we didn’t eat pork.” Though Kaifeng citizens of Jewish descent are not recognized as Jewish by the Chinese government, Jin says that on a local level, members of her family and other members of the communities are able to pray together and meet regularly for Shabbat and holiday meals in Kaifeng. Her father even wears a tzitzit.

Regardless of their hazy history, once converted, Chinese Jews are considered Jewish by the Israeli Rabbinate, and several have been granted Israeli citizenship. 26-year-old Yuguang Shi is one of a handful of Kaifeng Jews that arrived in Israel in 2009 with the help of Shavei Israel, an organization that assists “Hidden Jews” seeking to return to the Jewish community. He is one of just over a dozen Kaifeng Jews to convert in Israel after several years of studying. He became an Israeli citizen earlier this year.

“My identity as Jewish, from the time my grandmother told me about it when I was a child in China, was the start of everything in my life today,” he said. “I feel Israel is special. It is the place I should live because it is a Jewish country and I am above all Jewish.”

Perhaps Shi and others like him have a reason to feel special. Being from Kaifeng and of ancient Jewish descent—whether or not Beijing or Israel recognize him—still makes him, at least statistically, one in a million.