A Jewish Spark Rekindled in China
Though he is only 23 years old, Shi Lei of Kaifeng, China, is laboring hard to reclaim centuries of Jewish tradition and heritage, much of which has all but faded away in his native land.
A descendant of a once prosperous and thriving Jewish community located on the south bank of China’s Yellow River, Shi Lei (pronounced Sher Lay) is now enrolled in the one-year Jewish studies program at Bar-Ilan University outside Tel Aviv, where he is busy studying Hebrew and learning about Jewish history and culture.
“…But by the middle of the 1800s, widespread assimilation and intermarriage had all but erased the Chinese Jews’ practice and knowledge of Judaism.”
Shi Lei is heir to a proud legacy that was handed down from father to son over the generations. His ancestors were Chinese Jews, part of a community that enjoyed nearly a millennium of peaceful relations with their Chinese neighbors.
“My ancestors came to Kaifeng, China about 1000 years ago,” Shi Lei says. “In 1163, the Jews in my city bought a piece of land in a downtown area in Kaifeng and set up a synagogue, which stood in place for about 700 years, before it fell into ruin.”
China provided its Jews with a welcome and comfortable home, free of many of the insecurities that plagued Jewish communities elsewhere in the diaspora. There are no known recorded incidents of anti-Semitism in China, and the Jews were free to engage in trades and the professions.
At its peak, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Kaifeng Jewry numbered about 5,000 people. Concerned, perhaps, about their community’s sense of collective memory, the Jews of Kaifeng decided to erect steles (stone monuments), on which they inscribed the history of their sojourn in China. Two of the steles, which were erected in 1489, 1512, 1663 and 1669, now sit in the Kaifeng Municipal Museum, a lasting testimony to the Jewish life that once thrived there.
According to Dr. Wendy Abraham, a leading scholar on the history of Kaifeng Jewry, many Chinese Jews had risen to high ranks in the Chinese civil service system by the 17th century. But by the middle of the 1800s, widespread assimilation and intermarriage had all but erased the Chinese Jews’ practice and knowledge of Judaism. After the last rabbi of the community died sometime in the first half of the 19th century, Kaifeng’s Jewish community all but disbanded.
Nowadays, there is no community in Kaifeng per se, just a few hundred individuals who identify themselves as descendants of the city’s Jewish community. “There is no rabbi, no synagogue. There is nothing left, only memory. Only memory,” says Shi Lei.
And it was a compelling desire to investigate that memory that led Shi Lei to come to Israel for a year.
As a child, Shi Lei remembers his father and other family members telling him that he is of Jewish descent. “My father told me: you are Jewish, but I didn’t know the meaning behind this word. What is a Jew? What is Judaism? I didn’t know so much. All I knew was the word Jew and Jewish”, he says.
Shi Lei’s grandfather would recount to him the distant memories he still preserved of Jewish practice. “When my grandfather was a kid, maybe when he was 8 years old or so, he saw the celebration of the Passover,” says Shi Lei. “His father, my grandfather’s father, used a traditional Chinese writing brush to dip in chicken’s blood mixed with water. After dipping, he would dip this on the doorpost of his home.” The ritual echoes the Biblical command given by G-d to the Children of Israel prior to the exodus from Egypt.
Other vague memories of Jewish customs were also passed down. “My grandfather, when he was a kid, he saw some kipahs, or yarmulkes, which were put in the medicine chest of his mother. But my grandfather doesn’t know when,” says Shi Lei. But even these remnants of Jewish ritual have been lost with the passage of time: “Now, so many things just disappeared. We don’t know why, they just disappeared — yarmulkes, but also the celebration of the Passover. We don’t do it anymore now,” Shi Lei says somewhat wistfully.
As he grew older, Shi Lei read everything he could find about Jewish history and culture, slowly expanding his knowledge base about his ancestors’ way of life. “As my knowledge about this was growing, I gradually, little by little, more and more, I had the strong wish that I want to study Judaism and Jewish history.”
In July 2000, Shi Lei met Rabbi Marvin Tokayer of Great Neck, New York, who was leading a study and tour group to China, as he has done on many occasions over the past two decades. Rabbi Tokayer, a former Chief Rabbi of Japan and author of some 28 books on Jews and the Far East, was deeply impressed with Shi Lei and his sincerity about exploring his heritage.
“No one went to help them, and we let them disappear. This bothers me to this very day.”
Rabbi Tokayer had always been troubled by the demise of the Kaifeng Jewish community in the 19th century, saying, “No one went to help them, and we let them disappear. This bothers me to this very day.” His meeting with Shi Lei, then, was especially fortuitous. “Suddenly,” he says, “I meet a recent college graduate in China, who knows English well and is a direct descendant of the original Jewish families. He is very proud of his ancestry and anxious to learn.” After Shi Lei served as a guide for Rabbi Tokayer’s tour group in Kaifeng, the participants became enamored with the young Chinese scholar. After consulting with Shi Lei and his family, Rabbi Tokayer contacted Bar-Ilan University and arranged for him to enroll in the one-year program.
Shi Lei was excited at the prospect of learning about Jewish traditions and culture. “After I knew that I am Jewish and that my ancestral land is Israel,” he says, “I had a strong wish to go to Israel to study. Rabbi Tokayer contacted Bar-Ilan University and the university promised to give me a full scholarship because I do not have any personal funds.” Thanks to a scholarship from the university, along with some funding from the members of Rabbi Tokayer’s tour group, Shi Lei is now busy juggling an intense program of study.
When I visited with Shi Lei at the Bar-Ilan campus, the excitement he felt about his lessons was palpable. He proudly showed me his daily schedule of classes, which include lectures in Jewish history, archaeology of the Holy Land, and Hebrew language. His personable nature and ready smile have served him well, as various people stop us in the hallway to greet him and say hello.
As the first descendant of Kaifeng Jewry to come to Israel to study, Shi Lei often encounters a great deal of curiosity and interest in his background. When he tells people of his Jewish ancestry, he says, “the first reaction of some is surprise, surprise, surprise, after which they always ask me many questions about the Jews, about the history of the Jews in China.”
After completing the one-year program at Bar-Ilan, Shi Lei plans to return to Kaifeng, where he hopes to find a job in academia researching Jewish history and culture in China. He is grateful to the Chinese government, which allowed him to study in Israel, and says that relations between China and the Jewish state are friendly.
Shi Lei encourages American Jews and Israelis to visit China, and to learn more about the history of Kaifeng’s Jewish community. Such visits, he says, are “really very helpful to Jewish descendants in Kaifeng, because they can tell us more about Jewish history and traditions. Most of us know nothing about Judaism or Jewish history.” In the past, visitors have sent Jewish books and other materials to Jews in Kaifeng, all of which have helped them to deepen their knowledge of their roots.
“Interestingly, when I asked Shi Lei the meaning of his name in Chinese, he told me that, roughly translated, it means a strong stone. I could not help but be moved by the symbolism.”
When asked about the number of Jewish descendants in Kaifeng, Shi Lei says, “To tell the truth, I don’t know how many people in Kaifeng identify themselves as Jewish. About ten years ago, the former curator of Kaifeng’s Municipal Museum, Wang Yisha, conducted an investigation of this issue. At that time, over 300 identified themselves as Jewish.”
All of the Jewish descendants belong to one of seven clans, each identifiable by its surname. Legend has it that during the Song dynasty over a thousand years ago, a Chinese emperor, unable to pronounce the Jews’ Hebrew-sounding names, bestowed his surname and the surnames of six of his ministers on the Chinese Jews. These seven names — Zhao, Li, Ai, Zhang, Gao, Jin and Shi — were used by Kaifeng’s Jews throughout the centuries, and it is to the Shi clan that Shi Lei traces his own roots.
But even among those who do preserve the memory of their Jewish heritage, there is no active communal life. “Every Jewish family in Kaifeng,” says Shi Lei, “every family is an orphan, an island in a lake, so this family has no connection with that family and they don’t know each other.” “When the new year in China comes, some other people from the Shi clan, they come to my grandparents home and visit my grandparents so that at that time we can meet each other. So you can see it is only about individuals.”
Nevertheless, Shi Lei has gotten to know some of the other Jewish descendants in the city. “As the foreign visitors came to visit us often, it grew necessary to choose some representatives from every family, who would sit together and talk to each other and meet with the visiting groups. So through this, we get to know more and more Jewish descendants in the city.”
Despite these positive developments, it would be wrong to speak of a revival of the Kaifeng Jewish community. Too many years have passed, too much has been lost, to try and rebuild a Jewish communal framework in the city.
The site of the former Kaifeng synagogue now serves as a hospital. It adjoins Jiao Jing Lane, which is Chinese for “Teaching Scripture Lane,” which passes through what was once the Jewish district of Kaifeng. Though the synagogue had been renovated and rebuilt a dozen times in the centuries after its establishment, by the 1860s it was no more. In 1866, a Reverend W.A.P. Martin visited Kaifeng and wrote that the only thing left of the once beautiful synagogue was a single, solitary stone.
Now, nearly a century and a half later, even that stone is gone.
Or is it?
Interestingly, when I asked Shi Lei the meaning of his name in Chinese, he told me that, roughly translated, it means a strong stone. I could not help but be moved by the symbolism.
For though Jewish life in Kaifeng, like the synagogue it once supported, is long gone, a single stone, one made of flesh and blood, still stands, proudly clinging to the heritage of his ancestors and grappling to reclaim it.
That stone, of course, is Shi Lei. And, as his name implies, he is a rock of strength and determination.
For more information about the history of Kaifeng’s Jewish community, please consult:
A wonderful novel, Peony, written by Nobel laureate Pearl S. Buck, vividly describes the demise of Kaifengs Jewish community. Though a work of fiction, it is based on historical events. It is available over the internet at www.amazon.com.