Descendant of Kaifeng Jewish Community Talks of His Jewish Heritage and Identity

image: Kaifeng context map

Last spring, Kulanu was privileged to host the speaking tour of Shi Lei, a descendant of the ancient Jewish community of Kaifeng, China. The tour, which zigzagged across the United States and into Canada, was a great success, and, in the end, 18 Jewish communities invited Shi Lei to visit and share with them his unique heritage and history. The idea of Chinese Jews is for many people an exotic and unimaginable pairing of cultures. But for others, my son included, there are many common values that make the two peoples a natural fit. My son who lived in Shanghai for six years was always quick to point out the importance of family ties, an appreciation of one’s history and the fierce commitment to education and self betterment that both Jews and Chinese share. One should also mention that both peoples seem to possess an innate talent for and understanding of commerce and have a strong desire to succeed.

image: Shi Lei holding model of historic Kaifeng Synagogue during his Montreal visit. The synagogue occupied the same site in Kaifeng for 800 years, through numerous repairs and replacements, until its final disintegration in 1850. Photo by Enid Bloch.

Shi Lei holding model of historic Kaifeng Synagogue during his Montreal visit. The synagogue occupied the same site in Kaifeng for 800 years, through numerous repairs and replacements, until its final disintegration in 1850.
Photo by Enid Bloch.

Even more important for Jews, however, has been the tolerance and respect the Chinese have always shown to Jews who managed to find their way to China seeking a safe harbor from persecution by other nations. Whether a thousand years ago in Kaifeng, the capital of the Song Dynasty (called Dongjing at that time) or during the various migrations of the 19th and 20th century to Manchuria and Shanghai when Jews left Eastern and Western Europe seeking safety, they were welcomed by the Chinese rulers and allowed and even encouraged to remain. There were no enforced ghettos in China, no funny hats or badges to distinguish Jews from others or to show derision. There were no expulsions or forced conversions. There was no boat of refugees turned away from the shores of mainland China as the ship The St. Louis was turned back from the coast of the United States and forced to return to Nazi Germany, where the Holocaust was in full swing. Instead, in each instance and through many centuries, Jews were met with tolerance and acceptance, their talents admired and appreciated.

Shi Lei’s forebears sought safe haven in Kaifeng 1000 years ago.

Where do Shi Lei and his family fit within this rich intercultural story? According to Shi Lei, his forebears were among the first wave of Jews seeking a safe haven approximately 1,000 years ago when Jews left Persia and traveled east along the Silk Road. At risk and at the mercy of anti-Jewish ethnic groups, these courageous and hardy folk, tired of the precariousness of their existence and looking for a peaceful and secure environment, braved the dangers and rigors of the road to reach China. Rumors of a vibrant and successful society in Kaifeng had reached them in Persia, and so they set out not knowing whether or not they would be allowed to settle and whether they would be welcomed by an unfamiliar people.

I had the distinct pleasure of hearing Shi Lei speak in two communities during his visit to the United States and to introduce him both times to enthusiastic audiences. The interview below took place just before he departed Massachusetts for Toronto, his next stop on the 18-city speaking tour.

JM: Shi Lei, How would you describe the Jewish community in Kaifeng in the early years of the 20th Century?

image: Shi Lei studies artifacts from Kaifeng Synagogue during visit to Royal Ontario Museum. Andria Spindel stands in background. Photo by Enid Bloch.

Shi Lei studies artifacts from Kaifeng Synagogue during visit to Royal Ontario Museum. Andria Spindel stands in background.
Photo by Enid Bloch.

SL: Frankly, there was no longer a Jewish community by that time. Community members didn’t know each other. There had been so much assimilation over the years; we no longer had a synagogue; we had no community organizations. By the beginning of the 20th century we were just individual families who shared a common heritage of long ago. Each family passed down word of its Jewish heritage from father to son. (In China, family identity and history is inherited through the male side of the family.) I think we all had pride in our individual and family Jewish identity, but that was all.

JM: If there were no community structures, how did the community evolve and come to share its common heritage?

SL: Bishop William Charles White came to China in the 1890’s as a Christian missionary to preach and to convert the Chinese to Christianity. He spent over 40 years in the country, 25 of those years in Kaifeng. When he heard there were people of Jewish ancestry in Kaifeng, he organized a conference and invited them all to attend. I believe he thought that was a good way to get to know the community and maybe even convert them. But what happened was quite different. When everyone came together, they recognized their unique shared history and heritage and wanted to embrace it. Bishop White had done a very good things for us.

JM: Who in your family was the keeper of Jewish tradition?

SL: My grandfather was the person most knowledgeable about the history and identify of the community and of our family. He taught my father and my father taught me. When my grandfather died, there was an article about him in one of the English papers. The journalist said “the patriarch… of the Chinese Jewish community of Kaifeng has died.”

JM: What about the rest of your family?

SL: According to Chinese custom, it is the male family member who carries the tradition. In spite of this custom, my mother and grandmother always felt they belonged to the Kaifeng Jewish community and celebrated our family's Jewish heritage.

JM: You have an illustrious heritage… I am wondering if at this point of your life, you find it a burden or a blessing… By burden, I mean do you feel you carry the history of your ancestors on your shoulders and feel obligated to perpetuate your history?

Shi Lei holding model of historic Kaifeng Synagogue during his Montreal visit. The synagogue occupied the same site in Kaifeng for 800 years, through numerous repairs and replacements, until its final disintegration in 1850. Photo by Enid Bloch.

SL: It definitely is not a burden. I feel strongly about my Jewish identity. And very connected to it.

JM: I understand from your presentations that you spent some years studying Judaism in Israel? How did that come about?

SL: Rabbi Marvin Tokayer came to visit Kaifeng and met our family. As my father was the person most knowledgeable about our history, Rabbi Tokayer took a special interest in me and he arranged for me to go to Israel to study and learn about Judaism.

JM: How was your time in Israel? You were there four years between 2001 and 2004?

SL: I must say it was a bit of a culture shock. Israelis are very direct and Chinese people are not. They are very polite. I was also very interested to see the diversity in the country… Jews from so many different countries. Ethiopian, European, Yemenite, Russian, Indian… My Chinese background fit right in…

JM: Who else helped you when you were in Israel?

SL: Michael Freund, the founder and director of Shavei Israel, was very supportive. He is still very involved with our community and has been arranging for our young men and women to study in Israel. There are about 18 there now.

JM: I understand that you will be visiting Toronto. The museum there has many of the Jewish ritual objects from your community. How do you feel about that?

SL: I feel ashamed that the ritual objects are in a museum instead of in our community. But the people in the community were impoverished in those years, and in order to survive, they sold their books and Torahs to Christian missionaries who took them out of the country.

image: Stone bowl, gilt-lacquered wooden Torah case, and jade chime (used to call worshippers to services) from the Kaifeng Synagogue. Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto. Photo by Enid Bloch.

Stone bowl, gilt-lacquered wooden Torah case, and jade chime (used to call worshippers to services) from the Kaifeng Synagogue. Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto.
Photo by Enid Bloch.

JM: Since Rabbi Tokayer and Michael Freund have taken an interest in your community, what is the community doing to reconnect with its Jewish past?

SL: Most of the descendants now are young, in their 20s or teens. They are learning about Jewish festivals and rituals. They are also learning English. If they want to go to study in Israel, they need to learn English. On Friday nights, we often meet in our community center/museum, which is my grandfather’s old apartment. We usually have 20 to 30 people who come. We light the candles and recite some prayers. People are eager to learn more…

JM: How would you describe your own Jewish practice and identity now?

SL: I have a very strong cultural connection to my Jewish roots, but I’m not that traditional in my practice.

JM: Do you mix a great deal with people outside the community and how is that for you?

SL: l have many friends outside the community. They know I have a Jewish background and respect that. I am proud to share that knowledge with others. Kaifeng Jews are very proud of their heritage, as I am.

JM: How would you describe the Jewish needs of your community now?

SL: We could use a teacher to help the young master English in preparation for their studies to Israel. They need English to learn Jewish customs and practice there.

JM: One last question. What is there in Judaism that gives most meaning to your life?

SL: The laws and mitzvot (commandments) and the rich history that goes with them. In China, we also have laws, but many people do not know the strong history of our people and the meaning behind the Chinese laws. In Israel, they know and you can learn about them. When I had the opportunity to learn in Israel, it affected my thinking. And I felt close to the Jewish people. I developed a deeper understanding of my heritage and family history… In China, not so much is written down about our traditions. Things are handed down orally.

JM: Thank you so much for sharing your unique heritage with us. I look forward to seeing you on your next trip to the United States.

Stone bowl, gilt-lacquered wooden Torah case, and jade chime (used to call worshippers to services) from the Kaifeng Synagogue. Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto. Photo by Enid Bloch.

Shi Lei studies artifacts from Kaifeng Synagogue during visit to Royal Ontario Museum. Andria Spindel stands in background. Photo by Enid Bloch.

Visiting the ROM

The morning after speaking to a standing-room only crowd of more than 300 at Toronto’s Congregation Darchai Noam, Shi Lei could hardly wait to visit the Royal Ontario Museum. Andria Spindel, his Kulanu host in Toronto, and I planned to accompany him there. Shi Lei knew that the museum held ritual objects from the Kaifeng Jewish community’s illustrious past. Many artifacts had been brought to Toronto by Bishop William Charles White, an Anglican missionary and scholar who spent a quarter century living next to Kaifeng’s Jewish residents. Indeed, we were headed for the ROM’s Bishop White Gallery.

I too had reason to be excited. In order to prepare a slide show to accompany Shi Lei’s Kulanu speaking tour, I had spent several months reading everything I could find about Kaifeng’s Jewish history, including White’s own massive work, Chinese Jews: A Compilation of Matters Relating to the Jews of K’ai-fêng fu, first published in 1942 in two volumes.

Shi Lei was ebullient as we entered the museum, but when we located the White Gallery his mood suddenly shifted to profound disappointment. For we were peering through a tall glass case, staring at a gilded wooden Torah holder from the Kaifeng synagogue, and the holder was empty. “Where is the Torah,” Shi Lei cried out, “the Torah of my ancestors?” His pain was palpable.

image: Pottery figurines with Middle Eastern features, made in China c. 600 CE, found along the Silk Route. Royal Ontario Museum. Photo by Enid Bloch.

Pottery figurines with Middle Eastern features, made in China c. 600 CE, found along the Silk Route. Royal Ontario Museum.
Photo by Enid Bloch.

I didn’t realize Shi Lei expected the Torah to be there. From my reading, I knew White had been able to obtain only the wooden holder, not the Torah itself. Shi Lei was devastated, but when Andria told him a Kaifeng Torah did exist and could be seen in a London museum, he firmly declared, “I must go to London!” He wondered aloud if there were Kulanu members in London who might help him find the missing Torah.

We moved on to other glass cases and soon discovered evidence of the way Shi Lei’s Jewish ancestors might have reached Kaifeng. We had come across a number of pottery figurines with Middle Eastern features, depicting tradesmen journeying through China along the Silk Route. The little sculptures dated from the seventh to ninth centuries and were very realistic - indeed, they looked like our own relatives. Shi Lei was happy now, as we carefully studied the tradesmen and the camels accompanying them. His ancestors were here in the museum after all, if only figuratively, and he was able to honor them.