A Rendezvous with History

image : Radiating joy.  Shi Lei holds part of a Kaifeng Torah covering commissioned by the Jewish Theological Seminary Library.

Radiating joy. Shi Lei holds part of a Kaifeng Torah covering commissioned by the Jewish Theological Seminary Library.
(Photo by Jahheal Massac)

It was Kulanu volunteer Irwin Berg who first introduced me to Shi Lei, a descendent of the ancient Jewish community of Keifeng. I was visiting the city to continue my exploration of the 1000-year history of the Jewish community. When we actually met, Shi Lei could not stop asking me questions about Judaism, our history, our religious observance, Israel, everything Jewish that he could think of. And he listened carefully, absorbing everything like a sponge.

Shi Lei could not stop asking me questions about Judaism ... He absorbed everything like a sponge.

Finally, I asked Shi Lei if he would be interested in studying in Israel for one year to experience the Jewish calendar of Sabbaths and festivals and study basic Judaism and Hebrew. Afterwards he would return to Kaifeng to teach the community. He agreed. In fact, Shi Lei studied in Israel for three years, a year at Bar Ilan University and two additional years in a yeshiva before returning home. I do want to stress that Shi Lei's parents fully approved of their only child going to Israel to learn about his Jewish heritage. While in Israel, Michael Freund, founder of Shavei Israel, kept a close eye on Shi Lei and facilitated his studies and experiences.

Recently, Kulanu sponsored Shi Lei on a lecture tour of the United States. It actually was his second Kulanu tour as he had visited the States the previous year, a tour that included Toronto, Canada. Each tour was a resounding success with rave reviews everywhere. I saw Shi Lei at the 92nd Street Y in New York City in February where he lectured to a packed auditorium. I was very impressed with his poise, his knowledge and his command of English. Shi Lei had indeed become the face of the Jewish community of Kaifeng.

In 1992, when Professor Zhao Xiangru, a retired professor of minorities in China, from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, was in New York, he visited the rare book room at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) library to see a Chinese Torah scroll from Kaifeng. Many people are unaware that artifacts of this historic Jewish community are in several institutions in North America. In fact, they can be found in The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto (See Kulanu newsletter, Fall 2010 issue), Southern Methodist University in Dallas, The Anglican Cathedral in Washington, D.C., Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, The American Bible Society in New York City, and, of course, at JTS. Each institution has either a Torah scroll and/or other Jewish artifacts from Kaifeng.

On this trip, it was Shi Lei's turn to visit JTS and to see an original Torah from his community. According to historic sources, the Kaifeng Jewish community had 13 Torahs, one for each of the 12 tribes of Israel and one for Moses. The JTS Torah was purchased in 1868 by Christian missionary W.A.P. Martin and was later sold to Judge Mayer Sulzberger of Philadelphia, whose entire Judaica collection is now part of the JTS Library. It is interesting that Judge Sulzberger offered

to return the Torah he had purchased to Kaifeng if and when the community rebuilt its synagogue. The JTS Torah is written on white leather rather than parchment and it is sewn together with silk thread, a distinguishing characteristic of all Chinese Torahs.

Shi Lei asked if the library had other items from Kaifeng.

image: Rear endpapers of Kaifeng 17th century volume, JTSL MS L119a, Pentateuch (Numbers).

Rear endpapers of Kaifeng 17th century volume, JTSL MS L119a, Pentateuch (Numbers).
(Photo by Jahheal Massac)

As one can imagine, Shi Lei was very moved to see a Torah from his community. But just as exciting was the result of his inquiry if the library had other items from Kaifeng. The librarian brought out one volume from Kaifeng with several sections bound together. One of those sections was a rare Sukkot mahzor (special prayer book for the holiday of Sukkot).** Imagine the look on Shi Lei's face when he saw the signature of the book's owner ··· his paternal grandfather. It truly was a rendezvous with history.

image: Shi Lei examining Kaifeng Torah with (from left) Kulanu supporter Shep Wahnon, Rabbi Marvin Tokayer and Kulanu president Harriet Bograd.

Shi Lei examining Kaifeng Torah with (from left) Kulanu supporter Shep Wahnon, Rabbi Marvin Tokayer and Kulanu president Harriet Bograd.
(Photo by Jahheal Massac)

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*Rabbi Tokayer served for many years as Rabbi for the Jewish community of Japan and is the founder and president of the Foundation for Remote Jewish communities, based in New York.

**Scholars have studied a copy of the Kaifeng Haggadah as well as the community's Sabbath prayer book, to compare and contrast them with those of other ancient Jewish communities and to find clues as to the origin of the Kaifeng Jewish community, its customs and traditions. For some reason, this Sukkot mahzor has not been studied, either because of neglect or a lack of awareness of its existence.