Recognition of the Kaifeng Community

From: “Matt Trusch” trusch @ fas . harvard . edu
To: “Jack & Diane Zeller”
Subject: Re: Recognition of the Kaifeng Community
Date: Tue, 20 Jan 1998 11:03:08 +0800
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Dear Jack Zeller,

I was very happy to receive your e-mail regarding your interest in the Kaifeng Jews (as well as Jewish communities around the world), and in support of our video.

A turning point in my Masters studies at Harvard came as I paused to merge my academic interest in China with healthy omphaloskepsis, specifically aimed at comprehending why a Jew from Houston (the son of a Rabbi) would dedicate his life and career to sinology. I discovered that Jews in fact have a very long history in China, having built their first synagogue in Kaifeng in the Southern Song, acting as administrators for the Mongols, gaining high office during the Ming, and assimilating during the Qing. In Tu Wei-ming’s proseminar on “Confucian Ethics,” I took a step towards understanding similarities between Chinese and Jewish ethics on learning, comparing Zhu Xi’s Learning to be a Sage with the Jewish Pirke Aboth (“Saying of the Fathers”). From this comparison, I determined that although the Confucian and Jewish ethical traditions shared common linguistic and commentarial attributes, the Neo-Confucian criterion for learning advocated unity of mind with the Classics, whereas the Jewish ethic denied interpretive singularity except as idealized in G-d’s judgement.

Unfortunately, most Harvard professors discouraged the study of Sino-Judaica, saying the source information had been exhausted. So, having finished the necessary Masters coursework at Harvard in one year, I decided to spend my second year (1997-1998) as a travelling scholar in China doing research for my Masters thesis and continuing with this personal inquiry into my cultural/religious heritage. (Little did I know that Xu Xin would be at Harvard, Spring 1998.) Discussions in Beijing inspired a film company, Gorp Brothers Productions, to help me produce Minyan in Kaifeng, the educational video documentary described in the China/ Judaic Connection newsletter.

The trip to Kaifeng transformed my perceived relationship with these Kaifeng Jews. I no longer saw them as an interesting topic of inquiry, but rather as fellow Jews, brothers in China. This is why I wrote of our “obligation” in the China/Judaic Connection newsletter. During the trip, I spent most of my time speaking with the younger generation. These are China’s Jews’ future, I recognized. I taught the sole Zhang heir Yonah ben Moshe about our forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and continued with the story to the exodus from Egypt and G-d’s covenant with the Jewish people. I asked Mr. Shi’s youngest granddaughter Yael bat Leah what she knew of Judaism. (We gave them Hebrew names when they were called to the Torah to repeat the blessings after our acting rabbi.)

On the train trip back, I spoke to Professor Xu about what we could do to educate this community in Jewish practices, Hebrew, and Torah. It is possible, he thought, to get scholarships for the young Zhang boy to study in Israel when he is of age (now 14). I asked about the Shi granddaughter who is presently in college. Xu thought this was a promising possibility, if her English were good and she were interested in going. Although I am the son of a Rabbi, and am versed in reading Hebrew, chanting, reading Torah trup, etc., my actual UNDERSTANDING of Hebrew is quite limited (due in large part to my fluency in Chinese, and the time commitment this has entailed). I spoke to Professor Xu about going to Tel Aviv this summer to study Hebrew, while he is a fellow at Tel Aviv University.

Prior to going back for my Masters, I was a dissatisfied banker at Merrill Lynch. One of the other projects I have been looking into has been to attract large-scale Jewish investment to Kaifeng. When I say large-scale, I refer to something the size of the Suzhou-Singapore Industrial Park, with hundreds of millions of dollars of investment. I believe that if Jewish corporations would commit to developing a large area of land into an industrial park outside of Kaifeng (as has been done in Kaifeng and Wuxi by Singaporean companies, in Northern China by Koreans), the Jews could get back the synagogue site in Kaifeng, now a hospital. With more Jewish investment, comes more Jews, and maybe the reconstruction of the synagogue over time. Professor Xu thought this was a very good idea, and recommended my introduction to the Mayor of Kaifeng, when the time was appropriate.

(By the way, your profession as a Pathologist at the local Veterans hospital in Washington DC is a suitable one to the Kaifeng cause. You may want to visit Kaifeng, and notice how many hospitals and drug manufacturers there are in Kaifeng. As investment goes, I would say that Kaifeng already has a strong basis in the medical and pharmaceutical industries.)

The point is, I personally do not believe a passive approach will help the dying Kaifeng community, although as my article correctly states, “In the end, the choice to rediscover their Jewish identities remains with the Kaifeng Jews.”

Of course I think the video we are producing can be an important tool for educating Jews and non-Jews around the world about the Kaifeng Jewish community, and perhaps eliciting their support on a global scale. For now, we are in the middle of post production, and are looking for funding/sponsorship. So far, pre-production and production has run $825 and $1,515, respectively. But the larger expenses, post-production (editing) and distribution/promotional activities should run $5,100 and $5,000, respectively. Further inquiries regarding information or contributions can be directed to me at the Minyan in Kaifeng e-mail address: minyan_kaifeng @ hotmail . com.

I would like to know more about Kulanu. I would also like to know what you propose for the Jewish interest group (low key pressure, not harsh human rights violation confrontation) on their behalf. Although I can have information forwarded to me from the US, I would prefer, if possible, to receive all newsletters via e-mail, at this address, or longevity22 @ hotmail . com.