A Delightful Introduction to Chinese Jews

Legends of the Chinese Jews of Kaifeng, by Xu Xin with Beverly Friend, illustrated by Ting Chen, KTAV Publishing House, 1995.

Reviewed by Jack Zeller

Chinese and Jewish. To most American Jews this seems an unlikely combination. However, the topic is an old one, going back to the major role of Jews in the silk trade to China that long preceded Marco Polo's visits.

Many sources are available in English, thanks to the efforts of the Sino Judaic Institute and to the 1992 conference on "Jewish Diasporas in China: Comparative and Historical Perspectives," sponsored by the John K. Fairbank Center for East Asian Research at Harvard University.

Written records are few about the origins of this community, but it is known that in the 8th century Rhadinites, a Persian Jewish community of traders, were well established in the silk business. Most likely, the permanent Jewish communities are a derivative of their activities.

An important source of information is the body of legends passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. Professor Xu Xin has written a book about legends of the most famous of the cities chosen by Diaspora Jews, Kaifeng. He collected many from meetings with the community elders, from the famed Wang Yisha (emeritus curator of the Kaifeng Museum, whose legends had not previously been written in English) and from other scholars who had also visited Kaifeng and interviewed Jewish descendants.

Professor Xu has blended these legends into a single book that provides a historical flow from the Jewish origins in the 10th century to the present. Although the author has taken some artistic privileges to make the legends readable, he has been very true to their essence because he believes (as do other historians) that legends are an authentic historical form that also conveys values and conflicts as well as information.

The reading is delightfully easy and concise. This makes the reader proud of both the civility and dignity of the Jewish and Chinese cultures. For those who have often noted the similarity of behavior of Chinese and Jews, this book provides added impetus and information to casual observations.

The book will be sold by Kulanu during Dr. Xu's visit to Washington, at Ohr Kodesh on Monday evening, November 20, at which time it will be autographed. The book is available from KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 900 Jefferson Street, Box 6249, Hoboken, NJ 07030-7205 (201-963-9524). "