Shi Lei in the New York Times

Kulanu is very excited that Shi Lei, Kulanu’s spring speaker,  is mentioned in an article in the New York Times that discusses the Jews of China.  The article below is a brief primer on the Jews of Kaifeng, China. Click here to see Shi Lei’s speaking schedule, to see if he will be in a city near you.


New York Times * China’s Ancient Jewish Enclave * April 4, 2010* by Matthew Fishbane *

THROUGH a locked door in the coal-darkened boiler room of No. 1 Hospital of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Kaifeng, there’s a well lined with Ming Dynasty bricks. It’s just a few yards deep and still holds water. Guo Yan, 29, an eager, bespectacled native of this Chinese city on the flood plains of the Yellow River about 600 miles south of Beijing, led me to it one recent Friday afternoon, past the doormen accustomed to her visits.

The well is all that’s left of the Temple of Purity and Truth, a synagogue that once stood on the site. The heritage it represents brings a trickle of travelers to see one of the more unusual aspects of this country: China, too, had its Jews.

Ms. Guo, who identifies herself as a Jew, says she hears it from scholars, visitors and Chinese people alike: “ ‘You Chinese Jews are very famous,’ they say. ‘But you are only in the history books.’ “

That seemed a good enough reason to come looking, and I quickly found that I was hardly alone. Ms. Guo and I were soon joined by a 36-year-old French traveler, Guillaume Audan, who called himself a “nonpracticing Jew” on a six-month world tour of “things not specifically Jewish.” Like me, he’d found Ms. Guo by recommendation, and made the detour to see what the rumored Kaifeng Jews were all about.

Earlier, Ms. Guo had brought us into a narrow courtyard at 21 Teaching Torah Lane — an alley once central to the city’s Jewish community, and still home to her 85-year-old grandmother, Zhao Cui, widow of a descendant of Chinese Jews. Her one-room house has been turned into a sort of dusty display case, with Mrs. Zhao as centerpiece.

“Here are the Kaifeng Jews,” Ms. Guo said, a little defiantly. “We are they.”

We were surrounded by signs that supported Ms. Guo’s statement: A mezuza was attached to the door frame. A copy of the Sh’ma, widely considered the most important of Hebrew prayers, decorated with Chinese lettering, hung on the wall. A menorah sat by a Chinese-style altar displaying a black-and-white portrait of Mr. Zhao.

Indeed, some 50 descendants of Kaifeng’s Jews are embracing this legacy and relearning Jewish ways. And a few, like Ms. Guo, are tapping a quirky vein of religious tourism.

From the 10th to the 12th century, Kaifeng was the capital of the Northern Song Dynasty and a cosmopolitan center on a branch of the Silk Road, attracting Chinese imperial suitors and Persian merchants with camels. Amid this ferment was a small community of Sephardic Jews, who arrived most likely from Persia and India as traders, or perhaps fleeing the Crusades.

Scholars still debate the time of their first arrival, but for at least 700 years, Jews prospered free of persecution, largely out of mind of the various Chinese dynasties that dubbed them “blue-hatted Hui” — people from the West. They settled into trades and, around 1163, built a synagogue. In 1605, the peripatetic Italian Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci met one of their emissaries in Beijing and reported their existence back to Europe.

But time, isolation and assimilation took their toll. When European missionaries in Kaifeng purchased a 17th-century Hebrew Torah in 1851 (it is now housed at the British Museum in London, one of 15 known Kaifeng scrolls), no locals could read it. The synagogue, which had fallen into neglect after repeated flooding, was never rebuilt.

Yet for 150 years following the death of the last rabbi, tiny embers of a heritage still glowed in Kaifeng. Grandparents told their grandchildren, as Mrs. Zhao told Ms. Guo: “You are a Jew.” Without knowing why, families avoided pork. And at Passover, the old men baked unleavened cakes and dabbed rooster’s blood on their doorstep.

Most Jewish-themed tours of China skip Kaifeng, focusing instead on the immigration of persecuted European Jewry, in cities like Shanghai, Harbin, Tianjin and Beijing. Thanks to American, Israeli and European support of places significant to their own past, Harbin and Shanghai, for example, enjoy a regular flow of tourists to museums and sites of synagogues, restored though no longer used for prayer.

Kaifeng, by comparison, attracts word-of-mouth backpackers and three or four rabbi- or scholar-led Jewish heritage groups a year. Most visitors, according to Shi Lei, a 31-year-old descendant of Chinese Jews who has been leading tours here since he was sent to Israel to study Hebrew and Judaica, stay for a day, “have a look, and leave.”