member of the Jewish Zhao clan

As of the mid 2000s, there were around 10,000 Jews in China, with many of them in Shanghai. Jewish entrepreneurs are routinely asked to give seminars on how to make money the “Jewish way.”

Ronan O'Connell of the BBC wrote in 2021: Fewer than 2,000 Jews currently live in Shanghai, down from about 4,000 prior to the coronavirus pandemic, said Dvir Bar-Gal, an Israeli expatriate who gives tours of the old Jewish neighborhood.. None of them, as far as he knows, are relatives of the Jews that once lived in this ghetto. But many descendants of those who sought refuge here and may have otherwise not been born have visited Tilanqiao. [Source: Ronan O'Connell, BBC, April 5, 2021

About 500 to 1,000 people in Kaifeng claim to be Jews. Benjamin Haas wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “As a child growing up in Kaifeng in central China, Jin Jin was constantly reminded of her unusual heritage. "We weren't supposed to eat pork, our graves were different from other people, and we had a mezuza on our door," said the 25-year-old, referring to the prayer scroll affixed to doorways of Jewish homes. Her father told her of a faraway land called Israel that he said was her rightful home, she recalls. But "we didn't know anything about daily prayers or the weekly reading of the Torah." Another Kaifeng resident Wang Yage told the Los Angeles Times he stood out his whole life. His house was filled with Hebrew books, a language no one in his family understood, and even his name was different: It's the transliterated version of Jacob, a biblical name. [Source: Benjamin Haas, Los Angeles Times, October 16, 2011]

Websites and Sources: : ; Haruth Communications ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Jews of China. Org ; 1907 National Geographic article ; “The Chinese Lady Who Joined the Ashkenazic People", Jewish Times Asia, March 2015

Perceptions and Stereotypes of Jews in China

Jews — or at the least the stereotype of them — are widely admired for their business sense and are often characterized with phrases like “good with money” and “always smart.” There is a whole genre of books related to this theme with titles like "The Eight Most Valuable Business Secrets of Jewish Wealth", "The Legend of Jewish Wealth" and "Jewish People and Business: The Bible of How to Live Their Lives". The books inevitably have sections on the Lehman brothers and the Rothschilds but also erroneously refer to J.P. Morgan (an Episcopalian) and John D. Rockefeller (a devout Baptist) as Jews. Needless to say the scholarship of these books is dubious and often it is unclear who wrote them.

Xun Zhou wrote in the Encyclopaedia Judaica: While the dichotomy between Christians and Jews, or later in the 19th century between the “Aryan" and “Semitic" races, may not be applicable in China, the mystique of “the Jews," or pervasive images and constructions thereof, as well as perceptions of what “Jewishness" meant in specific historical periods, is just as apparent in China as it has been in the West. In other words, perceptions about the mythical “Jews" exist not only in the West but also in China, where they are anything but simple. While such perceptions may appear to correspond to images of the Jews in Europe, they have nonetheless been endowed with indigenous meanings. [Source: Xun Zhou, Encyclopaedia Judaica, Thomson Gale, 2007]

By constructing “the Jews" as a homogeneous group, or a constitutive outsider, who embodies all the negative as well as positive qualities that were feared or desired by various social groups in China, the Chinese as a homogeneous “in-group," were able to project their own anxieties onto the outsiders. In this respect, representing “the Jews" corresponds to a widespread fear of, as well as need for, an “other," which can be found in many cultures and societies.

In modern China, definitions of “Jew" or “Jewishness" are very complex. The “Jew" is a symbol of money, deviousness, and meanness; the “Jew" may also represent poverty, trustworthiness, or warm-heartedness. It has religious as well as secular meanings. While it represents individualism, it also stands for collective spirit. On the one hand it symbolizes tradition, on the other it can equally invoke modernity. One day “the Jew" is a stateless slave, the next a dominant world power. “The Jew" is both nationalist and cosmopolitan. He can be a capitalist or an ardent communist, a committed revolutionary or corrupt traditionalist. In short anything which is not Chinese is “Jewish"; at the same time many things which are clearly Chinese are also “Jewish."

Kaifeng Jews in 2020

menorah in the new Harbin synagogue

Sophia Yan wrote in The Telegraph: Only about 1,000 people in Kaifeng claim Jewish heritage, and of those, only around 100 or are practising Jews, experts say – barely a splash in China’s sea of 1.4 billion.Even at its peak in the 1500s, the community only numbered around 5,000. One man, who dreams of training as a rabbi in Israel, told the Telegraph “At home, he teaches everything he knows to his child, just as his forebears – most likely merchants from Persia – did for generations. [Source: Sophia Yan, The Telegraph, December 13, 2020]

“In that way, Kaifeng’s Jewish heritage survived dynasties, wars, natural disasters and the Cultural Revolution, when many destroyed genealogical records to hide their lineage. It has also helped them manage without a rabbi for more than 150 years. “They are fighting to keep their history alive, even though “asserting their desires to be connected with their Jewish heritage falls afoul of the official [Chinese] position on unauthorised religions,” said Anson Laytner, a retired rabbi and president of the Sino-Judaic Institute.

Across the city, the remaining trace of Jewish heritage appears to be two tombstones with the star of David and epitaphs in Chinese and Hebrew – but even this, they fear, will soon be gone. Yet the Jews in Kaifeng are remarkably resilient, and have found ways to keep their faith alive underground. Each week, meetings are held in secret to celebrate Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest. Many don’t eat pork, though keeping fully kosher is risky and expensive. But for holidays, they pool money for kosher meat and wine procured through a network of friendly intermediaries.

“At home, residents decorate with photos of Israel, stars of David and traditional Passover seder plates, and serve guests tea in jars that used to hold yahrzeit candles lit in memory of the dead. One man flung open a cabinet revealing a prayer shawl and a collection of kippahs, a head-covering for men. Most proudly pronounce Israel with a Hebrew accent.

“Unable to obtain religious materials, they buy Bibles and read the Old Testament – more or less the same content as the Torah – and disregard the New Testament. They also pass around dog-eared pamphlets with translations compiled during a brief revival when Jewish scholars, rabbis and tourists flocked to Kaifeng as China opened up in the 1990s. “Now, “no print shop dares to help us copy these,” said one resident.

Crackdown on Kaifeng Jews

Sophia Yan wrote in The Telegraph: Amir is lighting menorah candles and reciting blessings to celebrate Hanukkah’s eight nights, as many Jews are around the world. But he does so in secret, worried that Chinese officials will come around – as they often do on religious occasions – to enforce a ban against Judaism, pressuring him to renounce his faith. Sometimes, he’s even called in for interrogations. “Every time we celebrate, we are scared,” said Amir, not his real name as he asked not to be identified over worries of retaliation. “Whatever we do, we’re always very careful to make sure the authorities don’t find out.” [Source: Sophia Yan, The Telegraph, December 13, 2020]

“Since 2015, Chinese leader Xi Jinping has waged a harsh campaign against foreign influence and unapproved religion, part of a push to ‘Sinicise’ faith – ripping down church crosses and mosque onion domes, and detaining more than a million Muslims in the western Xinjiang region. Chinese authorities are also concerned about undue foreign influence if the Kaifeng Jewish community is allowed to build links with Jews abroad. “In terms of numbers, it’s so insignificant, but in terms of potential attention, it’s much, much bigger,” said Noam Urbach, an Israeli academic who has studied the Kaifeng Jews. Their existence can “raise a lot of attention among the international Jewish community.” “It’s government policy – China doesn’t want to recognise us as Jews,” one Kaifeng Jew told the Telegraph. “Their goal is to make sure the next generation doesn’t have any Jewish identity.”

“In Kaifeng, stones engraved as far back as 1489 with the community’s beliefs and ancestry have been removed from the spot where they once marked a 12th-century synagogue. An ancient well, believed to be the synagogue’s last ruins, has likewise vanished under a cloak of cement. The authorities have also torn down the city’s few Hebrew signs that once marked the Teaching Torah Lane. In that same lane, a spot where a few dozen Jews – some of whom were government officials – used to meet for services is now plastered in propaganda about China’s “management of religious affairs.” They include reminders that Judaism is prohibited. A security camera is directed at the entrance. A handful of schools that taught Hebrew and Judaism – established by foreign Jews visiting Kaifeng – have been forced to shutter. Exhibits in a museum and historic merchant guild hall that documented the history of Jews in the city have also disappeared in favour of large pictures of Mr Xi. The crackdown is so intense that Kaifeng residents are afraid to dine together in public. “It’s a small place,” one Jewish man said. “Restaurant managers know that we are the Jews, and they will report us to the authorities.”

“Groups like Mr Laytner’s Sino-Judaic Institute and Shavei Israel had previously set up centres to teach Hebrew and Jewish history and traditions, and helped some to emigrate. But both groups were expelled a few years ago, among the first targets of the government crackdown. Mr Laytner does not consider the suppression to be specifically anti-Semitic – a sentiment experts say is unusual in China. The country sheltered thousands of European Jews fleeing the Nazis, and today, many Chinese view Jews favourably. “In fact, the history works in their favour, because Jews were treated like garbage all over the world, but the Chinese accepted them,” said Moshe Yehuda Bernstein, a researcher in Australia who has written on the Kaifeng Jews. “It’s something the Chinese could be proud of, yet recently in this clampdown on unofficial religions, they’ve taken away all historical evidence of a Jewish presence in Kaifeng, which is absurd.”

China’s ministry of foreign affairs denied the “so-called suppression,” instead highlighting that it had once welcomed Jewish refugees in a written response to the Telegraph. Kaifeng Jews hope Israel will support them, though they aren't considered Jews under Israeli law – after generations of inter-marriage, Judaism has not been consistently passed down the maternal line. Mr Laytner also doubts that Israel wants to jeopardise Sino-Israeli relations “for the sake of a couple of thousand people." Indeed Israel has deepened trade ties with China over recent years. “But while those in Kaifeng insist they’re proud to be Chinese and only want to preserve their history and traditions, the crackdown has been very painful. “We love our country; we’re not criminals; we just don’t eat pork,” said Amir, blinking away tears “Why do we have to practice our faith in secret, and live floating on the fringes of society? It’s really hard to bear.”

exterior of the Kaifeng synagogue

Chinese Jews Trying to Emigrate to Israel

In 2005, a group called Shavei Israel arrived in China. The privately funded conservative religious organization, based in Jerusalem, specifically targets descendants of Jews who have lost their connection to the religion, such as those forced to convert to Catholicism during the Inquisition in Spain. "Chinese have a strong reverence for ancestry," said Michael Freund, founder and chairman of Shavei Israel. "Even though they don't know how to read the Torah, they know they're Jewish." [Source: Benjamin Haas, Los Angeles Times, October 16, 2011]

As of 2011 the organization had helped 14 Jews, out of an estimated 3,000 who live in Kaifeng, move to Israel. But Freund complained that Israel's bureaucratic and religious red tape has prevented Shavei Israel from bringing over more of these Chinese Jews. The first family of Kaifeng Jews to immigrate to Israel was almost sent back to China. Shlomo and Deena Jin had overstayed their tourist visas in 2005. As they faced deportation, Shavei Israel worked with authorities to allow them to stay after going through the conversion process. Shlomo, at the time in his late 40s, endured a circumcision to complete the conversion. More recent arrivals have been in their early 20s and most have felt more at home in Israel than in Kaifeng.

Because the community intermarried and based Jewishness on patrilineal heritage rather than matrilineal, the norm in Judaism, Kaifeng Jews who want to move to Israel need to undergo Orthodox conversions under Israeli law. The process takes a year or more of study at an Orthodox yeshiva, and requires a final examination before a rabbinical court. [Source: Benjamin Haas, Los Angeles Times, October 16, 2011]

Despite this progress, bureaucracy in Israel and China may prevent larger-scale immigration. According to Shavei Israel, the Israeli Ministry of the Interior has been reluctant to give visas to a group not officially considered Jewish by Israel's chief rabbinate.

Meanwhile, because Jews are not among China's 56 officially recognized ethnic groups and Judaism is not one of the five officially recognized religions, the Chinese government is suspicious of the Kaifeng community's efforts to organize."The government is still worried about religion and its negative effects," said Xu Xin, director of the Institute of Jewish Studies at Nanjing University. "They worry it will affect stability and encourage fundamentalism." Ultimately, the government sees organized religion as a challenge to its power and state-sponsored atheism.

Chinese Jews that have Emigrated to Israel

Jin Jin is one of the Kaifeng Jews that has emigrated to Israel. She works as a tour guide for Chinese citizens visiting Israel and now goes by the Hebrew name Yecholya. She wears a long khaki skirt, indicative of her conservative religious views, and Teva-like sandals, the national footwear of Israel. [Source: Benjamin Haas, Los Angeles Times, October 16, 2011]

Jin was brought to Israel with three others from her hometown by Shavei Israel specifically to begin the conversion process. Once converted, she was eligible to remain in Israel under the country's Law of Return. The statute allows Jews to claim citizenship, which she did along with her three Chinese classmates. Jin's father remains in China, although she said he hopes to join her soon.

At first, Jin and others were indignant about the need to formally convert to Judaism. "According to me and my family, we were always Jewish," she said. "I was confused why we needed to go through the conversion process." But after she started studying in Jerusalem, Jin said, she realized how little she knew of Jewish traditions and rules.

Jin eventually became such an expert in prayers before meals, Freund said, that she stumped him at a dinner with other Jews from Kaifeng at a kosher sushi restaurant, where they discussed which prayer should be uttered first: the one for the rice or for the fish. "This is something that I, or most Jews for that matter, would never have given a second thought," Freund said. "It shows how much they can add to Judaism."

After studying one year at Henan University in Kaifeng, the 25-year-old Wang Yage jumped at the opportunity to move to Israel. He hasn't looked back. "I feel Israel is my home and I'm more comfortable here," said Wang, who now refers to himself as Yaakov. "Israelis help you out when you need it; it's like belonging to a big family." After his conversion, Wang plans to become a rabbi to help Kaifeng Jews immigrate to Israel. If he succeeds, he will be the first Chinese rabbi in almost 200 years.

Along with a newfound freedom of religion, the 14 Kaifeng Jews are looking forward to stretching their political wings. "The first time I went to vote, it was raining hard and three of us went together," Jin recalled. "I was so proud. For everyone else there it was just another election, but for us, it was the beginning of a new life."

stone inscriptions about the Kaifeng Jews

Remembering Shanghai’s Jews and Preserving Their Past

On the old Jewish Quarter of Shanghai, Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “ Most of the neighborhood has since been rebuilt, the European cafes demolished or turned into Chinese restaurants. The only remaining Jewish landmark, a onetime synagogue that had been turned into a psychiatric hospital, reopened in 2007 as the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, September 18, 2012]

“To call it a revival would be an overstatement, but the Jewish history of Shanghai is gradually coming out from the shadows. In March and April, a theater company performed a play about a romance between a young Jewish woman and a Chinese resistance fighter, with funding partially provided by the Israeli Consulate. There are now more than half a dozen academic programs at Chinese universities — in Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu and Nanjing among others — devoted to Jewish studies. The Shanghai Jewish Studies Youth Forum, for Chinese students studying Jewish history, held a conference here in July. The government-owned Shanghai Film Studios is developing a television miniseries about the Jewish emigres. More recently, Chinese tourists have started visiting the old Jewish quarter.

Dvir Bar-Gal, an Israeli expatriate and photojournalist, is working around Shanghai to find old gravestones and other lost relics of this city's vanished Jews. In collaboration with the Israeli consulate, Bar-Gal had found 105 gravestones as of 2011 and created the Shanghai Jewish Memorial Project tracking down the descendants of those who died and documenting their lives. "When I go out to these villages filled with peasants it's almost like I've gone back to another era," he said. "Sometimes I'm lucky. Suddenly I'll see Hebrew letters or a Jewish star poking out. Then I have to dig it up."[Source: Dan Levin, Los Angeles Times, July 17, 2011]

Dan Levin, Los Angeles Times: Chinese authorities' relationship with Shanghai's 2,000 expatriate Jews, mostly entrepreneurs and corporate executives from around the world, has been mixed. With an eye on attracting tourism, the government yielded to years of diplomatic pressure and in 2007 converted the Ohel Moshe synagogue into a for-profit museum. But it has refused to allow another synagogue, Ohel Rachel, which houses Ministry of Education offices, to be used for regular worship.

Chinese Chef Writes a 575-Page Book on Jewish Coins

In December 2010, Xu Long, a 47-year-old chef who works at Great Hall of the People, China’s equivalent of the Capitol building, in Beijing published a 575-page tome, “Money of Ancient Judea and Israel,” the culmination of 10 years of research. Xu said he spent every spare moment working on the book. “I couldn’t stop thinking about Jewish coins,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “When my friends would go out for a drink or go for a run, I would study coins and write.” “I don’t think in any other language there’s such a large book as his,” said Haim Gitler, president of the Israel Numismatic Society.[Source:Benjamin Haas, Los Angeles Times, published June 6, 2011]

Benjamin Haas wrote in the Los Angeles Times: Xu started focusing on ancient Jewish and Israeli coins in the mid 1990s by chance. He wanted to study French but couldn’t find a language partner. Frustrated and desperate, Xu approached a foreigner on the street in Beijing and got lucky; the man he met was a French-Israeli, Albert Kalifa, studying Chinese medicine. Xu and Kalifa quickly became friends, but it wasn’t until Kalifa gave him a few Israeli shekels that Xu’s curiosity turned to Jewish culture. “I had never met a Jew before. I just knew they were smart and (Karl) Marx was Jewish,” he said. Once he learned more about Jewish history, Xu felt a deep connection and saw many similarities with his own culture, drawing connections between two ancient societies that have kept traditions alive for more than 5,000 years.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2022

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